For episode 18 of the sixth series, the Goons travelled to Montmartre in France – taking with them once more Charlotte Mitchell.
Mitchell’s wonderfully overenthusiastic Maid Marion in ‘Robin Hood’ had gone down well, and for her second appearance she adopted an over-the-top French accent that even bettered Wallace Greenslade’s efforts.
Eric Sykes returns to co-writing duties for this episode. Whether this was a one-off collaboration due to a shared idea or a script they had worked on previously that had been delayed is unknown. In my view I found it interesting to note that, while there was a contrast and step up in quality between the Milligan solo scripts from series four and the Milligan/Sykes scripts of series five, there is no such contrast between Milligan's solo efforts in this series and those that Sykes co-wrote.
Art is the theme of this episode, with Neddie Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin (sounding very much like Peter Sellers’ Grytpype-Thynne) involved in a strange love triangle with Mitchell’s Fifi. Meanwhile, Count Fred Moriarty attempts to steal Neddie’s easel to sell for firewood – before himself getting somewhat distracted by Fifi.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a French post-Impressionist painter. He was notoriously short – just five foot tall, apparently – which could have been due to a combination of injuries and pre-existing conditions.
Regardless, in Spike Milligan’s mind it meant it was obvious that Harry Secombe would adopt this identity. Peter Sellers would later disguise himself as the artist in two separate films: the 1967 Casino Royale James Bond spoof, and 1978’s Revenge of the Pink Panther.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s work included more than 1,000 paintings and watercolours, produced over a career that lasted less than 20 years. He died aged 36 in 1901, suffering from alcoholism and syphilis.
Gauguin, meanwhile, was also a post-Impressionist artist. He spent much time travelling, visiting Central America, the Caribbean, and Tahiti, with his art reflecting his experiences. He died aged 54 in 1903.
To the Goons’ interpretation. As much as this episode is about art, relistening to it now it strikes me as also very much about music. Right from the start, Secombe invites people to guess the setting of the episode from the (very obviously French) music that is played. Eccles struggles, and eventually pops up halfway through the episode to guess Yugoslavia.
The theme from the 1952 film Moulin Rouge – itself the subject of several Toulouse-Lautrec paintings – appears several times. At the start we have the obligatory national anthem ‘The Marsellaise’, Jacques Offenbach’s famous ‘Can-Can’ from Orpheus in the Underworld, and ‘Sous les Toits de Paris’.
This latter tune – which translates as ‘Under the Roofs of Paris’ – Goon afficionados may recognise as having appeared in several episodes to illustrate that the action has moved to Paris. The tune is also from a 1930 film of the same name – you can hear it being quietly played over this sweeping camera shot.
The film is a musical comedy directed by René Clair, and was (according to Wikipedia, no less) the first French ‘talkie’ to achieve international success.
The listing for ‘Tales of Montmartre’ – broadcast on 17 January 1956 – is, as ever, on page 24 of the Radio Times.
The year is 1880, and Neddie Toulouse-Lautrec enters an art shop run by Monsieur Henri Crun to buy a 20-foot easel.
Crun: If you stand by a 20-foot easel it'll make you look even shorter. Toulouse: That's just it, I'm not going to stand by it. I'll stand somewhere else. I'm not a fool you know. Crun: If you're not going to stand near it, why buy it? Toulouse: I've got to buy it, so as to have something tall not stand by. It's no good not standing by something tall that's not there, is it? Crun: Supposing someone comes in unexpectedly when you're standing near it? Toulouse: Then I shall deny every word of it and stand on a ladder.
Neddie heads for home and begins to paint, but is interrupted by Count Fred Moriarty – disguised as Major Bloodnok, who is indisposed by lurgi. Moriarty is a collector of firewood, paying two francs a bundle – a lot of money to a poor old painter. (“So I see by your poor old paintings.”)
The count offers 10 francs – but not for the painting. Instead he wants the easel, but is rebuffed by the artist. He retreats to think of a plan. Meanwhile, enter Paul Gauguin.
Gauguin: Oh, good evening, is your mother is sonny? Toulouse: Sonny? I'm Toulouse-Lautrec. Gauguin: Oh? And where are you going to lose him? Toulouse: Have a care sir, I'm not a man to be laughed at. Gauguin: Really? I heard your record and I just couldn't stop!
