The crime of the century
Secombe: Every day sees new progress in the march of crime. Narrator (Sellers): Every 24 hours averages 367 robberies, 824 assaults, 942 murders, and three repeats of Life With The Lyons. Secombe: But only once in a hundred years is there the crime of the century. And what could the crime of the twentieth century? Eccles: The Goon Show? Secombe: Idiot! No, the crime of this century was... Bloodnok: The Great Bank of England Robbery!
On 12 April 1954, the Goons told the story of ‘The Great Bank of England Robbery’. Episode 29 was the penultimate episode of the fourth series and its listing is available here.
A rerecorded version of this show with the same title was broadcast in the UK on 20 October 1958 as part of the Vintage Goons series. The listing for this is available on page 36 if you’ll kindly fast-forward your Radio Times a few years.
The above excerpt’s mention of Life With The Lyons refers to a very successful radio and TV sitcom of the 1950s starring American actors Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, along with their two children.
Like much of the BBC’s output of the 1950s it was feared mostly lost with only three episodes in the corporation’s archive, but about 10 years ago a huge private collection of recordings was made available to the BBC and so episodes are once again being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra – alongside many episodes of the Goon Show.
The Beeb doesn’t seem to make the episodes available online, but there are 22 episodes available here.
But I digress.
Our hero, ‘Fingers’ Secombe, is called up by Moriarty wanting his help with, as you may have guessed, robbing the Bank of England.
[FX: Phone rings] Moriarty: Secombe? Secombe: Yes? Moriarty: Pick up the telephone. Secombe: Why? Moriarty: I want to speak to you on it! Secombe: Right! [FX: Phone ringing ends] Secombe: Hello? Moriarty: Is that you, Secombe? Secombe: Yes. Moriarty: I'm glad you were in!
He arrives in Grimsby, “the Bournemouth of the Orient” to meet up with Grytpype-Thynne, in the “most notorious of all the waterfront dives, Fred’s Caff”.
There, Grytpype explains the complex plan, involving decoys and a tram being lowered into the London School of Economics.
Grytpype: At the front [of the bank] will appear eight men in straw hats, alabaster feet, black faces, and carrying thirty Wurlitzer organs. Secombe: Will they play them? Grytpype: Good heavens, no. Do you think we want to arouse suspicion?
After Max Geldray’s performance of ‘Hot Toddy’ – featuring a really good harmony duet with (I think) a flute – the plot takes an unexpected turn.
Attempting to arrive undiscovered, Secombe has posted himself in a brown paper parcel. However, he gets stuck in a pillar box. Eccles tries to release him by unlocking the box, but steps in and gets locked inside. Bloodnok throws in a rope to pull them both out and, well, we suddenly have three Goons in a post box.
This whole sequence lasts several minutes and contains several signs of Spike Milligan really hitting his stride with the gag rate and experimentation with cartoonish scenarios. Eccles gets into a fight with his own echo, and he and Secombe try to climb on each other’s shoulders to reach the opening of the pillar box.
Greenslade: Listeners, may I draw your attention to this problem. Secombe gets on Eccles's back, and Eccles, half-way up a wall, stays where he is while Secombe mounts on his back and so on. What's the distance between Secombe, Eccles, and the ground? I'll tell you, it's, um... Secombe and Eccles: Aaahhhhh! [Crash] Greenslade: ... exactly. Eccles: Why don't you keep your big mouth shut?
Eventually they tunnel out of the bottom into an underground river. Fortunately for them, the script writes the river right underneath the bank. Onwards they go, closer to their goal.
Bloodnok: Now we must proceed up this secret tunnel. It leads straight to the vaults, but remember, for the next fifty yards, not a sound. [Long silence] Greenslade: Listeners, we admit that this lengthy period of complete silence cannot be regarded, properly speaking, in the category of entertainment. But as silence is necessary to the safety of these three men, we hope that you will bear with us for another few yards. [More silence] Greenslade: Thank you.
Moriarty reappears via a message on the inside of a cylindrical record to explain to them the next steps. He can’t see his notes, so jumps in a taxi to go to buy matches. In an attempt to get him back again, Secombe plays the record backwards. From the inside.
This has catastrophic consequences for Moriarty, as he calls the trio to inform them that he is "in hospital, badly scratched" as they were using a blunt needle.
Again, this is an early example of Milligan refusing to be limited in his comedy by such trivial matters as the laws of time, space, and physics. Or, as several of the Goons described it at various points, taking a situation to its illogical conclusion.
The next stage of the plan is to dynamite through the ceiling into the bank. Who else are you going to call?
Bluebottle: What do you want my lovely capitan? As if I did not know...
With a whole blown through the ceiling, at the cost of one deaded boy scout (“You have ruined my chances of entering the Junior Jetman's cardboard spacesuit contest”), Secombe and Eccles proceed up through the hole, only to find:
Secombe: Bloodnok, what are you doing here? Bloodnok: I'm waiting. Secombe: Waiting for what? Bloodnok: The next collection, we're all back in the blasted pillar box again!
Viewed in the context of knowing what else is to come, I think this is one of the strongest – if not the strongest – series four episode. It’s a true Milligan flight of fancy, messing about with perceptions and expectations to create wonderful cartoonish comedy moments and gags galore.
There’s also a call back after the end credits to episode 10 – remember Larry Stephens’ flying saucers?
Greenslade: This is "Flying Saucer" Greenslade with another warning. We would like to remind listeners who have not paid their licenses that they got this lot for nothing.
The Vintage Goons version takes a different path to get the trio into the phone box, sending Seagoon (as he has become) to a Chinese “house of certain pleasures” where Englishmen are engaging in those terrible vices: tea, toast, and marmalade.
After Seagoon is informed of the plan, the script follows the original right through to the end. Bluebottle helps them dynamite into the bank, whereupon Grytpype appears to relieve them of the money they’ve found.
Seagoon: At last, we’re rich! What a grand fellow he is. Just fancy, a toot on his whistle and we’ll all be away with our gold bullion. Bluebottle: Yes, he’s nice, isn’t he? Eccles: He’s nice. Yeah. Bluebottle: Hooray for gold bullron! Eccles: He’s gonna blow the whistle, that man. That money... Seagoon: Can you hear the whistle? Bluebottle: No. Eccles: No. Seagoon: (Clears throat.) I’ve got a nasty feeling about him. Greenslade: Ladies and gentlemen, have you got a nasty feeling about Grytpype-Thynne? Let us know. Goodnight!
This is an oddity in the Vintage Goons series in that Spike has for some reason made the ending not quite as good as the original. For most of the rest of the updated versions, he had made use of many of the lessons and tricks he’d learned in the intervening four years to improve the scripts.
That said, it’s still a classic in my view.
Title: The Great Bank of England Robbery
Series 4, Episode 29
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
Vintage Goons version
Title: The Great Bank of England Robbery
Producer: Charles Chilton
Broadcast: 20 October 1958
Post box photo by Nina Mace Photography from Pexels, parcel photo by Devanath from Pixabay, photo of Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels sourced from FamousFix.com.