Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Memories of Spike (part two)

spikeDM0612_468x660 If you missed Part one you can find it here.


During the Second World War Spike served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery, as Gunner Milligan, 954024. He rose to the rank of Lance Bombardier and was about to be promoted to Bombardier when he was wounded in action in Italy. Subsequently hospitalised for a mortar wound to the right leg and shell shock, he was demoted by an unsympathetic commanding officer (identified in his war diaries as Major Evan 'Jumbo' Jenkins) back to Gunner.

After his hospitalisation, Milligan drifted through a number of rear-echelon military jobs in Italy, eventually becoming a full-time entertainer. He played the guitar with a jazz and comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio in concert parties for the troops. After being demobilised, Milligan stayed on in Italy playing with the Trio but returned to England soon after. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group he described as composed "of bomb-happy squaddies") he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays that displayed many of the key elements of what would later become The Goon Show.

Milligan's professional entertainment career (after being demobbed) was on the radio. He appeared in – but more importantly wrote for a number of shows. His big break came in 1951 when he got the opportunity to write for a new show originally cowering under the unwieldy title Crazy People, featuring Radio's own Crazy Gang - "The Goons" subsequently truncated to simply The Goon Show.


Broadly speaking the Goons engaged in 'sound cartooning'. The kind of things that you would expect in a Tex Avery cartoon would happen on the show, holes could be picked up and carried to where needed and doors drawn on walls would open afterwards. The Wikipedia entry on The Goons is quite detailed and I would recommend you read the section on Surrealism. As a lead in to my favourite sketch I'll reproduce the section on transference of time:

If time causes calendars, calendars can cause time. If you drop a bundle of 1918 calendars on German troops in 1916, then they will all go home, thus shortening the war. (World War One (aka!), 22nd episode/ 8th series.) Two other shows with extreme examples of time transference are The Treasure in the Tower, 5th episode/8th series; and The Mysterious Punch Up the Conker, 19th episode / 7th series. (The famous 'What time is it Eccles?' scene.)

It was a huge success with the fans but not with the powers that be. From 1952 to 1956 alone, the producer, Peter Eton, faced thirty separate attempts from within the BBC to have the show taken off the air. Why?


Secombe, Bentine, Milligan and Sellers

Although The Goon Show did not deal explicitly in political satire, it was widely regarded at the time as subversive, both by the BBC hierarchy and the chief scriptwriter, Milligan. Among the prime objects of Goon humour were authority figures and officialdom generally, and the show specialised in sending up a whole host of hallowed British institutions. Privilege, patriotism, the parliament, the military and the Empire were all frequently lampooned. – Stuart Ward, British culture and the end of empire, p94

One has simply to look back on Milligan's life to see where all of that came from. Don't let the Irish-sounding name fool you, Spike was actually born in India, the son of a working-class military family in the dying days of the British Raj; he was fifteen before he returned to England, to Catford specifically, a stark contrast to India, and then a few years later he was off to war. He has said in so many words:

If all my youth had been spent in Catford, there would have been no Goon Show. . . I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but I had had enough of the British Empire. The Goons gave me a chance to knock people my father and I had to call ‘Sir’. Colonels. Chaps . . . with educated voices who were really bloody scoundrels.

Really what Milligan was doing was taking the anarchic comedy of the Marx Brothers and giving it his own peculiarly British twist. This is not to belittle him as an innovator but simply to point out that everyone builds on what has gone before; they develop it or react against it and Milligan did a bit of both.

When he began writing for the BBC, British radio was very mannered and polite and its shows were driven by catchphrases, as was the case the many music hall routines. The Goons maintained this tradition at least, one of the most popular being Little Jim's only line in most episodes (voiced by Milligan) where he simply exclaims: "He's fallen in the wah-taa!" Wikipedia has a section on The Goon Show running jokes here. Catchphrases from The Goon Show form the longest index entry in the 2002 publication of The Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases.

Just as in a cartoon there are loose rules that exist in the gooniverse. Broadly speaking they're rules of convenience and conventional logic does not apply. To my mind the best example of this is the 'What Time is it, Eccles?' sketch from the Goon Show episode 'Mysterious Punch-up of the Conker'. The voices are Spike Milligan (Eccles – an amiable, well-meaning man with no wits or understanding) and Peter Sellers (Bluebottle – a young, lustful boy scout with a squeaky voice who normally gets blown up in each episode – shades of Kenny from South Park there):


What time is it Eccles?


Err, just a minute. I, I've got it written down 'ere on a piece of paper. A nice man wrote the time down for me this morning.


Ooooh, then why do you carry it around with you Eccles?


Well, umm, if a anybody asks me the ti-ime, I ca-can show it to dem.


Wait a minute Eccles, my good man...


What is it fellow?


It's writted on this bit of paper, what is eight o'clock, is writted.


I know that my good fellow. That's right, um, when I asked the fella to write it down, it was eight o'clock.


Well then. Supposing when somebody asks you the time, it isn't eight o'clock?


Ah, den I don't show it to dem.




[Smacks lips] Yeah.


Well how do you know when it's eight o'clock?


I've got it written down on a piece of paper!


Oh, I wish I could afford a piece of paper with the time written on.




'Ere Eccles?




Let me hold that piece of paper to my ear would you? - 'Ere. This piece of paper ain't goin'.


What? I've been sold a forgery!


No wonder it's stopped at eight o'clock.


Oh dear.


You should get one of them tings my grandad's got.




His firm give it to him when he retired.




It's one of dem tings what it is that wakes you up at eight o'clock, boils the kettil, and pours a cuppa tea.


Ohhh yeah! What's it called? Um...


My granma.


Ohh... Ohh, ah wait a minute. How does she know when it's eight o'clock?


She's got it written down on a piece of paper!

Now, it's funny on paper. But it's hysterical live:

Years later this inspired a poem:

Twelve O'Clock, Union City

(for Spike Milligan)

I wanted the time
so a nice woman
wrote it down for me.

It was eight o'clock
and it was true then
and twice a day it

becomes true again
but then it isn't
so true anymore.

What goes round comes round.

9th May 1997

The Prince of Wales was a huge fan of The Goons (he even made his own Goon-esque skits) so either the show didn't live up to biting social satire that Milligan claimed he was aiming for, or Charles just didn't get the joke. Milligan caused a bit of a kerfuffle by calling him a "grovelling little bastard" on television in 1994 when he received the British Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Milligan later faxed him, saying: "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?" A knighthood (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) was finally awarded in 2000.


Milligan wrote nonsense verse for children, the best of which is comparable with that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and (while depressed) serious poetry. His most famous poem, On the Ning Nang Nong, was voted the UK's favourite comic poem in 1998 in a nationwide poll:

<On the Ning Nang Nong

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!

This is not the poem that I remember best, however. It is a simple four-liner called 'Rain':


There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they're ever so small
That's why rain is thin.

While still at school I parodied this poem:

The Irish

There are holes in their heads
Where their brains get in
But they're ever so small
That's why they are dim.

Spike was not beyond a parody himself:

I must go down to the sea again

I must go down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my shoes and socks there -
I wonder if they're dry?

Or just taking the mickey:

A Silly Poem

Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
I’ll draw a sketch of thee,
What kind of pencil shall I use?
2B or not 2B?

Although best known for his nonsense poetry, Spike also wrote serious poetry. You can listen to him read some of his poems about depression here. But here are a couple of gentler pieces.

Love Song

If I could write words
Like leaves on an Autumn Forest floor
What a bonfire my letters would make.
If I could speak words of water
You would drown when I said
‘I love you’.

When I Suspected

There will be a time when it will end.
Be it parting
Be it death
So each passing minute with you
            Pendulummed with sadness.
So many times
I looked long into your face.
            I could hear the clock ticking.


Life_of_brian_03 Probably Milligan's best known film role was an accident. While the Pythons were filming The Life of Brian it just so happened that Milligan was on holiday in Tunisia where the filming was taking place – he was visiting his old World War II battlefields. The Pythons were alerted to this one morning and he was promptly included in the scene that just happened to be being filmed.

In an interview in Australia he remembers the occasion:

Do you know what they never told me? They said, 'we want you to make up a speech to the followers of the slipper, a Biblical little speech to these people, with your back to them'. And so I said.

Surely they that goeth away do not seek the sun, they that cometh unto us do wee the serpent, and the apple of eel. We that go, therefore, wherefore, and though shall see, therefore, and thou shall cometh again. Surely as the day is red ...

I went on talking this shit, all the while, they're being told to move away. So when I turned, there was nobody there. They hadn't told me. That's why I walked sideways off the screen. – 'I think I caught up' with Spike Milligan, Union Recorder, v75 no 5

He disappeared again in the afternoon before he could be included in any of the close-up or publicity shots for the film.

After The Life of Brian, the main film that I associate Milligan with is The Bed-Sitting Room which he wrote along with John Antrobus. It started off as a one-act play which was adapted to a longer play in 1963 revived in 1967 and finally filmed in 1970 featuring such luminaries of the day as Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Michael Hordern, Marty Feldman, Harry Secombe and Milligan himself.

