‘I don’t mind dying - I just don’t want to be there when it happens’

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SPIKE Milligan, who famously described one of his biggest fans, Prince Charles, as a "little grovelling bastard", brought down the curtain on the Goon Show yesterday, when he died at the age of 83.

"I don’t mind dying," he once said, "I just don’t want to be there when it happens." Yesterday, his luck finally gave out.

However, the man who was treated in hospital for shell-shock during the Second World War and battled against manic depression for the rest of his life had defied the odds to survive the other three members of one of Britain’s most talented and successful comedy teams.

For a generation brought up on the comedy of Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, it was the end of an era which began when they came together in the BBC’s Crazy People radio show - later to become The Goon Show - in 1951.

When the series came to an end in 1960, after a total of 243 programmes, the word Goon - discovered by Milligan in a Popeye cartoon - had become part of the language.

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill, who was inspecting the troops, asked Milligan what he did. "I do my best, sir," Milligan replied.

Yesterday, tributes flooded in for a man who succeeded in making a nation laugh. The Prince of Wales, who had found himself on the receiving end of the comedian’s wit on a number of occasions, was among the first to offer his thoughts.

The prince said: "It is hard to see Spike’s parting as anything other than the end of a great era of British comedy, exemplified by Spike’s extraordinary genius for the play on words and for the art of the nonsensical unexpected.

"His particular form of hilarity and wit, apart from helping to sustain the British spirit through the unmentionable horrors of war, has provided countless millions with the kind of helpless mirth which adds unique value to life. To have a gift of that sort is truly life-enhancing.

"Personally, but along with so many others, I shall miss his irreverent and hysterical presence and can only say that the world really will be the poorer for his departure."

It was a gracious tribute from a man whose often-stated admiration for the Goons had prompted the famous "bastard" remark. Milligan later made it up to the prince by sending him a telegram saying, "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question now?", but Milligan later renewed his offensive, describing the prince as "a bit of a moral coward" for his support for fox hunting.

Undeterred, it was Prince Charles who presented the comedian, an Irish national, with an honorary knighthood last year.

The Goons propelled Spike Milligan - who married three times and had six children - into the limelight, but there was more to the man than one hit radio show. He was an accomplished poet, author and jazz cornet and trumpet player. He was also passionate about the causes he believed in, sometimes taking his crusades to almost unbelievable lengths.

In 1986, he was thrown out of Harrods when he tried to stuff 28lb of spaghetti down the throat of the food hall manager, explaining afterwards: "I told him it might give him some idea of how a goose feels being force-fed maize to make pt de fois gras. "

Milligan’s absurd sense of humour dominated the Goons, but his life became a battle against mental illness. He suffered the first of at least ten breakdowns in 1953 and was later diagnosed with manic depression.

His health had deteriorated in recent years, and in October 2000 he suffered kidney failure. In recent months, he had been nursed by his third wife, Shelagh. He died early yesterday from liver failure at his home near Rye in East Sussex, surrounded by his family.

The broadcaster Michael Parkinson, who had interviewed Milligan more than ten times on the radio and TV, described him as "a very important figure in the history of British comedy".

He said: "You could make the argument that modern British comedy started with Spike Milligan. He was the godfather of it all. He was the presiding genius behind the Goons.

"But he was an awkward man in many ways and was not easy to get on with. If he took against you, watch out! I got on with him very well."

The radio and TV presenter Terry Wogan said: "He was probably the father figure of British comedy in the latter part of the last century, and he truly broke the mould. He was the most original comic writer and performer Britain has produced since the war. He brought a whole new sense of humour to Britain, he was a comic genius."

Monty Python’s John Cleese said Milligan had been the greatest influence on him while he had been growing up. He added: "While I never knew Spike personally, the passing of this great comedian really is the end of an era."

For the BBC, the director-general, Greg Dyke, said: "Spike Milligan was a comic genius. As the writing brains behind The Goon Show, he was the founder of modern comedy."