A few days ago - 28 November to be precise - marked the 119th birthday of two-time Goon Show guest star Jack Train.
Train slotted perfectly into the Goon Show as Colonel Chinstrap, a character he had made famous as part of It's That Man Again, or ITMA, the 1940s radio comedy series that was seen as a forerunner to the Goons.
Colonel Chinstrap appeared in 'Shifting Sands' (Series 7 Episode 17) as Major Bloodnok's superior officer, and again in 'Who Is Pink Oboe?', leading a small regiment of actors producer John Browell brought in at short notice to replace Peter Sellers.
Despite being a generation older than the Goons (he was born in 1902), Train had a similar route into broadcasting. He was spotted entertaining his comrades while serving in the Royal Navy during the First World War and advised to turn professional. He even worked alongside comedy duo Nervo and Knox, who were later to form part of the Crazy Gang that also laid a path for the Goons.
Train's big break came when he was cast in the second series of ITMA, which began in 1939 just as war was declared. His casting coincided with the BBC Variety Department's move to Bristol as part of plans to evacuate most of the corporation from London.
As well as Chinstrap, Train also voiced incompetent German spy Funf, inspired by very real concerns that enemy spies were operating in the UK, and Claude, described by The Times as "the removal man and general dogsbody". Claude had a partnership with Cecil. played by Horace Percival, and their alternating lines regularly rhymed. Train portrayed both Funf and Lefty, an American gangster, in the 1943 film version of ITMA.
Train missed the whole of the seventh series of ITMA (there were 12 in total) due to ill health - he must have been very ill, as Wikipedia cites him as spending time in a sanitorium to recuperate. What the ailment was, I haven't been able to ascertain.
It was Chinstrap that really captured the listeners' imagination, however. The colonel would ultimately always be in search of a drink, often misinterpreting other characters' lines as offers, to which he would respond with his catchphrase: "I don't mind if I do."
This tendency was exploited to great effect by Milligan in 'Shifting Sands', broadcast in January 1957, which saw Chinstrap and Bloodnok sharing enormous glasses of port, judging by the length of the pouring sound effects. Eventually, faced with a huge import fee on his 48-gallon bottle of brandy, Chinstrap decides to drink his way out.
Greenslade: That was all fifty-scree years ago, but to this day a white stone marks the spot where Chinstrap saved the day. Bloodnok: Yes, and it carries this simple inscription: "Here lies Colonel Chinstrap, drowned - from the inside."
By this point, ITMA had long since ended. It was cancelled in 1949 when its star, Tommy Handley, died, and the producers and the BBC decided that it would not work without him.
Along with several other ITMA characters, though, Train's portrayal of Chinstrap had outgrown the series and the BBC was keen to exploit his popularity. To this end it cast him alongside fellow ITMA actors Jean Capra and Hugh Morton in The Great Gilhooly, written for Irish actor Noel Purcell by ITMA scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh. The series began in October 1950 and lasted 10 episodes, and there is an article introducing it written by Kavanagh in the 29 September 1950 edition of the Radio Times.
Co-starring with [Purcell] in the series will be Jack Train, with whom I have been so closely associated since 1935. Now happily recovered from his recent serious accident, Jack will appear in several new character parts and, knowing him so well, I am certain he will add lustre to all of them. I have never yet written anything for Jack which he has not improved upon. Yes, he will be the Colonel once again, but this time the accent will be more on sport than port.
(Ted Kavanagh writing in the Radio Times, issue 1406, published 29 September 1950)
The colonel appeared in a series of short episodes for the BBC's magazine TV programme Kaleidoscope in 1951 and 1952, and even provided short bits of commentary on cricket matches in the late 1940s, according to Wikipedia. Train went on to be a regular panelist on Twenty Questions, playing himself in this role in the 1950 crime film The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery. In it, a man sends a question into the show before killing someone. I'd like to see this concept revisited for Gardeners' Question Time.
Fun fact: Train had a miniature white poodle, which appeared to greet him when he was guest of honour on an episode of This Is Your Life in 1957.
Train's death in December 1966 made front page news across the country, so recognisable and admired was he. Fellow Twenty Questions panellists described him as "a very kind man and a gentle soul", and "one of the nicest men I ever met", according to a newspaper report from the day after his death.
Given how easily Train/Chinstrap fitted into the Goons, it's interesting to read one obituary that placed him somewhat at odds with Milligan et al.
'Pass the salt.' 'Glass of port? Don't mind if I do.' It may not seem very funny in these post-Goon days. But it rolled the Servicemen in the aisles during the war when Tommy Handley supplied the feed and Jack Train, as Colonel Chinstrap, supplied the catchphrase. [...] Unlike Goon humour, the character situations of Tony Hancock, the satire of the BBC late shows, it is the humour of the expected rather than the unexpected. It is based on a limited range of themes, mostly to do with the ludicrous aspects of people and with the discomfiture of the pompous. [...] [Train] was an embodiment of the older, more cohesive tradition of British humour, which demonstrated not how different the classes, professions and psychological types are - as in so much contemporary humour - but how similar they are in classically ludicrous situations. We all look the same on the wrong end [of] a banana skin.
(Excerpts from 'The catchphrase world of Jack Train' by Keith Brace, published in the Birmingham Daily Post, 20 December 1966)
Mr Brace is very close to finishing this article with "it was different in my day you know".
I'll leave you with this - well, I can hardly take it with me - Jack Train in full Chinstrap mode for a novelty record released in 1949, shortly after ITMA had ended. It's just a short one. A short one? I don't mind if I do.