One critic memorably described it as being "like Samuel Beckett, but with better jokes".

The play is set in a post-apocalyptic London, nine months after World War III ("the Nuclear Misunderstanding"), which lasted for two minutes and twenty eight seconds – "including the signing of the peace treaty". Anyone who has read my novel, Stranger than Fiction, will recognise my nod to Milligan there.

Michael Coveney describes it as:

a Cold War farce three years after "the next war", a ragbag of sketches, visual jokes and satirical barbs limed in a premonition of radiation-infused doom which climaxed in a cannibalistic ritual and, literally, the last dance, the extermination waltz. – The Independent, 23 June 2009

The whole Independent article is worth a read because it details Milligan's pretty much forgotten stage career, something I knew next to nothing of.

Here's the first ten minutes of the film. You'll note that the credits are in order of height.

One other point of note. If anyone is interested in what Jonathan Payne (the hero of my first two novels) looks like then take note of the short, bald man in the underground train; that's Arthur Lowe and he was the model for Jonathan.

This, of course, was not the only time we see Milligan on screen. Most people would assume his first screen role would have been in 1952's commercial flop Down Among the Z Men which drew heavily on his work for the Goons and in fact starred all four of the original members, but there were two appearances before this, in 1951, in Let's Go Crazy and Penny Points to Paradise along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe.

The only film I'm aware of in which he was involved as a writer – as opposed to an ad-libber – was The Great McGonagall, which featured Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria although he did 'write', and feature in, the sixth segment of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, 'Sloth' which is a series of silent film clips showing people not being active. I seem to recall his part involved him standing under a tree with his hands in his pockets waiting for an apple to drop.


depression Spike had his first major nervous breakdown in late 1951 (just after the start of Series 3 of The Goon Show) and spent two months in hospital. The pressure of writing the shows is given as a major contributing reason for the breakdown and the break-up of his first marriage. He was eventually diagnosed with manic depression as it was known then (bipolar disorder) and battled it for the rest of his life.

On one occasion, Peter Sellers had to lock his door against a knife-wielding Milligan; on another, Sellers and Harry Secombe broke into Milligan's dressing room, fearing he was suicidal. Over the years he did in fact attempt suicide. Eventually lithium was found to be the most effective treatment. He suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten mental breakdowns. He was hospitalised more than once. His major coping strategy for this seems to have been his endlessly prolific writing which he states he absolutely had no choice but to do in order to extricate himself from the terrible blacknesses he fell into. Eventually, in 1994, he collaborated with Anthony Clare and they brought out a book, Depression and How to Survive It.


spike-milligan404_678027c Reading back over all of this I feel it is such a cursory portrayal of the man. I've mentioned nothing of his infidelities, his large family, his work for animal rights or his charity work. For a man who started his career late in life (he was 33) he achieved so much. In trawling through the Net looking for stuff to include here I discovered for example that from the 1960s onwards Spike was a regular correspondent with the writer Robert Graves. Milligan's letters to Graves usually addressed a question to do with classical studies. Now, I would never have imagined that. Nor would I have imagined him being passionate about archaeology but it seems he was.

What I can say is that my life has been indelibly marked by its contact with him. Like all my heroes he wasn't perfect. He had a bad temper. He even shot a boy with an airgun for coming onto his property once. But then who's perfect? Language was never the same for me after him. He was every bit as important in my development as a writer as Philip Larkin and William Carlos Williams were.

He was a professional amateur, a dabbler; he was having too much fun to treat what he was doing too seriously and so there are rough edges everywhere with him but that is a part of his charm. He had no airs and graces. And when he died the papers gave him the most coverage anyone had had since the death of Winston Churchill. If you've enjoyed anything I've touched on here I would heartily recommend you follow up. At the very least treat yourself to a copy of Puckoon.




Kass said...

This is so rich! Why aren't they rerunning his bits on TV? If they can rerun Benny Hill, certainly there's room for Spike. I love the time-on-a-paper piece and the 'holes in the sky - holes in their heads' bit. I really enjoyed getting reacquainted with Spike. Thanks

Kass said...

....oh, and the awards acceptance speech. Priceless.

Cy Mathews said...

Thanks for this, it makes a lot of really good points about his work. I liked your "time" poem too.

I remember seeing "The Bed Sitting Room" on TV years ago and loving it. For a while, there seemed to be no existing prints - and certainly no video or dvd transfers - so it's great to see it up on YouTube.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

So many comments on this article that I'm not sure where to start (or even if I can remember them all).

