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Thursday, 15 October 2009

Memories of Spike (part one)

stubble I've been trying to write this blog for over a year now. I kept meaning to start it but then I couldn't find my keys and then I realised just how much material I had to work with and the very thought of it made me tired. So, I'm not going to try and cover everything. What I'm going to talk about are the personal memories I have of Spike Milligan and why I'm so fond of him. I'm quite sure that someone else could write this and produce a completely different and equally valid list and that would be fine.

What I've learned to appreciate about Spike is his passion for language, that and his razor-sharp wit. In this article, the authors Clive Barker and Simon Trussler had this to say about him:

Milligan shows reality floundering on the wreckage of language, doubting the very possibility of communication through words. Our language has become either too refined or banal, sometimes both. It falsifies thought from the start. The only radical solution is to cut the ropes tying it to the fake, blowing it to pieces and putting the pieces together, in a new and revealing configuration. In the process of pursuing its inner logic, Milligan's language deviates more and more from something descriptively into something descriptively ordinary into something luminously funny, even to itself. - New Theatre Quarterly 71

The word 'surreal' is often used when talking about Milligan's humour. I think it's an overused word. In the vein of poets like Edward Lear and authors like Lewis Carroll before him Milligan revels in word play. Of him one can say quite happily: the pun is greater than the word. Bear the following in mind through as we work our way through these two posts:

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur… – Surrealism, Wikipedia

That said, when you do look at some of the poetry of the Surrealists it's easy to see why people might say something like that. "As beautiful as the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella," wrote the poet Isidore Ducasse which is not a million miles away from:

Who's that approaching riding a kilted monkey and carrying a mackintosh sackbut?

woody_allen_thumb These are exactly the kind of things that a young Woody Allen would come out with. In fact there is an interesting connection between the two writers:

One of the oddest things about the death of the late Spike Milligan was the willingness of so many newspapers to quote the same verdict on death which Spike was credited with saying before he died.

Here it is.

"I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

Good remark. Funny and true. What was odd about this was that Spike Milligan never said it. Or at least, if he did say it, he stole it from someone else. From Woody Allen. – 'Did I say that? You will, Spike, you will', The Independent, 20 March 2002

What Milligan did have to say on the matter, in fact, at his request, it's on his tombstone (although admittedly in Gaelic), was: "I told you I was ill."

Milligan above anything else was a poet. His actual poetry is amateurish but that's not what I'm talking about. Spike looked at the world, saw (or more often heard) one thing and interpreted it in his own unique way. He truly understood the metaphoricality of language. Let's take my opening paragraph. I originally wrote:

I kept meaning to start it and then I realised just how much material I had to work with and the very thought of it made me tired

but I couldn't resist inserting a Milliganesque remark. I saw the word 'start' and immediately thought about trying to start a car and what would stop me starting my car? Having no keys. Or I could've jumped on the word 'material' and written:

I kept meaning to start it and then I realised just how much material I had to work with and so I ran off a suit and two jackets instead.

groucho_marx_thumb This is exactly the kind of thing Woody Allen would do with language years later on the other side of the Atlantic. A simple example is: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." But then Groucho Marx had done it before him: "A child of five would understand this. Send somebody to fetch a child of five." Milligan was pioneer and quite rightly can be called the father of modern British comedy but he is also part of a long and continuing tradition.

Michael Winner hits the nail on the head when he describes Spike's brand of humour:

The great thing about Milligan's humour is that you feel there is danger in it. Anything can happen. A noise, a repetition of words, non sequiturs, outbursts at variance with reality – all these produce a mesmerising force. - Ed. Maxine Ventham, Spike Milligan: his part in our lives

I could start at the beginning and try and do this chronologically but it would soon fall to pieces as Milligan's life had as much contempt for time as his writing has. I'll get back to you on that point later. To be honest I've already got to the point but I'm adding this bit in to explain what I know is coming further down the page. Actually, now I think about it, none of this is later because it's all happened before you ever got to read it. Apologies for mucking around with your concept of time. I'll just move on. And see if I sink or swim.


