Despite several missteps, the Radio Times was determinedly ploughing on with its publication of a synopsis for each new Goon Show episode at the start of the sixth series. For the episode aired on 11 October 1955, the fourth in this series, the following text appeared:
Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan in ‘The Sale of Manhattan’ by Spike Milligan with additional material by Overcoat Charlie Shortly after the makers of ‘Lurgi’, the American all-purpose loaf, have offered 20,000 dollars to the first person to cross the Atlantic in a leaky canoe, two international part-time dustmen, Brigadier T. St. J. Grytpype-thynne and Count Fred Moriarty, Esq., suddenly discover the long-lost deeds proving that New York belongs to Neddie Seagoon. A mysterious Count Jim Pills, Esq., succeeds in persuading Neddie to cross the Atlantic in a leaky canoe to claim this fragment of the Americas as his own. The programme also explains the significance of ritual saxophone playing at Medicine Hat during the first phase of the November moon.
(from the Radio Times, issue 1665, page 24, published 7 October 1955)
As Goon Show fans will no doubt know, this plot bears a passing resemblance to ‘The Sale of Manhattan’, which eventually was unleashed to the world as episode 11 of the sixth series in November 1955. Episode four was, in fact, ‘Napoleon’s Piano’.
In it, those fiends Grytpype and Moriarty trick Neddie Seagoon into accepting a £5 fee for moving a piano from one room to another. While £5 was worth a lot more in 1955 than it is now, it was scant consolation for Neddie when he discovered that the room he was to fetch the piano from was, in fact, the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Seagoon: Ahhh! I've been tricked! Yahhahh! [FX: Thud] Moriarty: For the benefit of people without television, he's fainted. Grytpype: Don't waste time. Open his jacket and take the weight of his wallet off his chest. Found anything? Moriarty: Yes. A signed photograph of Neddie Seagoon, a press cutting from the theatre [in] Bolton, a gramophone record of Gigli mowing the lawn, and a photograph of Gigli singing.
I particularly like the Bolton reference, as I believe it is a link back to Harry Secombe’s disastrous evening there in 1947. Gigli, I believe, is a reference to the great Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli.
Seagoon heads to the Foreign Office, staffed by Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, to get the necessary documents, but they throw him out in the belief he’s going to Russia. This was the early stages of the Cold War, when suspicions about communists and Russian spies were rife.
Instead, Seagoon stows away on a ship travelling to France, where he briefly meets Eccles (“Are you going to Calais? … What a coincidence, that’s where the ship’s going”) en route to Paris.
Seagoon: Next morning, I sat in my room eating my breakfast, when suddenly through the window a fork on the end of a long pole appeared. It tried to spear my kipper. Bloodnok: Oh-ho! Seagoon: Who the blazes are you sir? Bloodnok: Ah-ah-oh! I'm sorry. I was... ummm... fishing. Seagoon: Fishing? Fishing? This is the 34th floor. Bloodnok: Oh. The, err, river must have dropped.
Seagoon calls the manager, only for Bloodnok to have Seagoon thrown out. Seagoon tries the same fork-on-a-pole trick, and is thrown out again. Who will help Neddie now?
Step forward Peter Sellers' Justin Eidelburger, who was listening on the radio and came to assist. Together they plan to steal Napoleon’s piano from the Louvre, agreeing to disperse and meet again at midnight. The clock strikes 10 times, but who’s counting? The sound effects team play in the chimes at varying speeds, creating a wonderfully silly effect that was a favourite of Milligan’s.
Attempting to sneak in, they are accosted by Wallace Greenslade demonstrating his superb French accent. Eidelburger shoots him.
Greenslade (French): Oooh, you've killed me. Foutre a la porte. You will get me ze sack. Oho! Oh, oh, I die, I fall to ze ground, Oh I die… [Cast begins to boo and hiss him] Seagoon: Never mind, Walter. Swallow this tin of Life-O, guaranteed to return you to life. Recommended by all corpses and Wilfred Pickles.
Approaching the piano, Eidelburger and Seagoon discover that Eccles has also been tricked into transporting the instrument back to England. Together, the trio decide to saw its legs off to make it easier to carry.
