Tales of Old Dartmoor
Sellers: What is a jail break? Milligan: Answer – a brake used for stopping jails! [FX: Pistol shot]
Time to turn our attentions to one of the classics of the Goon oeuvre. Broadcast on 7 February 1956, ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ is widely regarded as one of Spike Milligan’s best scripts. The listing can be found on page 20 of this week’s Radio Times.
We kick off with a deeply niche joke about one of the pioneers of the moving image. Harry Secombe refers to Wallace Greenslade as Friese-Greene, a reference to William Friese-Greene. He was an inventor who came up with the idea of the “magic lantern” in the late 1800s, hence the mention of the “original lantern slide-type wireless Goon Show”.
This has to have been a niche joke even in the 1950s. By this point, according to no less a source than Wikipedia, Friese-Greene had slipped into cinema history obscurity. The only thing I can see that might have triggered Spike’s creativity is a few newspaper articles that appeared in 1955 on the centenary of William Friese-Greene’s birth.
In January 1956, there was a dispute involving the town hall in Chester as the council wanted to install a plaque commemorating the showing of the first moving picture by Friese-Greene. Some historians disputed the hall’s claim to fame, according to newspaper reports at the time.
Whatever the reason, the reference certainly stuck in Milligan’s mind: lantern slides cropped up again in the third episode of the seventh series, ‘The Nadger Plague’.
Greenslade: This is the story of a desperate man in prison. Seagoon: Yes, it was I. I was the governor. Question – why was I desperate? Milligan: Answer – because your record hasn't reached the hit parade!
While Harry Secombe’s single ‘On With The Motley’ reached number 16 in the charts in late 1955 – much to the mirth of his fellow Goons – the follow-up record didn’t do so well. As far as I can tell, this was a four-song EP, released with the less-than-catchy title Harry Secombe Sings Richard Tauber Favourites. Tauber was a celebrated Austrian tenor who found widespread fame in Europe before the Second World War, before coming to London in 1938 where he continued to perform to much acclaim.
Harry Secombe didn’t get a song in the charts again until after the Goons had called it a day, reaching number 18 with ‘If I Ruled The World’ – the main song from the musical Pickwick – in 1963, before scoring his biggest hit in 1967 with ‘This Is My Song’, which reached number two.
We’ve now made it to line 19 of the script. I may need to stop getting distracted if we’re to get through this before Christmas.
It is hard to do with ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ though, because there are so many good gags packed into the script. Governor Seagoon has run out of prisoners.
Superintendent (Sellers, over the phone): How many convicts have you got in? Seagoon: Well, let me see now, there’s Jim the Crazy Vicar - no, no, he escaped. There’s Meat-Axe George – no, no, no, he bought himself out. Then there’s that confidence trickster – no, he became an MP.
The governor is under pressure to find more, when Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty appear with a regiment of 1,182 crooks to help him keep his job. The newly housed criminals happily settle down to rock breaking, mailbag sewing and warder bashing, and Seagoon’s job is safe.
His job is so safe, in fact, that he’s attracting praise from “all corners of the circular globe” – a line to make any geometry fan wince – and honours are coming his way. And so we get to one of my all-time favourite Goon Show gags.
Seagoon: Look at this telegram here: […] "Good work Seagoon, please find enclosed three OBEs. Try and get shot of the other two, signed minister of OBEs. P.S. How would you like to be a peer?" Yes! I’ll be a peer. Moriarty? Moriarty: Yes? Seagoon: I’ve just made myself a peer. Moriarty: Good, I’ll get down the end of it and start a concert party. Seagoon: Come back here! It’s not that kind of peer. Moriarty: What? Seagoon: P-double-E-R, not P-I-E-R! [FX: Splash] Moriarty (far off): You swine you! Seagoon: Good heavens! He’s fallen in the wet-type water! Grytpype: Yes, you’re a very short peer, Neddie.
It's exhausting keeping up with these gags. Fortunately we have a relaxing dose of Max Geldray to calm things down a little. The gags quickly return, though.
Seagoon: Entry in prison diary. January 22nd: Convict Eccles fell into a bucket of wet cement and looks like becoming a hardened criminal. Hup! [Orchestra: Ta da]
After another of Spike’s elongated sound effect gags – this time involving Seagoon walking through echoing corridors and sliding metal doors for about 45 seconds – Grytpype-Thynne requests a holiday for the prisoners in the south of France, taking the prison with them and leaving a cardboard replica in its place.
