Winds light to variable
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
For the past few episodes in series six, the Goons have been poking fun at announcer Wallace Greenslade for not being tapped up by the new Independent Television Authority for news reading duties.
As if to make up for this, however, on 20 December 1955 the Goons thrust Wal to centre stage to star in a glorious celebration of his acting chops.
The show features one of the best guest cameos in the shape of the BBC’s chief announcer John Snagge, whose dialogue with Wallace is punctuated with barely stifled giggles from Secombe, Sellers and Milligan in the wings.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The listing is on page 24 of this week’s Radio Times. It is pretty much exactly the same as any other listing, but for this episode it is notable that Wallace, as the central character of this episode, is just listed as announcer, and guest star John Snagge (the BBC’s chief announcer), is not mentioned.
Back at the start of the fifth series in mid-1954, there was a small spat between the BBC and Equity, the actors’ union. The listing for ‘The Whistling Spy Enigma’ included a slightly mean joke at Greenslade’s expense.
British Equity, the actors’ trade union, has protested to the BBC because its Variety Department names [Greenslade] as “Two-Ton Terence O’Toole” in the Goon Show cast. Equity has an agreement with the BBC that announcers must not be billed as performers. And Mr Greenslade’s new name appears in the Radio Times. The BBC said last night: “It’s a slip on our part. We have been able to delete Mr Greenslade’s name from the cast given on the recording, but it was too late to alter the Radio Times.”
(from the Daily Mirror, published 28 September 1954)
‘The Greenslade Story’ begins in the usual way – “This is the BBC Home Service,” says our Wal. There are huge cheers – not for Danny Kaye or Fred Lane, but for “common or garden BBC announcer” Wallace Greenslade.
Danny Kaye was a successful entertainer. Fred Lane I’m not so sure about, but was a successful jockey in the 1930s. It could be a reference to someone else, with the favourite Goon name “Fred” thrown in for the fun of it.
EDIT: Tyler Adams, host of Goon Pod, has pointed out that this could be a reference to Frankie Laine, an American singer who was most famous for singing several theme tunes to Western movies, such as Gunfight at the OK Corral and Blazing Saddles. This is much more likely than a random jockey.
Then Wallace takes centre stage, appearing at an audition for BBC announcer. He’s second in the queue, behind a certain ragged idiot.
Greenslade: Don't tell me you're applying for the post of announcer? Eccles: Oh, yeah! And I'll get it too, you'll see! I'm wearing a Cambridge tie! Greenslade: You? You were at Cambridge? Eccles: Yeah! Greenslade: What were you doing there? Eccles: Buying a tie.
Eccles strolls in confidently to audition in front of a Mr Lidell – a reference to another announcer, Alvar Lidell, whom we shall come to later.
Lidell (Sellers): Get out, you idiot! Eccles: Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain't even heard me speak yet! Sellers: We'll write to you. Eccles: Well, that's no good, I can't read.
Then it’s Wallace’s turn. He borrows Eccles’ phrase “winds light to variable” to repeat to Mr Lidell in a variety of ways, and is appointed an announcer at once.
Eccles, it turns out, is a star pupil of Ned Seagoon’s announcing school – meaning Wallace is a problem. Another pupil, Bloodnok, is upset that his catchphrase – “earthquakes in East Acton” – has yet to get him on the air.
Seagoon: Ah yes! But at the slightest tremor, I'll write to the BBC! Now then, keep up your morale, man! Say after me "Earthquakes in East Acton". Bloodnok: Earthquakes in East Acton. Seagoon: There you are, how about that eh? Bloodnok: Yes, I feel better already. Seagoon: Of course you do! Now here's a model of Sir Ian Jacob. Let's stick pins in it!
Ian Jacob was the BBC’s director general at the time, a position he held until 1959.
Fortunately, those fiends Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty are ready and eager to help Seagoon create vacancies at the Beeb by kidnapping announcers and replacing them with recordings of Eccles.
Seagoon isn’t satisfied, however, as superstar Wallace Greenslade remains in post and as popular as ever. As a solution, the trio approach him with an offer of a career on the stage.
