Ian Hislop's Spike at Oxford Playhouse tells story of eccentric comic genius Milligan
ECCENTRIC, brilliant, complicated and certainly ahead of his time, Spike Milligan is a true comic icon.
The force behind the Goon Show unleashed his offbeat, often surreal, humour on a 1950s Britain mired in austerity and still struggling to find its feet after the trauma of the Second World War. And to the families huddled round their wirelesses, he sounded like nothing else.
That sense of the ridiculous was forged by his life in the Army. Initially playing the clown – and jazz – to entertain bored fellow soldiers, he saw fierce action in North Africa and Italy where he was injured at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
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Alongside fellow Goons Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, the pioneering Milligan pushed the boundaries of comedy beyond what was then acceptable, all the time battling with the traditionalists of the BBC and his own mental health.
The story of the funnyman’s journey from entertaining the troops to Goon Show fame has long fascinated two other humorists – satirist, broadcaster and editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop and cartoonist and writer Nick Newman. And they have celebrated the ascent of the prolific poet, playwright, actor, writer, musician and comedian in a new play Spike, which has been playing this week at the Oxford Playhouse.
“We wanted to write something about Spike to coincide with the centenary of his birth,” says Nick.
“We didn’t quite hit that deadline, but we made it for his 104th! From the outset, we wanted it to be a celebration. There are too many biopics of comedians that tell the ‘tears of a clown’ story. And while you can’t escape Spike’s mental health issues, for us that was something that we saw as powering his comedy.”
Ian agrees: “We didn’t want an audience coming out thinking, ‘the really important thing about this person is that they were miserable and unhappy. And now so am I!’. We wanted them thinking, ‘the important thing about this person is that he produced all this!’ and it made a huge number of people very happy. And still does. There are two very grim incidents in the play involving Spike having breakdowns, both of which he immediately turned into comedy. That in itself is fascinating.”
The pair previously collaborated on the extraordinary Wipers Times – the true story of a satirical newspaper published from the front during the First World War. That was inspired by their love of satirical journalism. So what fuelled Spike? Had they been they fans of Milligan – who died in 2002 – when they were younger?
“Maybe,” says Nick, 64. “I remember when I was at school, just crying with laughter reading Spike’s war memoirs. And The Goon Show, I was brought up on it. My father was in the RAF and we were stationed in places like Singapore where there was no television. All we had to listen to was acetate recordings of The Goon Show. I can still quote chunks and bore for Britain.”
“I’m a lot younger than Nick,” laughs Ian, 62. “So I didn’t hear them first time around. I missed out.
“The pleasure for me of making this play was Nick saying, ‘this is really funny. Genuinely funny and brilliant writing.’ And I went back and listened to it and was gobsmacked.
“I’d become so used to the older Spike, and the older Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, that I’d forgotten that when they first came along, they’d just been demobbed, they were really young men, and they blew the place away. And the people in charge at the BBC couldn’t bear it. They had no idea what this group were doing and they wanted to shut them down, basically.
“They thought they were noisy and anarchic and up to no good. All of which was true: that’s what made them so attractive. So for me the challenge with the play was: can we bring all that to life onstage?”
The battles between Milligan and the Beeb are at the heart of the play.
“When we first began writing, we managed to get hold of a great cache of correspondence between Spike and the BBC, and from BBC management about Spike,” says Nick.
“That gave us the backbone of the story. Because it was quite clear that Spike, having been fighting Hitler and Mussolini for five years, went into the BBC and started fighting them.”
Ian goes further. “Spike always hated the BBC,” he says. “He was furious that they didn’t pay him enough money and didn’t respect him and were trying to get rid of him. There was something about institutions that he found incredibly annoying – but also productive and comforting. He wouldn’t have been who he was without them. After all, the BBC gave him two brilliant producers, who made the anarchic mess that was the Goons into one of the greatest radio programmes ever. So they both enabled and frustrated him.”
Nick elaborates: “Some of it was class warfare, I think, because Spike was working-class. As you can tell from his war memoirs, he didn’t have time for the officer class. And of course, after the war, all these officers went straight into the BBC and ran it. So Spike was at loggerheads with them on that basis.
“As we’ve tried to reflect in the play, the BBC management were always saying: there’s too much in The Goon Show about the war, it’s too noisy, there are too many explosions. And this was Spike exorcising his demons. One critic described the Goons as being “like shell-shock on radio”, and that says it all. That was Spike’s experience: he was shell-shocked.”
He goes on: “In the play, we show how satirical Spike was. There were conflicts with the BBC about Peter Sellers doing an impression of the Queen. The BBC hauled Spike in and said ‘you can’t parody the Queen!’ The BBC thought everyone was going to get put in the Tower. But then three years later, Prince Philip invited the Goons to be his representatives in the Cambridge tiddlywinks competition.”
Ian admits he is also keen to bring Spike’s work to new audiences.
“There’s nothing quite as much fun as hearing a joke delivered to a modern audience that was written 100 years ago, in the case of The Wipers Times, or with the Goons, 50 year ago,” he says. “And hearing today’s audience roar with laughter. You just think: that’s fabulous.”
Spike is at Oxford Playhouse tonight (Saturday). See oxfordplayhouse.com