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'No fit subject for mirth'

For episode four of the fourth series, Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens wrote a single story through the whole half-hour – one of the first times they had done this.

‘The Building of Britain’s First Atomic Cannon’ was broadcast on 23 October 1953 – exactly 33 years before I was born. It is listed on page 42 of the week’s issue of the Radio Times.


You’ll see on the same page at 7:30pm on the Home Service a programme about the Battle of Alamein, featuring Field Marshal Montgomery among others. It’s not known whether Monty’s encounter with Gunner Secombe was mentioned.

As far as the actual episode is concerned, no recording exists that I’ve been able to ascertain. That doesn’t mean it didn’t make an impact, though.

Marker for one of the Totem test sites

The 1950s were the early years of the Cold War, and there was much talk of atom bombs in the wake of the horrific way in which the war in Japan was ended by the US in 1945.

The US, the Soviet Union, and the UK were all testing bombs in the 1950s, and this particular episode coincided with the UK's Operation Totem, a series of nuclear tests carried out in Australia. As ever, the reaction of Spike and his fellow Goons was to find laughter in a pretty dark subject.

As Roger Wilmut recounts in his Goonography, this episode “produced a bad-tempered outburst from a columnist who said he found atom bombs no fit subject for mirth”. He continues: “This is despite the fact that, as [producer] Peter Eton wrote to point out, there were no atom bombs in the show.”

As all columnists know, you should never let actually listening to or watching the content of a broadcast get in the way of your rant.

Cannon image by John Smith via Pexels. Totem marker image sourced from Wikipedia, credit to Gazjo.

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