Episode two of the sixth series of the Goon Show aired on the Home Service at 8:30pm on 27 September 1955. Proof can be found on page 24 of that week’s Radio Times.
The ghastly story of a sinister plot laid bare by the nimble discovery of a dreaded corpse in an empty match-box (obviously not safety matches). It tells of a man’s desperate hunt to clear his name of a fearful stigma (his name is Bert Stigma). It also reveals the true truth behind the last of the great chained escritoires in Piccadilly Circus and the fiendish contents it contained. This and other secrets will be revealed for the first time as Neddie Seagoon's zealous hunt for the escritoire and its noisome kidnappers ranges froom a deserted Chinese coffin refinery in Hither Green to the arid steam laundries of Malay (exit Mr Crun hotly pursued by by Sax Rohmer in an experimental cardboard pullover).
(from the Radio Times, issue 1663, page 24, published 23 September 1955)
Sax Rohmer is an author who created the iconic (and controversial) villain Dr Fu Manchu. The Goons' own Fred Fu Manchu appears for the first time in this episode, although he is usually referred to rather than voiced directly.
This marked the final script from the Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes partnership. The pair remained close friends, but a close working relationship had its difficulties. Read more about the partnership here and here.
‘The Secret Escritoire’ is an episode I had never heard until a couple of years ago. To be honest, I don’t think I had heard of an escritoire until a couple of years ago either.
Fortunately, Neddie Seagoon is on hand to explain.
Seagoon: Now, where are my reading glasses? Ah yes, I left them in the escritoire. Escritoire means: A writing table with two tiroirs and pigeonholes as distinct from a writing desk which usually has a sloping front, therefore, what you see before you on the pavement is my escritoire, or, if you're French, writing desk.
Grytpype and Moriarty plan to find people to shrink using a serum - made by Dr Fred Fu Manchu - in order to make tiny suits for them from all the books of fabric they have lying around. A suitable Charlie is found in the shape of one Neddie Seagoon, and the pair set about on a convoluted plot to get him shrunk.
Grytpype: Could I borrow your newspaper? Seagoon: I'm sorry, I left it in my other coat. Fortunately, I'm wearing it. Grytpype: Oh. Could you read it to me? Seagoon: I never read my other coat to strangers. However, I'll read you the paper of news.
The newspaper tells the story of a tiny man found dead in a matchbox. As Grytpype reveals, the matchbox is in Neddie’s escritoire, which is itself in Piccadilly Circus due to Neddie being a freeman of Bolton. I'm sure it made sense to somebody.
Seagoon: Inside my escritoire, all was dark. I was lead to a clearing in the blotting paper. There, lit only by lights, was a matchbox. I tiptoed forward on my hands and k-nees. And there, inside the matchbox, lying face-downwards on his back, was a dead contortionist.
He attempts unsuccessfully to inform the police, and returns to find his escritoire stolen!
Accompanied by Moriarty ("a tall, perpendicular cretin reclining on a loaded pogo stick and carrying a stringless banjo for protection"), Seagoon goes off in pursuit of the SS Clarence.
Seagoon: Major, are you responsible for berths on board this ship? Bloodnok: Not all of them, dear boy, no.
Upon relieving Seagoon's wallet of £50, Bloodnok hurls him back into the sea. He ends up swimming to Malaya, a country that straddles the border of what are now Indonesia and Malaysia, and includes Singapore. At the time of this recording Malaya was part of the British Empire, and mostly gained independence (with the exception of Singapore) in the 1960s.
Grytpype has already arrived in Malaya by the miracle of Goon physics, as has Major Bloodnok. Challenged by customs to open a case he is carrying, Bloodnok reveals Eccles, who thought he was traveling first class.
Customs Officer (Secombe): Sorry, you must pay duty on this idiot. Bloodnok: Pay duty on an idiot? Customs Officer: Yes. $20 alive or $3 dead. Bloodnok: Eccles, here's a pistol, do the decent thing. Eccles: Okay. Goodbye. [FX: Pistol shot] Eccles: Got him! Bloodnok: Good shot, Eccles!
The pair meets Seagoon ("I don't recognise you!" "Of course not, I've still got my Malayan customs set on.") and Bloodnok points him in the direction of his escritoire, which is held at an address occupied by Minnie Bannister, Henry Crun, and Uncle Oscar.
Uncle Oscar was Harry Secombe's doddery old voice that was occasionally brought in to the Crun-Bannister scenes, usually asking where his teeth were. He was also known to disintegrate entirely due to age.
Bannister: Are you locking up, Henry? Crun: Yes, I'm locking up. Bannister: I'm worried about the bandits, you know. Crun: Don't you worry, Min. Every door is locked from the inside. Bannister: I'm still very worried, Hen. Crun: Why? Bannister: I'm outside.
The other side of Ray Ellington, Seagoon arrives still in search of his escritoire and is sent off in pursuit of Grytpype once again.
For weeks, Seagoon and whoever else is still following him at this point "cut our way through the dense jungle that ran along the side of the arterial road". At last, Bloodnok admits that he knows Grytpype's plot and sells Seagoon an anti-shrink pill for £1,000.
This involves a wonderful example of how the Goons play with time, space and reality. To get the £1,000, Seagoon just opens a door and enters his office, asking his secretary to fetch the money from a safe. As if to confirm that this isn't a way out, however:
Secretary (Sellers): Mr Seagoon, when you will you be back? Seagoon: I don't know. You see, I'm lost in the Malayan jungle. For heaven's sake, send help! Goodbye! [FX: Door closes]
The group continues to fight its way through the jungle, giving Spike Milligan a chance to use a gag that crops up a couple of times in other Goon Shows, and is one of my favourites.
Seagoon: Eccles! How did you get across the swamp without getting wet? Eccles: I jumped on that log. Seagoon: That log? That's an alligator! Eccles: Ooo. I wondered why my legs kept getting shorter.
Jungle Jim Bluebottle appears to lead them the rest of the way. Job done, he "sinks exhausted to ground, does hands-clutching and unclutching act, as done by Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief".
This was an Alfred Hitchcock film released just a few weeks prior to the episode, starring Grant and Grace Kelly.
Meanwhile, Sykes and Milligan seem to have tired of the weekly deading of Bluebottle, and essentially invite him to do it 'off screen' as it were.
Seagoon: Good work, Bluebottle! Here's a match. Go find yourself a petrol dump.
Grytpype subdues Seagoon by playing a record of David Whitfield singing 'Cara Mia', his number one single from 1954 that topped the charts in both the UK and US (making Whitfield the first British artist to achieve this feat).
The shrinking serum is administered and Seagoon counters it with his anti-shrink pill - which of course does not work. Exit Neddie, even shorter than before, modelling a shiny (and tiny) new suit.
As daft and classically Goonish as this is, 'The Secret Escritoire' lacks something of the sparkle of the other Milligan/Sykes scripts, in my view. I am struggling to put my finger on exactly why I feel this way, and it may just be down to the fact I'm less familiar with it than many of their other episodes. There are some great gags though, such as the log/alligator one above.
Greenslade: Harry Secombe is now appearing in 'Flotsam's Midgets' on Bognor Pier.
Incidentally, for those who are interested, Charles Chilton - who went on to become a Goon Show producer - writes on page 5 of the week's Radio Times about his sci-fi series Journey Into Space.
The Secret Escritoire
Series 6, Episode 2
Broadcast: 27 September 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton
Escritoire sourced from Pinterest. To Catch a Thief poster sourced from Wikipedia.