Pull up a bollard
Seagoon: I just read your offer in the paper about the Marie Celeste. Grytpype: That was inserted in 1910, 44 years ago! Seagoon: My paperman has a big round. Grytpype: Your paperman has a big round what?
On 16 November 1954, the Goons revealed exclusively for Home Service listeners the true story behind the strange case of the ship, the Mary Celeste. Spy it off the port bow on page 22 of the Radio Times.
What do Crun, Bannister and Co., the Deptford shipwrights, know of the mystery of the Marie Celeste? And why is Admiral Bloodnok so anxious to withhold Admiralty Charts from Neddie Seagoon? And who is the Mysterious Philanthropist offering £5,000 for information about the Marie Celeste? And did Crun, Bannister and Co. really build the missing ship? And who were the original members of the crew masquerading under the pseudonyms of Bluebottle, Throat, Bogg, Eccles, Yakamoto, Eidelberger, Headstone, and Grytpype-Thynne?
(from the Radio Times listing, page 22, issue 1618, published 12 November 1954)
The real Mary Celeste mystery is a weird one, and one most will have heard about. The American-Canadian ship was found abandoned and adrift near the Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean in December 1872.
There really was no sign of a struggle, just wear and tear from being abandoned for more than a week based on the last entry in the ship’s log. The lifeboat was missing, as was paperwork and navigational instruments. A pump was dismantled, but the cargo of barrels of industrial alcohol was virtually intact – proving that Major Bloodnok wasn’t present. Contrary to legend, the table was not set for lunch, as some accounts (certainly the ones I’ve read) state.
You’ll notice I’ve changed spelling, too. ‘Marie’ is incorrect, apparently, and its widespread use is blamed at least partly on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a story based on the discovery of the boat in The Cornhill Magazine, published in January 1884 and available here. A far more accurate and well-researched article about its probable fate was published by Smithsonian Magazine in 2007 and is well worth a read.
Interestingly, the Mary Celeste remained in service until it was deliberately wrecked off the coast of Haiti in 1885 as part of an attempted insurance fraud.
In my view, the Goons’ explanation is the most credible.
Ned Seagoon is intrigued by a newspaper advert offering a £5,000 reward for information about the fate of the Marie Celeste’s crew (I’m going to stick with that spelling for now). He contacts the advertiser, one Hercules Grytpype-Thynne.
Seagoon: So this was the author of a thousand sea sagas. He was a tall, vile man dressed in the naval uniform of a sea-going sailor. Under his left arm he held a neatly rolled anchor, while with his right he scanned the horizon with a pair of powerful kippers. Grytpype: Ahoy! Seagoon: Ahoy! Grytpype: Ahoy! Pull up a bollard.
What doesn’t come across here is Peter Sellers’ pronunciation of the word “bollard” – it’s to rhyme with ‘bollock’. Seagoon’s instantaneous “Pardon?” is glorious comic timing to emphasise the gag and spook the censors.
During each scene transition the orchestra plays a short but stirring nautical theme, followed by Peter Sellers saying “and now…” in an American accent. This music gets faster and faster each time it is played, demonstrating how Milligan and Sykes were starting to experiment with musical gags as well as word-based.
Next, Seagoon contacts Admiral Dennis Bloodnok. (Is it ‘Dennis’ or ‘Denis’? I’m never sure. Answers on a piece of batter pudding.)
Seagoon: Admiral, I was told that you had associations with the ill-fated Marie Celeste. Bloodnok: All lies, do you hear me? Lies! I was in Bangalor at the time. I deny every word, she's lying I tell you! Lying! And so is Alice Girth and Mary Thula, and all the other women I molested! They're all after my piggy bank, do you hear me?!
Bloodnok suddenly remembers a map reference – “latitude 38"20 north, longitude 17"15 west” – which Seagoon soon discovers is at sea. It’s actually fairly accurate, too – those coordinates are somewhere between the Azores and Portugal, where the boat was indeed discovered.
