At 8:30pm on Tuesday 6 March 1956, the Goons told the story of ‘The Fear of Wages’ – an episode that Spike Milligan later named as his favourite episode of all.
The listing for this, the 25th show of the sixth series, is here in the still abridged Radio Times. After writing much of the sixth series on his own, Spike officially welcomed back Larry Stephens as co-writer for this script, although it’s highly likely that Stephens had been helping on previous scripts too.
The story is another top-quality spoof, this time of the 1953 French film Le Salaire de la Peur – billed in English as The Wages of Fear.
Appropriately, given that I’m writing this in December, Harry Secombe informs us right at the start of the show that walking backwards for Christmas is “all the rage”, given the immediate popularity of the song performed by Milligan in the previous two episodes.
He also references East Lynne, an 1861 novel by Ellen Wood, with the now-famous line: “Dead! And never called me ‘mother’!” This apparently comes from later stage adaptations and is not mentioned in the book at all. Neither is Eccles' response: "Perhaps you were his father?"
Almost immediately, however, we are taken to Myanmar (or Burma, as it was then known).
Seagoon: [The Japanese] can't hold out much longer. Bloodnok: Oh, I don't know, this is the 14th year we've been fighting 'em. Seagoon: Don't worry, Major, they can't stand much more of your drunken singing and bottle throwing. Bloodnok: I'm only doing my duty, sir! And they'd better surrender soon, we've had no food or pay since that silly telegram. Seagoon: Telegram? What...? Give it here! [Opens note] Um, "British Forces, Burma. Japan has surrendered, end of World War II. Book now for World War III." Dated: August, 1945? Bloodnok: Yes, yes, I, well, I've never shown it to you before because it was obviously the work of a practical joker.
And so the scene is set. Bloodnok and Seagoon are members of the Third Armoured Thunderboxes (slang for portable toilet) and are valiantly fighting on against the Japanese army, which is hiding in a tree, despite peace having been declared more than a decade earlier.
It’s interesting to note that there are quite a few instances of Japanese soldiers being discovered still effectively fighting years after the official end of hostilities – in some cases, decades. By the time this was broadcast, Milligan and Stephens may have even read about some of those who surrendered on various isolated Pacific Islands from the late 1940s through to the mid-1950s.
The last confirmed Japanese soldier from the Second World War to have surrendered was, according to no less a source than Wikipedia, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda in March 1974.
However, Attun Palalin, known in the army as Private Teruo Nakamura, an Amis man from Taiwan, was discovered still holding out in December the same year. Read more about him in this All That's Interesting article published earlier this year. The Amis are an indigenous Taiwanese people, and many of their men were recruited or volunteered for the Japanese army.
But I digress. How unlike me.
As fun as this episode is, it is marred by Spike’s ridiculous mock-Japanese voice. This and other East Asian caricatures that crop up in various Goon Show episodes are painful to listen to. Wouldn’t it have been funnier to have them all speaking cut-glass English accents?
I’ve tidied up the Japanese character Yakamoto’s lines to take out the worst of it.
It’s worth persevering if you can, though, because the episode is truly very funny besides.
Yakamoto: Request, please: have unexpectedly run short of ammunition. Please, can we borrow two boxes until the end of the war? Bloodnok: You Japanese are always on the tap... You haven't returned our lawnmower yet! Yakamoto: I am very sorry, but have not finished mowing jungle. Bloodnok: No! No more credit! Clear off! Yakamoto: Then am forced to surrender. Seagoon: Surrender? This means war!
Surrender really means that Bloodnok and Seagoon take charge of Japanese stores, namely 1,000 tonnes of nitroglycerine (watch out, Bluebottle) and 2,000 cans of sake (“potent Japanese rice wine”).
We then switch scenes back to Blighty, where Grytpype-Thynne is hiding money with the aid of Moriarty. This features the brilliant moment in which Grytpype shovels £50,000 in silver into Moriarty’s mouth, only for him to spit it out in surprise after Grytpype takes a phone call.
It’s a wonderful example of the perfect comic timing the Goons reached with the sound effects team, and really needs to be heard to be fully appreciated. In fact, this episode has several great examples of how the Goons – well, Spike Milligan primarily – were pushing the boundaries of what sound effects could do.
The pair are presented with a dilemma: the Third Armoured Thunderboxes are still alive and owed £40,000 in back pay. They command Seagoon and Bloodnok to bring back all stores in order to claim their wages.
Grytpype: You can't leave all that nitroglycerine behind, Seagoon. Seagoon: I wasn't going to. I'm going to leave it behind Bloodnok. Hahaha! Ahem. Grytpype: Naughty Neddie, no adlibbing now.
And so the Third Armoured Thunderboxes must travel more than 5,300 miles on lorries carrying sake, nitroglycerine, and the tree with the Japanese army in it.
Eccles enters via an amusing gag involving him jumping off a pre-recorded conversation with Bloodnok to arrive live in the studio, and he joins in the obvious argument about who gets to drive with what.
