REVIEW: SPIKE - Ian Hislop & Nick Newman's story of comic icon is moving and hilarious

Spike at the Oxford Playhouse.Picture by Pamela Raith
Spike at the Oxford Playhouse.Picture by Pamela Raith

COMEDY seems to be under the critical microscope more than ever these days.

So-called cancel culture, comics breaking down taboos (or reinforcing offensive stereotypes, depending on your point of view), and what represents free speech are discussed in more detail than whether a joke is funny or not.

So it’s timely that in their latest play, satirist, journalist and broadcaster Ian Hislop and his long-time writing partner and cartoonist Nick Newman put the man considered to be the godfather of modern comedy – Spike Milligan – under their lens.

Read more: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman share the story behind their comic triumph SPIKE

Milligan, who wrote and performed in the ground-breaking Goon Shows of the 1950s, remains revered in comedy circles for inspiring a new generation of comedians. The radio show, which ran for more than 200 episodes over nearly 10 years and also starred comedy greats Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, was a huge influence on the likes of Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe and can justifiably claim to have changed the face of comedy.

So it must have been a no-brainer for the BBC to commission the series and throw their full weight behind it? Well, not quite.

Heavily based on letters exchanged between Milligan (played by Robert Wilford) and his BBC bosses, SPIKE explores the battles and tensions that raged for years over the making of the show. It chronicles Spike’s frustrations as his efforts to break down barriers are repeatedly thwarted by the Beeb’s Old School establishment – not to mention arguments over money.

The play cleverly compares the BBC bosses with Milligan’s army commanders in the Second World War, with superb stage work and lighting transferring the action from Auntie’s studios to the battlefields of Monte Cassino in the flick of a switch.

The horrors of the conflict, during which he was injured and shell-shocked, help explain Milligan’s sometimes precarious mental state. SPIKE tackles his battles with depression and suicidal thoughts head-on, but the play does not go headlong down the hackneyed ‘tears of a clown’ route.

As Hislop told the Playhouse audience at an after-show Q&A on Tuesday: “We didn’t want to make mental illness the focus. Lots of people suffer from mental illness, but only one man wrote the Goon Shows.”

The whole cast look like they are having a ball, recreating the golden days of radio, and this transmits itself to the audience. Patrick Warner is pitch perfect as the egotistical but neurotic Sellers, joyfully throwing references to Inspector Clouseau and Doctor Strangelove into the mix alongside Goon Show regulars Bluebottle and Major Bloodnok.

The jolly but grounded Secombe (played with aplomb by Jeremy Lloyd) is a much more sympathetic character, acting as the peacemaker when creative tensions between Sellers and Milligan rise.

Robert Mountford, sporting a magnificent moustache, steals scene after scene as the reactionary BBC executive, while a special mention must go to Margaret Cabourn-Smith’s turn as the sound effects queen. You will be amazed how much effort goes into making an explosion sound just right.

But it’s Wilford who holds the performance together, switching between traumatised soldier, wise-cracking performer and tortured writer effortlessly, while also mastering a silly voice or two.

Much like their Bafta-nominated The Wipers Times, which also featured comedic creativity borne from the battlefield, this is obviously a labour of love for Hislop and Newman – both big fans of Spike’s work.

But most importantly, it’s extremely funny. Not surprising though, considering the writers (by their own admission) shamelessly stole the jokes from Milligan himself. And who can blame them? It’s comedy that has stood the test of time and is now getting the chance to be enjoyed by a new audience.


See SPIKE at the Oxford Playhouse, Beaumont Street tonight (Saturday, Oct 1). Tickets from