Greenslade: Listeners and losteners, we present an ancient Chinese play translated from an old Greek soup recipe found engraved on the seat of a dustman's trousers in East Acton. The trousers can now be inspected in the Science Museum, internal combustion section. This play was especially writted for the wireless. Sellers: [theatrical] Wireless! Curse! This means the end of the horned phonograph and the little doggie that looks into it.
Hot on the heels of the Goons’ massively successful ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Five’ comes another episode that became one of their most popular: ‘China Story’.
In it, Ned Seagoon, British ambassador to China, is hoodwinked into buying a certain English rosewood upright piano with brass candleholders to be delivered to the Chinese general, Kash-Mai-Chek.
Unbeknownst to him, Grytpype and Moriarty have wired an explosive to the piano, to be triggered when a certain note is played.
I’ll be honest, listening back to this episode feels awkward as the script contains a number of racial stereotypes and jokes that are – let’s be honest here – just downright unnecessary. It’s upsetting to hear these from a show and group of people I really like and admire, but it unfortunately encapsulates the way in which the British approached much of the rest of the world at the time.
I won’t bang on about this, except to ponder: who thinks Chinese people speak like that? In short, ‘China Story’ has not aged well, in my view.
That said, there are still some great gags and archetypal Goonish humour that are worth celebrating and make the episode worth revisiting. Just perhaps listen through gritted teeth.
Seagoon: As I walked the crowded streets, people seemed to know I was British. Was it my bearing? The cut of my dentures? Or was it the eight-foot flood-lit Union Jack tied round my head?
Top of the joke hit list is undoubtedly the scene in which Seagoon arrives at the Teahouse of the August Goon and, as instructed, knocks 6,000 times. The written word doesn’t do justice to it, so let’s listen:
The Teahouse of the August Moon was a novel by American writer Vern Sneider, published in 1951, that was adapted into a successful Broadway play in 1953. A year after this episode was broadcast the play made its way to the big screen with Marlon Brando starring as a Japanese interpreter. Yes, you read that right.
Seagoon: My name is Neddie Seagoon, though my char-lady calls me ‘Ducks’, due to a certain disease I have.
Ducks’ disease – the curse of the Seagoons! – is not a variant of bird flu, but a “facetious expression for shortness of the legs”, according to the Oxford Reference Dictionary.
Having successfully bid for the piano with a winning price of “fiendish ying-tong-iddle-i-po”, Seagoon ropes in Major Bloodnok to help him deliver the instrument to General Kash-Mai-Chek’s secret NAAFI. (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes was set up in 1920 to supply recreational facilities to the British Army and is a regular subject of Goon humour.)
An emissary from the general arrives to guide the way.
Bluebottle: I'm a member of General Kash-Mai-Chek's secret NAAFI. Strikes dramatic pose as done in film The Bridges of Toko-Ri, by Grace Kelly and William Holden in a Japanese bath scene. Thinks: I wouldn't mind a bath night like that. Tee-hee.
This is another film nod: The Bridges of Toko-Ri, from the novel of the same name by James Michener, which itself is based on missions carried out by US forces in North Korea during the Korean War. It won an Oscar for Best Special Effects in 1955.
Bluebottle is a channel for another topical reference, as he decides that he doesn’t like the “rotten game” the rest of the cast has dragged him into, and suggests playing a “naughty Avis Scott being fired game” instead.
This is a reference to a quite extraordinary story about one of the BBC’s first female television continuity announcers, Avis Scott. She was fired from the BBC in January 1955 for essentially being too attractive and fun, in a clear example of the ridiculous sexism of the time.
Australian newspaper The Argus reported on 17 January 1955 that Scott was deemed “too vivacious, too bubbly” for making announcements. A BBC official said: “Viewers were so disturbed by her method of presentation that they lost the meaning of what she was saying.”
Raw sex appeal too much for TV viewers? I suppose it does explain why Wallace Greenslade was kept to radio duties.
Speaking of Wal, near the start of this episode, he utters the now immortal phrase “winds light to variable” for the first time, foreshadowing his greatest Goon Show moment as the star of ‘The Greenslade Story’ in Series 6.
Right now, though, he’s more interested in getting you to read the Radio Times.
Greenslade: Ladies and gentlemen, while our heroes are getting the certain English piano up on to the stage of the secret Chinese NAAFI, I would like to draw your attention to page 52 of this week's Radio Times. It shows a three-quarter rear view of a lady wearing a pair of corsets. We would like to point out that this is an advertisement and not a programme. Though I must say it might be the basis of a jolly good show.
He's right, you know.
It’s more accurate than the RT’s listing for ‘China Story’…
During the year of the Boxer Rising, when the Far East from Shanghai to Peking was seething with spies and arms smugglers, ‘Raffles’ Seagoon, a swaggering racketeer and part-time dustman, was approached by Mandarin Grytpype-Thynne and General Kash-mai-chek to join them in the most staggering financial coup of all time.
(from the Radio Times listing, page 24, issue 1627, published 14 January 1955)
Back to the plot, and the piano is manoeuvred into position. The tune that Moriarty and Grytpype have designated will end in an explosion is played, but the pianist can’t find the right final note. A singer steps in to replace him and requests a different note, whereupon – boom.
There are several edited versions of ‘China Story’ around, and the one I was familiar with for many years edited out a recurring gag about this singer, who keeps turning up to sing ‘I’m Only A Strolling Vagabond’. The song was made famous by British-Irish singer Cavan O’Connor. Listening to the original, Spike’s impression is really rather good.
Finally, having moaned at the start, I’m going to sign off with one of my all-time favourite Goon Show jokes, courtesy of Bluebottle.
Seagoon: Why have you got that boot full of Chinese porridge strapped to your head? Bluebottle: I always have a boot of Chinese porridge strapped on my head on a Monday. Seagoon: But today's Tuesday. Bluebottle: Is it? Oh, I feel a proper fool now!
Title: China Story
Series 5, Episode 17
Broadcast: 18 January 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton