Spike Milligan’s view was that the world was run by idiots. It’s a valid point

British-Irish actor, writer and comedian Spike Milligan 

Getty Images
British-Irish actor, writer and comedian Spike Milligan Getty Images

SPIKE Milligan once tried to kill his friend and Goon Show partner Peter Sellers with a potato knife – which sounds a little comedic, unless you happened to be the person about to be treated like a thick-skinned King Edward.

The absurdist comic’s life was, well, in many ways absurd – and his irreverence was certainly legendary. Once, when a journalist greeted him with “How are you?”, the lithium-dependent Milligan harrumphed and declared: “What a cliched question!”

And of course, on hearing Prince Charles declare himself a Spike superfan during a television awards ceremony, the comic legend grinned and said dismissively: “What a little grovelling b******.”

There is little doubt that Spike Milligan, Goon Show creator and the UK godfather of surrealist comedy, the man who created the template for a range of satire shows in the early 1960s and most certainly Monty Python, is one of the most important figures in the history of entertainment.

But how do you write a play about the life and times of the man who once said of himself: “I’m not acting crazy – I’m the genuine article” – and make it funny?

And there are his professional relationships to deconstruct; how do you dissect the dynamic between Milligan and his radio show co-star Peter Sellers, and the part played in the Goons by Harry Secombe? More importantly, how can you possibly distil this colourful – yet at times coal black and tormented – 83-year life into one hour and fifty minutes of theatrical delight?

That was the task facing Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and cartoonist Nick Newman. In a Glasgow hotel over lunch, the pair, who have been friends since schooldays and later at Oxford University (they created the satirical student newspaper, Passing Wind) explain how the idea for their new play Spike came about – and how a nice man in the BBC provided them with a brilliant narrative device.

“After we wrote The Wipers Times [their play based on the creation of the First World War trenches newspaper], we were asked to pitch for an adaptation of Spike Milligan’s War Memoirs for television,” Hislop recalls. “So, we went to this meeting with a television executive, and we presented this idea of how we would tell the story. We said – ‘Look, here’s what we’ll do; we’ll start the series in the BBC studio with an episode of The Goon Show, and then flash backwards’.”

So far so good? “So, we thought. But then the television person making the decision said to us: ‘Who are the Goons?’”

Hislop grins: “Right then we knew that we weren’t going to get the commission. But it also made us think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did a play in which by the end of it everyone did know who the Goons were?’”

But what the BBC taketh away (in not awarding the series contract), it also giveth. Newman explains: “A very nice producer at the BBC gave us all of Spike’s internal correspondence from the 1950s. This was fantastic information. And we learned there was a real battle going on between Spike and the BBC about content, about how performers were treated, all sorts of things – which drove Spike even crazier than he’d been since he was blown up in the war.”

Terence Alan Milligan was born in India, “an Army brat”, the son of an Irish captain in the British Raj. “Spike’s dad liked to dress up as a cowboy in his spare time,” grins Hislop, indicating that Milligan was introduced to surreal comedy from an early age.

Young Terence was conscripted at the outbreak of the Second World War and served in the North Africa and Italian campaigns. But at Monte Cassino Milligan said he was “blown up by a mortar shell – and never came back down”. Hospitalised, he suffered from bipolar disorder and devastating depression for the rest of his life. Yet, on release from the army, Milligan worked as a musician, chose the name “Spike” (after a bandleader of the time), went on to develop his absurdist, counterculture satirical humour – and eventually forced himself upon the safe, cosy BBC.

It wasn’t easy. In the post-war era, Auntie was stuck on gentle variety shows and warm, but cheeky comedy from the likes of Arthur Askey and Ted Ray. Milligan however, through persistence, managed to lob an anarchic hand grenade into Broadcasting House in the form of The Goon Show. No-one had heard anything like this madness before. Hislop recalls an example. “Just a year after the Coronation, Spike did an entire episode parodying the occasion,” says Hislop. “So, we had ‘Sir Richard Dingleby’ doing the hushed voice narration. Spike was the first to do that, and it was deeply funny.”

