Warning: I started writing this while suffering from the Covid-type lurgy. Please wash your eyes before and after you read this, and carry a gas stove over your head. No wait, that’s 'Scradje', and we haven't got to that one yet.
Moriarty: Remember you must walk backwards. Seagoon: Why? Moriarty: It's all the rage.
This brief exchange is, I believe, the first indication that Spike Milligan is composing a certain song. More of this in the next episode.
‘The Choking Horror’ is a classic Goon-ish plot, although for some reason it is rarely held up as a classic episode in its own right. Buildings are growing hair, Seagoon investigates, Grytpype and Moriarty attempt to swindle him. #spoileralert. There aren’t so many gags, and the hit rate isn’t as high as many of series six’s episodes, which may explain why it's not as remembered as, for instance, 'Tales of Old Dartmoor'.
Sellers: Ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, we present a masterpiece. From the socks of Terence Rattigan, we bring you a book originally scored for viola, harpsichord and E-flat Appian Way. Entitled 'The Choking Horror'.
I always thought Terence Rattigan was just a play on Spike's name (Terence Milligan), which goes to show how much of an uncultured oaf I am. Rattigan was a writer for stage and screen, whose work included The Sleeping Prince – I mention that particular play only because it shares its name with a seventh-series Goon Show episode.
The Appian Way, meanwhile, is a famous Roman road that runs from Rome to Brindisi. Milligan and Secombe likely came across it – and maybe even travelled on it – during their wartime escapades in Italy. Its appearance here may be a precursor to a naughty joke that Milligan and Larry Stephens later snuck into the script for ‘The Histories of Pliny the Elder’ (Series 7 Episode 25).
Greenslade: Through the catacombs our heroes managed to reach the great water pipe that runs under the Via Appia. Known, of course, in the Army as the famous Appia Pipe.
(from ‘The Histories of Pliny the Elder’, Series 7 Episode 25, broadcast 28 March 1957)
This week sees Neddie Seagoon take up the mantle of Home Office Trichologist – someone who specialises in “the science of the structure, function and diseases of the human hair”, according to the Institute of Trichologists.
Grytpype and Moriarty acquire his services to investigate strange happenings throughout London, beginning with Tower Bridge.
Seagoon: Just a minute, exactly who are you? Grytpype: I'm exactly Superintendent Grytpype-Thynne of criminal records. Seagoon: Got any of David Whitfield’s?
Singer David Whitfield was the butt of a few gags in the sixth series, probably because he was having more chart success than Harry Secombe at the time. ‘My September Love’ reached number 3 in March 1956, his 10th top-10 hit since October 1953.
Seagoon discovers a “strange follicular growth” on the stanchions of Tower Bridge, and so takes parts of the bridge away to examine at his laboratory. To his disappointment he is not allowed to take the attractive blonde policewoman.
The other side of Max Geldray, the portions of bridge are delivered by Eccles.
Seagoon: Shut up Eccles. Eccles: Shut up Eccles! […] Wait a minute, you can't talk to me like that. Do you know who I am? Seagoon: No I don’t. Eccles: I'll have you know, I'm the financial adviser to the British government. Seagoon: I thought it must be somebody like you.
There was growing discontent in certain circles over the percieved profligacy of the government, judging by many news headlines from around the time. I say, Eccles for Chancellor.
Neddie calls in the help of barber Henry Crun, cueing a Crun-and-Bannister dialogue that gets even more risqué than we’re used to by now. Minnie walks like Marilyn Munroe, and cries “missing you already, Larry” – a reference that has passed me by. It might be a reference to Marilyn Munroe meeting Laurence Olivier around this time, but as it was right at the start of the process for their 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl I am very likely to be wrong.
Regardless, the conversation between Minnie and Henry attracted the attention of the censors.
(from the Daily Herald, 15 February 1956)
It doesn’t really detract from what was broadcast.
Crun: Stop that sinful modern singing Min. You’re driving me mad with that, oh, with that sensuous veleta you’re doing. Bannister: You’re corny buddy. Red hot rhythm, red hot rhythm, yakka brown power! [FX: Door opens] Seagoon: Mr Crun, back to your own bed! Miss Bannister, remove that feather duster and get dressed.
Crun correctly identifies the hair growing from Tower Bridge – and so we (finally) get to a plot of sorts. Grytpype and Moriarty decide to liquidate the bridge and turn it into a paste to sell to bald men.
However, the “choking horror” of hair sprouting from monuments is spreading. Seagoon takes the case to parliament.
Seagoon: Yes, honourable members of parliament, well you may murmur rhubarb in 'The Choking Horror' part six, but it doesn’t alter the fact that in the past 10 months the following buildings have also been declared hairy: The National Gallery, St Pauls, Nelson’s Column, the Windmill Theatre.
The last name attracts gasps of horror, the implication being that most of the MPs will be frequent visitors to this venue where several performers of the day cut their teeth – Harry Secombe among them – in between tableaux of naked women. The punters were rarely there for the comedy.
Graham Sutherland turns up again, almost exactly a year after his mention in ‘The Sinking of Westminster Pier’:
Bloodnok: The Albert Hall is a dreadful sight its hair is hanging down its back. Bannister: That's nothing - Graham Sutherland's portrait of Sir Winston Churchill is completely hidden. Churchill (Sellers): Thank heavens for that.
We are then treated to an argument between MPs about what kind of haircut should be given to the Albert Hall, interrupted briefly by an MP saying something about a war with someone or other.
As we descend further into Goonish chaos, it is revealed that St Paul’s Cathedral is going bald and so should be fitted with a hat. What’s worse is that the hairy buildings are going grey due to the stress of bombing raids.
Never fear! Here is Captain Hugh Jampton to further explain the plot.
Jampton (Sellers): Gentlemen, the secret service has discovered the reason for our hairy buildings. Just before the war, German saboteurs painted them with a secret hair-growing paint which turns silver grey. Moriarty: So that's why the zeppelins have been able to bomb them in the dark. Jampton: Exactly. But we foiled their little plan with an ingenious counter move. Gentlemen, every grey-haired building is now wearing a bowler hat.
The enemy will not be so easily fooled. That well-known German spy Justin Eidelburger recruits Moriarty and Grytpype to remove the hats in return for access to the secret supply of hair-growing paint.
The pair head straight for the vat of the liquid on the roof of the Air Ministry – which has just been vacated by Bluebottle, the boy scout having fallen in it and spilled it all over himself and the roof. Meaning the Air Ministry is the only thing visible to the incoming air raid. For once, Bluebottle has escaped the dreaded deading – no such luck Moriarty and Grytpype.
Seagoon: And so perish all enemies of the King.
It’s a classic explosive ending to an underappreciated Goon Show script. The gags aren’t as quickfire as other episodes, sure, but the final third is pure Goonery.
Greenslade: Of course, that was 40 years ago. Those years of wearing tight bowlers caused premature baldness in the buildings. And if you don't believe us, go and see St Pauls today – it hasn't got a hair on its head.
‘The Choking Horror’ was adapted by Maurice Wiltshire for the eighth episode of the first series of Telegoons, broadcast on 28 December 1963.
Those paying close attention to the closing credits of the radio episode will note that Bruce Campbell was conducting the orchestra this week, as he was last week. Join us for the next episode of this series when no one will be conducting the non-existent orchestra...
The Choking Horror
Series 6 Episode 22
Broadcast: 14 February 1956
Written by: Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens
Producer: Pat Dixon
St Paul's image sourced from Wikipedia.