THE BOOTLEG FILES: “DOWN AMONG THE Z-MEN”

Unless you were listening to British radio in the 1950s or you are a rabid fan of Peter Sellers, you probably never heard of “The Goon Show.” Easily the strangest and funniest program in the history of BBC Radio, “The Goon Show” presented a surreal mix of outlandish, absurdist and pun-riddled comedy ever jammed into a bursting-at-the-seams half-hour episode. Combining equal parts cerebral wit and juvenile, smutty comedy with an outlandish line-up of characters boasting inane voices, “The Goon Show” was a riot of brilliant nonsense which inspired a generation of British comedy, most notably Monty Python.

In 1952, the four original stars of “The Goon Show” (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine) were recruited to appear in a movie. The challenge of transferring the no-holds-barred radio comedy of the Goons to the big screen was immense, especially since none of the Goons had much experience in film comedy. The resulting effort was a low-budget movie called “Down Among the Z Men.” While Goon aficionados have condemned the film as being a total waste of time, the truth is the film stands well on its own merits as a lightly amusing B-movie romp.

The main problem to Goon fans is “Down Among the Z Men” was not written by the Goons themselves. The best of the radio programs came from the wonderfully warped mind of Spike Milligan, but for whatever reason Milligan was not asked to contribute to the screenplay. The film’s tight budget and two-week shooting schedule also put a big crimp on the fun. Michael Bentine would later recall that director Maclean Rogers would only allow one take per scene, and the threat of wrecking the budget with a blown line or awkward sight gag may explain why these wacky radio comics often seemed so subdued on camera. Diluting the merriment further was the appearance of a squadron of showgirls who perform two precision dance numbers. Having them present not only distracted from the Goons, but also made little sense as most of “Down Among the Z Men” takes place on an Army base and one rarely finds shapely showgirls running about such a non-musical environment.

But even with these problems, “Down Among the Z Men” is more than diverting and often provides some genuine laughs. The plotline is promising: Secombe plays a village grocery clerk who stars in the local amateur theater group’s production as a Scotland Yard detective. Dreaming of finding genuine mystery and danger, he gets more than he bargained for when a world-renowned atomic scientist (Bentine, wearing a woolly wig and equally hirsute goatee) stops in the grocery store to buy supplies for his camping trip. The scientist has a nuclear epiphany and writes a new formula on a newspaper with a review of the amateur theater production…then leaves the store but forgets to take his formula. Secombe’s character tracks the professor to an army base, but he is mistaken for a “Z” reservist and is conscripted into service. The army base is run by Peter Sellers as General Bloodknok, a kindly but somewhat dotty career military man. Milligan shows up as Private Eccles, the dumbest man in the British Army, and Carole Carr is a glamourous special agent assigned to pose as General Bloodknok’s daughter while guarding the absent-minded atomic scientist against a pair of international crooks who’ve infiltrated the base.

Sellers’ fans will probably be surprised by his relatively small role. While his fellow Goons carry most of the comedy burden, Sellers spends most of his time playing the straight man to his cast members and winds up on the receiving end of the mayhem (including a funny bit when canisters of laughing gas and tear gas break loose in his office). He does enjoy one startling comic turn during a climactic musical comedy revue for an Army audience: Sellers virtually steps out of character to perform a burlesque of an American World War II movie melodrama. In this brief scene, he brilliantly mimics several American dialects and offers a subversive punchline in which the gung-ho Americans are abruptly captured by the Germans. One can even hear off-camera stagehands laughing out loud at his imitations. The scene has nothing to do whatsoever with the film, but it clearly shows Sellers’ comic versatility and it proves why he was one Goon who enjoyed international celebrity.

Most Goon fans enjoy “Down Among the Z Men” as being a rare example of Michael Bentine’s association with the group. Bentine left the Goons shortly after this film was completed and the level of his participation has never been fully appreciated because the majority of the radio episodes featuring him are believed to be lost. He is the only Goon who overplays his role for the camera, complete with an asinine walk and a hammy sense of perpetual confusion. His performance is one of the funniest absent-minded professors to wander across a movie screen.

As for the other Goons: Milligan’s Eccles, who often steals the show in the radio episodes for his breathless stupidity, comes across more like a mild eccentric with a silly voice. His long and lean physique is put to good use with a manic drill routine and an impromptu dance while the showgirls are rehearsing. Secombe, who gets most of the attention here, has a charming comic personality that recalls a trouble-prone Lou Costello. He gets to share a straight song with Carole Carr, which is quite fetching, and he enjoys some fine slapstick including a spell of vacuuming that disrupts an Army brass meeting. His material is far below his over-the-top radio style and his subsequent film work, yet his low-keyed approach is gently amusing and makes the film worthwhile to non-Goon fans.

“Down Among the Z Men” was a commercial flop with British audiences and the Goons never attempted to do another film as a combined team. Sellers, of course, became the biggest star of the quartet while his fellow Goons enjoyed long careers in British radio, television and occasional films (Secombe, who was later knighted by the Queen, was most notable as Mr. Bumble in the Oscar-winning film version of “Oliver!”). Since “The Goon Show” was not broadcast in the United States, there was no reason to export it and thus the film never had an American theatrical release. In fact, most Americans would never know the film existed until many years later when Sellers was a major movie comedy star and bootlegged prints began turning up on the 16mm market.

“Down Among the Z Men” has only been available to Americans on bootlegged videos. The quality of these videos are fair-to-okay and some can be located for very little money (I purchased my copy in a Pathmark supermarket for less than five dollars). The film was released on British DVD, but supposedly this release comes without any special features and was taken directly from a well-worn 1950s print – this is just as bad as buying a bootlegged video! This DVD can be purchased from several British e-commerce sites but is only available in the PAL format.

“Down Among the Z Men” is not a great film, but it is hardly deserving of its lousy reputation. Anyone expecting to uncover an early Peter Sellers gem or to bask in the crazy “Goon Show” will be terribly disappointed. But as a small comic romp, it is more than diverting and it is very easy to enjoy.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on May 7, 2004 in Features by

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One Comment on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: “DOWN AMONG THE Z-MEN”"

  1. Muswell on Fri, 24th Jun 2011 9:33 am 

    My guess is that US readers will be completely unaware of the Goon Show and probably wouldn’t get it even if they heard it due to the array of English accents and period flavor of much of the material. However it is still being repeated in the UK and CD collections are available of nearly all of the surviving episodes.
    The team got together for the “Last Goon Show of all” in 1972 which was televised and there is a DVD.
    “Z Men” was made when the show was in its first flush and was not a box office flop as described as a B film its revenue was assured just by being distributed as it was rentals and a tax break called the Eady Levy that funded it. “The case of the Muckinese Battle Horn” and “The Running Jumping Standing Still Film” were shorts that more successfully conveyed the Goon humor if you can track those down. Another curiosity is a the “Tellygoons” a series of films with the goons represented by puppets which awaits rediscovery on DVD.
    NB;The Goon name was taken from characters in the Popeye cartoons. Bentine had a goonish TV series called “Its a Square World” .


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