Grytpype: Greenslade has a huge public. They want to see him in the flesh. Seagoon: What? All of it? Grytpype: Yes. Seagoon: He's a danger to shipping!
This sets the scene for John Snagge to make his one and only appearance in person on a Goon Show stage. Snagge, the BBC’s chief announcer, was a vocal supporter of the Goons and intervened more than once when senior staff threatened to cancel the show. Perhaps bringing him in to lend his sonorous tones to this episode was an acknowledgement of this.
The Great Greenslade
In any case, the following set piece is a classic piece of Goonery – and none of the main trio are involved for most of it. Snagge ventures forth to Wallace’s abode in an effort to persuade the Beeb’s star man to stay.
Snagge: Is Wallace in? Butler (Ray Ellington):"Wallace"? Does thou mean The Great Greenslade? He whose voice drips like honey for the ears of the waiting world? He of the velvet petal tongue? Snagge: Yes, yes, that's Wal. Butler: Whom shall I say craves audience? Snagge: Tell him it's John Snagge - No, no, wait. Tell him it's Snaggers. He whose voice once yearly rings out from the Thames motor launch, that usually fails. He whose voice tells the masses of a watery combat twixt men in two slender willow slim craft, that race on the bosom of our river and race past Mortlake Brewery towards their Olympic goal. Butler: Cor blimey, man, follow me.
Snagge finds Greenslade in a hammock suspended between two “Television Toppers” – a reference to the all-female TV dance troupe of the same name. He begs Greenslade to reconsider, offering to up his wage from £3 10s a week to £4, and to let him read the 9 o’clock news at 9:30 if he so wished. Seagoon – now Greenslade’s manager – appears in order to confirm that Snagge is too late.
Seagoon: So! You're the famous John Snagge, eh? Known as the male Sabrina of Portland Place [where the BBC is based in London]. Snagge: Now steady Seagoon, or I'll ban your record on Housewife's Choice.
Initially I assumed this was another reference to ‘On With The Motley’, but Seagoon starts singing ‘Be My Love’. I can’t actually find much info about this song and it doesn’t seem to have made the hit parade. Recordings exist, however:
After Grytpype reveals that Wal’s new wage is a staggering £5 a week in used stamps, Snagge is resigned to losing his star man, and laments about the departures of other top announcers.
Snagge: Where are they now, that noble band? Andrew Timothy - missing. Alvar Liddell - went down with his lift. Richard Dimbleby - overweight. And finally, Ronald Fletcher - gone to the dogs. Seagoon: Stop! Stop! You're breaking my heart. I can help you! I have a man here to take their place. Speak, lad, speak! Eccles: Winds light to variable.
Okay, let’s explore this quartet.
Andrew Timothy, as Goon Show connoisseurs (goonoisseurs?) will know, was the announcer for the first four series of the Goon Show.
Like Wallace, he was often drafted in as an extra cast member, his cut-glass English accent often cutting through to denounce how daft the whole thing was. “Tim” will get his own blog post in due course.
Alvar Lidell first joined the BBC in the mid-1930s as the chief announcer for BBC Birmingham, but was soon brought to London and the national stations. Made deputy chief announcer in 1937, it was Lidell’s voice that told the British people of the abdication of Edward VIII and of the declaration of war in September 1939.
Richard Dimbleby was the UK’s first war correspondent, reporting on bombing raids while flying with RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War.
Dimbleby also described to a British audience the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for the first time. This remarkable and moving broadcast can be heard on RadioEchoes.com, along with a host of Dimbleby's other broadcasts from the Second World War.
After the war he became best known as a commentator on major public events, as well as the host of Panorama. Dimbleby also went public with his cancer diagnosis in 1962, breaking a long-held taboo to help raise awareness of the disease and the dangers of cigarettes.
Ronald Fletcher was an altogether different kind of character. Born to a well-off family, his obituaries make him sound like something out of a PG Wodehouse novel, running around having a good time as much as possible while spending all his money and doing as little work as possible. Pre-war, he was kicked out of Trinity Hall University for bunking off to play golf.
