Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Ladies and gentlemen, we present a radio programme in English. From time to time actors will be heard. The author has fled the country.
(Andrew Timothy in ‘The Starlings’, broadcast 31 August 1954)
Before we get to the fourth series, I’m stepping ahead a little to mark the anniversary of the first broadcast of 'The Starlings'.
Rather than a normal episode, this was performed as a radio play without an audience. As with ‘The Reason Why’, in my opinion this lacks a bit of the energy that the live audience gives the normal recordings. However, it’s still very funny, as producer Peter Eton stated in this brief article in the Radio Times.
Also in common with ‘The Reason Why’, ‘The Starlings’ is based on a true story. Starlings were a real pest in Trafalgar Square in the early 1950s, and removing them became a problem of national concern.
Thomas Dugdale: Cage traps have been used in these experiments, so far, I fear, with negligible results. But final conclusions have not yet been reached. Norman Dodds: Is the minister aware that about 40,000 starlings find accommodation each night in Trafalgar Square; that one starling has been caught, and that one fell in by accident? Would the right honourable gentleman give detailed consideration to a further inexpensive experiment, and adopt the time-honoured method of putting salt on their tails? Dugdale: I am not responsible by statute for the starlings, but I agree that present experiments have been ineffective. It would appear that starlings are more easily trapped on their feeding grounds and not where they go to roost. Lieutenant-Colonel Marcus Lipton: Will the Minister stop fooling round with the West End of London and concentrate on the British countryside?
This is not an extract from Spike Milligan’s script, but an actual exchange in the House of Commons from February 1953, as recorded by Hansard, the official record of parliamentary activity. All it needs to make it a Goon Show script is for someone to ask: “What about the drains at Hackney?”
Starlings had been a problem in London for years. This article from Nature, published in 1935, explains the problem, but it escalated from there. Huge numbers of the birds nested along the tops of columns, and so many perched on one of Big Ben’s hands in one instance in 1949 that the giant clock lost five minutes of time.
This article from the long-running (and informative) London blog IanVisits tells the story.
By 1955 an “ultrasonic vibrator” was being considered to dispel the birds, but it wasn’t until many years later that the populations actually started to decline, as far as I can tell. Many different ways of getting rid of the starlings were considered. Milligan and co considered the following:
stuffed owls (genuinely used)
wriggling rubber snakes (genuinely used)
high frequency sound beams (genuinely used)
little round things that went ‘knick, knick, knick’
rice puddings fired from catapults
a recording of a female starling in trouble
a recording of a female starling not in trouble
rice puddings fired from catapults, mark 2
flashing lights and Chinese crackers
large things dropped from a great height ("and vice-versa")
rice puddings fired from catapults (again)
"For some inexplicable reason, all these devices failed."
Operation Cacophony is launched in a bid to drive the birds out by means of a huge noise, with troops marching up and down, night and day – all to no avail.
Sellers: December the first, very cold. Noise makers were augmented by the bagpipes of the Highland Brigade. Starlings still unperturbed. The population of London dropped 10,000 overnight.
The operation is abandoned at a cost of £160,000 (or in today’s money, a lot more than that). But, as Seagoon explains, these little mistakes will happen. Upon saying this, he is invited to join the Chiltern Hundreds – a ceremonial position given to idiots forced to resign from government, as MPs apparently can’t resign. By today’s standards, the Chilterns must be overpopulated with incompetent politicians.
Bluebottle pitches artificial explodable bird lime, which requires a great ceremony. Here, we are treated to Peter Sellers’ impression of Richard Dimbleby – father of Question Time host David – narrating the pressing of the button to explode all the starlings.
Dimbleby: [The master of the rolls] appears to be having trouble with the great microphone of state, the same great microphone used ever since 1672, hand beaten and foot slapped, gold and silver surmounted by two Burmese cherubs, and fashioned by the great sculptor Ben Venuto Selinae and his brother Fred. Oh, and now I see the great engineer of state with the great state screwdriver adjusting the mace screws on the great microphone.
The State Engineer gets the microphone working again and the button is pressed to explode the explodable bird lime – alas, I fear, too successfully.
Seagoon: Mr Prime Minister, Honourable Members. I fear that the explodable bird lime was a mite too powerful, but fear not, St. Martin's will be rebuilt! Timothy: But the starlings will only roost in it again. Seagoon: If they do, well, we'll blow it up again! Naturally we would rebuild again, but if the starlings still persist in roosting there, we'll have no compunction but to blow it up yet again! We'll see who gets tired first!* Minnie Bannister: But think of the expense! Seagoon: No fears there! I have it on good authority that our financial position is far in excess of the starlings… in any case, I have a new invention to deal with the pests. Fairfax (Sellers): What? Seagoon: Rice puddings fired from catapults!
This episode almost caused the premature end of the Goons. Roger Wilmut tells how Peter Sellers’ portrayal of the Duchess Winifred Boyle De Spudswell at the state exploding of the bird lime was interpreted by the BBC as a thinly veiled impersonation of the Queen – sacrilege!
BBC bureaucrats, who made about 30 attempts to suppress the programme during Eton’s producership, on this occasion took extreme exception to Sellers’ performance as Duchess Boil de Spudswell, who sounds suspiciously like the Queen. It was largely due to the support given by senior announcer John Snagge that the series did not come to an abrupt end.
(from The Goon Show: A Complete History and Goonography by Roger Wilmut and Jimmy Grafton, published by Robson Books, 1976)
This was before we found out that the Royals were all Goon-mad themselves, of course. But that is a story for another day.
This show was billed in the Radio Times thus:
A comment on the recent efforts to rid Trafalgar Square of starlings… The action takes place in Trafalgar Square; in Major Bloodnok's dustbin; at a Murmansk Beard Refinery; and in a lonely girls' residential school on Romney Marsh. Any resemblance to a 'Goon Show' is due to the laxity of the producer, Peter Eton.
Finally, pod-king Tyler Adams speaks to Cinema Limbo podcast host Jeremy Phillips about 'The Starlings' in this episode of Goon Pod.
Title: 'The Starlings'
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007jrdw
Image of starling sourced from Pixabay
Image of murmuration sourced from Lancashire Wildlife Trust
* This echoes one of my favourite lines from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when chief protagonist Arthur Dent takes on a bulldozer by lying in front of it. Upon being told he can't do this indefinitely, he replies: "I'm game, we'll see who rusts first."