Those of you with a copy of the Radio Times published on 11 February 1955 will note that the episode scheduled to be broadcast on Tuesday 15 February was ‘The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street’. And of course, the Radio Times never lies, as Wallace Greenslade knows.
Greenslade: Ladies and gentlemen, this week, as stated in the Radio Times, we give you ‘The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street’. Seagoon: Sorry, Greenslade, we’re not doing that. Greenslade: Oh, yes we are! Seagoon: Not this week, no. Greenslade: We are. You see, on page 24 of my Radio Times it states quite clearly: ‘The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street’. Seagoon: I know, but we changed it, you see. Greenslade: But the Radio Times never lies!
However, events in London – specifically, at the Westminster Pier on the River Thames – conspired against poor old Wallace.
On the morning of 7 February, a leak was reported in the floating pier next to the Palace of Westminster, near the Houses of Parliament. This pier was used regularly by the Royal Family for trips and for welcoming foreign dignitaries.
According to contemporary newspaper reports, the leak was reported early in the morning by a night watchman. By 10am, the pier was half submerged, and had sunk almost entirely by midday despite the efforts of the Port of London Authority and the fire brigade. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Big Ben struck twelve as the pier sank
Two strong lighters of the Port of London Authority, equipped with winches and pumps and showing green lights (for a wreck), are standing by below Westminster Bridge tonight. Parts of the wreck, roof-top, mast-tops, can be seen at low tide. Earlier, as flotillas of towed barges passed down river, the whole of the wreck was submerged. Only steeply tilted gangways were seen.
The wreck is Westminster Pier. It has sunk.
It was during the morning that a leak was found in a pontoon. Pumps were used, but in vain. The pier, having given time for personnel and documents to be removed, went down as Big Ben struck twelve. It will not easily be raised.
This is a famous pier, the ceremonial finishing point of Royal water journeys, the terminal of river trips – up the Thames to Kew, down to the docks. The present pier has been built, with additions and alterations, over many years, but there has been a landing place at Westminster for centuries: the first Queen Elizabeth used it.
(from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 8 February 1955)
Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes were obviously gripped by this story, and in no time at all turned around a script ready for recording on 13 February giving their account of the incident. It poked fun at politicians…
Seagoon: Gentlemen, for the Port of London Authority I must state the day before the valuable Westminster Pier sank it was inspected and certified river-worthy. Councillor (Milligan): Who was the man who inspected it? Council Leader (Sellers): It was none other than... Seagoon: I resign!
… and featured one of the Goons’ favourite occasional characters, William McGoonigal, based on the notoriously bad Scottish poet William McGonigal. It also marked the first appearance of Fred the Oyster, which later became one of the show’s most iconic sound effects (more of that at a later date – brace yourselves).
Ned Seagoon of the Port of London Authority led the search for someone who could salvage the pier, and struck lucky – or so he thought.
Moriarty: Pardon me, my ami, mon card. Seagoon: What’s this? Messrs Fred Moriarty Ltd, Sunken Westminster Floating Pier Salvage Expert? Gad! Just the man we want! Moriarty: Sapristi! You mean the Westminster Floating Pier has sunk? Seagoon: Yes! Moriarty: At last, employment! All these years I’ve waited!
Unfortunately, Moriarty and Grytpype-Thynne once again conspired against poor old Neddie to con him out of £3 million. Their genius plan – to lower the river rather than raise the pier – was in fact a ruse, with them pumping water out of the Thames at Westminster only to dump it back in at Mortlake. (At least this allowed Ned a trip to the brewery there.)
Seagoon: Now listen, if in the next 24 hours the river is still full of water the government is going to step in. Grytpype: Good riddance to them!
Seagoon, assisted by Eccles and Bluebottle, decides to blow up the pumps. Followers of Bluebottle’s career record with explosives will not need telling how this ends.
All the while, dear Wallace Greenslade has been trying desperately to persuade the Goons that they should be performing the show advertised in the Radio Times.
Greenslade: And now, the Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street part three, in which Ned Seagoon is attacked by a drink-crazed Peruvian trombonist with rumpled feet and... Seagoon: Greeners, we’re not doing that this week. Greenslade: But page 24 of my Radio Times says... Seagoon: I don’t care what your Radio Times says, Wallace, we’re not doing it! Greenslade: But the editor is a friend of mine. The Radio Times never lies! Seagoon: I don’t care! We’re not doing it Wallace… [The pair exit, arguing]
This is, in my view, one of the best Goon Show episodes. Milligan and Sykes embraced this story with glee, weaving in gag after gag, sometimes layering them on top of each other so quickly they leave the audience behind.
Grytpype: That will be 30 bob a day for the hire of the pumps. Seagoon: Pumps? Grytpype: Yes, I always wear them, they don’t draw the feet, you know. I hate having my feet drawn, except by Graham Sutherland.
Graham Sutherland was a leading British artist who infamously annoyed Sir Winston Churchill with his portrait of the former prime minister. The original was apparently destroyed by Lady Spencer-Churchill within a year of receiving it – although she also reportedly said it was “really quite alarmingly like him”. Personally, I’ve seen a lot worse.
(In October 2017, news website Vancouver Is Awesome reported that a “floating greenway” was planned on the river by Westminster Pier Park in the Canadian city. I would strongly advise them to insure it.)
I could wax lyrical about this episode for a lot longer, but it should be listened to rather than read about for the full effect. I’ll give good ol’ Greenslade the last word:
“Ladies and gentlemen, according to page 24 of my Radio Times, you should have been hearing ‘The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street’, but I fear the Goons have lied to the editor and not carried out the intended story. It’s a disgrace – goodnight!”
The Sinking of Westminster Pier
Series 5, Episode 21
Broadcast: 15 February 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton