That tiger's got flu
In early 1955, Britain was in the grip of a “big freeze” that saw thick blankets of snow covering much of the country. Many villages were cut off, and the RAF was called in to supply these areas through Operation Snowdrop.
This film from Pathe News gives some indication of the scale of the snow problem. There is no sound.
By mid-March, then, it’s hardly surprising that people were fed up with the snow – and so Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes concocted a wonderful comedic notion of boxing it all up and mailing it overseas.
‘The White Box of Great Bardfield’ was broadcast on 15 March 1955 at the usual time of 8:30pm on the BBC Home Service.
In the little Essex hamlet of Great Bardfield, a tiger with influenza is mounting guard over a mysterious white box. What is the secret of the box of Bardfield—does it contain the dreaded International Christmas Pudding or is it really full of priceless Essex snow?
(from the Radio Times, issue 1635, page 24, published 11 March 1955)
The episode begins with a sly dig at the departing head of the BBC Light Programme, Kenneth Adam. Adam had held this post since 1950, and as such was – in the Goons’ eyes, at least – responsible for the old-fashioned and corny variety-based comedy it often broadcast.
Milligan: I say, can you tell me what is it that has eight wheels and flies? Sellers: What is it that has eight wheels and flies? Milligan: Yes, what is it that has eight wheels and flies? Sellers: I don't know. What is it that has eight wheels and flies? Milligan: Two corporation dust carts. Sellers: I don't wish to know that! […] Secombe: And so ends a farewell tribute to Kenneth Adam from his dear friends in the highly esteemed Goon Show!
In 1955, Adam left the BBC to join ITV, although he was to return to the Beeb two years later as controller of programmes for television.
For this episode, we find Ned Seagoon – son of the legendary escapologist Houdini (Orchestra: ta-da!) – attempting to free himself from chains in order to win a reward of 10 shillings. He will spend the entirety of this episode trying to do this, and indeed will still be at it at the start of the next episode in a week’s time, as one of several memorable running gags in this episode.
Seagoon: I'll be free in a second. Ray Ellington: Man, you said that 13 hours ago. Seagoon: I'm just teasing you. Ellington: Well I'm just going home. Seagoon: Oh no you don't! Have that 10 shillings ready. I'll be free in a trice. Remember, nothing can hold Ned, son of Houdini! [Orchestra: Ta-da] Seagoon: Thank you.
Moriarty discovers Seagoon (“What is this chain-covered Charlie in the gutter?”) and invites him inside via a bell next to a centrally heated brass nameplate concealed under the tail of Moriarty’s shirt. And that’s before we get to Grytpype-Thynne’s entrance.
Seagoon: The stranger pressed a button in his trousers. A bookcase swung back revealing a plastic mule rest. From it he took out a volume. Rapidly he turned to page nine. On it was a drawing of a door marked Scotland. He knocked. [FX: Knocking on door] [Grams: Bagpipe music] Grytpype: Otch oye, otch oye.
Such is the metaphysical nature of the Goon universe. Gooniverse, if you will.
Recurring gag #2 involves the continuing removal and replacement of kilts, illustrated by the sound of ripping material and a high-pitched “whoop!” from Seagoon. Recurring gag #3 involves tigers, influenza, and footwear.
[FX: Tiger growling] Seagoon: [Gulps] A tiger? […] Don't let it come near me! Grytpype: Why not? Seagoon: I've got flu. Grytpype: Down pussy, put the little man down. Seagoon: Why is that tiger wearing brown boots? Grytpype: His black ones are at the menders.
We soon learn that the tiger has flu too, and it’s no wonder with all the snow around. Fortunately, a plot emerges courtesy of Grytpype and Moriarty, who place Seagoon in possession of all the snow in England and persuade him to ship it to the Sudan, where we’re told they’ve never seen snow.
Henry Crun is the only person who can pack snow for shipping, but of course “you can’t get the wood, you know”.
Crun: Poor old Jim Tigernuts. Seagoon: Jim Tigernuts? What about him? Crun: He couldn't get the wood either. He had to put 'em in cardboard boxes. Seagoon: What was he? Crun: An undertaker.
Crun and Bannister (who is convinced that “we’ll all be murdered in our beds”) get into another argument, prompting Minnie to go to bed – inside their pet tiger. Who, of course, has flu.
Greenslade: Ladies and gentlemen. A word to listeners who may have been perplexed by the recurring appearance of a tiger with influenza. The RSPCA have asked me to point out that on no account would they permit the employment of a tiger in a poor state of health. The tiger appearing on this programme has not got flu, but is just acting the part of a tiger with flu.
Down at the docks where they are preparing to load up the boxes of snow onto a ship, Seagoon meets Eccles, who also has a tiger with flu and two pairs of boots, but little else to offer the mission. Never fear – enter Bluebottle!
Seagoon: Has anyone here got a ship for hire? Bluebottle: Yes I have! Enter Blunebottles. Sticks head through porthole, cops dirty big bosun's spanner on nut. Splun! Oo-er, I don't like this game.
Bluebottle is about as useful as Eccles was, demonstrating his rocket ship by letting it zoom off without him.
Bluebottle: There it goes. Seagoon: Why aren't you on it? Bluebottle: Because... Hmmm, the ship has gone. Thinks: Then what is Bluebottle standing on? [FX: Splash] Bluebottle: Oyyyy! Help! I'm drownded in the deaded water. Look! All the silver paper's come off my cardboard cutlass. My best trousers is wetted. This means I'll have to wear Mum's old drawers while they dry.
By the magic of the Ray Ellington Quartet, Seagoon finds himself in the Sudan with 400 boxes of snow ready for exhibiting, with the aid of Major Bloodnok. Bloodnok is the only thing that mars this episode in my eyes, with a couple of unnecessary racial slurs in his lines as he attempts to make off with a pair of solid gold scissors.
Seagoon pronounces the box of British snow open, only to find that someone has stolen all the snow and replaced it with water.
Fortunately, this water will sell for a fortune in the Sahara, and Bloodnok has the camels and provisions to sell to Seagoon to transport it.
Seagoon: January the 8th. Nearly there. Very, very excited. Expect to make a fortune selling my cardboard boxes of water to natives. Bloodnok: Travelled all night to avoid sun. Eccles: I travelled all day to avoid the moon. Grytpype: I travelled by train to avoid Eccles. Seagoon: I travelled by Eccles to avoid the train.
Neddie & Co bring the water to the city of El Pong, where the Sheikh (played by Ray Ellington) explains they’re all in desperate need of water. Alas! Upon opening the boxes, the water has been replaced by steam, and Seagoon is ruined again.
Grytpype: Neddie, I know a place where they'll pay anything for old cardboard boxes. Seagoon: Where? Grytpype: England. Seagoon: What do they want them for? Grytpype: Well, you see the idea is, they, they pack snow into them and ship them to the Sudan... Seagoon: No! No, leave me alone. Leave me alone!
And Seagoon disappears into the audio distance still trying to escape from his chains.
Interestingly, Great Bardfield – a village in the north of Essex that was home to several notable artists during the 1950s – is actually mentioned only once in the episode, when Greenslade introduces part two.
The White Box of Great Bardfield
Series 5, Episode 25
Broadcast: 15 March 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton
Cardboard box photo by RODNAE Productions via Pexels.