Wednesday, 29 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Series 5

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Welcome to this week's episode of The Goon Show Guide, our weekly examination of Spike Milligan's greatest creation. Hard to believe as it may seem, we're now halfway through the back catalogue, as we took a look this week at Series 5.

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When I was looking into the first three series a couple of weeks ago, I said that I felt The Goon Show didn't really take flight until Spike's writing evolved to a point where it wasn't just pastiching existing BBC programmes. It was inevitable that the show would start off poking fun at the outdated programme styles and subject interests of the BBC, and given the legal and social status of satire at the time, it was pretty brave. But on a purely narrative level, Series 4 is where the series really took off in terms of original storytelling, along the lines that I detailed in last week's blog.
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In what could be considered irony, Series 5 finds Spike returning to pastiche and parody in a big way, but this time his targets are celebrated works of literature. He always had a knack for subverting and satirising the plot, characters and attitudes in a given story while still representing its basic elements. In this series he takes aim at the likes of Beau Geste (in Under Two Floorboards), Nineteen Eighty-Four (in Nineteen Eighty-Five) and Robin Hood (in Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest), generally with a great amount of success.
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Many of the episodes in Series 5 also see Spike having fun with Gothic touches. Episodes like Forog and The Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton see him striking that rare balance between a creepy, intriguing atmosphere and laugh-out-loud comedy. While Spike wasn't necessarily an out-and-out horror fan, he clearly understood how the horror and suspense genres worked and chose to send them up in an manner which is intelligent and insightful. Some of his choices are just inspired - for instance, having London fog cause the statues to move and begin relationships with each other.

Here, then, is a potted guide to (most) of the episodes from Series 5 for your enjoyment:

The Whistling Spy Enigma
Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat regularly cites The Ark in Space as the serial which "sums up" Doctor Who. This, along the same lines, is an instant classic which sums up most of what the Goons did. It's an episode that has everything - fantastic production, excellent manipulation of sound effects to create imaginative jokes, a twisty and hilarious plot, and plenty of memorable moments. From the recurring gags about whistles and chairs to Peter Sellers' sharp performance as Bloodnok, this is a fantastic episode which really stands up to repeat listening.


The Lost Gold Mine of Charlotte
Also known as Death in the Desert, this is a novel take on treasure-based adventure stories. The sound quality is very rough on this one, but not to the extent where you are taken out of the story or miss key gags. There are good running jokes about the portions of the map, but the highlight of the episode is hearing Grytpype-Thynne go mad and Eccles' response. It's a very fine episode, let down only by its overly abrupt resolution.


The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-on-Sea
Another absolute belter of an episode, with one of the funniest and most memorable titles within The Goon Show. This is a very steadily-paced, well-structured episode which takes its central idea - a criminal striking people down with batter puddings - and milks it for every last possible comedic idea. But rather than just being zany about it (which could get old very quickly), Spike's writing still manages to keep the tension up, as though you were listening to a bona fide murder mystery, but with jokes. It's also distinctive for being one of the few occasions when Grytpype-Thynne isn't the villain.


The Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton
If you're a fan of The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, this will be right up your street. Both of Spike's offerings effortlessly poke fun at the tone of Hammer horror movies, but this one manages to get away with a rare amount of dramatic irony. We're given a massive hint early on that Greenslade is the villain, who is shaving people's heads and passing the hair off as tobacco. But somehow the other characters are successfully kept in the dark, ensuring that the ending has punch.

The Affair of the Lone Banana
Beginning with a sped-up version of The William Tell Overture and ending with a wonderfully contrived explosion, this is a very strong episode with some classic Goon humour. Moriarty's wonderful shpeel about the different parties in the Guatemalian war ("there are no sides: we are all in this together") is trumped only by Henry Crun's spelling routine and Bloodnok's splendid cricket jokes in the final act. The chair gag, involving the song Three Goons in a Fountain, is also fun.

The Lurgi Strikes Britain
Fun fact: had it not been for the Goons, 'lurgi' would not have entered the English language as a catch-all term for illness or disease. The scheme at the heart of this episode is quite ingenious, and becomes all the funnier when the various cast members start leaping on- and off-mic doing the various lurgi sounds. While the plot is ultimately a tiny bit drawn out, there's plenty of great jokes to keep you entertained, not to mention a nifty twist at the end.

The Mystery of the Marie Celeste - Solved
One of Spike's earlier experiments with time loops or time travel, this episode sees characters from two different time periods interacting freely, just as they later would in the equally clever The Treasure in the Tower in Series 6. The innuendo-laden chats about bollards are just the right side of The Navy Lark and the Carry On series, while the running gag about money is pretty well-executed. The ending is both very fitting and surprisingly sombre.

The Last Tram (From Clapham)
This one is a bit of a Marmite episode. Its plot is not as interesting as many of its predecessors, revolving as it does around a rogue tram driver who won't retire unless he is presented with a marble clock. And there is an awful lot of quite deliberate padding in the first act involving the last tram ceremony. But if you can get beyond that, there's quite a touching story involving Neddie as the under-pressure official just trying (and failing) to please all the people all of the time.


The Booted Gorilla (Found)
This is a bit of a letdown. Like The Last Tram, its plot is nothing really to shout about, and the character interaction around it isn't enough to distract us from the fact that really there isn't much going on. The mistaken identities towards the end partially redeem this episode, but casual listeners will find the pacing choppy and the focus lacking.

The Spanish Suitcase
The Goons were never afraid of poking fun at other BBC programmes, or indeed their own audience; the opening of this story finds them tearing into both the punters and The Archers. The plot that follows is a nice twist on the prison drama, with Neddie being conned into taking the place of a convict so that our villains can get their hands on the titular suitcase. The running jokes about Seagoon's innocence and it "not being a pretty sight" are used very well.

