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Where's that blasted telegram?

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Maid Marion: Ooh! There's someone crawling under the table. What are you doing under there sir? Winston Churchill: I'm looking for a telegram.

In 'Ye Bandits of Sherwood Forest', the biggest laugh of the episode came from Peter Sellers' by now well-worn impersonation of the then-prime minister Winston Churchill.

Churchill had caused a bit of a stir in early December 1954 by letting slip during a speech at a school in his constituency that he had sent a telegram to Field Marshal Montgomery in 1945 requesting him to store captured German weaponry to give back to German soldiers in case of a Russian invasion.

Daily Mirror front page, 2 December 1954

Monty couldn't find the telegram in question in his papers, and Churchill later claimed he was confused between telegrams.

Daily Mirror front page, 10 December 1954

Opposition MPs were up in arms about this, if you'll pardon the pun, as it suggested we were willing to give the Nazis back their guns to fight a country that was an ally during the war. One MP even suggested that Montgomery face a court martial for retaining secret documents without permission (an accusation that Churchill dismissed).

The BBC didn't like Sellers impersonating political or royal figures (a Baroness Boil de Spudswell in The Starlings had upset a few people by sounding far too much like the Queen), and mocking a topical event like this was a step too far. He was told to stop it.

Sellers later told a journalist:

While I know there is a technical ban on imitating senior statesmen, I have done this for months without complaint. I have never been at all derogatory and I know from a very good authority that Sir Winston has heard this imitation himself and raised no objection.

(Peter Sellers, quoted in Belfast News-Letter, 8 January 1955)

It didn't put Sellers off, however. According to a February 1955 issue of The Tatler, he was back impersonating Churchill as part of a cabaret act for a fundraising event for The League of Pity, now part of the NSPCC.

The Goons also received listener support. A letter to the Daily Mirror in January 1955 criticised the "humourless BBC officials" who didn't understand that the ability to laugh at oneself is "a characteristic of the British people".

Another reader lamented the Goon Show's rap from the BBC and expressed annoyance that the corporation had "left it to other comedians to continue their unsavoury jokes about Mrs Bressie Braddock, MP". Better not mention that the Goons made one such unsavoury joke just a few weeks earlier.

The Mirror itself didn't take the story very seriously, it seems, judging by the front page headline from 8 December 1954.

It's well documented that the BBC threatened the Goon Show with cancellation more than once during the show's run, and that senior announcer John Snagge stepped in to defend Milligan & Co. A later Goon Show episode mocked the BBC censors themselves, with Milligan obviously having had enough of all this nonsense.

Henry Crun: You want us to see if this word is fit to be said? Greenslade: I fear so. Crun: Oh dear, well that puts us in a rather nasty spot doesn't it? We don't like committing ourselves. Greenslade: Well it's alright, but you're the censors. Crun: Ah but we don't like that sort of thing you see. We don't do it. Secombe (Yorkshire): We don't like it at all. Mr Lord Scradds, you're the oldest, what do you think of this word? Lord Scradds (Milligan): Ahhhhh... ahhhhh... I'll, I won't commit myself at this ahhhhhhhhh at this stage... I... I'll... go along, Yes...I...I'll go along... Crun: Who will you go along with? Lords Scradds: Ahhhhh, anybody. Sellers (Aussie): I think I'm with you there, I'm with you all the way, I'll go along with that. Milligan (posh): I ratar mark the omplication the most of the mam arve bwin time waste and non the far the plo car there at dawn. Secombe: Does anybody agree with that? Sellers (Aussie): I agree with that. Greenslade: Look, look, look, look what are you all agreeing about? Crun: Ha ha ha, you devil. So then it's agreed that we all agree? Now what was the question again? Greenslade: The word 'holly', is it -? Minnie Bannister: Canteen's open! Cast: [Cries of 'teaaaaaaa'...]

(from 'Ned's Atomic Dustbin', Series 9 Episode 10, broadcast 5 January 1959)

Addendum: Thanks to Twitter follower Sean Gaffney who pointed out that the telegram story was mentioned in 'Forog' and 'The Case of the Missing Heir', in restored versions available on Goon Show Compendiums.

Newspaper cuttings sourced from the British Newspaper Archive.

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