Next stop for Seagoon is a shipwright in Deptford, run by Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister. While he’s on his way there, Bloodnok calls ahead to tell Crun of his imminent visitor – only he decides that the reward is only £4,000. Keep an ear on this, dear listener.
Crun and Bannister are having a sing-off, with Crun trying to out-do Minnie’s scat-jazz singing with loud renditions of ‘Rule Britannia’. Seagoon refers to them as “Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth”, a popular singing duo of the 1940s.
Seagoon: Is this the shipyard of Crun, Bannister and Crun? Crun: Yes. Bannister: Yes. Crun: And yes. Seagoon: Then this firm built the Marie Celeste. Crun: Yes, I did. Seagoon: You did? Oh, come now, the Marie Celeste was built over a hundred years ago! Crun: Oh, then it must be my day off.
Crun is tasked with building a second Marie Celeste to re-enact the voyage. He calls Eccles – who is also in on the plot, but doesn’t seem to remember – who gathers the crew. It’s here the reward falls each time it’s passed on: Crun tells Eccles it’s £3,000, Eccles tells the crew it’s £1,000, and by the time it reaches the cabin boy…
Bluebottle: I have just been tolded there's a reward of 17 [shillings] and nine-pence, and an extra bob a week if we live.
For those who are interested, according to the National Archives’ currency converter, we’ve gone from the modern-day equivalent of about £119,000 down to £21.
And so the scene is set to re-enact the mystery.
Greenslade: Ned Seagoon hurried back to the author who was offering £4,000 reward - Seagoon: £5,000! Greenslade: I've got to live as well. Anyway, Ned Seagoon informed Admiral Grytpype-Thynne of the progress he had made and that he, Ned Seagoon, was preparing to re-sail the ill-fated voyage again. Seagoon: Correct, we sail today. Greenslade: Now here is a gale warning. Seagoon: We sail tomorrow.
Off they go towards the last recorded location of the Marie Celeste. They are due to meet naval vessel the HMS Gladys, whereupon Grytpype-Thynne will furnish Seagoon with the reward. Seagoon tries to get the crew to tell him what happened, but they avoid him.
Seagoon: What is the mystery of the Marie Celeste? Bluebottle: Nay, nay! There is a 17 and nine-pence reward and until I get it not a word shall pass my lips. Ties himself to mast and waits for 50 lashes. Seagoon: Here's your 17 shillings and nine-pence. Now out with it! Bluebottle: Hee-hee-hee! Thank you. Takes out 17-and-nine-penny piece, which is no bigger than a tanner. Puts it in rough sea man's purse. Prepares to tell mystery. When we were - Hee! Sees Admiral out of corner of eye, good job that I have got square eyes.
Bluebottle runs off to hide in a cannon, a fact only discovered when Eccles fires it, resulting in this week’s deading – although Bluebottle decides not to be deaded when he remembers his money, and exits to spend it at the canteen instead.
Still no luck for Ned, until he corners Bloodnok in his cabin (marked “ladies only”).
Bloodnok: I'll tell you what happened. When we sailed the original Marie Celeste, we made rafts… Then we set the table, left everything as it was, then we quietly slipped over the side, and thud me gripkins that's really what happened. Isn't that right me-hearties? Cast: Aye! Seagoon: But why did you do it? Bloodnok: Because we knew that one day someone would offer a reward for the solution of the mystery, and by thunder it's happened. Hasn't it me-hearties? Cast: Aye! Seagoon: But why couldn't you have just told me, why come all this way? Bloodnok: They would never believe us, lad. How some people can doubt me, me the very soul of honesty. Isn't that right me-hearties? [Silence]
However, the reward is not forthcoming. HMS Gladys has been abandoned, with no sign of what happened to the crew. Perhaps someone will offer a £5,000 reward for answers…?
Title: The Mystery of the Marie Celeste – Solved!
Series 5, Episode 8
Broadcast: 16 November 1954
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
Bollard image by Berto Vazquez from Pexels. Marie Celeste image from Smithsonian Magazine.