Reclaiming Manhattan for the Empire (kind of)
On 29 November 1955, the Goons journeyed to the United States for episode 11 of the sixth series.
Those of you who are reading every word I write with rapt attention will realise we’ve skipped ahead a couple of episodes since ‘Shangri-La Again’, which was episode eight.
Episode nine was ‘The International Christmas Pudding’, which I wrote about in December. Episode 10, ‘The Pevensey Bay Disaster’, was initially scheduled for broadcast on 22 November 1955, but a fatal train crash on the day the episode was recorded led to the decision to postpone the broadcast as the main plot point was a train crash.
In its place, the BBC broadcast a repeat of ‘China Story’, the 17th episode of the series five that was an instant fan favourite. ‘The Pevensey Bay Disaster’ was eventually broadcast at the end of the sixth series in April 1956, while the script was re-recorded and broadcast as the 15th episode of the sixth series on 27 December 1955. I hope you’re keeping up with all this – there will be a test afterwards.
Back to episode 11, ‘The Sale of Manhattan’. The listing is on page 24 of the week’s Radio Times, where you can also spot Goon guests Charlotte Mitchell and Kenneth Connor appearing alongside Eric Barker in Just Fancy at 9:45pm.
Meanwhile, page 6 has a short piece on our favourite harmonica-playing Goon, Max Geldray. Speaking of music, page 9 also has a feature on The Stargazers, the vocal harmony group that provided a third musical interlude in the early days of the Goon Show.
But I was going to write about ‘The Sale of Manhattan’ – or, as it is announced by Neddie Seagoon at the start, ‘The Lost Colony’.
Sellers: It was the spring of nineteen-crid-naught-hundred-and-thewls. The place, the Karl Marx room at the Athenaeum Club in Commercial Road. Inside were gathered important men, men of letters, letters like, "Dear Sir, my daughter tells me..." In one corner of a room, surrounded by a friend, was Sir Neddie Seagoon, Master at Arms, Doctor of Legs, and Stoke Newington twit. They are listening to the wireless set. Milligan (on radio): [Maniacal laughter] [FX: Gunshot] Greenslade (on radio): You have just heard the Right Honourable RA Butler on the financial prospects for the coming year.
RA Butler was the chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, although he was coming to the end of his tenure amid a period of high inflation and some questionable national budget decisions.
A rich Neddie Seagoon is persuaded by Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty that he is the rightful owner of Manhattan, worth something in the region of 40 thousand million billion dollars (“That money must be worth a fortune!”), by way of having the same junk in his pockets as was used to buy the island from the Native Americans in 1626: namely a piece of string, 11p in notes, a Mickey Mouse watch, the remains of a small boiled chicken, and a life-size statue of Sabrina.
To prove his heritage as a true Welsh-born Native American, Seagoon is further persuaded to make the crossing to the US by paddling a zinc bathtub across the Atlantic.
Seagoon: Yes, I paddled my zinc bath towards my rightful heritage. After a mere 13 months, I entered the harbour of New York and pulled into the quay. I was given an ovation, I still have it on my mantelpiece to this day. Grytpype: What Neddie didn't know was an American company, the makers of Filth Muck, the detergent with the lead bubbles, had offered a prize of $20 to the first idiot to cross the Atlantic in a zinc bath dressed as a Native American.
Our hero then contacts a true genuine native – Major Bloodnok – and gets a birth certificate to prove his heritage. This done, he proceeds to court to claim his rightful ownership of New York City’s Manhattan district.
To help, he’s employed the finest legal minds in Rockall – you remember, the tiny uninhabited rock of an island the Goons previously visited in ‘Napoleon’s Piano’ – in the shape of Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister. That is, until they find out what he’s asking them to argue for.
Crun: Your honour, we plead guilty but insane. Seagoon: I'm not insane! Crun: I'm not talking about you, I'm pleading guilty but insane. I repeat, we plead insanity. Eccles: I object! Crun: Why? Eccles: That's my excuse.
Oh woe, dear listener/reader. The case is thrown out and Ned is jailed for his trouble. For three years he plots his revenge, and eventually decides to blow up Manhattan. If he can’t have it, no one can.
Fortunately, there is an explosives expert on hand to help.
Bluebottle: I am the fearless lion-hearted Bluebottle [...] aaah-ooh! There's a caterpillar crawling up my neck! Seagoon: Don't worry, I'll get David Attenborough to take it away.
David Attenborough’s career bringing the natural world to our television screens began in the 1950s – here he is on the cover of the Radio Times from 28 September 1956.
Meanwhile, Bluebottle and Eccles head off to set the dynamite as instructed. Seagoon laughs madly at his impending revenge. Grytpype tells him to calm down, reassuring him that his records are selling well – a reference to the recent release of Harry Secombe’s debut single ‘On With The Motley’.
The song is an English translation of ‘Vesti la giubba’, an aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, and Secombe’s version reached number 16 on the UK singles chart in December 1955. I believe the Wally Stott Orchestra provided the musical accompaniment, as it did for many of his subsequent single releases.
Just as he is relaxing at this reassurance, Seagoon is informed that a legal review has confirmed that he is indeed the owner of Manhattan – just as Bluebottle and Eccles succeed in blowing it up. All that money – apparently now $4,003,008,964.16 – up in smoke. Fortunately, another Native American comes to buy it back, and offers the grand total of a piece of string, 11p in notes, a Mickey Mouse watch, the remains of a small boiled chicken, and a life-size statue of Sabrina.
Students of US history may know that Manhattan was indeed bought by Dutch colonial settlers from a local tribe, potentially the Lenape people, although I can’t find a definitive source for this and it’s not my area of expertise by a long way.
There’s some debate among historians about how much the goods that the Dutch traded for the land were worth by today’s standards, but it’s certainly not much more than a few thousand US dollars at best. Ah, colonialism.
This Live Science article from April last year casts an eye over the historical evidence to highlight the flimsy basis for the legend of how Manhattan came to be owned by Europeans. The famous letter detailing the purchase – or mentioning it, at least – can be found here courtesy of Thirteen.org.
The Sale of Manhattan
Series 6 Episode 11
Broadcast: 29 November 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
Manhattan image by Roberto Vivancos via Pexels. Manhattan island purchase illustration sourced from New Netherland Institute.