Wednesday, 19 August 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Series 6

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Welcome to this week's episode of The Goon Show Guide. After a brief hiatus characterised by illness and exhaustion, brought on by the office and a very nasty cold, I'm finally back and ready to make up for lost time. It's hard to believe that we're already halfway through the Goons' back catalogue, but this week we're going to take a good, long look at Series 6.

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You would have a pretty good case for arguing that Series 6 was where the Goons hit their peak. With the exception of one slightly underwhelming offering (which we'll come to), there's barely an episode in this series which isn't either really good or utterly fantastic. Not only that, but this was the time when the Goons also achieved their greatest musical success: 'I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas', 'Bloodnok's Rock 'n' Roll Call' and 'The Ying Tong Song' all charted around this time.
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By now the show had stopped being an utterly misunderstood little quirk and had been completely embraced by the British public. But that's not to say that the edge had gone off it, or that Spike Milligan was becoming more conventional in his approach and style of writing. Indeed, Series 6 contains some fantastic examples of surrealistic transferrence, where objects are given completely novel and hilarious uses, whether it's using an organ to set a land speed record in The Mighty Wurlitzer or sailing a prison on the high seas in Tales of Old Dartmoor.
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What we have in Series 6 is the Goons at their most consistent, having enormous amounts of fun both with the scripts and amongst themselves. While the later series contain hints of Peter Sellers becoming fractious and frustrated as his film career began to take off, here he is very much in the mix and loving every minute of it. There's a fantastically sustained energy to the entire series, with the performers' enthusiasm still radiating through the lines, and the production values are pretty immaculate for the day. If you were looking for a place to start your Goon Show love, this would be a very good point of entry.

So, let's dive into the episodes and see what it is that makes Series 6 so great...

The Man Who Won The War
We start with an absolute belter. Since all three Goons served in the armed forces during World War II, it would seem logical that they would be at home parodying war memoirs from the period. The jokes are fantastic, with the memoirs' ever-more-tenuous collections to the conflict getting across the absurdity of cashing in on human tragedy. At the heart, however, there is a very touching yet hysterically funny story about someone desperately trying to get out of the army by pretending to be mad and incompetent, more than three decades before the same idea was deftly approached in Blackadder Goes Forth.

The Secret Escritoire
One of Spike's greatest gifts as a writer was taking a simple plot and spinning it out in many unpredictable directions. The central concept here is pretty barmy - Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty want to shrink Neddie down to a few inches tall so they can make a killing from selling miniature suits. But once you throw in some elephant tusks, a dead man in a matchbox and a whole bunch of ad libbing, you end up with a fun show which beat The Incredible Shrinking Man by two years.

The Lost Emperor
Much of Series 6 took its inspiration from beloved adventure stories of the period or from Milligan's childhood. Before he directly tackled King Solomon's Mines in Series 8, this was the closest he came to a pre-Indiana Jones romp, complete with ancient artefacts and running jokes about aardvarks (wait...). The funniest moments see the other actors making jokes at the expense of Harry Secombe's acting ability, and while the ending is abrupt, it's also adorable.

Napoleon's Piano
Another fantastic example of Spike's ability to turn the simple into the sublime. This episode starts with a clever ruse on the part of Grytpype and Moriarty, which leads to Neddie having to break into the Louvre to steal the piano Napoleon played at the Battle of Waterloo ("no wonder we lost"). There are some great jokes here, from Bloodnok's attempts at fishing to the raid on the Louvre itself with the large map and misbehaving clock. The ending is both a neatly contrived twist to get Bluebottle into the episode and a wonderful piss-take of third-rate melodramas. Highly recommended.

The Case of the Missing CD Plates
Another episode which combines deception with good running jokes. After Neddie is flattened by a steamroller, he vows revenge only to be thwarted by the diplomatic service. The sequence involving Henry and Minnie as incompetent firefighters is probably a bit too long, but the two acts either side of it are pretty taut. The episode sees Grytpype at his most lackadaisical: "I really couldn't say [where my piano was]. I threw it out of the window one night and the next morning it was gone."

Rommel's Treasure
Another military-themed episode, and another brilliant one. Based around an old army officer trying to locate a special box of treasure buried in the desert, the plot somehow manages to take in Christopher Columbus, Morris dancing, a pyramid salesman and Eccles taking the concept of obeying orders just a little too far. It's always fun to hear Sellers, Secombe and Milligan trying out their best German accents, and the episode benefits from several great jokes with long build-ups to cracking punchlines. And just when you think the story has painted itself into a corner with the final reveal, it pulls off one last trick to make you smile.