[FX: Lorry drives away. Explosion] Eccles: A good job I wasn't on it. Seagoon: What? Then who was driving it? Bluebottle: You rotten swine, you!
It's at this point we are treated to one of Ray Ellington’s most memorable performances. The Quartet plays ‘Pink Champagne’, a song perhaps written by George Forrest and Robert Wright, but I’ve not been able to confirm this. If it’s true, then there’s a link to a later adventure for Harry Secombe: the pair wrote the musical numbers for the 1944 operetta Song of Norway, which was adapted into a film in 1970 of the same name. Among its cast was one Harry Secombe.
Throughout the performance, you can hear Ellington trying not to corpse – one can only imagine the antics the Goons were getting up to while he was singing. Question: Do we think that the addition of the sound effects towards the end of the song were planned, or did one of the cast rope the effects team into their high jinks?
Aside from one Wikipedia mention of Forrest and Wright, Henri Rene and his Orchestra seems to get most of the credit for this song from the internet. Here’s their version, an instrumental.
Max Geldray played the same tune more than once, including in ‘Lurgi Strikes Britain’ (Series 5 Episode 7).
World War III
Meanwhile, plots are afoot. Yakamoto has tricked Bloodnok into drinking nitroglycerine rather than sake, while back in London, Grytpype and Moriarty address the government. Their plot to blow up the regiment has failed – but there are other options.
Chancellor of the Exchequer (Spriggs/Milligan): I say, are you positive that this missing regiment has reappeared, and is even now on its way back to England? Grytpype: Yes, Mister Chancellor of the Exchequer. And, according to our records, their combined back pay and accrued interest amounts to £33 million.
(How’s that for inflation?)
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Oh, dear dear dear dear, this will ruin my budget. Winston Churchill (Sellers): You have already ruined it yourself.
Another example of Peter Sellers’ excellent (and controversial) Churchill impression.
The government decides to attempt to deal with this potential budgetary black hole by getting Japan to restart hostilities from their vantage point in a tree on the back of a lorry.
Almost as soon as the Japanese soldiers start firing, they run out of ammunition.
Bloodnok: Well, there's no dice here, you've had enough on tick for a month already.
I always find this very funny, the idea that these two sides have been fighting on for years after the war has ended by loaning each other ammunition in order to keep going. It also leads to the musical accounts gag, whereby the Japanese debt and payment plan are communicated in the form of musical excerpts – another example of pure Goon radio comedy.
Suddenly, the Japanese find more ammunition and the war is back on.
Seagoon: Quick, into the driving cab, it's bullet proof. Bloodnok: Splendid! We can drive on and continue engaging the enemy in that tree in the back of the lorry all at the same time. Seagoon: A magnificent exposition of the plot, Bloodnok. Bloodnok: Thank you! Seagoon: And under enemy fire, too. Bloodnok: Of course! Seagoon: Have a knighthood. Bloodnok: Oh, ta, mate.
Via what can only be described as a melee of sound effects portraying the lorry carrying World War III arriving at parliament, we, er, arrive at parliament. Note that Grytpype has upgraded the regiment to the Fourth Armoured Thunderboxes – they must have picked up another on the journey from Myanmar.
Upon arrival, however, as the nitroglycerine has already exploded and Bloodnok has drunk all the sake, Seagoon & co face the threat of no back pay.
Seagoon: What! Eccles? Get an empty bucket, quick! Now, grab Bloodnok's ankles. Bloodnok: What's going on here - Seagoon: Hold his head over the bucket. Now, shake him, come on... Greenslade: Listeners will recall that Bloodnok has not been drinking sake, but nitroglycerine. Therefore... [FX: Explosion] Greenslade: And so ended World War III. Book now for World War IV.
Thanks to Goon Pod, we can see the edits made to that scene:
All that, and – as he and Greenslade inform us – young Bluebottle was not deaded this week.
The title and the nitroglycerine plot are lifted from the 1953 film The Wages of Fear – or La Salaire de la Peur in the original French. The film, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Clouseau, anyone?) was in turn based on a novel of the same name by Georges Arnaud, published in 1950.
The plot sees four men from disparate (and desperate) backgrounds thrown together by a disreputable oil company and tasked with transporting trucks filled with explosive materials over extremely hazardous terrain, in return for a large paycheck.
Here’s the original film’s trailer:
La Salaire de la Peur won the Golden Bear at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival – the award for best film – and took home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. In 1954 it won Best Film at the BAFTAs.
None of this saved it from an English-language remake though. Violent Road was released in 1958, directed by Howard Koch – who later redeemed himself by producing Airplane! in 1980. (This may be unfair, I’m sure Violent Road is a perfectly good film – it’s just such a silly title.)
Director William Friedkin used the same story for his 1977 film Sorcerer. He claims his film is based on the original novel rather than either of the two films, though.
Listen to Goon Pod’s Tyler Adams discuss this episode with comedian and podcaster Ben Van Der Velde here, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
Title: The Fear of Wages
Series 6, Episode 25
Broadcast: 6 March 1956
Written by: Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens
Producer: Pat Dixon
BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b007jlq1