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The History of Communications

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Episode 18 of series four told ‘The History of Communications’. Broadcast on 29 January 1954, the script was a mashup of two previous shows.

The first part, before Max Geldray’s musical number, is the sketch that gives the show its official name and was first used in an episode from the second series (I think). The rest of the show follows Major Bloodnok’s escapades in ‘The Siege of Khartoum’, first used in ‘The Mystery of the Cow on the Hill’ (Series 3 Episode 18).

The listing for the show is on page 42 of the Radio Times – look out for the publicity shot of “virtuoso” Max Geldray.

‘The History of Communications’ is a classic early Goon sketch. It does exactly what the title suggests, tracing communication development from talking to each other, to shouting at each other, to messages being transmitted by runners –

Greenslade: The most famous of these messengers was the Greek Goonicus, who ran 300 miles to Athens bringing news of a great victory. [FX: Running, slows and stops] Eccles: My lords, greetings. I come from the great warlord, Arnold Princiopolies. 300 leagues have I run! Over the Ionicus, down the plains of Olympus, through the snowy wastes of Sabrina, across the arid deserts of Xerxes, and I did swim the boiling waters of the Hellispont and over… Secombe: Yes, yes, yes, but the message? Eccles: Ooh, then I’ll nip back and get it.

– and on to the development of the wireless, and the telephone, which allows people to shout at each other.

'Hi, mum?'

We covered the central gag of ‘The Siege of Khartoum’ at the start of August: Bloodnok is outraged that instead of news of the relief column he is given the football results. He writes to Queen Victoria, a relief column is dispatched, and they deliver… the football results.

There’s a bit more going on, however. I’ll let the great “tragedian and twit” William McGoonigal take up the tale…

McGoonigal: ‘Twas in the year 1884 and in the month of June, That Major Bloodnok and his gallant men were besieged in Khartoum. Besieged by the Mardi’s savage men, they formed a thin red line, But the Mardi did not care at all, for he was Mardi fine. And when the news reached England, the news of this tragic thing, In parliament Mr Gladstone called an emergency meeting. And ooooooooh…

There then follows a long section in which Minnie Bannister tries to persuade MPs to discuss the fate of the Third Filthmuck Whitechapel Fusiliers, but the prime minister insists on leading a debate on rabbits that are overrunning Australia.

(This was indeed a big issue of the time – the rabbit population had exploded in Australia and was ruining farmland. Rabbits are an invasive species there. Authorities tried to give them all myxomatosis, but they developed immunity to it.)

Gladstone (Secombe): Now, are we all here? Conservatives? MP 1 (Sellers): Yes. Gladstone: Aha. Socialists? MP 2 (Sellers, different voice): Aha. Gladstone: Mm-hmm. Lib… Where’s the Liberal Party? MP 3 (Milligan): He’ll be back in a minute!

The Liberal Party went from nine seats to six at the 1951 election, compared to the Conservatives (321 seats) and Labour (295). Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

As the action shifts to Sudan, we learn that Major Bloodnok and his regiment have been stranded for quite some time.

Secombe: How’s the battle going, Major Bloodnok? Bloodnok: How should I know? I’ve been hiding in this cupboard since it started. Secombe: I know, sir. Some of the officers are saying you’re a coward. Bloodnok: Which ones? Secombe: The ones hiding under the beds. Bloodnok: What, me a coward? You see these medals, lad? Secombe: Yes, sir. Bloodnok: You know what I got them for? Secombe: No, sir, what? Bloodnok: Ten bob the lot!

Incidentally, the Siege of Khartoum was a historical event. Britain had run Egypt since 1882, and Egypt was in charge of Sudan. Some Sudanese people weren’t too happy about this, particularly the Mahdist Sudanese, which led a rebellion. The war officially lasted from 1881 to 1899, and eventually brought in the British in support of the Egyptians, as well as Ethiopia, Italy (via its ownership of Eritrea) and Congo Free State, which was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium.

But back to the serious business.

McGoonigal: But the situation in Khartoum was getting very grave, And was essential to send out a relief force, Bloodnok’s men for to save, And realising that something was very much amiss, Field-Marshal McNaafi called a conference in the Whitehall war office.

McNaafi discusses a plan with a certain Lieutenant Churchill and demands he put his cigar out. “How many times must I tell you? Oh I see, twice.”

A relief column is dispatched under the watchful/forgetful eye of Henry Crun. Cue another list of vital supplies, including:

  • 2,000 pairs of purple creosote bathroom socks with reinforced concrete knees and secret sliding panels

  • One octogenarian fruit dancer

  • 12 trained Moldavian nut lions

  • One “slightly soiled” film test of Ramon Novarro (a Mexican-American actor)

  • One life-size statue of actress Jane Russell (star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from 1953), made of jelly, with the inscription: “It must be jelly ‘cos Jane don’t shake like that”, a reference to a 1942 Glenn Miller jazz number.

Meanwhile, the Mahdi finally confronts Major Bloodnok – but is met with a typical British response.

Mahdi: I challenge you to a duel. Swords or pistols? Bloodnok: What? Neither swords nor pistols. I am an Englishman, sir and I choose the weapons of my country. Mahdi: Name them. Bloodnok: Conkers. Mahdi: Conkers? I, the great Mahdi, would never descend to the level of fighting with conkers. Bloodnok: You coward, you! Mahdi, we must settle this like men. I ask you to step outside. Mahdi: Right. [FX: Door closes] Bloodnok: Quick, now he’s outside, bolt the door. Eccles: OK. Bloodnok: Phew. That got rid of him.

As we learned with the passing reference to Aneurin Bevan in ‘The Missing Prime Minister’, in early 1954 British relations with Egypt and Sudan were tense, to say the least. While this made political references risky for entertainment programmes, Milligan and Stephens were being encouraged by producer Peter Eton to include more topical jokes. Did a reference to a siege that took place in 1884 count as topical in 1954?


Title: The History of Communications

Series 4, Episode 18

Written by: Spike Milligan & Larry Stephens

Producer: Peter Eton

Image of Churchill sourced from the Imperial War Museum’s collection. Phone photo by Moose Photos from Pexels.

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