Great Britons Spike Milligan
Amanda Hodges takes a closer look at one of Great Britain’s comedy icons.
HOW does one describe Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan? A man of many talents, he was a supremely gifted comedian and free-wheeling comic poet, writer and actor; a man who defied easy pigeon-holing and who has subsequently proven highly influential within the field of modern comedy.
Born in 1918 to an English mother and an Irish father, Spike spent his childhood in India, where his father served in the Indian Army, before the family returned to England in 1933.
Their comfortable life abroad was replaced by something akin to genteel impoverishment in Lewisham, and Spike began a series of mundane jobs while harbouring hopes of life as a performer.
Naturally musical, he learned a variety of instruments. The trumpet became his particular passion, and one which served him well as he became a successful amateur trumpeter in bands both pre- and post-world War II.
He once won a Bing Crosby singing competition at the Lewisham Hippodrome, too, so clearly he possessed considerable singing ability as well as musical prowess.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Spike promptly enlisted in The Royal Artillery, his father’s old regiment.
“The experience of being in the Army changed my whole life,” he later recalled. “I never believed that an organisation such as ours could ever go to war, let alone win it.”
The subject of the first of his sevenvolume war memoirs (“Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall”), the conflict would have a profound impact upon his life.
He largely enjoyed the camaraderie of the services, first meeting Harry Secombe while stationed in North Africa, and evolving the sort of silly humour which later became the basis for The Goons, while organising musical and comedy shows for ENSA, the army’s entertainment organisation.
His material was filled with surreal stories, puns and anarchic logic: perhaps a natural response to the absurdity of conflict.
Milligan once said that the foundation for much Goon humour “is one man shouting gibberish in the face of authority, and proving by fabricated insanity that nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living.”
It’s alleged that he got his nickname in the Forces, too, with “Spike” often being the name given to skinny men.
Spike was wounded in the Battle of Monte Cassino, wryly calling himself “a hero with coward’s legs”, and was hospitalised for a considerable period.
After being demobilised from the army and returning to England, he renewed his ambitions of becoming a professional entertainer, forming The Bill Hall Trio with two friends. With Spike on guitar, the group performed some musical comedy gigs without much success.
Spike, meanwhile, kept trying to break into the world of radio, getting his first significant chance when appointed as a writer for comedian Derek Roy.
This had come about after Spike revived his friendship with Harry Secombe in London, and they’d also made the acquaintance of another aspiring comedian: a young Peter Sellers.
All three ex-servicemen shared the same zany sense of humour.
They gravitated to Jimmy Grafton’s pub
in London, The Grafton Arms, and here started to perform the surreal sketches which would later take flight as material for The Goons.
“It was always a relief to join in the revels at Grafton’s on a Sunday night,” Harry Secombe said.
The men delighted in this inventive, anarchic humour.
A BBC producer heard of their innovative exploits, and persuaded the corporation to back the group – which they reluctantly did.
The first series of what was then known as The Crazy People, and would subsequently become The Goon Show, was broadcast on radio in May 1951.
A thirty-minute blend of madcap comedy segments interspersed with musical interludes, this new type of show swiftly attracted around two million listeners.
Michael Bentine left the group after series two, citing creative issues, but the show continued until 1960, broadcast both in Britain and abroad, reaching as far as Australia and New Zealand.
Secombe’s Ned Seagoon, Sellers’s Bluebottle and Spike’s Eccles became a part of the landscape of comedy.
Their Ying Tong Song became a hit record in the Fifties, which showed how embedded they had become in the national consciousness.
“Eccles represents the permanency of man, his ability to go through anything and survive,” Spike once said, reflecting on his favourite character.
He then went on to talk about a specific plot – one that represents the endearing daftness of the Goons at their best.
“They are trying to get off a ship on the Amazon and lower a boat. When they get to the shore, Eccles is already there. ‘How did you get ashore?’ ‘Ho hum, I came across on that log.’ ‘Log . . . that’s an alligator!’ ‘Ooh. I wondered why I kept getting shorter.’”
Getting The Goon Show launched in the Fifties was something of an ordeal for Spike, who was the show’s principal writer.
“I was trying to shake the BBC out of its apathy,” he once said. “I had to fight like mad and people didn’t like me for it. I got it right in the end, and it paid off, but it drove me mad in the process.”
And indeed, The Goon Show, for all its phenomenal popularity, did exert a heavy toll on Spike’s fragile mental state, with the constant demands of writing and performing triggering the first of many breakdowns.
The cause of his life-long depression is not readily known, but is often attributed to his war experiences, and to the severe strain of writing The Goon Show under heavy pressure.
