REP TALK WITH NADINE RAYNER
Early on Anzac Day I sat pondering the causes and consequences of war, how it brings out the worst and the best in us, extremes of hardship and of heroism.
When I watched the movie The Darkest Hour I appreciated how Winston Churchill had to make the hard decisions and resist the urging of other senior parliamentarians to make a treaty with Hitler, instead rallying the troops and heartening the British people.
“We will never give in,” he thundered.
Perhaps there are those who don’t see Spike Milligan as a war hero but anyone who managed to encourage the troops, to keep their morale up, is worthy of recognition.
When Spike Milligan was called up to serve in World War II he was initially a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment D Battery which was equipped with obsolete World War I-era BL 9.2- inch howitzers. Milligan claimed that the gun crews shouted “Bang!” in unison as they had no shells to practise with. His unit was later equipped with BL 7.2- inch howitzers and saw action in North Africa before moving to Italy.
It was in Italy during the battle for Monte Casino that Spike Milligan was injured and hospitalised with a mortar wound to his leg and shell shock.
“Only they called it battle fatigue then which just means you’re tired of fighting,” Spike quipped.
He’d risen in the ranks to Lance corporal and was about to be promoted to the rank of bombardier when he was hospitalised, but an unsympathetic Major demoted him. Subsequently Spike spent the rest of his time in Italy as an entertainer, singing and playing the musical instruments he’d taught himself to play.
He wrote his own material, much of which was penned to stave off boredom in the year he’d spent in barracks before seeing action in Africa.
Spike’s war memoirs 1939-1950 include the titles Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, Monty: My Part in His Victory, Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall among others. While Milligan’s madcap humour is strewn throughout the pages of bathos and pathos he claimed salient facts were true.
Back in London Spike Milligan became known as a comedian but he did play some serious roles. When he was cast as Oblomov in the play of the same name he felt the script wasn’t very good but his intention was to play it straight. His slipper inadvertently came off, flew across the stage and landed in the stalls causing laughter. Spike gave up playing it straight and ad libbed (cardinal sin in theatre), verbally rewriting the script every night. The rest of the cast went along with it and the show was a great success.
Although Spike made us laugh he was also quoted as saying that the deaths of his friends and colleagues would live forever in his mind. Are laughter and tears opposing sides of the same coin?