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Operation Bagpipes

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Episode nine of the fourth series of the Goon Show was broadcast on the BBC Home Service – or “in” the Home Service, as was often written at the time – at 9:30pm on 27 November 1953. This fact is made crystal clear on page 42 of the Radio Times.

Each episode of this series was repeated the following weekend. The repeat listing this week, for 10:15pm on the Light Programme, features this fetching picture of our heroes looking surprisingly presentable.

The cover of the Radio Times this week proclaims that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip are heading out on a “Commonwealth Tour”, which I would assume featured packed stadium gigs, the Queen entertaining the crowds with her renditions of risqué vaudeville songs and Buddy Holly covers, accompanied by the prince on the accordion. Or something like that.

I digress.

Titled ‘Operation Bagpipes’, this Goon Show episode is, alas, lost in the mists of time (or, rather, the BBC Written Archive).

In her book It’s All In The Mind, the biography of Goon Show co-writer Larry Stephens, Julie Warren speculates that Stephens may have been a little annoyed by Milligan’s choice of subject for this episode.

The episode concerned… a wartime mission to retrieve a set of bagpipes that had fallen into enemy hands. Captain Seagoon was told to report to Three Commando Training Depot and one scene described preparations for the exercise… As a former commando himself and having gone through the gruelling training to earn his green beret, Larry would have been entitled to gently poke fun at the elite force, but for Spike to do so was another matter entirely and it is completely understandable if Larry was riled by this, particularly given the news he had just heard.

(from It’s All In The Mind by Julie Warren, published by Unbound, 2020)

The news, incidentally, was of the death of Lieutenant Iain Milne, a wartime colleague, in an air crash.

Here’s another excerpt from the episode, cited by Warren, featuring another wonderful Goonish list:

Secombe: So the intense training for Operation Bagpipes began. Sellers: Up at the crack of midday. Milligan: Bubble bath and perfume shower. Secombe: Paper tearing – blindfold. Milligan: Floodlit fretwork courses. Sellers: Coastal landings in armoured mess tins. Secombe: Inter-battalion knitting contests. Flowerdew (Sellers): And last one home’s a cissy! Secombe: Finally, the one thing that defeated me and ruined my health – seven days’ leave in Piccadilly.

'Is anything worn under the kilt?' 'No, it's all in perfect working order.'

Strangely enough, less than a year after this episode was broadcast there was indeed an Operation Bagpipes undertaken by the RAF. According to the website of RAF Upwood in Cambridgeshire, 214 Squadron of Lancaster bomber planes and the later model Lincolns took part in the mission, which involved nuclear trials in the Pacific Ocean led by the US.

The mission was part of the much larger Operation Castle, a series of thermonuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll carried out by the US. A first-person account of the RAF’s involvement in Operation Bagpipes is available here, by pilot 'Pete' Peters.

Elsewhere in the Radio Times, for radio comedy enthusiasts, there is a brief biography of a young Frankie Howerd, who at the time was making a name for himself on the stage in variety acts and on the airwaves in Variety Bandbox. The article is previewing his new self-titled show, written by Ray Galton, Alan Simpson, and Eric Sykes, that was broadcast on the evening of 23 November – just a couple of hours after episode 10 of Journey Into Space, written by future Goon Show producer Charles Chilton.

Image via Pixabay.

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