Born: 16 April, 1918, in Poona, India
Died: 27 February, 2002, at his home in East Sussex, aged 83
WITH his zany sense of anarchic humour, Spike Milligan revolutionised British comedy. His scripts and performances for the Goon Show are now classics. Through them and a host of others he opened new doors for radio and television comedy that led into a mirthful, madcap world of irreverence, absurdity and seemingly simple but cleverly crafted wit. (As with any iconoclastic comedy form, some poor souls never got the joke, but for those who did it was a case of once a Goon fan, always a Goon fan.) Suddenly, anything was tolerated. Milligan’s fertile imagination led the way for Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python and alternative comedy.
He wrote plays, appeared in a number of films, produced several volumes of idiosyncratic poetry (some for children) and was the author of a series of hugely popular war memoirs poking fun at the military life.
To contradict his eccentric public persona, Milligan was, in private, a surprisingly conservative man, a non-smoking vegetarian with strong religious beliefs and a deep love of family and friends. He suffered for many years from bouts of depression, though through treatment his condition for some years had been stabilised.
Terence Alan Milligan was the son of a captain in the Indian Army whose family had been connected with military service on the subcontinent since the Indian Mutiny. He once joked: "My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic." He was educated at a convent in Poona and, after the family had moved to Britain (when he was in his teens) in south London. His mother was a staunch Catholic and Milligan once admitted: "I still don’t know what it’s all about," but "all the world has to do is enact the teachings of Christ."
On leaving school he took on a variety of unsuccessful jobs, but he played the cornet and discovered jazz, notably that of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. It was to be an abiding passion for the rest of his life. Milligan was never really a political animal, but he joined the Young Communists - partly to demonstrate his hatred of Oswald Mosley’s Fascists, who were gaining support near his home in south London.
It was in these pre-war days that he first got the nickname of Spike. He himself disliked Terry ("some sort of chocolate") and his mother (trying to posh him up) called him Terence, which annoyed him even more. He was a fan of a band he had heard on Radio Luxembourg called Spike Jones and the City Slickers and he started calling himself Spike. And so it remained.
In 1940 he was called up and joined the Royal Artillery, serving in North Africa and Italy. The comradeship was, for this rather lonely boy, a refreshing bonus to the horrors of war and military life. He joined a band and played at dances and parties. Milligan was, however, already suffering from depression. He was hospitalised while in North Africa and formulated a theory (and tried to stick to it all his life) that in bad times "the best thing to do is write". The therapy usually bolstered up his flagging spirits and that, combined with a session with the band, seemed to calm him down.
One day in the desert, Milligan opened the door of a tent and asked a rotund, genial Welshman: "Have you seen my gun?" Thus, Bombardier Milligan met Bombardier Harry Secombe. The two joined up and performed together, though Secombe was not in Milligan’s first show (typically called Men in Gitis). Milligan was posted to the Central Pool of Artistes and his first show, Over the Page, boasted Secombe as the comic.
The two became firm friends and when they were demobbed shared a flat in Notting Hill and then auditioned for comedy spots at the Windmill Theatre. The comedians came on while the strippers changed. Milligan walked on for his audition and quipped: "Sorry, I came fully dressed." He heard the ominous cry "Next!" from the stalls.
Milligan was touring in a successful jazz band (the Bill Hill Trio) but Secombe took him along to the Grafton Arms in Victoria which was a Mecca for comics and writers. There Milligan seriously started writing gags for comedians, including Dick Emery. In 1949 he went to the Hackney Empire to meet a young comic called Peter Sellars. That night they met a rather posh Etonian called Michael Bentine. The Goons were born.
The BBC executives were a touch reluctant at first. They called it initially Those Crazy People and it had taken three years to get into a studio. Milligan’s scripts were deemed "far too way out". The show with its slicker title, The Goon Show, caught on with the public. It ran until 1960 and the last show - the Last Smoking Seagoon - reflected the crazy, anarchical atmosphere of the entire series. Catchwords abounded and meaningless phrases took wing ("He’s fallen in the water!"). Milligan dreamt up some of the great characters of radio comedy: Major Bloodnock, Bluebottle, Neddy Seagoon, Eccles ...