Dishonoured, or The Fall of Neddie Seagoon
Spike's first of two bashes at adapting Beau Geste in one series. Dishonoured is the shorter and less successful of the two, with a plot which is choppy and convoluted, beginning in the River Thames and ending up in India. But despite a weak pay-off and a story that's difficult to follow, there are still plenty of memorable and funny moments, including Moriarty's gags about the River Police and the "street of a thousand households" routine, which is Englishness at its most culturally spineless.

Forog
One of the most Gothic horror-inflected episodes, complete with deep woodwind instruments to underscore tension. This is a great example of how, in the best episodes, Spike achieves the same compellingly dramatic tone that you would got in a straight sci-fi or horror story. His central idea about statues in London being able to move around when it foggy both precedes the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who and is very funny on its own. Sellers' deadpan Lord Nelson is especially hilarious.


Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest
Spike tried several times during The Goon Show's run to adapt Robin Hood, and he never quite managed it. This, his first attempt, benefits from the intentionally hammy guest star Charlotte Mitchell, who plays off Sellers' Sheriff of Nottingham very well. But the rest of the story is a total muddle which isn't compelling and doesn't really go anywhere.


Nineteen Eighty-Five
George Orwell's masterpiece is affectionately tackled here, with Spike retuning his warnings against a totalitarian state into an attack on the BBC. There is an underlying sense of frustration to it, with Spike using the episode to get out a lot of his anger about how producers didnt 'get' the series. Some of the references to BBC programmes haven't aged well, but the torture sequences are still very funny: the programmes sound atrocious even if you don't know from whence each segment is taken.

The Case of the Missing Heir
One of the more basic episodes which relies on Spike's invention to lift it above generic convention. Long before Paul Verhoeven made his conspirators ballroom dance in Soldier of Orange, Spike had Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty plot to assassinate a prince whilst impeccably doing the waltz. The actual action in this episode is pretty muted, but the sequence revolving around the phrase "we revolt tonight" is worth your attention.


China Story
If you can overlook the cultural stereotyping of the day - not an easy task, I know - this is a very funny episode which does a better job at tackling assassination than its predecessor. The story centres around an elaborate plot to assassinate a political figure using an exploding piano, upon which is layered unwanted singing about vagabonds and one of the most famous Goon Show jokes. Search for 'Tea House of the August Goon' to see what I'm talking about.

Under Two Floorboards - A Story of the Legion
Spike's second bash at Beau Geste follows the plot of the novel more closely. While this gives it more of a structure, how much you enjoy it will depend a lot on your opinion of the source material (and I'm not that keen on it). It's a little cluttered, but the final battle sequence involving the Foreign Legion and Arabs fighting all the way through Europe back to Neddie's home is very well-executed. Bluebottle also manages to stay alive for most of the episode.

The Missing Scroll (a.k.a. The Lost Music of Purdom)
This is one of Spike's stories which is closer to B-movie territory. Like The Lost Gold Mine, it's essentially based around the search for treasure, but the dialogue is more strongly rooted in adventure stories rather than westerns or war films, as would be the case with the far-superior Rommel's Treasure. The build-up is very good but the actual pay-off isn't acted all that well; you may need to give it a few listens just to get the joke.

The Sinking of Westminster Pier
This episode succeeds where The Starlings and later The Reason Why failed in satirising inept government. The inquiry sequence early on, where officials resign and immediately re-apply for their old jobs, is an insightful look into the incompetence of public bodies, who are so easily conned by private schemes initiated by the likes of our villains. The water sound effects are very nicely done, particularly in the sequence following the trip to Mortlake Brewery.

The Fireball of Milton Street
Were it not for an ending that ever so slightly drags, this would be a perfect episode. It manages to take an utterly ridiculous idea - people being afraid because the Sun is on fire - and turn it into a funny and endearing story about a village trying to save itself from destruction. Grytpype-Thynne's multiple roles are succinct and witty, while Neddie's mid-joke deconstruction finds Spike challenging audience expectations while still getting a massive laugh.

The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street
Part-Ealing comedy, part-American gangster film, this episode owes a lot to both The Lavender Hill Mob and the sort of films that James Cagney made in his prime. The double-dealing involving the ingots is a lot of fun, especially when Eccles gets the chance to pull the wool over the other characters' eyes, in a move similar to that in The Mystery of the Marie Celeste. The ending involving Bluebottle and Greenslade breaking the fourth wall neatly disguises the plot running out of steam.


Yehti
A surrealist classic, and one of my all-time favourite episodes. Neddie is plucked from his pre-fab home in Carshalton to track down an Abominable Snowman whose tracks have been seen in Yorkshire. On his way he encounters houses with trains running through them, mysterious doors that lead nowhere and a host of weird characters. It's a fantastically funny episode, with all the characters' fears being played up to make the punchlines seem all the more relieving. Henry Crun is a particular highlight in his role as the forgetful station master.


The White Box of Great Barfield
A damp squib, in more ways than one. The plot has a decent conceit - Neddie being tricked into selling ice to Africa - but there is a lot of padding early on with the music hall comedians and the unfunny, seemingly-endless "son of Houdini" routine. While the circular storytelling works well in other episodes, this one is for very patient purists only.


The End, or Confessions of a Sennapod Tea Drinker
The series ends on a massive high (so to speak) with another classic. Neddie becomes addicted to sennapod tea and is forced to enter a recuperation centre after almost falling foul of the police. This episode is an excellent piss-take of melodramatic stories about drug use, sparing on the obvious jokes and making us both laugh at and feel for our protagonist. The hallucinations in the final act, where the characters become part of a film, are suitably anarchic and nonsensical. It's a great way to round off a very solid series.

Join me again next week, when we'll be diving into Series 6!

Daniel

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