It's good to be alive in 1985! (part 1)
The Goons welcomed 1955 with arguably their best ever parody, and one of their best shows full stop, in my view at least.
Full warning: I’ve become obsessed with this episode and understanding all the references it makes, and so I have attempted to delve into all of them. Brace yourselves.
For episode 15 of the fifth series of the Goon Show, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes drew on the recent and highly controversial broadcast of George Orwell’s 1984 as a live TV play, starring Peter Cushing as Winston Smith.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Smith is an inhabitant of Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain, part of Oceania, one of three super-states that rule the world. The totalitarian government regularly rewrites reality and changes the meanings of words to suit their own ends and keep the population supressed.
The scenes that provoked the most consternation concerned Smith’s torture in Room 101, where he is presented with his greatest fear and forced into betrayal and subjugation to Big Brother. Such was the rawness of these scenes that questions were raised in parliament and letters of concern were written to newspapers.
We’ll come back to all this though. For the Goons, the mini-scandal of 1984 presented Milligan and Sykes with a perfect opportunity to parody not just Orwell’s novel but also the BBC itself, and its fledgling rival, Independent Television. It’s a wonderful send-up, almost a scene-for-scene parody of the novel, while poking gentle(ish) fun at the top brass of broadcasting at the same time.
This play is unsuitable for human beings, young horses, civic dignitaries, and Fred Barrington.
(Radio Times listing, page 22, issue 1625, published 31 December 1954)
‘I’d like to see ’em do this on television’
The Television Act of 1954 had brought about the creation of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), paving the way for commercial broadcasting in the UK. Some commentators thought this was a terrible American idea and should be avoided – indeed, the Goons had parodied American product placement several times in earlier series.
The new channels, which at first were regional, did not begin broadcasting until later in 1955, but franchises for London and the North of England had already been awarded in October 1954. Thus, there was much talk of what Independent Television would bring by the turn of the year.
Milligan had a love-hate relationship with the BBC, particularly later in his career – much of his TV output initially was via Associated Rediffusion, the first commercial station that launched in September 1955.
‘Nineteen-Eighty-Five’ could, then, be viewed as an attempt to ‘bite the hand that feeds’, but I think the popularity of the episode (and the BBC’s willingness to repeat it) suggests that the Beeb was rather more willing to laugh at itself than people gave it credit for.
A little more important context: The BBC’s near-monopoly on UK broadcasting up to this point had resulted in presenters and senior staff becoming nationally recognised. John Snagge was the corporation’s lead announcer, for example, having talked the nation through two coronations, the Normandy landings, and many Oxford-Cambridge boat races.
For this episode, rather than run down the plot, I’ve decided to dig into the references. Strap in.
‘What is the finest TV programme in the world?’
Greenslade: Special interest to BBC workers: By mixing water with earth, our scientists have invented: MUD! It's now on sale in the BBC canteen under the name of ‘macaroni au gratin’ or coffee. Winston Seagoon: Big fat slob, get off the screen! [FX: Whoosh] Grytpype-Thynne: Worker Seagoon, did I hear you complaining? Winston: Oh! Vision Master Ronnie Waldman.
Ronnie Waldman was then the head of the BBC’s Light Entertainment department, directly responsible for comedy output. He began working at the BBC in 1938 as a producer, and after a stint in the RAF’s media arm during the war he ascended to assistant head of variety before taking the Light Entertainment role.
Voiced by Peter Sellers in Grytpype-Thynne mode, Vision Master Waldman fills the role of O’Brien in 1984, a senior official who helps trick Winston into joining a rebellion.
In real life, Waldman was best known to the British public as the presenter of the long-running radio magazine programme Monday Night at Eight – hence the line later in the show when he reveals himself to Winston has having been part of Big Brother all along.
Winston: Vision Master Waldman. So they got you too! Vision Master: Yes, they got me a long time ago. I remember the date, Monday Night at Eight. Now Winston, we must torture you.
Waldman was also a presenter of the TV magazine programme Kaleidoscope, hence Winston’s automatic response when the Vision Master snaps at Winston: “What is the finest TV programme in the world?”
‘Ask Son of Pickles’
Vision Master: Don't forget to watch tonight's programme... Winston: Oh yes, 'Ask Son of Pickles'.
Wilfred Pickles was a Yorkshire-born BBC presenter who was the first radio announcer to have a regional accent. His long-running radio show Have A Go! was the first quiz programme to offer a cash prize, according to Wikipedia, and transferred to television as Ask Pickles in 1954.
Here’s some footage of Pickles presenting Have A Go from 1947.
Winston: So the awful torture went on… I looked so old and ill, Wilfred Pickles demanded me for his TV programme.
Moriarty: Attention all! Coming on the screen now is the one man you must hate! The sworn enemy of the Big Brother Corporation, this is him! Horace Minnick (Sellers): Listen, listen! Don't believe them! Listen! BBC workers. Rise and overthrow your masters before it's too late. I will lead you against them. Strike now! Revolt! Winston: So this was Horrace Minnick, leader of the ITA.
Horace Minnick is a thinly-veiled play on Maurice Winnick, a band-leader turned member of a consortium that, as of January 1955, stood to win two of the regional independent TV contracts. However, the so-called Kemsley-Winnick consortium (named after Maurice and the newspaper publisher Lord Kemsley) collapsed before it could get off the ground.
Eccles: Hey Winston. Guess what I found in my dinner. Winston: What? Eccles: Food! Oh, it's good to be alive in 1985! Winston: Poor producer fool. Still, sixty years with the Huggetts would turn anyone.
I love this gag, because it's very much an in-joke that most of the audience won't have fully understood.
The Huggetts were a fictional family that starred in four films in the late 1940s before transferring to a radio series, Meet the Huggetts. At the time of this reference, the show was being produced by… Goon Show producer Peter Eton (left). (Kenneth Connor also featured in the series for many years.)
If you don’t believe me, here is a listing from July 1954.
And there's more where that came from. Till tomorrow, dear reader!