1) I remember my Dad reciting - or maybe playing on the record player, I'm not sure - the whole Eccles/Bluebottle time sketch when I was quite small. And of course I found it very very funny, and it's the bit of the Goon Show that's always stuck in my head. (Well, I am a bit young for it.)

2) Somehow I never knew that 'There are holes in the sky' was by Spike Milligan. Although seeing as my Dad used to recite it to me, maybe it's not surprising.
I discovered some of his poems myself as a child - there are 3 in 'I Like This Poem' (1977), a brilliant collection of poetry chosen by children, and I'm not sure anyone else has that many.

3) I don't remember you mentioning before that Jonathan Payne looks like Arthur Lowe - though you may have done - but as soon as I read that, I said out loud 'Oh my god, so he does'. And since I'm halfway through 'Living with the Truth' again at the mo, I now know the picture that will be in my head...

Elisabeth said...

This has been such a treat, trolling through your biography of Milligan and all the side clips and slide shows.
I remember the Goons from my adolescence. They had a cult following at university.
The poignancy of Milligan's life has long saddened me and now to read that he is one of your muses, if it's possible for a muse to be male, I find wonderful. I too shall look out for the resemblance to Jonathon.

Paul said...

Spike was a genius, without doubt. "The Bedsitting Room" is close to Beckett. Much of his work is underestimated as literature, absurdist modernism. He wrote one of my favourite poems. There is something so melancholy and haunting in it, even for a non-Christian like me...

I thought I saw Jesus on a tram.
I said, "Are you Jesus?"
He said, "Yes, I am."

Jim Murdoch said...

I don't understand what it is about Spike and TV, Kasscho. Certainly his relationship with its bosses was mixed but that's no reason after all this time to keep him from his public. You mentioned Benny Hill whose work has dated badly although we watched him regularly growing up and enjoyed him. Spike's radio work is always being repeated in the same way that Python is always being repeated but not Q for some reason.

Of all his work the 'What time is it?' sketch is, without a doubt, my all-time favourite. It never ceases to delight me when I hear it. I never grew up with The Goons so I don't hold them in the same regard as Python but I'd quite happily stop whatever I was doing to listen to any of them (and I'll have only heard a fraction) because their enthusiasm always cheers me up. Imagine getting paid to do stuff like that.

Cy, yes, I was so pleased to find that someone had chopped it up and uploaded it. There are a lot of clips from his various Q series there too.

Catherine, oh, yes, in the very first chapter I mention that and the fact that the resemblance didn't exactly displease him. The important thing to bear in mind is that its Lowe and not Captain Mainwaring; Jonathan is not a bumbler. And if you're interested the model in my head for Truth was the actor Paul Nicholas as he would have appeared in Just Good Friends. This is the only time I've ever had such a clear picture of any characters.

Elisabeth, nothing beats a good troll does it? I suppose a giant could beat a troll.

And Paul, that's the thing with much of Spike's poetry, it feels so inconsequential and yet it really isn't. As for the comparison between Beckett and Milligan, yes, without a doubt. I have always had a great affection for both. My last novel is called Milligan and Murphy in a nod to both.

Art Durkee said...

This is interesting to read in the context of the new Monty Python documentary, which is being serially premiered in the USA on the IFC cable network. (Independent Film Channel) Along with episodes of Python, and all the films.

In the first part of the documentary, where the guys talk about their influences and early years, practically all of them mention The Goon Show as being essential to their comedic growth. More than one of them mentioned how daily life would stop at home so that they could sit down by the radio to listen to the Goons do their weird thing.

There's a lineage here where the influences not only move us from one group to the other, but also express a certain style of comedy that is often underplayed or overlooked. The thread goes from the Goons to the Pythons to Kids in the Hall, and so forth. ALL of these contain that element of Dada and/or surrealism that is so essential to the humor. All of them are quite learned brands of comedy that go in unpredictable directions, and can be quite strange and silly, but in mind-blowing ways. This is not your usual sophomoric humor, not your usual standup jokes, not your usual jokes about people and relationships.

A comedian I like very much is Christopher Titus, who tells long narratives about the absurdity of life based on his incredibly dysfunctional family background. He makes it both amazing surreal in the telling, but also very recognizably human.

All of this is in the lineage of Spike Milligan. So all the gods bless Spike!

Art Durkee said...

Spike's poetry shares a connection with James Broughton's. Both of these men made poems that are superficially very easy, even silly, sometimes quite playful and fun. And yet underneath there's a lot of wisdom and serious thought going on, like a hidden underground river. James Broughton was also, like Spike, a polymath who worked brilliantly on several media. I hadn't really made that parallel connection in my own mind, even to myself, till reading through your material; but I think the connection is there.