Foiled by President Fred
Shortly after The Goon Show ended, Spike collaborated with John Antrobus on The Bed-Sitting Room, a brilliant but nigh-on incomprehensible dark comedy which was later became a cult film. Its central idea, of English civilisation carrying on after a disaster as if nothing had happened, is pre-echoed here; the timid figure of Neddie, a gas meter inspector, is sent into a war zone to recoup an unpaid bill. Also known as In Honour Bound, this is a neat little episode which wrings the most out of its central concept.

Shangri-La Again
One of Spike's best film parodies, this episode takes aim at Lost Horizon by James Hilton, who also wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Taking pot shots at Noel Coward and the Frank Capra adaptation along the way, the script follows the plot of the novel very closely, recreating key scenes and then side-stepping our expectations. The earnestness of the characters is lovingly lampooned, such as Seagoon offering his men aspirin as they prepare to drive through a war zone, and the joke about Bloodnok's wedding involves a beautiful bit of wordplay.

The International Christmas Pudding
The Goons' Christmas shows are an uneven bunch, with Spike's various stabs at Robin Hood falling short. This one, on the other hand, is pretty good, based around an anthropomorphic pudding which has gone feral and needs to be hunted down. There are a few missed opportunities for poking fun at the British obsession with hunting, but there's still enough good material here to feast on, such as Eccles' shoe joke and Secombe tripping over his final few lines. The pay-off, for what's its worth, is arguably the funniest of the whole series.

The Pevensey Bay Disaster/ The Hastings Flyer - Robbed
These two episodes should be taken together, since they are working from the exact same script. The Pevensey Bay Disaster, which revolves around a train crash, had its broadcast delayed by two weeks because of the Milton train crash of November 1955, in which 11 people died and more than 150 were injured. The reason why it was aired again as The Hastings Flyer - Robbed is not clear, though Spike's massive workload is probably part of it. Both versions are good fun, albeit more slow-moving than a lot of episodes in this run.

The Sale of Manhattan
Introduced as The Lost Colony, this is another episode which revolves around the device of Neddie being duped by Grytpype and Moriarty. In this case, they manage to convince him that he is a Native American who rightfully owns Manhattan - a premise which would later be reworked for Drums Along the Mersey in the following series. While much of the episode is reusing old material - The Spanish Suitcase from Series 5 gets a look-in too - it's still pretty funny.

The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu-Manchu
As you might have gathered from the title, this is one of the many episodes which are hard to justify in 2015. Borrowing the (racist) villain from Sax Rohmer's novels, this revolves around a plot to explode every metal saxophone after the title character lost a rigged music competition at the Crystal Palace in London. If you can get over the embarrassing portrayal of Asian people, which are a product of their time and not acceptable today, there is still some good stuff here, particularly the routine involving Eccles, Bluebottle and a stick of dynamite (use your imagination).

The Lost Year
This is a good example of surrealistic transferrance, in which a year - 1956 - becomes a physical object which goes missing. After a good opening routine involving Henry Crun as the manager of a stationery shop, the episode makes the most of an increasingly protracted search. The ending is a massive anti-climax (possibly a deliberately unfunny gag), and the running gags about Secombe's new single wear thin very quickly, but it's another good indication of how Spike was able to make the most he could from a single idea.

The Greenslade Story
The Goons always liked to poke fun at their long-suffering announcer and his employer, so it was only a matter of time before they gave him his own episode. The plot follows Wallace Greenslade's fictional journey from obscurity to a big star in his own right, and gives Auntie a fantastic ribbing about its old-fashioned methods and standards. Neddie's ill-fated attempts at training his own announcers and then resorting to kidnapping are hilarious, and the whole thing is lifted by the cameo appearance of John Snagge, the most respected BBC announcer and commentator of the time, who was also a big defender of the show.

The Mighty Wurlitzer
Another frequent target of the show was Secombe's Welsh heritage, send up here by suffixing every sentence in the opening act with "-bach" (a Welsh term of endearment). Once that's over and done with, the episode gradually builds with Neddie's ill-fated search of organ glory tied to Grytpype and Moriarty trying to steal the pipes for their own nefarious scheme. Like The Pevensey Bay Disaster, it's a slow-burner but worth sticking around for in the end.

