The scene is 1942. The date is El Alamein in North Africa.
Kapitän Moriarty: Herr General Rommel, where are you? Rommel (Secombe, German): Was ist los? Moriarty: Ah, there you are. The British have broken our line. Rommel: Curse! All our washing in the mud again.
Episode six of the Goon Show’s sixth series was broadcast on the Home Service on 25 October 1955, and was the latest in the Goons’ long line of war spoofs.
As is by now customary, the episode was wrongly billed in the Radio Times on page 24 as ‘The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu Manchu’ – but that is literally a story for another day.
Many of the Goons’ best scripts (in my view) relate to war-themed episodes, and ‘Rommel’s Treasure’ is no exception. In it, a post-war Ned Seagoon retraces his steps through North Africa to locate a treasure box buried 10 feet above the ground by General Rommel himself during the Afrika Corps’ retreat.
Moriarty: Listen Herr General, it is serious. We must retreat otherwise the British will lose. Rommel: You're right. It's a shame to disappoint them after all the trouble they've been to.
Rommel escapes in James Mason’s car – Mason was a British actor who, just a few years later, played the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Lolita, in which he had the task of shooting Peter Sellers (spoiler alert).
Seagoon arrives and holds Moriarty up with a tin of spam. He leaves Eccles on watch with the codeword “habanere” and takes his prisoner to be interrogated by Major Bloodnok.
Seagoon: German officer outside sir. Bloodnok: I surrender! Seagoon: He's a prisoner sir. Bloodnok: Oh! Bring the coward and his money in.
Bloodnok relieves Moriarty of his watch (“How many numerals on the dial?” “Twelve.” “It’s mine! Mine had twelve!”) and sends him on his way.
Courtesy of a musical link and some Greenslade-type words, we travel from El Alamein in Egypt to Tobruk in Libya, five years after the war has ended.
Moriarty has teamed up with Grytpype and is trying to find the treasure, with no success. He needs the help of his old enemy, Seagoon, who is trying to teach Morris dancing to the local population – also with no success.
Seagoon enters an antiques shop run by Grytpype, who persuades him to buy a pyramid. He summons the driver to take Seagoon to visit his new purchase.
Seagoon: Captain Moriarty! I arrest you as an escaped prisoner of war. Moriarty: Sapristi gnuckles! The war's over. Seagoon: Nonsense, it's only an interval. Grytpype: Then shall we dance? [FX: Old-fashioned foxtrot]
The trio discuss Seagoon’s memory of the events of 1942, but he only seems to be able to remember one thing.
Seagoon: In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Grytpype: Yes, yes, yes, Neddie. But don't you remember anything after that? Seagoon: No, they threw me overboard.
Moriarty and Grytpype head off to visit Major Bloodnok and his maps, while sending Neddie off into the desert to be abandoned. Bloodnok obliges, aided by money, and exits singing ‘I’ll Follow My Secret Heart’ by Noel Coward.
Meanwhile, Seagoon is wandering towards what looks like a 10-foot-high pyramid…
Seagoon: Anyone behind that pyramid? Eccles (off-mic): Habenere! Seagoon: Habenere? Habenere what? Eccles: Habenere for 10 years.
Eccles has indeed been guarding that spot for a decade, giving orders to himself and mutinying against himself.
The other side of Ray Ellington, Eccles and Seagoon spot a plane flying overhead and accidentally shoot it down. The pilot, of course, is Air Ace Bluebottle, wonder-boy aviator and king of the air in his cardboard-and-string aeroplane.
Moriarty and Grytpype arrive, directed by Bloodnok, and they uncover the treasure – only to be accosted by Seagoon.
Seagoon: You devilish men. You sold me a phoney pyramid and left me in the desert to die! Moriarty: To die? I thought it was yester-die.
Moriarty and Bloodnok escape by car and head into a minefield – kaboom. The black box flies through the air and lands on Bluebottle, who is evidently not having a good day.
Grytpype: Give it to me, this gun is loaded! At last the treasure. Now I'll just lift the lid. [FX: Wooden lid lifts, music box chimes] Grytpype: Oh, a music box. Seagoon: Shall we dance? Grytpype: Yes, darling.
All that effort for a music box. Get used to it, listeners, as there are similar payoffs coming later this series!
The real treasure
The legend of Rommel’s treasure has its roots in the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. According to this History.com article, the invaders apparently stole gold from local Jewish people and shipped it to Corsica, but the boat carrying the gold sank.
If this did happen, Rommel himself probably wasn’t directly involved. That hasn’t stopped the myth from growing in popularity, though.
In December 1955, just a few months after this Goon Show episode first aired, an Italian-American film Il Tesoro di Rommel was released, telling the story of various characters searching Cairo for clues as to the whereabouts of valuables and secret documents linked to General Rommel.
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ian Fleming’s 1963 James Bond novel, two divers are killed while looking for Rommel’s treasure. This is not the last spurious link between the Goons and Bond I’m going to mention on this blog…
The setting for the ‘Rommel’s Treasure’ Goon Show episode is, as many Goon fans will know, the North African desert where both Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe saw action in the Second World War. It was the site of their infamous first meeting, and is recalled in great detail in both men’s autobiographies.
The war reached North Africa in 1940 when Italy joined on the side of the Nazis. Several European countries – Italy included – had colonies in Africa, meaning the spread of war from Europe southwards was almost inevitable.
The fighting spread through from Morocco in the northwest to Egypt, taking in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Rommel led the Axis Powers’ Afrika Corps with some devastating tactics, while the Allies fought back led by Lieutenant-General – later Field Marshal – Montgomery, hence both men’s starring roles in the titles of Spike’s war memoirs.
In his memoir, Harry Secombe recalls seeing the victorious Eighth Army – the Allies’ leading force in North Africa – on the beaches as they prepared to cross into Italy in pursuit of the retreating Rommel and his army. He remembers them as being bronzed and powerful, making his ramshackle regiment of gunners feel somewhat inadequate.
Secombe also recalls Rommel’s band being captured and playing while being held prisoner, a rather Goonish mental image.
Series 6 Episode 6
Broadcast: 25 October 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton