Updated: Dec 29, 2021
“This is a story of a great endeavour. A story of land, sea and air. And in some cases, both.”
It’s a well-known comedic fact that Christmas puddings are funny. Spike Milligan and the Goons knew this, and so revisited it as a topic multiple times.
My personal favourite pudding-related tale comes from December 1956, from the typewriters of Milligan and Larry Stephens. ‘Operation Christmas Duff’ was recorded on 9 December and broadcast on the BBC’s General Overseas Service (now the World Service) on 24 and 25 December.
The episode is explicitly aimed at British troops overseas, while the Trans-Antarctic Expedition was namechecked more than once.
It tells the story of the creation of a giant Christmas pudding created by the armed forces to send to the troops. It allows the Goons to poke fun at their former army and air force colleagues and slip in a few gags just for the soldiers. For instance, Harry Secombe voices a character called Captain Berk, a piece of rhyming slang that goes unnoticed by the studio audience. (Berk is short for Berkshire, from Berkshire Hunt, which is rhyming slang for I beg your pardon sir we’ll have none of that.)
Henry Crun: Owing to the shortage of civilian contractors, they cannot supply sufficient Xmas-type duff for our forces overseas. Milligan: Oh, a Calamity, a terrible calamity Secombe (Northern accent): What about the NAAFI? Crun: What is NAAFI? Secombe (Scottish): An organisation working for the downfall of the British Army. Crun: Have they succeeded? Secombe (Scottish): Several times.
The NAAFI (pronounced ‘naffy’) stands for the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes, and was set up in 1920 to provide recreational services to sailors, soldiers, and airmen. As anyone who has read a Second World War memoir such as Spike Milligan’s or Harry Secombe’s will know, the food provided by the NAAFI was not exactly high-quality cuisine.
At Chatham in Kent, a huge vat of Christmas pudding mixture is being worked on, as narrated by Peter Sellers’ Richard Dimbleby impression.
Dimbleby: The sound you are now hearing is the great Combined Services Christmas pudding in the making. I'm standing by the great dry dock at Chatham in which the Christmas pudding is being mixed. Standing next to me is Admiral Seagoon, RN. Seagoon: Well, we've had a good day today. Number three flotilla motor torpedo boats have been going backwards and forwards churning up the mixture. The cruiser Ajax has been following in their wake, dropping depth charges to bring the raisins to the surface. Dimbleby: How perfectly splendid to see the finest traditions of the silent service being maintained.
Planes drop candied peel, stone ginger and sultanas from their bomb bays, prompting a wonderful sound effect combination of whistling bombs falling followed by huge splats.
Dimbleby: A direct hit on the great Christmas pudding mixture. This is indeed a grand day for the Empire.
The mixture is transported to Salisbury Plain to be cooked in a giant gasometer. The tanker transport is referred to as “the great all-British oil tanker Aristotle Onassis”.
This is a reference to a Greek shipping magnate of that name, who became one of the richest men in the world, primarily by buying up shipping companies. Very British indeed.
[FX: Bugle sounding, sped up and slowed down in quick succession] Major Bloodnok: Oh! Reveille! And first thing in the morning, too! Oh, what a shock. Quickly, get me some brandy. Batman (Milligan): Have you got a weak heart sir? Bloodnok: No, a weak will.
(Reveille is the short tune played by a bugler first thing in the morning to wake the soldiers up.)
After being cooked by flame-throwing tanks, the gasometer is split in two by torpedoes revealing the pudding – completely at the army’s mercy.
Greenslade: And there you hear the 74th Medium Regiment R.A., firing over open sights smack into the pudding itself. Tell me Major, what are they firing? Bloodnok: Thrupenny bits.
That’s three-pence pieces. It’s a long-standing British tradition to hide small coins in Christmas puddings. Finding one is supposed to be lucky, although not if you break a tooth doing so.
The pudding is transferred to the RAF for distribution, and parliament is informed. Two years after being scolded by the BBC for impersonating Winston Churchill, Peter Sellers is at it again.