It was his talent as a musician that first made me sit up and take notice of Spike which is probably right and proper as that's what he was for the first part of his career. Milligan spent much of his youth playing the trumpet and singing in various jazz bands. He could also play the saxophone, piano, guitar and ukulele.

I will have seen him on the tele before this but I don't think he really registered with me until in 1973 a most bizarre song was rereleased. It was 'The Ying Tong Song', originally a hit in 1956. It was stupid – and I don't mean that in a bad way – and it was infectious.

It actually dates back to his time during World War II. He came up with the piece along with fellow musician Harry Edgington (nicknamed Edge-ying-Tong).

Probably the next piece of music that I grew to love was the theme music to his series Q5 and the follow-ons, Q6, Q7, Kuwait and Q9. The final series was renamed There's a Lot of It About, after, according to Milligan's autobiography, the BBC felt the public might find Q10 too confusing. I have always had a fondness for this limping style of music which I suppose started off with Laurel and Hardy's theme music, 'The Cuckoo Song'. Anyway here is a link to an MP3 of the Q Theme. I'll talk about his TV work in a minute.


Has it been a minute already? Okay then. I must have dozed off.

montypython Milligan has a long and (at times) illustrious television career. Much of it was eminently forgettable (e.g. Curry and Chips written by Johnny Speight, creator of 'Alf Garnett' in which Milligan 'blacking up' to play Kevin O'Grady, a half-Pakistani/half-Irish factory worker) and to prove that, I've forgotten it, but a lot of it was not, particularly his Q series. Like Monty Python's Flying Circus that arrived on our screens in 1969, the members of which openly acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to Spike (and probably wouldn't have existed in the form we know them today without him), his shows produced widely variable material but his best stuff is very funny.

Having been exposed to the likes of Python it's hard to see what was so innovative about Spike's approach of comedy. His mainstay, the pun, had been around for years and had served the music hall stars like Tommy Trinder and George Formby well but his approach to sketches was unique. His did away the whole idea of a punch line or a payoff and the characters were often left at the end muttering, "What are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do now?" whilst shuffling zombie-like towards the camera or simply off the set. Either that or simply merging into another completely unrelated skit.

One of my favourite sketches was the 'Pakistani Daleks' and I can remember clearly the next day at school all of us wandering round saying, "Put it in the curry also" to just about everything:

A more representative sketch is this one here:

On doing research for this article I was surprised to find how much TV Spike did before Q. His first series was The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, followed by A Show Called Fred, Son of Fred, Milligan's Wake and The World of Beachcomber. You can read a nice potted history here. After 1982 his TV appearances other than as an interviewee were rare as were his film roles but then he was in his sixties. Not that he was idle.

Here is Spike on the Bob Monkhouse Show improvising for all he's worth – note the tribute to Groucho Marx in the piece.


180px-Adolfhitlermypartinhisdownfallspikemilligan Spike has written lots of books including a series of humorous army memoirs including Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall, "Rommel?" "Gunner Who?" and the later Where Have All the Bullets Gone? where he mixes outrageous anecdotes with often moving passages reflecting the nature of conflict on individuals but the book I hold dearest is Puckoon, which was first published in 1963. Even the foreword is funny:

This damn book nearly drove me mad. I started it in 1958 and doodled with it for 4 years. I don't think I could go through it all again, therefore, as this will be my first and only novel, I would like to thank those who helped me get it finished.

Which he does. And among the list is "Harry Edgington my old army pal, who cheered me up when I was down."