Amid all the riotous fun that erupted whenever the Goon gang got together for the weekly shows, the pressure to come up with inventive scripts was not good for Milligan’s health and strained his first marriage.
In 1956 he produced another wonderful piece of nonsense which scored a hit in the pop charts. The Ying Tong Song he claims to have written in ten minutes on the Tube. The Goons warbled their way through some meaningless tosh and Milligan earned himself a tidy sum in royalties. That year he wrote some festive gibberish (I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas) which did very nicely, too.
When the Goons finally bit the dust (they would be much repeated and come together for several galas), Milligan was asked by Bernard Miles to play Ben Gunn in Treasure Island. He established himself as an excellent straight actor while still writing. He toured Australia, and his play The Bed Sitting Room (1963) had a good run in the West End. The following year he wrote and starred in Son of Oblomov, which ran for three years.
His television shows proved consistently popular, although his portrayal of a Pakistani (blacked up and unsympathetic accent) in the 1968 sitcom Curry with Chips raised some questioning eyebrows. His Q series for the BBC in the mid-Sixties helped ease the way for the audaciously satirical That Was the Week That Was. He also got film work in The Three Musketeers (as Raquel Welch’s father) and with Sellars in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Goons had by now taken on cult status. Royalty, in the persons of Princess Margaret and Prince Charles, were photographed with them at revivals. The launch of the complete Goons scripts (1973) had Prince Charles fooling around with his two venerable chums, Secombe and Milligan. Charles was a huge fan - so much so that he was able to see the funny side when Milligan once famously and publicly put him down. The occasion was in 1994 when Milligan, now 76, was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Comedy Award. A letter praising him from the Prince of Wales was read out and Milligan declared: "Little grovelling bastard ..."
But at heart, Milligan was a wordsmith. Apart from the outlandish puns, double-entendres and irreverent verse of The Goon Show he also wrote more than 90 books, including novels, plays and scripts. His acclaimed war memoirs - notably Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall (1971) and Rommel, Gunner Who? (1973) - proved especially popular with the reading public.
In the New Year Honours list of 2001, Spike Milligan was made an honorary knight. Typically, he is said to have screamed "Help!" when informed. Many were confused about the honorary title - he had, after all, spent seven years in the British Army. In fact, he had adopted his father’s Irish nationality and because his father had been born in Ireland before 1900, Milligan was "stateless". More significantly, he refused to take the oath of allegiance that would have enabled him to acquire a British passport.
Especially in his later years, Spike Milligan became an indomitable campaigner on a number of issues close to his heart. His favourite targets included abortion, vivisection, factory farming and perhaps the one that bugged him most of all, needless noise. He escaped from the noise of London to live in Rye, East Sussex. From there, he fired off many a letter to the papers complaining about how inconsiderate people were with car horns, radios, lawnmowers and the like. His home was littered with "No Smoking" signs, and a notice on the large front door said: "This door can be closed without slamming it. Try it and see how clever you are."
Milligan was a total original who delightfully defied description. Anti-establishment yet in many ways a conformist. The comedy and the tragedy seemed intertwined. The surreal nature of the Goons, arguably, originated in his troubled, anxious mind. Nothing typifies this better than a foreword he wrote for his autobiography. He had clearly been much irritated by the publisher pressing him for this item after the book had been completed. It was one of the briefer forewards in literature. "I wrote the whole bloody book," he moaned, then berated the poor publisher in a few words and signed off: "Goodbye forever." Always defiant and no respecter of authority to the end.
Milligan died of kidney failure with his family around him. ("I don’t mind dying," he once said. "I just don’t want to be there when it happens.") He married three times. By his first wife, June, he had one son and two daughters and by his second wife, Patricia (who died in 1978), he had a daughter. In 1983 he married Shelagh Sinclair, who, along with his children, survive him.