Seagoon: There! I've sawn off all four legs. Eidelburger: Strange.. The first time I've known of a piano with four legs. Eccles: Hey! I keep fallin' down.
Bloodnok reappears, having also been tricked into transporting the piano back to England. This trio, devoid of money to get a boat home, throw the piano into the English Channel and attempt to steer it home.
Seagoon: The log of Napoleon's Piano. December 3rd, second week in English Channel. Very seasick. No food. No water. Bloodnok down with the lurgi. Eccles up with the lark. Bloodnok: Seagoon, take over the keyboard. I can't steer any more. Seagoon: Eccles, take over the keyboard. Eccles: I can't - I haven't brought my music. Seagoon: You'll just have to busk for the next three miles.
Fortunately they are saved by the appearance of a recording of a helicopter, carrying none other than Sea Ranger Bluebottle, direct from HMS Boxer. This boat was the vessel that transported Lance Bombardier Spike Milligan and his regiment from North Africa to Italy in 1944.
Bluebottle: Silencio! I must do my duty. Hurriedly runs up cardboard union jack. I now claim this island for the British Empire and Lord Beaverbrook, the Bristish patriot. Thinks: I wonder why he lives in France. […] Rockall is now British. Cements in brass plate. Steps back to salute. [FX: Splash] Bluebottle: Aiieee! Help! I'm in the dreaded drowning-type water.
Rescued by Seagoon using a reference to the 1953 musical Kismet (“Take my hand.” “Why, are you a stranger in paradise?”), Bluebottle insists the piano is in fact the small North Atlantic islet known as Rockall, which he’s claiming in the name of the crown because it’s in a rocket testing range.
[FX: Whoosh – Boom]
This final act of ‘Napoleon’s Piano’ took its inspiration from the British government’s decision to claim the island of Rockall for Queen and country.
On 18 September 1955, HMS Vidal sent four men onto the tiny island by helicopter to raise the union flag and pronounce the latest – and final – addition to the British Empire. One of them was an ornithologist and broadcaster called James Fisher, who recorded his experiences for the BBC in a radio programme broadcast two days before this episode of the Goon Show.
The uninhabitable rock was claimed as the UK government was concerned that the Soviet Union could use it as a base to spy on the UK’s nuclear experiments in the North Atlantic.
You’ll be amused to know that, until researching this blog post, I genuinely thought Rockall was in the English Channel, based on the idea that Seagoon was trying to get the piano from Paris to London. As any fule kno, it’s actually in the North Atlantic, northwest of Ireland.
“I feel a proper fool now!”
Throughout this episode, characters repeatedly offer each other a gorilla, in the way one would offer another person a cigarette. This phrase later became the title of a Goon Show collection, and the gag format was reused several times.
Grytpype: Have a gorilla. Seagoon: No thanks. I'm trying to give them up.
Seagoon: Here! Have a gorilla. Eccles: Oh! Thanks. [FX: Gorilla roaring] Eccles: Oww! Oww! Ooh! Oww! Hey! These gorillas are strong. Here, have one of my monkeys - they're milder. Seagoon: And so for the rest of the voyage we sat quietly smoking our monkeys.
Seagoon: Now... have a gorilla. Eidelburger: No thanks - I only smoke baboons.
The script was adapted by Maurice Wiltshire for the fourth episode of the first series of Telegoons, broadcast by the BBC on 26 October 1963 in the UK. (See the amazingly detailed Telegoons website for more information.)
Incidentally, there is a Napoleon’s Dueling Pianos Bar in Las Vegas at the Paris Hotel. There is a part of me that really wants Wallace Greenslade to be serving people with his wonderful French accent.
Greenslade: For those who would prefer a happy ending, here it is. [FX: Door opens. Romantic music begins] Secombe: Gwendoline! Gwendoline! Sellers (female voice): John, John darling. Secombe: Gwendoline, I've, I've found work, darling. I've got a job. Sellers: Oh John. I'm so glad for you. What is it, darling? Secombe: Darling, all I've got to do is to move a piano from one room to another... [laughs madly]
Series 6, Episode 4
Broadcast: 11 October 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton