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The Mighty Wurlitzer

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

The year is 1956, and young Ned Seagoon wants to pursue a career as an organ player – “another Reg the Dixon, another Sandy the MacNabs”*. Unfortunately, he’s so bad that he is forced to leave home.

Greenslade: We left a light in the window – nothing much happened, except the house burnt down.

Fortunately, a new career soon opens up to him: breaking the land speed record in a Wurlitzer organ.


Episode 16 of the sixth series of the Goon Show kicked off 1956 with a bang. It’s one of my favourite episodes and contains some great jokes and wonderful sound effects – see below. It was broadcast on 3 January 1956 and the Radio Times listing is here.


Ned is up against the speed talents of Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, who plan to pilot the Festival Organ (I assume the monster instrument from the Royal Festival Hall in London) across Daytona Beach in another record attempt.

The Royal Festival Hall with organ in the centre - it's pretty big.

What’s more, Ned is soon confronted by those two scoundrels, Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty. The latter is subtley debuting a future hit, by entering singing the first line of 'I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas'. It's the first time we've heard this, but its full glorious first airing is still a few episodes away...

Grytpype: Allow me to introduce my heavily-oiled friend here, Count Fred Moriarty, crack leather bucaine player and voted Mr Thin Legs of 1912. Moriarty: Correction please, Mr Thin Leg. Grytpype: Leg? Moriarty: Yes, I only entered one.

The fiendish pair aim to sabotage Ned's attempt and to use the scrap metal to sell as armaments to the Egyptians. Of course.


At the time, Britain and Egypt had just granted Sudan (previously part of Egypt) independence. British troops were preparing to withdraw from the Suez Canal region - but would soon return during the Suez Crisis of late 1956. But that's a story for another day.

Moriarty: Now Bloodnok, remember, loosen all the nuts and bolts so that when he is travelling at speed the whole organ falls to pieces. Bloodnok: Thank you for telling me the plot.

Upon arriving at Daytona Beach, Florida – where several land speed record attempts were made in real life in the early 1900s – Neddie reveals that he plans to play ‘Twelfth Street Rag’ for his record attempt. It’s the fastest tune in the world, or so he says. You may recognise it, although it doesn’t actually appear in this episode.



Just to be sure, Moriarty and Grytpype persuade Neddie to sabotage Crun’s organ by planting a bomb, helped by Major Bloodnok (are you keeping up with all this?). Bluebottle refuses to help due to fear of deading – he’s obviously learning, at last. Of course, Ned’s organ has also been sabotaged and falls to bits, only for him to jump into the other organ’s driving seat.

Greenslade: And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how Neddie Seagoon broke the world altitude record for organs.
 
Wurlitzer parked at Berlin Musical Instrument Museum

This show is a great example of the amazing ‘sound pictures’ that the effects team at the BBC were encouraged to make by Spike Milligan.


As Milligan lamented on many occasions, before the Goon Show aired the BBC’s sound effects department barely expanded beyond a door opening or footsteps on gravel. When they were asked to replicate the sound of a Wurlitzer organ accelerating and changing gear and key at the same time, they were somewhat stretched.


As Spike told the ‘At Last The Go On Show’ radio documentary in 1991, “it certainly woke them up backstage” when he would ask for things like “the sound of a wall going at speed”.


In the same documentary, Eric Sykes goes into more depth:

They did some brilliant tricks. The sound effects boys were probably the hardest worked sound effects boys that ever were. But they loved it. They really loved it, because they had something to do besides open and close a door. The effect of the effects was something that is lacking today. I think in radio what is lacking is that they’re not creating pictures. You are transported. That is what radio is good at – and the Goon Show did it.

(Eric Sykes, from ‘At Last The Go On Show’ documentary, broadcast 1991)


Incidentally, the reference to opening and closing a door doesn’t mean the effects team doubled as doormen. For some radio shows of this era (and in fact for a long time afterwards) there was literally a door on the stage with a series of knockers and bells that the effects person would use at the appropriate time.


In my transcript excerpts, I use the abbreviation "FX" for any effects provided by the team. However, strictly speaking, pre-recorded sound effects are referred to in scripts as "grams", while "FX" refers to sounds supplied live in the studio, such as the aforementioned door.


Often there was a lot more than just a door to do this: here’s a great short film demonstrating how effects were made for a US radio drama from the late 1930s.



And speaking of films, here’s an interview with Reg the Dixon about his career playing the Mighty Wurlitzer.


 

Title: The Mighty Wurlitzer

Series 6, Episode 16

Broadcast: 3 January 1956

Written by: Spike Milligan

Producer: Peter Eton

Available on: BBC Radio Collection Volume 15: The Goons at Christmas; The Goon Show Compendium Volume 4

 

* I puzzled over this reference for quite some time. Reg Dixon is clearly the organ player, but Sandy McNabs is Cockney rhyming slang for crabs (pubic lice). Another example of the Goons getting a rude joke past the BBC censors. It probably annoyed Sandy MacPherson, another famous organist of the period, although Grytpype and Moriarty did try to redeem themselves with a pun later on in the episode.

Moriarty: What's a cinema organist doing in the Sahara Desert? Grytpype: It might be Sandy on holiday. Moriarty: It's always sandy on holiday in the Sahara.

Image of Royal Festival Hall sourced from Wikipedia, credit: Ungry Young Man from Vienna, Austria.

Wurlitzer image also sourced from Wikipedia.

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