Tales of Montmartre
One of the Goons' finest episodes, and certainly one of the best in the series. It story its fantastically silly, as Neddie is commissioned to paint a portrait of a 20-foot easel so that Moriarty can take the real easel for firewood without Neddie knowing it was missing. Charlotte Mitchell, who was apparently Sellers' girlfriend at the time, plays the love interest Fifi, who is hit on by everyone and then does some hitting on of her own. When you put together the wonderfully absurd premise with some fine lingual acrobatics and plenty of dry wit, what you end up with is truly amazing.

The House of Teeth
Another corker of an episode, this time with a massive horror tone to it. This episode sees the welcome return of Valentine Dyall (he of The Giant Bombardon in Series 4 and The Canal in Series 5), as the terrifying but ridiculously named Dr. Longdongle. The central idea is a great, namely that of an evil doctor luring men with false teeth to his castle, knocking the teeth out with a mallet while theit owners are asleep, and turning them into castanets so that his dancer girlfriend will marry him. Gothic horror meets typical British humour to create another instant classic, and Dyall's performance is absolutely spellbinding.

Tales of Old Dartmoor
Prison films were all the rage in the 1950s, but none of them are as enjoyable as this jolly romp which sees Dartmoor Prison take to the waves as its inmates are treated to a holiday. As with many episodes, the premise is largely an elaborate ruse on the part of Grytpype and Moriarty, whose search for a very different kind of treasure ends badly. While not all the jokes still resonate - very few modern listeners will know who David Nixon is - much of it remains irresistable. 

The Choking Horror
This is a strange little episode which isn't as scary or as tense as its title would suggest. The story doesn't make a great deal of sense, with the buildings of London starting to grow hair and then Zeppelin raids coming in out of nowhere. But for all the parts where it falters, the tone is quite appealing - think Quatermass, but with jokes (as Spike would later attempt again with The Scarlet Capsule). One for devoted fans who are already au fait with the series, if you like your humour off-piste, this is for you.


The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal
The one real dud of Series 6, which was already distinctive because it was recorded during a musicians' strike. Unlike The Starlings, which suffered without a studio audience, this falters because its story simply isn't interesting. Spike tries his best to make us care about a pseudo-Cold War conflict over the breeding of salamis as weapons, but the concept isn't strong enough on its own and in the end the episode meanders around pretty aimlessly.

The Treasure in the Lake
Also known as The Treasure of Loch Lomond, this episode features one of the best of Grytpype and Moriarty's many schemes. Neddie is attempting to outlive his Scottish relative to inherit his treasures, and is tricked by the two fiends into drinking the whole of Loch Lomond, believing that it will prolong his life. The scheme itself is very crafty, but the highlight comes in the last five minutes with excellent cutting between three locations and a few random cameos. The episode includes one of Spike's trademarks of playing bagpipes in the background whenever a Scottish character is talking (and stopping abruptly mid-sentence).

The Fear of Wages
This time Spike turns his parodic eyes to Henri-George Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, later remade by William Friedkin as Sorceror. The basic premise of characters driving trucks of nitroglycerine is replanted within a World War II environment, with the episode hinging on the notion that the British and Japanese were still fighting in Burma. There are some lovely dry lines in this well-structured episode, in which the two sides borrow each other's stores to keep fighting and Moriarty has fun swallowing money. While not the funniest episode of the series, it is very well-paced. 

Scradje
If there's one thing the Goons have always done well, it's explosions - but for once, they don't involve Bluebottle. Spike combines another good premise - a substance in the Earth's crust which prevents boots from exploding - with a cunning scheme to fraud the British government and another good cameo from John Snagge. My good friend Peter Byrom's party piece is being able to recite Moriarty's gibberish-laden monologue word for word - something that has to be seen to be believed.

The Man Who Never Was
This is loosely based on the film of the same name, which was itself inspired by Operation Mincemeat during World War II. Expanding an unnamed script from Series 3, the closing episode of Series 6 is more well-behaved and respectful than you might have expected. But eventually Spike gets into his stride, taking a nicely-orchestrated pot shot at Michael Bentine and allowing the episode to build to a nice little climax. It's not a particularly grand finale for the series, but as a self-contained story it works well.

Join me next week (hopefully) as we march boldly on to Series 7!

Daniel

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