Great Bri­tons Spike Mil­li­gan

Amanda Hodges takes a closer look at one of Great Bri­tain’s com­edy icons.

This England - - Contents - Amanda Hodges

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.

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