Spike, of course, had no regard for the fourth wall or any other wall come to think of it and within a couple of pages his protagonist, Dan Milligan, is having a heart to heart with the author of the book he finds himself in:

Puckoon In an attempt to break the white man's supremacy, Paul Robeson had once remarked 'All handsome men are slightly sunburned'. Milligan was no exception, he had also said it. He sat in the half upright. 'I tink,' he reflected, 'I tink I'll bronze me limbs.' He rolled his trousers kneewards revealing the like of two thin white hairy affairs of the leg variety. He eyed them with obvious dissatisfaction. After examining them he spoke out aloud. 'Holy God! Wot are dese den? Eh?' He looked around for an answer. 'Wot are dey?' he repeated angrily.


'Legs? LEGS? Whose legs?'


'Mine? And who are you?'

'The Author.'

'Author? Author? Did you write these legs?'


'Well, I don't like dem. I don't like 'em at all at all. I could ha' writted better legs meself. Did you write your legs?'


'Ahhh. Sooo! You got some one else to write your legs, some one who's a good leg writer and den you write dis pair of crappy old legs fer me, well mister, it's not good enough.'

'I'll try and develop them with the plot.'

'It's a dia-bo-likal liberty lettin' an untrained leg writer loose on an unsuspectin' human bean like me.'

It was a Dublin accent charged with theatrical innuendo; like all Irish he could make Good Morning sound like a declaration of war - which it usually was.

the bible He did eventually write others. More than a few in fact. His next novel, The Looney, did not, however, come out until 1987. In later years he turned his hand to rewriting classics like . . . well, er, The Bible: The Old Testament According to Spike Milligan, Robin Hood: According to Spike Milligan, Lady Chatterley's Lover: According to Spike Milligan and The Hound of the Baskervilles: According to Spike Milligan. You can read a Wikipedia entry covering all the books here.

With The Bible: The Old Testament According to Spike Milligan, Milligan admits "I just wanted to make fun of The Old Testament." He opens with "The Creation According To The Trade Unions" which states that:

God said, Let there be light; and there was light, but the Eastern Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.

Here's Spike reading the first couple of pages:

But I digress. And you can get tablets for that.

Eventually, not long before his death, Puckoon was finally turned into a film with a star-studded cast including the likes of Griff Rhys Jones, Milo O'Shea, Elliott Gould and Lord Attenborough ('Dickie' to his friends) many of whom waived their fees in lieu of a pint of Guinness. It was clearly a labour of love on the part of the entire cast. The one shame was the casting of Dan Milligan (for some reason renamed Dan Madigan); Sean Hughes worked his butt off but didn't quite pull it off – the part, not his butt – but this was mainly due to the fact he'd stepped in at the last minutes because the actor who had been cast (which I believe was Milligan himself) was too ill to act. A shame but apart from that it was wonderful to see these characters realised. One of Milligan's daughters, Jane, played Dan's wife.


Shelagh_Milligan_with_painting_by_Spike Like John Lennon (a huge Goons fan – Yoko Ono gave John some 40 hours of Goon Show tapes on his 37th birthday – I'll get to The Goons in a bit), Spike was a doodler. And his illustrations often go with his work. I've included a few in this article. And his style is quite distinctive. But, just as with his poetry, he was also a serious artist and I remember a programme about the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition one year where Spike was interviewed about a tiny painting of a flower he'd had accepted.

I could only find one painting online and here's his daughter, Shelagh, holding it.

Stay tuned for Part two in a few days.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a really interesting post. It was lovely to revisit some of those classic moments with Spike.

koe said...

Jim - Amazing - I had no idea about the breadth of Spike Milligan's work. You've written a great piece here. Thank you so much.

Kass said...

My 95-year-old mother has been saying for years that she wants "I told you I was sick," on her tombstone. Now I know the author. Thanks. I don't think we're going to honor Mom's wishes - the saying has kind of lost it's punch since she's lived so long and is still kicking (but not quite as high-as she says). Just HOW OLD ARE YOU? You have such a far-reaching frame of reference? I was glad to see that Spike Milligan cited Spike Jones as one of his influences. I still have an old vinyl of his. Zany stuff!

