6th April 2018

Spike Milligan: He Told Us He Was Ill

The 16th April 2018 may just seem like any other but for avid fans of British comedy, it boasts an extra significance. It also marked the centenary of the late comic Genius Spike Milligan. Born in India on the 1st April 1918 while his father, Captain Leo Milligan was serving for British Indian army in Ahmednager, Terrence Alan Milligan had a very unique start to life. The family lived in Poona, now called Pune which is commonly known as the cultural capital of Maharashtra. Returning to England at the age of three,Spike and the Milligan family settled in south east London where he spent most of his childhood with his mother Florence and younger brother Desmond.


The outbreak of the Second World War on the 1st September 1939 would leave an indelible mark on each and every person who lived through it, but for Milligan it went far deeper. Serving as a signaller in the 56th regiment of the Royal Artillery, the young Spike was based in the coastal town of Bexhill on Sea, a place which would occupy huge significance throughout his life. Being vulnerable to invasion, Bexhill and Sussex became two of the most densely armed locations in Britain and required surveillance to keep the residents from each town safe. The De Le Warr Pavilion once used as a loved venue for music hall was now taken over by the British army. The unit was then posted to North Africa to assist with the territory campaign before going to Italy. Milligan quickly ascended the ranks, first as a bombardier then lieutenant as the atrocities slowly began to take hold. One morning the platoon was unexpectedly dug in with 7.2 howitzers and Spike accidentally allowed the propeller to fall off the edge of a cliff on to an unsuspecting Lance Bombardier Harry Secombe. This was the start of a friendship which would last for over half a century and would prove vital to the evolution of British comedy.


It was here that he was first heard playing jazz numbers  on the trumpet which became his escapism to the undeniably horrifying trauma which surrounded him. This technique proved useful once again in September 1943 when Spike was posted to Naples where he was heavily wounded in the left leg leading to the beginnings of severe manic depression, an illness which would dominate the rest of his life. This was something that he grew to control over his long life and would often rear its ugly head and completely encompass him. Yet always looking for a positive, Spike used this lucid side to access the creative side of his brain which ultimately enhanced the quality of his later comedy scripts.


After the war, Spike settled in Shepherds Bush in London where he quickly made a strong acquaintance with the landlord of the local pub. Theatrical agent Jimmy Grafton had established The Grafton Arms in Westminster after he safely returned from the Second World War. It was here where Spike met Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine and realised their common plight to make people laugh. The three quickly realised that with Milligan’s flare for writing, the group could put on a comedy review show for the punters. For this Spike remembered the unmistakable talents of Harry Secombe to complete the team. A small room above The Grafton Arms was the venue for the first official meeting of the comedy show which would change the entire entertainment landscape.


Originally called The Crazy People, this comedy group began to attract a following which prompted Grafton to approach the BBC World Service regarding the possibility of moving the show to radio. The BBC liked all aspects of the show apart from the name and so The Crazy People therefore became The Goon Show. First broadcasted on the 28th May 1951, the show was an instant hit and followed the surreal lives of memorable comedy creations including; Eccles, Colonel Bloodknock, Bluebottle and Neddy Seagoon. For almost a decade, The Goons reigned supreme over the comedy world and influenced a whole generation of comedians with their bizarre, satirical view of the world accompanied by a sprinkling of “fuzzy” logic.


Frequently classed by comedy historians and commentators as the birth of Alternative Comedy, Spike and The Goons challenged the fixed confines of post war culture. Yet with very little competition for comedy supremacy, there was no alternative for people to make a choice. Therefore arguably The Goon Show became very much part of the British establishment and was admired by royalty and politicians alike. What began as a rebellion against conservative British values actually became part of the national make-up and it’s very difficult to know what Milligan made of this obvious juxtaposition.


In the midst of his Goon Show success Milligan’s battle with manic depression continued. It wasn’t long before his friend and fellow writer Eric Sykes was drafted in to lighten the load on Spike’s creativity which was having a severe impact on his mental health. In 1953 Milligan founded Associated London Scripts; a writing talent agency designed to ease the process of sending Goon Show scripts into the BBC when his illness had took hold. Such a useful device was too lucrative to be a sole venture and fellow writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were quick to join him in what became one of Britain’s first scriptwriting agencies. In time, the agency would come to represent not only the cream of writing talent but also performers such as Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd.


The Goon Show on radio came to an end in 1960 and sparked a whole television frenzy as to which broadcaster would sign them up. The first television outing came in 1962 with Goonreel: a collection of irreverent fictional news reports told by Milligan, Seacombe and Sellers. The second incarnation took the form of The Telegoons in 1963 which saw regular characters Eccles, Neddy Seagoon and co recreated in puppet form. Despite moderate success, The Goons’ television career could never replicate their radio triumphs and the comedy group was forced to disband. Yet in 1972 the cast of The Goons reunited for The Last Goon Show Of All which was recorded for television broadcast at BBC Radio Theatre. Despite being the first time that a radio show had been seen on television in all its simple glory, it was also the last time that Milligan, Secombe and Sellers would share a stage which was the end of an era for British comedy.