During the war Fletcher was a lieutenant in an anti-aircraft regiment, and upon demobilisation found himself in need of money as he’d spent it all having a good time before Hitler got in the way. His distinctive voice helped him get a role at the BBC, where he filled the Wallace Greenslade position for shows including Breakfast with Braden and Bedtime with Braden. His rumoured love of gambling probably inspired the “gone to the dogs” gag.
To the Palladium
So John Snagge exits on a tricycle with Eccles in a sack, and the scene changes to Greenslade’s dressing room at the London Palladium just before his highly anticipated stage debut. Manager Seagoon is there, and they are paid a visit by Lew, Greenslade’s agent, voiced by Peter Sellers.
“Lew” is a semi-regular voice used by Sellers and inspired, I believe, by Lew Grade. Along with his brother Leslie, the Grades were highly successful and influential theatrical agents who represented entertainers such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Judy Garland and the aforementioned Danny Kaye.
Lew Grade was born in what is now Ukraine to a Jewish family, but the Winogradskys (as they were then known) left for the UK when Lew was a child due to Russian persecution. In his early showbiz career he was a dancer, and was known as “The Dancer with the Humorous Feet”. His other brother was Bernard Delfont, also a theatrical agent.
Lew: Oh my lovely little Wallace! Oh, you're gonna kill 'em tonight, you're a lovely boy! Ooh, you're lovely, make a lot of lovely money for me, make a fortune! Ooh, that lovely talking voice, I'll get you Ed Sullivan TV next time I promise you. Seagoon: I'm his manager, you understand. Lew: Out the way, Secombe, you're finished, all that shaving and singing, it's all finished. On with the motsers, It's all washed up. [There’s the ‘On With The Motley’ reference!] Now then here, Wallace, Val Parnell's outside tonight so do your best, I'll see you get a nice, big bonus. Goodbye, my lovely boy, that geld he's making for me!
Val Parnell ran several of London’s top theatres, including the Palladium, and the Grades were the one of the main sources of talent for his shows. Find out more about him here in a very detailed biography.
(A certain Harry Secombe was soon to appear at the Palladium alongside Eric Sykes, Tommy Trinder and Jill Day in Parnell’s TV series Sunday Night at the London Palladium on 22 January 1956, and again on 19 February 1956.)
Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister arrive and knock on the dressing room door in search of autographs, and get into an argument with Seagoon. It turns out that Minnie Bannister is in the bath and Henry Crun is washing “sinful savage tiger”.
The cast duck for cover (and brandy) behind Ray Ellington, but when they emerge – disaster! Lew reappears distraught. The audience has all left before Greenslade has even stepped on stage. It turns out they have all gone home to listen to Eccles on the wireless.
Seagoon asks Grytpype and Moriarty to kidnap Eccles, but instead they sign him up for a stage tour.
Greenslade: This means – ruin? No more luxury? I'll have to stop eating in the canteen? Give up my subscription to The Nursing Mother?
The pair are reduced to singing in the street for spare change, and find themselves outside the London Palladium. Meanwhile, inside, Eccles is preparing to go on stage.
[FX: Door opens] Moriarty: Grytpype! Here's his pay check, just arrived. Grytpype: Let's see. £2,000. Moriarty, take six shillings out and give it to our charlie. Eccles: I heard that. Don't you dare give that six bob to Charlie, that's my money!
Alas, Lew re-enters, bringing with him more bad news (and the payoff). The audience has disappeared again! Who could have tempted them away?
Grytpype: Switch on the radio. [FX: Click. Big Ben chimes.] Bluebottle: This is the BBC Home Service. And here is Bluebottle with the news. Eccles: You swine, Bluebottle!
An excellent punchline for a brilliant episode.
The Greenslade Story
Series 6 Episode 14
Broadcast: 20 December 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Peter Eton
Wallace Greenslade and Danny Kaye images via Wikipedia, Alvar Lidell and Richard Dimbleby images sourced via BBC. Val Parnell image from ATV Today. Ronald Fletcher image from John Peel Wiki. Lew Grade image via National Portrait Gallery.