Series 3 of the Goon Show was beset with problems and challenges. There were studio difficulties, a new conductor and an improvised orchestra to deal with but the issue which had the most detrimental impact on the programme was the fact that the scriptwriters, Larry Stephens and Spike Milligan, had fallen out, weren’t speaking to each other and certainly weren’t collaborating on the script.
At that time, the Goon Show comprised of a series of unrelated sketches rather than a single storyline and so Larry was writing half of the show from a small office he had taken in Shaftesbury Avenue and Spike was writing the other half in Eric Sykes’ office above a Greengrocer’s in Shepherd’s Bush.
As the series progressed, both Larry and Spike began to show increasing signs of strain. Larry was telling anyone who would listen that he was drinking more than four bottles of rum a week to cope with the pressure and Spike was becoming more and more difficult to work with. Things deteriorated and after apparently threatening to kill Peter Sellers with a potato peeler, Spike was admitted to St Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital in Muswell Hill. The bulk of the writing now fell to Larry with help from Jimmy Grafton, the script editor.
Larry drew on his wartime experiences serving with the commandos for the first episode without Spike’s input and wrote about a Combined Services exercise. BBC Commentators were on location reporting on the exercise and ‘Harold Secombe’ was interviewing the man in charge, Admiral Flowerdew, live from the operations room at HQ:
SECOMBE: …these wooden blocks they’re moving around on the map – what are they?
FLOWERDEW: They represent landing barges – and the smaller ones are the actual commandos.
SECOMBE: And what are those being slipped under the map?
(Goon Show, series 3, episode 9)
By 1956, Spike and Larry’s friendship was going through a honeymoon period again and they wrote a special festive edition of the Goon Show together. ‘Operation Christmas Duff’ was broadcast to listeners abroad on Christmas Eve in 1956 and was dedicated to, “Her Majesty’s Forces Overseas and to the Transantarctic Expedition, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey Teams and the Royal Society Expedition at Halley Bay.” The plot of this special episode revolved around the making of a Combined Services Christmas pudding and 45 Commando were sent in, “under cover of daylight” to gather samples of the pudding for the Army Catering Corps to test. It had originally been scripted that the samples would be collected by 5 Commando, the unit Larry served with in WWII, but during the final rehearsals the ‘5’ was crossed through and replaced with ’45’.
The commandos cropped up again in ‘Ill Met by Goonlight’, a series 7 episode which is sometimes credited solely to Spike, although the original script does bear Larry’s name as co-writer. The story concerned a 1942 mission to Crete to capture the German Commander, General Von Gutern, a character who made another appearance in ‘The African Incident’ in series 8, purely for the line, “Von Gutern deserves another” to be used again!
The Goonlight mission was led by Lieutenant Seagoon who first had to undergo training at the Marine Commando Spaghetti Hurling Depot at Rhyl. At the end of the war, the Army Commandos were disbanded and the training base at Achnacarry was closed. A Royal Marine Commando school close to Rhyl had taken over the role but spaghetti-hurling wasn’t on the curriculum, at least, not officially!
Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Recording of Operation Christmas Duff
Script for Ill Met By Goonlight