Associated London Scripts would last until 1966 when Spike and Eric Sykes set up residence in Orne Court near Westminster with their agent Norma Farnes where the Spike Milligan estate remains to this day. Unlike his contemporaries, Spike had a very unique approach to his work and while others concentrated on securing television formats, he was interested in having fun with his friends and family. Television was slow to catch up with his irreverent sense of humour which became a significant factor into his infrequent television appearances. Yet in 1969 Milligan created the anarchic Q5 which used the medium of television to push boundaries in comedy with non linear sketches which frequently had no setup or punchline. Spike was once again at the forefront of comedy.


In the same year Spike created and starred in his first and only sitcom for ITV. Curry and Chips. Written by Johnny Speight, the series followed Kevin O’Grady (Milligan); an Indian immigrant who was getting accustomed to the British way of life. Securing a position in a factory, O’Grady was surrounded by white lower class bigotry which was a social comment on the political scene of the day. With a supporting cast including Eric Sykes, Kenny Lynch and Geoffrey Hughes, the show had substantial potential. Yet failure to find the right balance between satire and racism ultimately sealed the show’s fate and ITV promptly cancelled it after just one series.


Despite the disappointment of Curry and Chips, Spike continued to write more series of Q which gave birth to a collection of unforgettable sketches including The Irish relay race, The continuity announcer and the scout troop. Sharing a studio at BBC Television Centre with a brand new up and coming comedy collective with their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Cleese, Palin and co were honoured to be in the presence of their hero and would often use the basis of Q5’s material as inspiration for future Python sketches proving that Spike was still on the cutting edge of British Comedy. Together with actors John Bluthal and Chris Langham, Milligan was able to create televisual mayhem which was closest he would get to recreating the magic of those early Goon Show episodes. Popular with the public but suffered a difficult relationship with the BBC and critics, Q astonishingly survived for the next thirteen years until 1982 and became one of the contributing factors to the thwarted relationship between Milligan and the BBC which would ultimately last until his death in 2002.


During the 1970’s Spike also became a popular guest on the British chat show circuit, appearing on Parkinson on numerous occasions between 1971 and 1982. Unpredictable and anarchic, Milligan thrived on the chat show format and instead of being a powerless subject to the interviewers line of questioning, Spike would always excerpt his power over the show. Everything from putting fake noses on Parky to outsmarting obvious questions on Wogan, you always knew that whenever Spike appeared, mayhem would often ensue.


Despite being a chat show favourite, Spike’s strained relationship with the two major television broadcasters continued. This sparked a long running verbal war between him and the BBC which took the form of a long series of letters on various subjects ranging from his infrequent television appearances to a bizarre proposition for him to present Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour; something which was rejected in a polite letter from the editor. Yet this didn’t holt Spike’s battle with the BBC and he spent the next twenty years attempting to thwart the establishment and the letters continued, much to the annoyance of the BBC. His unpredictable nature together with ongoing manic depression sometimes made it almost impossible to predict those shows that he might make an impromptu appearance on.


Beyond the world of performing, Spike became known to a whole new generation through his novels, children books and poems. In 1969 he released his first novel Puckoon surrounding the division between Northern and Southern Ireland. This was followed in 1972 by the semi autobiographical Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall which both were adapted into feature films. The Second World War would influence a further two books from the Milligan repertoire: Rommel? Gunner Who?, Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall, Where Have All The Bullets Gone and Goodbye Soldier. In 1995 Spike released his final and arguably most controversial novel The Bible According to Spike Milligan where he provided his own take on the Christian faith. It was clear that just like his comedy career, Spike wasn’t scared to ruffle feathers.


In 1994 Spike was honoured at the British Comedy Awards when he was the recipient of the lifetime achievement award. Prince Charles, a fan and good friend had prepared a letter paying tribute to his comedy hero, to which Milligan promptly replied “Snivelling bastard!” which almost took the roof off the studio and got the biggest laugh of the night. Spike later told Des O’Connor that he was so inebriated that he didn’t remember anything from the evening. However, no offence was taken because in 2000 Spike was awarded with an honorary knighthood by Prince Charles himself.


Spike Milligan passed away from kidney failure on 27th February 2002 surrounded by his family and friends. Over the following days and weeks, tributes flocked in from the great and the good as everyone wanted to toast the undisputed godfather of British Comedy. A watershed moment for the world of entertainment but also a tidy reminder to the major broadcasters to his place in the annals of British life. Yet maybe the lasting impression of Milligan is probably one of the best gags he ever made – his epitaph: Spike Milligan I Told You I Was Ill!

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