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Beau Geste, Goon-style

On 25 January 1955, the Goons once again turned to classic literature for inspiration. ‘Under Two Floorboards – A Story of the Legion’ is a highly successful (and silly) parody of Beau Geste, a novel written by Percival Christopher Wren in 1924 telling the story of three brothers that run away to the French Foreign Legion after being accused of stealing their mother’s necklace.

The Radio Times previews the episode on page 24.

‘Beau’, recently down from Cambridge with his fellow undergraduates Moriarty and Grytpype-thynne, attends a ball at Oxley Towers where Lady Seagoon’s famous ‘Blue Shower’ diamond, worth a king’s ransom, is stolen. By the time the police have arrived ‘Beau’ has decided to join the Foreign Legion. There he meets with disaster upon disaster until finally, disguised as a Riff-Raff, he is forced to join an Arab raiding party. Eventually he returns to Fort Zinderneuf, where he decorated with the Legion d’Honneur, 3rd Class, for emptying Arab dustbins in the heat of battle.

(from the Radio Times, page 24, issue 1628, published 21 January 1955)

Unsurprisingly, very little of this actually made it into the script. The credits are worth a scan though, featuring ‘Beau Geste’, played by Harry Secombe; ‘Beau Legs’, played by Eccles; and ‘Beau Peep’, played by Bluebottle.

The reference to Oxley Towers harks back to episode 14 of the third series, ‘The Tragedy of Oxley Towers’. By the time Wallace Greenslade introduces the episode, however, the venue is simply “High Towers… the ancestral home of Lady Seagoon”.

Ned Seagoon is the eldest son, while his brothers and fellow undergraduates are Eccles (who points out that he wasn’t in last week’s episode) and Bluebottle. Grytpype-Thynne, meanwhile, is their cunning uncle, who presents Neddie with a book.

Seagoon: A book? Oh yes... I've seen one of these before. Wait! I think I've read this. What's it called? 10 and six net [10 shillings and sixpence = approximately £12.50]? Yes, yes, I've read this, I've read the sequel too, 12 and six net. Grytpype: [...] It's called "Beau Geste", Neddie. Seagoon: Lovely. I'll read it tomorrow. Grytpype: No, no, no, you must read it all before the ball tonight. Oh, and here's a bookmark. Seagoon: I say, that's rather novel. It's a single ticket to Marseille.

There’s a wonderful ripple of laughter around the audience at this line, as all the people who have read Beau Geste or seen one of the multiple film versions cotton on to where this is going.

To the ball, and Lady Seagoon – played, naturally, by Ray Ellington – calls her three sons into her room to explain where the Blue Shower necklace has gone. They have 24 hours to find it or she will call the police. But Uncle Grytpype knows the truth.

Grytpype: To think that the Blue Shower had cost me only 10 and six net. Oh yes, and three novel bookmarks. So far so good. […] Ah, here we are, little Neddie's room. [FX: Three knocks on the door] Grytpype: Neddie? Oh Neddie, it’s your rich uncle. [FX: Door handle turned, door opens] Grytpype: Ned – oh splendid, he’s gone. And a farewell note to his mother, how charming. Milligan: The devilish cunning of it all!

Max Geldray plays to allow Neddie three minutes to get to Marseille. The audience is greeted with marching sounds, regimental music, battle cries and other legion-related noises – only for Neddie to point out that “I haven’t joined yet”.

Seagoon: It had been a pleasant journey in a first-class railway coach marked, "HV-kHz, 40-Ohms and Am-Charlie". And now here I was in the Legion Recruiting Centre at Marseille.

According to the transcriber for The Goon Show Site, this places Neddie Seagoon roughly in the engine room of an electric train. First class indeed.

Major Bloodnok oversees Seagoon’s recruitment process and sends him through a door straight to the thick of a battle in North Africa. Moriarty, leading his regiment, tells the new recruit to keep up as they march through the desert.

While wandering lost through the desert in search of the fort, Ned comes across Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister.

Bannister: I told you the tide was out, Henry. Crun: I’m not going back home without having a paddle. Bannister: Listen, Henry, the man will want another thruppence for this deckchair, buddy! Seagoon: Excuse me. Bannister: I don't want a donkey ride. Seagoon: I don't intend to give you one. Crun: Young man, can you tell us where the sea is? Seagoon: I'm afraid not. Crun: And you call yourself a lifeguard?
The tide's out.

As Seagoon leaves them to their own ditherings, Crun and Bannister discuss how they, as detectives, will find young Ned Seagoon. After all, all they need to do is find someone wearing the Blue Shower necklace, don’t they?