Marion McCready said...

How interesting to see his influence on your writing! I really knew very little about Milligan before reading this.

Jim Murdoch said...

I saw the Python documentary a couple of weeks ago, Art - I assume it's the same one - and, yes, I've heard them all talk about their debt to Milligan in the past.

I watched a clip of Christopher Titus and I have to say I enjoyed his humour. He began by talking about how 2/3 of the USA were now dysfunction families and that now made them - he, of course, said "us" - the norm. That appealed.

I see what you mean about Broughton. Typically he's not someone I was aware of but that's so often the case. That was why I wanted to write this article because there are people out there who had never heard of Spike Milligan just as there are people out there, one New Jersey policewoman at least, who had never heard of Bob Dylan. (If the last bit is unknown to you click here.)

And, Sorlil, that's what you get for a) being young and b) living at a time when the BBC repeat all the wrong programmes.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Oh dear, I'm embarrassed now that I didn't remember the Arthur Lowe reference in the novel itself, Jim! But it's very much stuck in my head now.

And Truth as Just Good Friends Paul Nicholls (or vice versa) - perfect.

iODyne said...

As the sharply-worded Catherine said above "so much to comment on in this post, I cannot retain enough of it" but I must say that Australians are lucky that the national radio broadcaster has run The Goon Shows recordings, weekly for decades and I grew up with them.
'He's fallen in the wa-ater!' has always been a constant catchcry for anything silly.
Miliganimals, AdolfHitler and My Part In His Downfall etc - we bought all the Puffin paperbacks.

2 words: Woy Woy

Jim Murdoch said...

What's interesting, Catherine, is that my wife sees Eric Idle playing Truth. I can see that too, if he was younger.

And, Marshall-Stacks, yes, well Milligan had a long-standing connection with Australia even since his parents emigrated there. I have a video of a concert he gave there late in his career. He's not at his best – he was old – but he was still very funny. I love the way he laughs at his own jokes.

And 'Woy Woy' right back at ya.

McGuire said...

Love Spike. I have watched a fair bit of his comedy online. Eccles time is brilliant. One of my favourites.

I only have a few books: The Murphy, Part 1 of my part in hitlers downfall, and his book of childrens poetry and his more serious poetry called - Hidden Words. All very good. But Spike does write in broad strokes. He gets away with it, because it's part slap stick, and if you take it too seriously (analytically) you really miss the point of a jolt of laughter.

Nice intro to the man.
Will forever be laughing at and with..

p./s. my scanner is goosed, but should be fixed in the week or so then I'll send that front cover. cheers.

Conda Douglas said...

My, my what an excellent and entertaining post, Jim. I had no idea Spike Mulligan corresponded with Robert Graves (a favorite poet of mine). And of course, in America I grew up with only bits and pieces of Spike Mulligan's humor. I like Kasscho's idea--reruns!

Dick said...

'Cursory' not, Jim. It's an excellent commentary on the life and work of one of the most important figures in post-war British culture.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don't have very many of his books either, McGuire, but I do have Murphy and Puckoon and some of his poetry. One of the Xmas presents my wife bought for her granddaughter was a large hard backed collection of his poetry. My daughter bought me The Essential Spike Milligan too.

I was the same, Conda, and that is the problem when you're presented with a very public figure like Spike you assume that everything there is is on display when so often it's not.

And, Dick, thank you but really once you start examining the man's output really all I've produced here, all I intended to produce, was an overview, a way to pique interest. I'd hate to think that people who've never heard of Spike have skimmed the post and not had a look at the videos and listened to the music. The TV stations may not be repeating his work but the Web is full of it.

mightiermouse said...

I have only one criticism to make of your posting. That Spike was 33 when he started his "career" is absolute codswallop. You presume that you need to be "young" or below the age of "33" to have a career. That is total garbage. Not everyone find their "career" at the age of 7 - did you? I highly doubt it. His age is highly irrelevant. That he did, that's what is most important.

Jim Murdoch said...

As regards the age Spike was when he started his entertainment career, mightiermouse, I’m simply noting that it was thirty-three and that’s a little old for starting a career like that especially when you compare him to the likes of Morecambe and Wise who were “in the business” from when they were kids. Then you have someone like Susan Boyle whose ‘career’ didn’t begin—i.e. she didn’t being earning money for doing what she had been clearly capable of doing for many years before—until she was 47. My comment regarding Spike is purely an observation not any kind of criticism. I also don’t think of myself as having a career—never have. I’ve had jobs that paid the bills and that was that but I never stayed in one long enough to have anything you might call a career. Now I have a job that doesn’t pay the bills.

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