Churchill (Sellers): Honourable members. I have this moment received good news. At 1700 hours British troops gained the summit of the Combined Services Christmas pudding and there planted the British holly. [Cast: Applause and cheers] Churchill: One hour later, Sopwith Camels of Bomber Command dropped delayed brandy bombs, and set the pudding on fire. The magnificent Christmas duff is now ready for transportation. [Cast: Cheering, morphs into singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’]
Those in charge of distribution of the pudding are given their instructions via a memo signed by “Field Marshall Montgoonery”. One slice is to be filled with anti-freeze and sent to Antarctica, while the remainder is to be fitted with wheels and an engine and driven to the Middle East.
The latter is under the command of Bluebottle and Eccles, bringing about a classic piece of Goon Show dialogue.
Bluebottle: Have you ever driven a Christmas pudding before, Eccles? Eccles: No, I've never driven anything before. Bluebottle: Then how did you get the job? Eccles: Well, the sergeant said, ‘One pace forward my good man, anyone who can play the piano’. Bluebottle: Oh, can you play the piano then? Eccles: No. Bluebottle: Then why are you driving this Christmas pudding? Eccles: I want to learn to play the piano.
It turns out Bluebottle can play the piano, which is why he’s on the job. Eccles requests a tune.
Bluebottle: What would you like? Eccles: My ticket. [This refers to when soldiers are discharged due to injury, i.e. their ticket home] Bluebottle: How does it go? Eccles: It goes [sings]: "Doctor, my dear military doctor, you gotta believe me, I got a bad back in the front. I'm not fit for active service, I gotta bone in my leg. And when I close my eyes I can't see. When I lie down it hurts me to run sideways, and oh it's time for Ray Ellington...
One of Ellington’s stranger introductions, for sure.
The final third of the show sees Moriarty and Grytpype attempt to hijack Bluebottle and Eccles’ pudding to eat it, while Seagoon and Bloodnok are traversing the southern ice floes in search of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
But, alas, disaster! They have run out of food, and only have the pudding to keep them going. They reluctantly agree to eat it in order to have the strength to pull it. They struggle on…
[FX: Phone ringing] Seagoon: Don't answer it, it's a mirage. Bloodnok: Nonsense, it's a phone. [FX: Phone picked up] Bloodnok: Hello? Jim Spriggs (Milligan): Hello, this is a mirage speaking. [FX: Phone thrown down] Bloodnok: You were right, Seagoon. Oh, unless we reach the base soon my mind will give out. Seagoon: Well, try to use it as little as possible. Bloodnok: I always do!
All of a sudden, who should turn up but Eccles driving the remainder of the Christmas pudding. Between them, they argue about whether they are in Libya or Antarctica, before discovering that they are in fact in New York. On the toss of a coin they are suddenly in Mongolia.
Greenslade: Here is an urgent communiqué from the War Office. If a sledge drawn by Seagoon RN should arrive at the transit camp in Melbourne, will the commanding officer please redirect him to the Antarctic base. Sellers: Here is a further message. If a hollow Christmas pudding on wheels should report to the British Embassy in Calcutta, will they please shoot the driver.
The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition was led by British explorer Vivian Fuchs (later Sir Vivian, after the success of this expedition) and traversed the continent of Antarctica over the course of three years from 1955 to 1958.
Milligan: Land ahead! Seagoon: Hear that? They've sighted the Thurston ice shelf. Gad, in a few days we'll be at the base with the pudding. What a thrill it will be. I can see Dr Fuchs' face now. Bloodnok: You've got damned good eyesight.
Fuchs was joined by Sir Edmund Hillary, he of Everest fame. The pair each led a team that crossed Antarctica in opposite directions, meeting at the South Pole. Hillary’s team arrived on 3 January 1958, becoming just the third group to make it to the pole, after Roald Admundsen’s and Robert Falcon Scott’s teams in 1911 and 1912, respectively. Fuchs arrived on 19 January, before continuing along the path Hillary had laid.
Now you know.
And on that note, a very merry Christmas and custard to you all.