Jimmy Grafton, who co-wrote many early Goon shows alongside the likes of Eric Sykes, maintained that Eccles was essentially a representation of Milligan’s own fundamental personality – that is, a simple creature who doesn’t want any responsibility and just wants to be happy.
“Spike achieved a reputation for eccentricity and has become, by his own choice, a sort of court jester,” added Grafton.
Spike himself would reflect upon his frequent bouts of mental ill-health.
“As I kept having episodes of depression, I realised that it was not a one-off: that I had, not a disease – more an illness.
“When I get depressed I try to get something for the terrible sadness that comes over me, and create something in terms of poetry.”
His illness, it seemed, often resulted in intense creativity, despite the exhausting personal cost.
By 1960, Spike was tired of selfinflicted pressure, and brought The Goons to a close, with their popularity still riding high on the airwaves.
Never one to languish quietly for long, Spike’s creative energies would subsequently be channelled into a series of richly diverse projects.
While he and the other Goons’ cast members had previously tried to transfer their brand of humour to TV in A Show Called Fred and The Son of Fred – with moderate success – they failed to capture the magic of the radio show in all its uninhibited glory.
Spike ultimately achieved more success >
with Q, the comedy sketch show which was broadcast on the BBC for many years.
In the early Sixties, Spike ventured into the theatre, performing first as Ben Gunn in the stage version of Treasure Island, courtesy of Bernard Miles. Later he would appear, often ad-libbing, in Russian drama Oblomov, to great renown.
Miles called him “a man of quite extraordinary talents . . . a visionary who is out there alone”, and indeed it was as if Spike himself often didn’t know quite how to channel his unique abilities.
He would make several appearances on film, appearing in comedic guise in the likes of The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Bed Sitting Room, and even Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
He also expressed his creativity through the Sixties novel Puckoon, and in his last years parodied many popular works and novels (ranging from The Bible to Robin Hood), and wrote a great deal of poetry for children.
Spike’s irreverent personality, with its almost child-like purity of vision, found a natural outlet in such witty verse, and it’s probably this – along with the Goon material – that forms the strongest foundation for his comedic legacy today.
In many ways, he was a man of intense contradictions – someone of anarchic intentions who remained passionate about conservation, and who campaigned strongly for both animal and environmental rights; a man of sensitive character who loved the limelight.
His nonsense verse On the Ning Nang Nong was voted the UK’S favourite comic poem in 1998.
Spike and his close friend Peter Sellers remained in touch long after the demise of The Goons, as both men were similar in personality. Sellers fully appreciated Spike’s prodigious talents, openly acknowledging that “[Spike] is the most creative of all of us.”
In his turn, Spike forgave Sellars for deeds that would have broken any lesser friendship.
Apparently the two men had an abiding devotion to Spike’s beloved Austin Cambridge motorcar, with ownership of the vehicle shared by mutual consent.
Peter was devastated to lose his Oscar hope for Being There to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Versus Kramer, and when Spike irreverently referred to this loss on-air, Sellers exacted revenge by secretly selling the car.
Despite any conflict, Sellers’s poignant last telegram to Spike in spring 1980 hinted at his tremendous nostalgia for the Goon days.
“I am desperate to have some real fun again with you and Harry,” he said. “Please can we get together and write some more Goon shows? We could place them anywhere. I don’t want any money. I will work just for the sheer joy of being with you both again as we were.”
Sadly this never materialised, as Sellers died suddenly in the summer of 1980.
Of all the Goons, it was Spike who had the greatest longevity – living long enough to see future generations paying tribute to him.
Contemporary comedian Eddie Izzard has acknowledged Spike’s formative influence, and John Cleese considers him “the great god of us all”, readily crediting Spike’s inspiration behind the creation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and adding that the Goons’ post-war satire “challenged stuffiness with joy”, creating a liberating new type of pioneering comedy that would pave the way for the experimental material of the future.
Spike was awarded the British Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994.
He always felt, despite his numerous achievements, that the Goons would form his principal legacy, humorously writing in a mock newspaper obituary in 1990 – twelve years before his actual death in 2002 – that it would simply say “he wrote the Goon Show and died.”
His headstone in St Thomas’s Churchyard, Winchelsea offers the last laugh, though, bearing the Gaelic inscription “I told you I was ill”. It also features his personal phrase of “love, light, peace” (this time in English) – a distinctive memorial for a singularly gifted man.
A portrait of Spike Milligan, 1991.
“Adolf Hitler My Part in his Downfall” is the first volume of Spike’s war memoirs.
Larking around with comedian and singer Harry Secombe in April 1978.
Spike’s grave in St Thomas’s, Winchelsea.