Grytpype has negotiated with “one of the governments of France” – a dig at the turbulent nature of French politics in the 1950s – to stay at the Chateau d’If, which was an actual island prison just off the coast of Marseille in the southeast, and one of the main settings of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Remember that, it might come in useful later.
And so Dartmoor Prison sets sail for the south of France. After a day or two at sea, Governor Seagoon comes across a stowaway.
Seagoon: Look here, we are full up! We’ve a maximum complement of convicts: 2,183. Bloodnok: What what what what what! 2,182, if you don't mind. One was drowned this morning. Seagoon: Drowned? How? Bloodnok: Poor lad, he tried to tunnel his way out.
Through some “heavily whispered asides”, we find out that Bloodnok, Moriarty and Grytpype are all searching for the treasure of the Count of Monte Cristo, a clue to the whereabouts of which is believed to be in the Chateau d’If. (Told you.)
Eccles: LAND AHEAD! [FX: Crash] Eccles: I shoulda said that sooner, shouldn't I?
The inmates are welcomed by Wallace Greenslade in his best terrible French accent (does that make him Wallace Vertslade?) and they set about wrapping up the bricks of their prison and enjoying their holiday, while Moriarty and Grytpype set about the floor of the Chateau d’If’s basement in search of treasure. At last – success! A wax cylinder and a gramophone to play it on.
Greenslade (scratchy audio as gramophone):This record is the clue to the treasure of Monte Cristo. Go to the prison yard where you will find, wrapped up in brown paper parcels, another prison. Re-assemble it, and you will find the treasure buried under the floor of cell number 626 in the basement.
No sooner have they figured out where to look then Seagoon reveals the twist: someone has stolen Dartmoor Prison. And so we have the wonderfully Goonish image of two prisons chasing each other across the English Channel.
Sailor (Sellers): Prison on the starboard bow! Seagoon: Gad it might be the Dartmoor! Get my telescope out of its cell. Thank you. By gad, yes it is! Moriarty: Sapristi yes! Look at that flag! It’s flying the skull and crossbones. Seagoon: Wrong. It’s a photograph of David Nixon with his arms folded!
David Nixon found fame initially in the mid-1950s as a panellist on the radio show What’s My Line?, and went on to become the first on-screen partner of Basil Brush. As you can see from this image, the skull-and-crossbones gag isn’t totally unjustified…
The nautical gunfight between the two prisons is loaded with gag after gag after gag.
Bloodnok: Stand by to repel boarders! Milligan: How do you repel boarders? Bloodnok: Stop changing the bed linen!
Eccles is shot out of a cannon at the Dartmoor, only to be shot all the way back. Christmas puddings and roast turkeys are launched at each other, giving Spike the chance to make a joke about the “parson’s nose” part of a turkey, which I have just learned is the bit just above its bottom – hence the joke:
Seagoon: Men, load all guns with roast turkey. With the parson's nose outwards! Moriarty: Sapristi you devil! With the parson's nose outwards! If you hit him with those he'll go to the bottom!
While Seagoon et al are occupied with the fight, Grytpype and Moriarty head to the basement of the Dartmoor to dig for the treasure. They find lots of it – gallons of it, in fact. Blub-blub-blub.
Greenslade: And that, dear listeners, is why the Dartmoor we know today is only a cardboard replica.
The Prince and the Prison
Construction of the actual HM Prison Dartmoor began in 1806, with the first prisoners arriving in 1809. It originally housed prisoners of war, with thousands of French and American men crowded into the buildings. At the end of the war the prisoners were repatriated and the prison shut down in 1816, before reopening as a domestic jail in 1850.
Late in the First World War it became a labour camp for conscientious objectors, with residents given more freedom but performing the same tasks as regular inmates. Nowadays Dartmoor calls itself a prison for low category inmates with a focus on training them and providing them with rehabilitation. Read more on the Dartmoor Prison Museum website.
There have recently been discussions about closing the prison from next year, but this idea appears to have been abandoned, as per the BBC in December 2021. Fun fact: the prison is technically owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, i.e. Prince Charles.
‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ was adapted by Maurice Wiltshire for episode 5 of the second series of the Telegoons, broadcast on 25 April 1964.
A final note: Bruce Campbell conducts the orchestra for the first time this episode. He’ll be back again in the next episode as pay negotiations involving musicians continue.
'Tales of Old Dartmoor'
Series 6, Episode 21
Broadcast: 7 February 1956
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
Image of William Friese-Greene sourced from Wikipedia. Photo of the Chateau d'If by Philippe Alès, sourced from Wikipedia. Image of an MP sourced from the Beeb. Photo of Dartmoor Prison by Andrew Rabbott, sourced from Wikipedia.