‘The Godfather of Alternative Comedy’: Eddie Izzard, Paul Merton and more on Spike Milligan | Stage
Jhe tortured comedians’ lives form a biographical genre in their own right; there is always an audience for a clown’s tears. No wonder Nick Newman and Ian Hislop chose Spike Milligan as the subject of their new play. Milligan, who died 20 years ago next month, is the troubled comedy genius to end them all. Shocked during WWII, repeatedly admitted to hospital for mental illness, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and growing embittered as his career failed to live up to its early promise – Spike’s sad clown drama Milligan writes himself.
“But we didn’t want to do that,” Newman says. “We wanted to ask: how did he come to create these brilliant things? Their play – a joyous act of ancestor worship by the editor of Private Eye and its prominent cartoonist – covers the first three years (1951-1954) of The Goon Show, as its head writer Milligan battles the BBC for spread his vision. . “It’s: will he survive the fallout of war?” says Newman, “and will he crack the radio?” And, “spoiler alert!” Hislop sounded. “Milligan wins!” We just wanted to have a game where he wins.
Spike has a rich collaboration between the duo and Berkshire’s Watermill Theatre, which in 2016 produced their First World War play The Wipers Times, about a satirical newspaper published in the Flemish trenches. Speaking on the spot as their play rehearses next door, Newman classifies Spike as “some kind of sequel” to the previous play – because, they say, Milligan’s comedic sensibility grew out of his wartime experiences.
“When you think of the Goons,” says Hislop, “you think: how many Naafi jokes are there, how many war movie reruns, how many explosions and references to [fictional military stuffed-shirt] Major Bloodnok? He is stuffed with it. It’s their wartime experiences made into jokes” – and abstracted into wild sound effects, silly voices and surrealism, too. (“Shellshock on radio”, some called it.) But the BBC did not appreciate that “their finest hour” was ridiculed – nor Milligan’s anti-establishment airs in general. After the special coronation of the Goons, when Peter Sellers – horror of horrors! – posed as Churchill and the Queen, ‘about 30 BBC officials demanded that Spike be sacked for this appalling attack on the monarchy’.
This is the conflict that the play dramatizes: anarchy against deference, the satirical boom of the 1960s in germ. “What the Goons did,” says Hislop, “was channel the khaki election” that brought the Labor government of 1945 to power. But that didn’t happen, at least for Spike, without a fight. “He went from a world where people were saying, ‘Go ahead, Milligan, and stop messing around,'” Hislop explains, “to another world where people were saying the exact same thing.” And so, Newman joins in, “he basically continued to wage war, but this time against the BBC”.
The piece was first made for television, commissioned by that same BBC to mark the centenary of Milligan’s birth in 2018. The company has made available an archive of internal memos relating to the Goons and all of Milligan’s correspondence with the diffuser. As numerous published volumes have revealed, Spike’s letters were often hilarious. But they also reveal the strain on his mental health from producing so many episodes and the daily bad temper of his relationship with the BBC. “You might think, ‘I wonder what amazing things Spike wrote at the BBC?'” Hislop says. “But it’s always, ‘Why don’t I have a replay on a Sunday? And: ‘No one is listening to us in this slot!’ But this is what drives humans, and he was as human as the rest of us.
Both Hislop and Newman can relate to Milligan’s experiences smuggling hot potato material on the air. Long before Hislop’s Have I Got News for You gig, the pair worked on ITV’s Spitting Image in the 1980s, where Hislop recalls “one election night watching the whole management of ITV huddle in his arms for putting that program on – a program that all along they had been trying to get off the air! He also remembers, as a rookie journalist, interviewing Milligan on Radio 4’s Midweek. “At that time there was a bottle of champagne for the guest. I opened the bottle of Spike, very badly, and it went all over my notes. Which I had written in marker.
“Spike, who hadn’t wanted to be interviewed, suddenly warmed up and thought it was the funniest thing ever. It was anarchy, I had no questions – so he started asking questions, much better than I had anticipated. With their piece, the duo want to introduce this wild comedic sensibility to a new generation – stung by the fact that “my kids didn’t know who Spike was”, as Newman says. “Nor mine,” Hislop said. “Not a clue.”
“For a younger generation, he continues, we wanted to banish the image of certain very old men, one of whom was on Songs of Praise [Harry Secombe], and another who made some really terrible movies [Sellers].” They’re also less interested in the other side of Spike’s reputation – as a misanthrope and artist whose work (including the racist sitcom Curry and Chips) hasn’t always fared well. Instead, Spike tells the story of a moment in time, where the artist’s creativity, his trauma, and the spirit of the times came together and sparked.
“Spike wrote 250 episodes of The Goon Show over a 10-year span,” Newman explains. “In every series, there are many, many references to war. Almost after that he stops – and in his later works he hardly talks about it anymore.
“Can we recreate a period,” asks Hislop, “where these people were incredibly young, fresh out of the military, all working-class, all up the ranks? Can we paint this show that started with a lot of people being harassed and within a few years had an audience that television would now die for? Who thought it was the funniest program that ever existed? He beams. “It’s an amazing thing to try to turn back on.”
“He was extraordinary” – comedians on Spike Milligan
It was such a liberating discovery to listen to The Goon Show. I was around 10 when a friend told me about the show. And once I listened, I was hooked. It was so different from the rest of comedy at the time. There were no roots to what Spike did: it just took off and went anywhere. In half an hour, he could be everywhere: it was the thrill. And on top of that wonderful imaginative comedy, you gotta hear all the laughs, the things that go wrong, and the performers having a good time. It was new, at a time when broadcasting was very respectable. There was no one like Spike, really. No one wrote quite the same way. And what he did gave me an idea of what I could do. I would think: what I write may be a little strange, but it is not as strange as what I hear here!
There was a short-lived show called the Telegoons, in the early 60s. There were puppets performing on recorded editions of the radio show. It was my introduction to Milligan, and I was immediately struck by the surreal humor and weirdness. He was a huge influence on me and seeing him on a cat was always funny. I remember one where he said “Now let me show you a cheap but loud way to travel” – then he ran across the stage screaming at the top of his voice. When he didn’t have to worry about costume changes or rehearsal time, and allowed himself to be spontaneous, he was extraordinary.
I first met him when I was only four or five years old. He occupied that space that children could understand as well as adults. It was the kid by the side of the road saying “yeah, but he’s not wearing clothes!” But you could tell when he had a day off: he could get angry. And part of what upset him was that his productivity was horrible. When I actually watched his production – Jesus, that would crush you! You have to write an episode of the Goons every week! It’s just, “Be good at being funny, every week, whatever you want.” Three hundred and sixty degrees of possibility. That would break most people. But if you can do it, and Milligan could, that’s wonderful.
It was 1974, my dad was working for BP in Abu Dhabi, and he was recording The Goons on Radio Dubai and sending it back to us. John Cleese once explained that each episode aired twice, and he listened to the second with the radio in one ear and a pillow in the other, to hear the jokes he missed. I totally identified with that. Spike’s creativity was magnificent. All those weird sounds of chickens and motors. He was the godfather of alternative comedy. His timing was perfect and his imagination boundless. I absolutely recommend that young comedians listen to as much Spike stuff as possible.
Spike is at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, from January 27 to March 5.