Greenslade: 10 days later, the weary figure of Ned Seagoon approached the fort. Seagoon: It wasn’t 10 days, it was three and a half weeks. Greenslade: At the risk of being volatile, I would like to inform the listeners that according to the Radio Times it was 10 days. However, after Ned Seagoon’s ordeal in the desert we can forgive his inaccuracy. Seagoon: I should know, shouldn’t I? I was here, wasn’t I? It was three and a half weeks! Moriarty: Ah! A new recruit. Where have you been for the last 10 days? Greenslade: And the Radio Times only costs thruppence.

(The Radio Times said nothing of the sort. Naughty Wal.)

Back at the fort, someone in Arab dress approaches. He’s unarmed, so naturally the fort opens fire. And misses.

Moriarty: I say, keep still out there! These bullets cost money!

It turns out to be Eccles, sitting on Lady Seagoon’s (Ray Ellington’s) shoulders.

Seagoon: In the next few weeks we must have marched hundreds of miles a day. During these marches not a word of complaint passed my lips as I sat huddled in Eccles’ pack. Eccles: Oooh, have you bin ridin’ round in my pack? Seagoon: You don’t mind, do you? Eccles: You’d better not let mother know! Seagoon: Why? Eccles: I’ve been ridin’ round in hers!

A visitor arrives to see Seagoon – it’s Uncle Grytpype, demanding to know where the Blue Shower necklace is. It appears someone stole it from him after he stole it from Lady Seagoon. But before they can get to the bottom of the theft-upon-a-theft, the Arabs attack again and a huge battle ensues.

Seagoon: It was a terrible battle. The enemy hurled themselves upon us with swords, rifles, machine-guns, and worst of all, 700 rock cakes!
Value: One king's ransom, or a rock cake.

The battalion is ordered to retreat from their undisclosed location, through Morocco, across the Mediterranean Sea, and eventually, through British customs. (“Anything to declare?” “Um… it’s good to be alive!”)

On the battle goes, “down the Southend Road and up the Guildford Bypass”. Meanwhile, back at the ancestral home of Lady Seagoon, a certain youngest brother has avoided the Foreign Legion entirely and is lying in bed admiring his reflection in the Blue Shower necklace.

Bluebottle: Thinks: Here in the countryside I’m safe. It’s the others who will get the dreaded deading.

The battle draws near. Upon spying Bluebottle with the necklace, Neddie hollers “STOOOOP!” and the fighting sound effects do so immediately. (The Goons do this a lot, to great effect, if you’ll pardon the pun.) Eccles persuades Bluebottle to swap the necklace for a rock cake.

Bluebottle: Oooh thank you, Eccles. I like rock-cakes I do, I like them. Yes. Thinks: I've never seen a rock-cake with a pin in it before. Ah well, I've had a good long run this week. Stands to one side and pulls pin out. [FX: Explosion]

Small aside: the harp you can hear playing the music links at the start and end of the episode is played, I believe, by famous Welsh harp player Osian Ellis (pictured, left). After a spell with the Wally Stott Orchestra, Ellis played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and famed conductor Benjamin Britten wrote several pieces especially for him.

He was still receiving royalty cheques for from repeat broadcasts of the Goon Show when he died in January this year.

Beau Geste author Wren (right) is a mysterious character. He claimed to have served in several different armies, including the French Foreign Legion for five years, and even appeared on BBC radio in 1932 to tell of his adventures. However, some of his claims are disputed by historians.

Most of Wren’s novels are linked to the Foreign Legion. He even wrote sequels to Beau Geste, titled Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal. Spanish Maine also tied into the original story, as did a volume of short stories, Good Gestes.

Beau Geste has been adapted and parodied many times. It made it to the big screen in multiple forms, including in 1926, 1939 (starring Oscar-winning actor Gary Cooper) and 1966. A radio play version starring Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier was broadcast in the US in 1939. Marty Feldman co-wrote, directed and starred in a 1977 spoof The Last Remake of Beau Geste.


Under Two Floorboards – A Story of the Legion

Series 5, Episode 18

Broadcast: 25 January 1955

Written by: Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan

Producer: Peter Eton

Desert image by Greg Gulik from Pexels. Necklace image by Noelle Otto from Pexels.

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Michael Hawker
Michael Hawker
Oct 14, 2023

Rather than "HV-kHz, 40-Ohms and Am-Charlie", I think it's "8 chevaux, 40 hommes, and un Charlie." The "8 chevaux, 40 hommes" (8 horses, 40 men) was a sign on French railway boxcars, which were of uniform size, when they were used as military transport in both World Wars.

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