Rachel Fenton said...

This was cool - thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you enjoyed the ride, Penny. Hard to pick. There's a lot of stuff available.

That's only Part One, Koe, and even Part Two doesn't cover it all. I really shouldn't mentioned his extensive charity work.

Kasscho, I'm fifty, but a very old fifty. I've always looked and felt older than I am. Even when I was at school there were bus drivers who would make me pay full fare when I was only thirteen.

And, Rachel, you're welcome. I can do cool. I do tepid a lot better though.

Jim Murdoch said...

Talking about gravestones, my wife has just told me what Stanley Unwin has on his tombstone. Unwin is buried in Long Buckby churchyard with Frances. Their gravestone has the epitaph, "Reunitey in the heavenly-bode - Deep Joy"

If you're unfamiliar with Unwin's unique take on language I have a short post about him here called 'Basic Engly Twentyfido'.

Dick said...

As ever, this covers the waterfront, Jim. Nothing to add except that Milligan, Sellers and Secombe were part of the script and soundtrack of my childhood between the ages of 10 and 13. At my weird little boarding school we communicated constantly in Goon-ese and it's no exaggeration to say that they (with Milligan at the heart of it as main conceptualiser) were a formative influence in my life.

And I'm delighted to learn of Stanley Unwin's epitaph.

j said...

Well, now I must read and watch more Spike Milligan, a man I knew nothing about until this morning.

Conda Douglas said...

We'll forget, so often, how complicated public figures of any kind are. We see only the "public figure" piece. For example, Harpo Marx was a fantastic musician.

Thanks for such a great post about a fascinating individual.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is, Dick, like so many of my posts I feel this is a quick scurry though his life. It's why I've put off working on it for so long. I just saw this huge mountain of work and I didn't think there was any way I could condense it into a meaningful article. For those who know nothing about him then this will be a revelation and I suppose I'm writing it for them rather than for you and I who lived though it. Being a few years younger than you The Goons were something I came to years later and they were not something I could share although I do remember having a discussion with my drama teacher about just why the expression 'custard sock' was funny. When I found out the BBC were still broadcasting them I made a point of listening in but Carrie just couldn't see why they were so funny at the time. Reading about it is one thing but I guess you really needed to be there.

And, yes, I was delighted to hear about Stanley Unwin's epitaph. I've been doing little tributes to the comedians who affected me growing up, just the odd one ever now and then, but he was the first I did. It didn't matter that he was a one-trick pony I never saw him once without him bringing a smile to my face.

Jennifer, yes, do. I think it is such a shame that history moves on so quickly and we forget how much we owe to the likes of Milligan. I always saw him as an enthusiastic amateur and his work could be as shambolic as it could shown signs of comic genius but there have been a lot of comedians in the past whose output was variable and yet we have been willing to hang around waiting for those occasional moments. If you do nothing else find yourself a cheap copy of Puckoon.

And, Conda, to this day I still know very little about Harpo. I did pick up his biography once but something shiny probably distracted me. What was interesting about The Goons (which I'll talk about more in Part Two) was that all of them went on to have very successful careers in the own right, Peter Sellers you know of course, but Harry Secombe had an incredible tenor voice and was constantly on TV as I grew up and Michael Bentine had a long career in children's television.

Without a doubt the most complex of the four was Milligan. Yes, the others had various talents and interests but none of them was as diverse as him.

R. Brady Frost said...

I didn't catch any of this the first time around, so it was definitely interesting to take a step back in time to meet a legend. Thanks for the write-up Jim!

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

This is a great article about Spike, Jim. I've loved his nonsense(ish) poems since I was very small.

I'm suprised you didn't cover his radio work though - my first exposure to him would have been through one of my Dad's Goons records. Unless of course that's in Part 2. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

You're welcome, Brady, and this is just the opening salvo.

As you mentioned, Catherine, there's his radio work to come, also his film work and his poetry - all in Part Two.

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