Newman adds, smiling: “Spike would pastiche world news and loved to laugh at those in power. In every show, Secombe [the peacekeeper between rivals Milligan and Sellers in real life] is the military hero, full of derring-do, but it always goes wrong. And every patrician character Spike wrote about, such as his Goons character Major Bloodnok, appears as ‘a bad un’, either embezzling money, revealing cowardice or singing Deutschland Uber Alles.

“And of course, the BBC called him in to take him to task on this, saying, ‘Spike, in your work the officer class is universally panned!’ And he looked at them innocently and said, ‘Are they?’”

Milligan, who died 20 years ago from liver failure, also went to war over the favouritism shown to film star Sellers. “Spike once wrote to the management claiming he’d have to write double scripts in order to accommodate Sellers’s film career,” says Newman. “He wasn’t happy at all.”

Hislop and Newman found the Spike Letters to be pure gold. “The BBC wrote letters back to Spike, some tried to be funny, but just couldn’t compete,” says Hislop. “And some were so pompous they were hysterical. So, we decided to incorporate a lot of this into the play.”

The former Spitting Image writers like to write about troublemakers. Yet, they didn’t come to appreciate The Goon Show, the radio team formed by Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers in 1951, in tandem.

Newman grew up listening to the Goons in Singapore and loved it, then became a committed Spike fan after reading Milligan’s wartime memoirs. Hislop, however, was a late arrival. “It wasn’t part of my childhood,” he admits. “I thought it was just noise. Then I read Spike’s books, which I absolutely loved. These were war memoirs of a completely different kind, with great jokes and terrific pathos.”

Later on, as editor of Private Eye, Hislop became an even bigger fan of the man when he “inherited” Milligan. “Spike was involved in the early days of the Eye with my predecessor. When I took over, he said to me, ‘Spike Milligan will send things in. Just print them.’ And I said ‘What, anything?’ He said, ‘Yes, because it’s Spike.’ And I agreed. Even if the stuff was mad, it was still funny. Still Spike.”

Hislop adds: “Spike couldn’t not be funny. For example, one day, unplanned, he wandered into the Private Eye office, and I said to him, out of curiosity, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he laughed and said, ‘You’ve got to be somewhere!’ And it’s so true. And yet so melancholic.”

Newman agrees that the Milligan mind worked in mysterious, but very funny ways. “One of the earliest Spike cartoons that caught my attention was a drawing of a man on an operating table with his legs amputated. You see the surgeon stand over him, saying, ‘And of course it doesn’t necessarily mean you will paint like Toulouse-Lautrec!’ I love that cartoon. It’s so black, and wonderful, yet it was also poorly drawn. It told me that you don’t need to be a great artist to be a great cartoonist.”

As the writing partners chat about Spike Milligan’s work – his cartoons, his memoirs such as Hitler: My Part in His Downfall – it’s evident that writing this play has been a labour of love. But how did they contend with the darkness in the life of their comedy hero? What of Spike Milligan’s mental illness? It’s a feature of his life so prevalent it can’t be ignored. (He once attacked Sellers – who also had mental health problems – in a fit of temper.) Yet, to dwell too long on the bipolarity won’t help the cause of a celebratory comic play?

Hislop agrees. “Yes, we had to cover it. There are two incidents in the play in which he has breakdowns. So, we don’t shy away from that reality.”

Could it have been the case that Milligan’s dark mind somehow facilitated the madcap humour he came up with, that it was perhaps a coping mechanism? Being so close to death in Italy, and experiencing such terror, could lead you to view life through a rather cracked, altogether more cynical lens? “I think that’s true,” Hislop agrees in soft voice. “I think Spike would always have been funny, but perhaps the PTSD gave him a real edge.”

He adds: “Do you know, that during wartime when men suffered from shell shock, officers would tell them they should be exposed to even more loud noise, to help them get over it?” He offers a wry smile. “They’d put you in a room and set off mortars all around you. A sort of aversion therapy.”

