Updated: Oct 19, 2021
As a lifelong Arsenal fan, I have long been intrigued by the numerous references to my team littered throughout Goon Show scripts.
Whether it’s a passing reference to Arsenal being heavily beaten by an unlikely opponent, or a recurring gag running through a whole episode (about Arsenal being heavily beaten by an unlikely opponent), I’ve counted at least 14 instances. Yes, I counted them.
“And here now is an urgent warning from Whitehall. It is imperative that the instructions we give are executed with all possible speed. This is a matter of life and death. Time is vital. But first here are the football results: Chinese Wanderers two hundred, Arsenal nil.”
(taken from ‘The Man Who Tried to Destroy London’s Monuments’, Series 4 Episode 2, first broadcast 9 October 1953)
So why Arsenal? I haven’t been able to come up with a definitive answer to this, but I have a theory of sorts.
At the start of the Second World War, Spike Milligan worked at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory in Woolwich. Although Arsenal Football Club has been based in Islington in north London since 1913, the munitions factory in the south-west of the capital was where the club was founded, as Dial Square FC, in 1886. A spurious link, I know…
Throughout the 1930s, Arsenal were the dominant team in English football. Under the management of the legendary Herbert Chapman, and later George Allison, the Gunners won five league championships and two FA Cups between 1930 and 1938.
Following the war, Arsenal continued their success with league championships in 1947-48 and 1952-53, and the FA Cup in 1950.
I’m going to jump (quite a metaphorical distance, admittedly) to a conclusion here that Milligan’s involvement at the Woolwich Arsenal and the Gunners’ success at the time put them at the top of the list when choosing the subject of football-related gags.
Major Bloodnok: Strike a light. Harry Secombe: I can’t, we’ve lost all our matches. Major Bloodnok: So have Arsenal.
(taken from ‘The Great Bank of England Robbery’, Series 4 Episode 29, broadcast 12 April 1954)
Series 4 of The Goon Show coincided with the 1953-54 football season. Arsenal were reigning champions but had a terrible start to the season, failing to register a win for their first eight games. They went on to finish 12th in the 24-team First Division.
'Football results at a time like this?!'
The fourth series also featured one of my favourite Arsenal-related jokes, in episode 18, ‘The History of Communications’. After Max Geldray’s performance, the storyline follows Major Bloodnok in charge of a regiment under siege in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
A long-awaited message arrives from London, which is read out by the sergeant (played by Harry Secombe): “Arsenal 1, Sunderland 4.”
Bloodnok is outraged. “Football results?! Football results at a time like this? I shall report this to her majesty Queen Victoria.”
The narrative then switches to England, where prime minister Lord Palmerston (played, of course, by Ray Ellington) informs Queen Victoria (played, of course, by Peter Sellers) that there is news from the besieged regiment at Khartoum.
“Pray, read it,” she says.
“Arsenal 9, Sunderland 14.”
The rest of the episode tracks Henry Crun (Peter Sellers) as he is tasked with putting together and delivering a relief package for the regiment. He and his companions eventually arrive in Sudan to deliver another long-awaited message to Major Bloodnok and his troops direct from the Queen.
“Silence for Mr Crun, who will now read the message!”
“Arsenal 1, Sunderland 4.”
A wonderful payoff and callback to end the show. And it’s factual, too: the episode was broadcast on 29 January 1954; six days earlier Arsenal had indeed been walloped 4-1 at home by Sunderland.
'Arsenal should have been three up by now'
Another favourite joke features in ‘The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu-Manchu’ (Series 6 Episode 12) from December 1955. After the radio announcer gives headlines of Fu-Manchu’s plot to blow up saxophones, he also reports that Arsenal are 4-0 down to Birmingham City. Seagoon is more upset by the performance of the referee than the exploding musical instruments.
Grytpype: Now then, Neddie, whom do you suspect? Seagoon: The referee. He was obviously on Birmingham's side, I mean Arsenal should have been three up by half time...
(taken from ‘The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu-Manchu’, Series 6 Episode 12, first broadcast 6 December 1955)
But perhaps my favourite is an exchange between Eccles and Bluebottle from ‘The Moon Show’ (Series 7 Episode 18).
Eccles: Do you think Arsenal will beat the Spurs this week? Bluebottle: I should think it’s most unlikely. Eccles: Why? Bluebottle: They’re playing Blackpool.
(taken from ‘The Moon Show’, Series 7 Episode 18, first broadcast 31 January 1957)
(Note: They weren’t – they were due to play Manchester United on 1 February, but that doesn’t have quite the same rhythm to it. We lost, 5-4, by the way.)
While I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of why Arsenal feature so often – and I probably never will – I can’t help but be amused nonetheless.
“Major! Major Bloodnok! The Arabs are attacking for the first time in this series! Arsenal 3, Tottenham 1, hooray.”
(taken from ‘The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis’, Series 7 Episode 1, first broadcast 4 October 1956)
(Later that month Arsenal did indeed beat Tottenham 3-1 at Highbury. Spooky)
Update – 4 August 2021:
Since publishing this blog, err, two days ago, I’ve discovered at least one additional Arsenal reference, from Series 3 Episode 17, ‘The Mystery of the Monkey’s Paw’.
“Time for you to get up sir. Long live Rule Britannia. Hooray for Blackpool. Poor old Arsenal.”
I’ve only been able to find the script for this rather than the recording, so I can only guess that this is Milligan – the character is referred to as “Abdul”, and Spike often put on a generic Middle East/North African/South Asian accent.
The Blackpool and Arsenal mentions are in reference to two wins in the space of a week for Blackpool over Arsenal. First, the Seasiders won 3-2 at home in a First Division match on 21 February, then they knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup at the sixth round, winning 2-1 at Highbury.
Arsenal still went on to become league champions in May, pipping Preston North End to the championship by less than 0.1 of a goal. (Teams level on points were separated by goal average in those days.) Blackpool famously went on to win the FA Cup, beating Bolton Wanderers 4-3 in what became known as the Matthews Final, because of the outstanding performance of Blackpool’s Stanley Matthews.
While researching this episode in Roger Wilmut’s Goonography, I’ve also come across a note that says the ‘Siege of Khartoum’ sketch quoted above was first broadcast as part of ‘The Mystery of the Cow on the Hill’ (Series 3 Episode 18), meaning there’s most likely another Arsenal joke in there. Without a recording or a script available, we may never know.
All script excerpts taken from transcripts from TheGoonShow.net.
Arsenal results sourced from Wikipedia.
Other Arsenal references, for anyone who’s interested:
The Mystery of the Monkey's Paw (Series 3 Episode 17) (3 March 1953)
The Man Who Tried to Destroy London’s Monuments (Series 4, Episode 2) (broadcast 9 October 1953)
The Ghastly Experiments of Dr Hans Eidelburger (Series 4, Episode 3) (broadcast 16 October 1953)
The History of Communications (Series 4, Episode 18) (29 January 1954)
The Great Bank of England Robbery (Series 4, Episode 29) (12 April 1954)
The Affair of the Lone Banana (Series 5, Episode 5) (26 October 1954)
The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu-Manchu (Series 6, Episode 12) (6 December 1955)
Tales of Montmatre (Series 6, Episode 18) (15 January 1956)
The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal (Series 6, Episode 23) (21 February 1956)
The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis (Series 7, Episode 1) (4 October 1956)
Shifting Sands (Series 7, Episode 17) (24 Jan 1957)
The Moon Show (Series 7, Episode 18) (31 Jan 1957)
The Burning Embassy (Series 8, Episode 3) (14 October 1957)
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (Series 9, Episode 10) (5 Jan 1959)