Okay all you Covid-19 conspiracy nuts, this one’s for you. I’ve been looking forward to writing about this episode.
Many readers will have heard someone claim to be suffering from “lurgi” (sometimes “lurgy”), as a way of saying they feel under the weather without having a specific diagnosis. I always wonder whether they are aware where it comes from? Well, it comes from the seventh episode of the fifth series of the Goon Show, first deemed fit for public consumption on 9 November 1954.
(This isn’t quite true. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word was used since the 18th century to mock lazy people as suffering from the “lurgy”, and re-emerged in the 1940s. However, its modern meaning was popularised by the Goons.)
The Dreaded Lurgi struck Britain for the first time on 9 November 1954, and it was the first episode co-written by Eric Sykes.
Poor old Neddie – Doctor Seagoon, as he is this week – is picked out by Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty. In this, one of the first times this duo has properly teamed up to bully Seagoon, they urge him to help find a cure for a mysterious illness, the main symptom of which is to suddenly blurt out EEEE-YAKABOO for no reason.
Sykes and Milligan had recently begun sharing an office above a greengrocer in Shepherd’s Bush, London, and created a writers’ collective, Associated London Scripts.
One of Sykes’ many talents as a writer was to be able to adapt his style to fit the people he was writing for. From his early work with Frankie Howerd, to the Goons, to his own TV series and films, he shifted seamlessly from one to the other.
“Poor Arnold Fringe is suddenly stricken with the Dreaded Lurgi in a Lancashire bus. No doctor can find an antidote. Even Dr Neddie Seagoon, twice struck off the register, is baffled. Every known cure is sought, but without success. Within a few days Lurgi has claimed nine thousand victims. Isolation bays are set up and Lancashire is hastily evacuated. Then, one black night, that none of the Albert Hall audience will ever forget, Lurgi reached London!”
(from the Radio Times listing, page 20, issue 1617, published 5 November 1954)
To the episode itself.
Greenslade: The story that follows is rather complicated. So to avoid complications we open with Act Three, Scene One, Part Two, the same afternoon, enter a human being. Seagoon: My name is Ned Seagoon. [FX: Falling bomb followed by explosion] Seagoon: Curse.
This bomb is never explained, but falls whenever Seagoon introduces himself. Later in the episode, he persuades Bluebottle to introduce himself as Neddie Seagoon - the rotten swine that he is - deading him "before we've even started the game".
Moriarty regales Dr Seagoon with the tale of how lurgy has struck in Oldham. A bus conductor has suddenly started saying EEEE-YAKABOO in the middle of sentences for no reason. It spreads to his doctor, his nurse, and across the town.
To tackle this crippling plague, Dr Seagoon must make contact with Dr Hercules Grytpype-Thynne. Cue one of my favourite running ‘Neddie is an idiot’ gag.
Moriarty: You must be the one. You, you and you alone, will go down in history. Think: Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie, Sir Robert Fleming* and now – you! Seagoon: I agree. But what's Lurgi got to do with me and Pasteur and the other painters?
The other side of Max Geldray, the doctors meet, with Neddie chasing dreams of fame and fortune.
Grytpype: Now, what can I do for you? Seagoon: I've come to help fight Lurgi. First Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie, Philip Harben and now, me! Grytpype: You silly twisted boy, you.
There are more than 2,000 victims of lurgi by this point. Seagoon agrees they must move fast – preferably to South America – but Grytpype urges him to stay and take the lead.
Grytpype: No, no, no. You are the one man who can save Britain. Seagoon: Yes, yes. First Lewis Carroll, Madame Tussaud, Sir Robert Boothby and now, me!
Grytpype urges Seagoon to have them transported to Blackpool from Oldham to be treated. But why doesn’t Grytpype lead the efforts himself?
Grytpype: No Seagoon lad. It must be you. Seagoon: Yes I suppose it must... First Joe Louis, then Call Me Madam, Mooney and King, and now, me!
Seagoon appears before the British Medical Council to warn them of the dangers of lurgi and encourage them to embrace his Blackpool plan. Dr Henry Crun and Dr Minnie Bannister argue between themselves about asking what lurgi actually is.
There’s a brief joke about the fact Dr Bannister is a woman, which serves to clearly date the script. It’s not as if female doctors were unheard of either: the first female physician was Elizabeth Garrett Andersen, who qualified in 1870. #doctorfact
Seagoon – at the prompting of Grytpype – declares that there is to be a charity concert in aid of the Lurgi Distress Fund at the Royal Albert Hall. It is here we learn of the true dastardly nature of Moriarty and Grytpype’s involvement, as they have paid one of the performers to suddenly develop the lurgi, crying EEEE-YAKABOO and sending the audience fleeing for the hills.
Doctor Ned heads for the Houses of Parliament to raise the issue on a national level. Here, for the first time, an unnamed politician raises the immortal question: Who is responsible for the drains in Hackney?
In the Commons – where we are also treated to Peter Sellers’ excellent impression of Winston Churchill – Seagoon reveals to MPs the cure for this terrible illness. As none of the victims play in a brass band, they should all be issued with musical instruments. Makes sense really, if you don't think about it.
Influenced once again by those villains, Moriarty and Grytpype, Seagoon places an order for four million E-flat trombones, three million euphoniums, and four million sousaphones with “Goosey & Bawkes”, instrument specialists. (This is a play on music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, which is still going strong and claims to be the world’s leading publisher of classical music, according to its website.)
Some 30 million musical instruments are loaded into planes, with Goosey & Bawkes pocketing £50 million. Major Bloodnok is tasked with leading the air mission to drop the millions of musical instruments over Blackpool, and Seagoon celebrates his triumph over the dreaded lurgi.
Greenslade: And now here is the news. Today in parliament questions were asked regarding the dropping of some 50 million [sic] brass band instruments on Blackpool late last night. There appears to be no valid reason why this strange operation was carried out. It is known to have cost the treasury well over £25 million. As a result, income tax will now be three guineas in the pound. New Scotland Yard are trying to trace a short fat man who started a rumour about a non-existent disease called Lurgi.
Gradually, the con dawns on Seagoon: Moriarty and Grytpype are Goosey and Bawkes. And now they are also very rich.
The lurgy is still with us. Just last month, multiple reports from around the UK told of patients suffering from “the worst lurgy ever”. Symptoms this time include a sore throat, chesty cough and runny nose – essentially a cold, but a stinker of a cold. It’s to be expected, given the fact that we’ve not been socialising for about 18 months. Call Dr Seagoon at once.
Title: Lurgi Strikes Britain
Series 5, Episode 7
Broadcast: 9 November 1954
Written by: Spike Milligan & Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton
* I'm not sure about this reference. The only Sir Robert Fleming I could find was a 17th century Christian minister. While there is a Robert Fleming who was president of the Royal College of Physicians in the late 1920s, this seems pretty niche for the Goons. My guess is that they meant Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.