Newman believes Milligan’s humour was formed from traumatic experience. “You get the impression from his war memoirs that Spike didn’t have such a grudge against authority until he was blown up. And you can understand how this informed his opinion.” He adds: “Listen to every episode of The Goon Show. They all end with a big explosion, a vast mortar bang ... ”

Hislop augments the argument. “In one Goon Show he blows everything up. You know, the BBC once said to Spike that some listeners were complaining the show was too noisy.” He laughs. “Spike’s suggestion was, ‘Well, tell them to stand further away from the radio’.”

Spike Milligan also wrote a parody of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he called Nineteen Eighty-Five, and that too ended with a big explosion. Heavy symbolism, suggesting the world could blow up at any time. He’s not wrong? “No, he’s not, thanks to Mr Putin,” agrees Hislop. “Spike’s view was that the world was run by idiots. And it’s a valid satirical point.”

There is little doubting Milligan’s comic genius, his talent for highlighting the absurd. But is there a chance that perhaps some of his war tales may have been, well, exaggerated for comic effect? Newman smiles in agreement. “Spike tells the story of having been blown up, and when recovering in hospital a nurse comes in and says to him, ‘You’re looking better today.’ And he says, ‘You’re looking at the wrong end. My piles are killing me’.”

Hislop recalls Milligan’s tale of marching forward with his gang of men on a mission and coming across a rock on which was chalked: “World War Two – this way” – with an arrow pointing. “Did that happen? Who knows,” says Hislop. “But it’s a good line.”

Did this suggestion of Milligan rewriting history for comic effect impact upon their telling of the play? “Thankfully his daughter, Jane, came to see the show early on and we suggested to her that in some of his accounts her father may be a slightly unreliable narrator,” says Hislop. “And she said,‘Yes.’

“And she then gave us some lovely little personal insights that helped us understand Spike. She explained he was always joking; he simply couldn’t not come up with a gag. At home, for example, he had an intercom system in the house and when he wrote up a joke or a poem he’d ring round the house to each of the children [he had six, from three marriages, two illegitimately – and his offspring all got on] and test the reaction of whoever was in.”

The Goon Show was a massive success, running for nine years, but how could an anarchic mind such as Milligan’s pull it together every week? “That’s a good question,” says Hislop, “because originally his sketches were unrelated to anything ... there was lots of music, it was a mess. Then Peter Eaton came in from Drama with a militaristic attitude – ironically – and demanded the shows take the form of a three-act play. Spike was initially against the idea, because he’d have to write more, but he came round, realising if you create a story, it engages the audience all the way through.”

But what of Milligan and Sellers? Given their comic chemistry, they couldn’t have been at war continually? “Spike and Sellers would have a lot of fun together,” says Newman. “But then you’d discover the other reality, which was Spike was writing to the BBC complaining; ‘Why am I having to write two back-to-back episodes, just to accommodate Sellers because he’s going off to make a movie and make lots of money?’ But Harry, the peacekeeper, would remind Spike, ‘This is what we wanted. We’re making a radio show that’s being listened to by millions! This is it!’ And Spike, predictably, given his illness, says, ‘Is it? Is this as good as it gets?’”

What’s undeniable is that Spike Milligan had an uneven, hugely complicated and often rebellious life. On leaving India, for example, he risked being transported to the colonies because he wouldn’t swear allegiance to the Crown in order to achieve British citizenship. (He took an Irish passport). “He lived right on the edge ... but his desire to perform, and to turn everything into comedy, is extraordinary,” says Hislop.

That’s most certainly true. After the death of Harry Secombe, a renowned baritone, from cancer, Milligan said, ‘I’m glad he died before me, because I didn’t want him to sing at my funeral.’

Spike Milligan again created gales of laughter from luminaries such as Ben Elton and Denis Norden when, during an appearance on the British Comedy Awards in 1994, the tearful comic took to the lectern, wiped his eyes and declared, “About bloody time!” – and then added: “I’m not going to thank anybody. Because I did it all on my own.”

He didn’t of course. He had some great co-stars, supportive editors and three wives and six children, to encourage him along. Yet, who can deny him a great line?

And who can deny the comic genius of the man who wrote his own (very funny) obituary years before he passed away, which included the headstone inscription reading: “I told you I was ill.”

Spike, The King’s Theatre, Glasgow, November 1-5.