The eighth episode of the Goon Show’s sixth series marked the first time Spike Milligan had embarked upon a literary spoof on his own as a writer.
With Eric Sykes in series five he had seen great success with takes on George Orwell’s 1984 and P C Wren’s Beau Geste. This time it was the turn of Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton that first popularised the mythical utopia of Shangri-La. The book was made into a film in 1937 starring Robert Colman (it almost bankrupted Colombia Pictures, by my reading of the background) and even a musical in 1956.
In Hilton’s story, four travellers are stranded in remote Tibetan mountains after a plane crash and make their way to Shangri-La, a mystical place where the inhabitants seem to live for hundreds of years. The characters are split between whether to stay in this paradise or attempt to return home.
On 8 November 1955, the Goons attempted to locate the mythical paradise, as per page 24 of the Radio Times (sans synopsis).
Sellers: The story of Shangri-La is adopted from Fred Hilton's book 'Lost Horizontally', based on the legend of Shangra-Lu, from the play "Across Ava Gardner with stethoscope, Geigercounter".
Seagoon is in charge of gathering evacuees from Manchuria together and getting them to the airport, among them an anxious Major Bloodnok.
Seagoon: Bloodnok, I don't like the way you're acting. Bloodnok: Then get Lawrence Olivier.
Along with the British consul, Lord Grytpype-Thynne, they make it to the airport and commandeer a plane, courtesy of Count Fred Moriarty and a tidy £10,000 payment (“That’s a lot of money.” – “ I know, that’s why I’m asking for it.”).
Unfortunately, there is only room on the plane for 13 people, so one person will have to stay behind. Between them Bloodnok and Lieutenant Wallace Greenslade must decide who is to stay behind.
Bloodnok: Come Greenslade dear lad. [fades] I've always admired you, you know... [FX: Two pairs of boots walking away] [FX: Pistol shot] Greenslade (off mic): Ahhhhhhh! [FX: One pair of boots returning] Bloodnok: The gallant Greenslade has volunteered to stay.
So it is all about the plane to escape the invading forces.
Seagoon: Dawn, December 25th. Have been airborne eight hours. Altitude 20,000 feet, magnificent day, plane running very smoothly, engines in perfect condition, no wind, ideal weather for flying. Crashed.
Weeks go by as they try to fix the radio set. Just as they are about to give up hope, who should enter but a heroic boy scout! Bluebottle – known as “he who walks bare-footed through the frosty mountains”, but only because his boots are at the menders – offers to lead them to safety.
Bluebottle: Where do I hail from? It is a place that lives in the memory forever. I got it writted down on a fag-packet somewhere. Oh yes, it is Shangra-Lurn, land of eternal youth, land of purity, no drink, no sex, no sin... and I'm fed up with it I am! [Audience in hysterics, round of applause] Thank you fellow sinners.
On they go through the harsh terrain. For the first time in a while, it’s time for one of my favourite recurring Goon gags – the list of ridiculous objects. As their baggage becomes too heavy, the group decides to discard:
24 lead budgerigar perches
1 long thin object with no fixed abode
1 bronze bicycle with cement parachute ejector seat
1 (Milligan sings) “Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooooh!”
36 cardboard replicas of Nelson's Column from the inside
1 rubber mosque with detachable beard
By the magic of Ray Ellington, they eventually find their way to the mythical land of Shangri-La. With Gustav Holst’s ‘Neptune’ playing in the background, Seagoon describes the beautiful scene in language somewhat unexpected for a Goon Show.
Seagoon: Dear listener, I looked out upon a pastoral scene that I'd only dreamed existed. It almost defied description. In warm sunshine a valley that sang with colour - hillocks topped with banyan trees, and from their secret willow, doves sprang, their wings bent skywards. Streams chuckled and vanished in early mists. Surmounting all lay a monastery, clean and white in the sun, against which coloured prayer flags fluttered like spilled paint. This, then, was Shangri-La, my paradise, my predestined resting place. [Shouts] MORE! What about the old radio awards for acting there?!
Shangri-La is indeed a paradise, and is watched over by the Dalai Lama, aka Henry Crun, who is summoned by a J Arthur Rank gong (a reference to the movie studio that always had a muscular man hitting a gong at the start of its films).
Crun has chosen Seagoon to replace him has Dalai Lama, as he plans to retire now he has reached the age of 709. Seagoon accepts, and prepares to stay.
Greenslade (disgruntled): 'Lost Horizontally' part three, four, five, six – et cetera. Ying-tong-iddle-i-po, needle nardle noo. All’s well that ends well. This is Wallace Greenslade, lover of good English, wishing he were dead. [FX: Pistol shot] Bloodnok: Wish granted. Seagoon: Bloodnok, you must stop killing Greenslade - he's not well.
Bloodnok and Moriarty decide to leave, but Seagoon is set on staying. After all, he has searched all his life for this paradise on Earth. Why would he leave? Nothing will stop him from staying.
Eccles: I'm staying with you. Seagoon (panicked): No! No! Moriarty wait, I'm coming!
Spike may have been relatively new to the idea of literary spoofs – for full-length episodes at least – but it was already a long-running comedy trope for many writers.
Frank Muir and Denis Norden made it a regular feature of their hit show Take It From Here, and its cast – led by Jimmy Edwards (right) and Dick Bentley – visited Shangri-La in an episode broadcast on 25 February 1954. You can find it on the RadioEchoes website alongside many, many other episodes.
Bellamy (Dick Bentley): I am seeking the lost valley of Shangri-La. Wentworth (Jimmy Edwards): Bellamy, have you got bar-lamy? Bellamy: Wentworth, I’m as sane as you are. Wentworth: I’ll get you a doctor.
They find it, of course, but after six months Bellamy decides to leave (“I’m a novelist, and I have to nov”). Wentworth stays, declaring that his partner’s exit proves that “there’s a mug born every minute”.
Series 6 Episode 8
Broadcast: 8 November 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
Tibet image by truthseeker08 via Pixabay; image of Jimmy Edwards via National Portrait Gallery.