Next, enter a plot. Moriarty decides to get Gauguin to paint a portrait of the easel that he can then swap for the real thing. Gauguin accepts the commission – three pips on his shoulder. Military commission, commissioned officer… geddit?.
Next, enter Fifi.
Fifi (Charlotte Mitchell): For three weeks I posed for Toulouse. Oh, how I posed. Toulouse: That's enough for today Fifi. The light’s failing, and my eyes are hurting. Fifi: But Toulouse, when are you going to start painting me?
The pair get married. Then Fifi is introduced to Gauguin, with more romantic consequences. So interested are the pair in each other that Neddie keeps having to go out of the house to phone them in order to get their attention.
Unfortunately, this is not going to last. Fifi comes to Neddie, distraught, to report that Gauguin has abandoned her.
Toulouse: There, there, there. Please don't cry, you're making your moustache all droopy. Fifi: It's Paul, you must speak to him. Toulouse: Certainly. Hello Paul, I see Arsenal took another bashing! Fifi: No. Paul didn't come home to me last night. Toulouse: He can't do that to a wife of mine.
Arsenal had just lost the North London Derby to Tottenham a few days before the broadcast, but I would hardly call 1-0 a “bashing”. That said, they were just a few days away from being bashed 5-2 by Portsmouth.
Next, enter Eccles, who proves a distraction for Fifi – as much as because he keeps shutting her or Neddie out when Neddie is trying to get rid of him. Eventually, Neddie succeeds in getting rid of Eccles and lets in Fifi – or so he thinks.
Instead, enter Major Bloodnok, recovered from lurgi, who is also infatuated by Fifi.
Bloodnok: It's lunch time. How many live here? Toulouse: Let me see, there's my wife, Paul Gauguin- Bloodnok: So your wife is Paul Gauguin? Well, everyone to his own tastes I always say.
Meanwhile, Count Moriarty is growing frustrated that Gauguin is taking so long to paint the portrait of the easel, so sends Bloodnok to offer 95 francs for the easel. Neddie settles for two bus tickets and an empty matchbox, and Bloodnok delivers to Moriarty. Moriarty tries to sell the easel to Crun for firewood, only to discover that Bloodnok bought the portrait by mistake. (Are you keeping up at the back?)
Crun offers 1,000 francs for the Gauguin painting. Thrilled, Moriarty sets off back to get the easel itself, which he believes must be worth even more. Aided by cab driver Bluebottle (“Step on it.” “Step on what, captain?”), he rushes back to the studio.
Meanwhile, Neddie has finally cottoned on to Fifi’s distraction.
Toulouse: What's the matter Fifi? Don't you love me any longer? Gauguin: If you were longer, she'd love you much more. Toulouse: Swine! Then I hit on a plan. To try to draw her attention, I set fire to myself. It moved her – she fried an egg on me. To keep me going, they chopped up the 20-foot easel and threw that on me.
Next, enter Moriarty, but too late to save the easel. He, too, falls for Fifi and is challenged to a duel by Gauguin. This has been a running theme through the episode, with no one actually deaded but plenty of honours satisfied.
This time, though, Moriarty is deaded and Gauguin and Fifi make to depart, leaving Neddie with Gauguin’s paintings. These will be worth a fortune – after their creator is deaded.
[FX: Pistol shot] Gauguin: Argh! Toulouse: I'm rich! Now Fifi, we can be happy. Fifi: No, there is someone else. Toulouse: Who? [FX: Door opens] Bluebottle: Are you ready Fifi my little love? Toulouse: You rotten swine Bluebottle!
‘Tales of Montmartre’ was adapted by Maurice Wiltshire as the ninth episode of the second series of Telegoons. The episode was broadcast on 23 May 1964.
Fifi is not credited, but the well-informed and brilliantly researched Telegoons website says she is probably voiced by associate producer Wendy Danielli as she held an Equity card – a necessary quality for actors of all kinds at the time.
The plot has changed somewhat: it actually tells the story of the Eiffel Tower, which is apparently a replica as Neddie set fire to the original. For those who are interested, the Telegoons website also has a shooting schedule for this episode, available here.
Tales of Montmartre
Series 6, Episode 18
Broadcast: 17 January 1956
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton
Image of Montmartre by Christophe Meneboeuf. All images sourced from Wikipedia.