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Being an account of the hole

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

Let’s step away from our chronological trip through Goon history today.

On this day in 1957, the Goons presented to an expectant world ‘The Reason Why’, a one-off episode without an audience. It told the story of how the British brought Cleopatra’s Needle from Egypt to London.

Terence Alan Patrick Sean Milligan, alias Eccles, Minnie, Count Jim Moriarty, or just plain ‘Spike’, admits to numerous convictions, e.g., that the world is flat, that iron ships won’t float, etc. When we looked in at his Finchley home one morning this week, Spike was also convinced that scriptwriting a Goon Show was not the easiest way to make a living. “But it’s better,” he admitted, “than actually working.” Home Service listeners on Thursday can hear the results of Spike’s literary labours in The Reason Why, a programme of midsummer madness guaranteed to gladden the Goonstruck.

(from ‘Round and About with ‘The Broadcasters’’, Radio Times issue 1762, 16 August 1957)

Cleopatra, as not featured in this episode

This article can be found in its natural habitat here, and the listing for the programme is on page 42, accompanied by the brief and bewildering precis: “Being an account of the hole, the wonderful way it was filled, and with what.”

To explain: while in real life Cleopatra’s Needle was brought to London to be displayed, the Goons decided to use it to fill a hole in the wall of Victoria Embankment by the River Thames.

Mr Bowels (Harry Secombe): Last winter on certain foggy and dark-type nights, citizens of London town fell through this gap into the Thames and wet their clothes. The crux of the matter is this; these people as the result of their wetting, catch colds… These citizens in turn are suing the government for the moneys laid out in medical fees. The question is: would it be cheaper to pay up claims or fill in the hole?

Grytpype-Thynne offers to sculpt a statue to fill the gap, but his price of £39 and $3 (to finish the job in America, of course) is too expensive. Instead, guest star Valentine Dyall says that the Egyptian city of Alexandria has “a wealth of ancient statuary going begging”. This is much more sensible, so Bowels (aka Seagoon) travels to Egypt.

Bluebottle: I have brought this message from the London Bowels: Let me see. Letter from Mr Gladstone, the Prime Minister! I’ll put my court uniform on and read it. Gladstone (Peter Sellers): Dear Honourable Bowels, I have just heard that – ah – you are bringing back and Egyptian-type statue to – ah – fill our beloved gap in the Thames wall. Ah – But the ministers have been instructed to give all the aid in their power. We should like to have the hole filled in to commemorate the Silver Jubilee. Bowels: The Silver Jubilee? Gad, we must hasten!

For those not keeping count of these things, the Silver Jubilee was in 1977, 20 years after this episode was broadcast.

Upon finding Cleopatra’s Needle, and realising that it fits the hole in the Victoria Embankment perfectly, Bowels is joined by Lord Thunn (Valentine Dyall again) and they create a “buoyant wooden jacket” to get the obelisk back to London.

Wallace Greenslade: It was a great sight, as my master, hon. Bowels, observed two thousand labourers sweating and straining, as the great colossus was lifted and dusted. Finally, after three months, it was put in its wooden container and launched. [FX: Sliding down ramp. Splash. Water bubbles.] Thunn: I say - it sank.

But no fear! It’ll only take a week to recover it.

Bowels: This is starting to cost money. To date with wages and the salvage is one thousand five hundred pounds! Bloodnok: Yes, yes, yes, but you don’t realise that this obelisk is free? Thunn: You couldn’t get an obelisk for that price anywhere in England!

You probably see where this is going. Salvage vessels are hired, a hurricane hits and wrecks two ships. The bill is going up – but, remember, the obelisk is free!

Bowles: Admiral Creiden, how much longer to lift this thing? Creiden (Peter Sellers): The divers say it’s difficult to see to attach the cables, sir. The water’s getting very muddy. Bowels: Well can’t we go where the water’s clearer? Creiden: We did that, but we discovered that the obelisk wasn’t there, sir.

The needle is eventually resurfaced, only for Bowels to be kidnapped and held to ransom. Bluebottle arrives to pay the ransom, only for more bad news – Cleopatra’s Needle has been lost at sea.

Captain Stench (Sellers): Object in sea ahead! Three points to starboard! Thunn: Did you hear that? Stench: Yes, sir, I said it! Thunn: You, Bowels? Bowels: I’ve just got the spy glass on it. It is! It’s the obelisk. Captain Stench, heave two. No, you’d better heave three to be on the safe side. Stench: There’s starboard side and port side, but there’s no safe side, sir.

The obelisk is eventually brought to London (via a beach in Portugal) and erected for a total cost of £180,000 and eight shillings. That is worth about £4.3 million in today’s money. But the obelisk itself was free!

The script was based on a true story, with less exaggeration than you might think.

The monument was presented to the UK by Egypt in 1819 to commemorate the British victories over Napoleon’s French forces at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria. It had stood in Heliopolis, Egypt, for well over 2,000 years, and it wasn’t until 1877 when the British worked out how to transport it.

Sir William Wilson sponsored the transportation project for £10,000 (about £1.2 million today) and brought in his friend Mathew Simpson, an engineer. Simpson designed a giant metal cylinder to house the obelisk, which was effectively a floating pontoon complete with rudder, mast and deck house.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work as planned. The pontoon was being towed by another ship and became uncontrollable during a storm around the Bay of Biscay – the area of the Atlantic off the French and Spanish coasts. It nearly sank, several sailors were killed trying to retrieve it, and eventually it had to be abandoned.

Spanish trawlermen rescued it, and it was taken to a port in Spain courtesy of a Glaswegian steamer ship, which then demanded a salvage fee to release it. A tugboat finally brought the obelisk to London in January 1878, four months after the storm, and it was erected on the Victoria Embankment in September 1878, more than a year after it left Egypt.

I can imagine this story tickled Spike – maybe not the bit about the dead sailors – and appealed to his belief that most people in authority were idiots.

Tyler Adams at Goon Pod has unearthed a great publicity shot linked to 'The Reason Why'.

For me, though, as funny as this episode is, it lacks a certain something when compared to regular shows with an audience. These always crackle with energy and laughter, whereas ‘The Reason Why’ and ‘The Starlings’ (another radio-play-style broadcast from 1954) don’t come across as successfully.

Other opinions are available.


Title: The Reason Why

Written by: Spike Milligan

Producer: Jacques Brown

Image of Cleopatra's Needle sourced from Wikipedia, Credit: Adrian Pingstone

Image of Cleopatra sourced from Cleopatra Egypt Tours.

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