Down Among the Z Men
In October 1952 the Goons made the second of their many attempts to bring their unique humour to the fledgling broadcast medium of television.
Down Among the Z Men was written by Jimmy Grafton and Francis Charles, and followed 1951’s Penny Points to Paradise.
I’m not being too controversial here by saying it’s more of a historical curio than a comedy classic. A lot of reviews I’ve read are quite harsh and compare it to the heyday of the Goons, failing to realise that this was still the very early days of the group and they were still exploring the format that suited their humour best.
Others have lamented that Harry Secombe doesn’t play Neddie Seagoon, but this film was released some time before Neddie emerged as a regular character in the radio series. I’d also argue that the character he does play – Harry Jones – is a bumbling, well-meaning idiot who gets into the same kind of scrapes as Neddie does later in the Goon Show’s oeuvre.
A weakness in hindsight is the script. Grafton and Charles obviously know what Goon humour is, but the dialogue lacks the spark of the radio scripts. Larry Stephens is curiously absent altogether from the production, and Milligan is a performer only. Secombe and Bentine in particular seem to be working particularly hard to get the best out of their lines.
There is much to enjoy from a Goon Show completist’s point of view, however. For starters, it’s got a lot of Michael Bentine in it, playing Professor Osric Pureheart. Precious little of Bentine's career from this period survives, so it's good to see him in full flow.
Spike is evidently enjoying larking about as Eccles – his jazz-infused ‘Reveille’ to wake the soldiers is amusing and I wouldn’t put it past him to have done this more than once when he was serving in the army. He seems to be having a lot of fun in the scene in which he takes charge of a training class with a room full of female reservists.
The film is one of Peter Sellers’ first big-screen appearances, after 1951’s Let’s Go Crazy. He plays a far more strait-laced, confident, and competent version of Bloodnok, who has been promoted to Colonel for this film.
Appearing in the adversary roles Goon Show fans would associate with Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty are Graham Stark and Andrew Timothy. Timothy’s appearance was a surprise to me as he was a BBC announcer rather than an actor per se. That said, he fits in perfectly well here as a suave spy-type character. It’s interesting to note that later in the 1950s the Goons drew the wrath of Equity, the actors’ union, for listing announcer Wallace Greenslade as a performer.
The film is described by IMDB as the Goon Show cast performing “some of their favourite routines”. This might be true to some extent – it’s difficult to tell as so few recordings and scripts from the first two series survive. There are some favourite Goon Show gags evident, however…
Sergeant: [Eyes up medals on Milligan’s chest] You’ve got a lot of decorations up this morning, Eccles. Private Eccles: Oh, you mean these medals? Sergeant: What did you get these for? Eccles: You really want to know what I got them for? Sergeant: Yes! Eccles: Ten bob the lot! Hahaha!
This joke was first used in episode three of the second series, and again in ‘The History of Communications’ (Series 4 Episode 18). Now you know.
The film is available in its entirety on YouTube. Et voila: “EJ Fancey Productions have the misfortune to inflict: The Goons”
Now, ladles and jellyspoons, The Seagoon Memoirs presents: Facts!
The song the cast sings at the start and end of the film is a take on a very old British drinking song called ‘Down Among the Dead Men’. The exact source of the tune and lyrics is uncertain, but Wikipedia has a recording of both.
The Z Men is a reference to a class of army reserves that was first created in 1918 in case Germany violated the armistice agreement struck at the end of the First World War. It was abolished in 1920, but re-established after the Second World War as a group of soldiers and officers that had served during the war and were available for recall if needed.
Graham Stark and Andrew Timothy also appeared in another EJ Fancey Productions film, titled Song of Norway, in 1955. There’s not very much about the film online apart from the cast and crew, but it caught my eye as Harry Secombe appeared in a feature-length film of the same name in 1970.