Today is the birthday (1918) of Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan KBE who may be best known as the co-creator, main writer and a principal cast member of the The Goon Show, performing a range of roles including the popular Eccles and Minnie Bannister characters. It is possible to trace the history of absurdist English comedy – from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to Monty Python and beyond – back to The Goon Show and ultimately to Milligan. It was not simply that Milligan was able to see the humor in any situation you can name, including the Second World War, but his humor frequently broke any pretense at reality. His legacy within English comedy is immense, and sets it light years away from what counts as comedy in other cultures.
Milligan was born in Ahmednagar in India, the son of an Irish father, Captain Leo Alphonso Milligan, MSM, RA (1890–1969), who was serving in the British Indian Army. His mother, Florence Mary Winifred (née Kettleband; 1893–1990), was English. He spent his childhood in Poona (now called Pune) and later in Rangoon (now Yangon), capital of British Burma. He was educated at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Poona, and later at St Paul’s High School, Rangoon. After moving to Brockley, south east London at the age of 12 in 1931, he attended Brownhill Road School (later to be renamed Catford Boys School) and St Saviours School, Lewisham High Road. On leaving school he played the cornet and got involved in jazz performance. He also joined the Young Communist League in opposition to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, who were gaining support near his home in south London.
After returning from Burma, Milligan lived most of his life in the United Kingdom apart from overseas service in the British Army in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. During most of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Milligan performed as an amateur jazz vocalist and trumpet player before, during and after being called up for military service in the war. Even then he wrote and performed comedy sketches as part of concerts to entertain troops. After his call-up, but before being sent abroad, he and fellow musician Harry Edgington (1919–1993) (whose nickname ‘Edge-ying-Tong’, inspired one of Milligan’s most memorable musical creations, the “Ying Tong Song”) would compose surreal stories, filled with puns and skewed logic, as a way of staving off the boredom of life in barracks. One biographer describes his early dance band work as follows: “He managed to croon like Bing Crosby and win a competition: he also played drums, guitar and trumpet, in which he was entirely self taught.” He also acquired a double bass, on which he took lessons and would play along in jazz sessions. He is known to have had absolute pitch.
During the Second World War, Milligan served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery (later 19 Battery), as Gunner Milligan, 954024. The unit was equipped with the obsolete First World War era BL 9.2-inch howitzer and based in Bexhill on the south coast of England. Milligan describes training with these guns in part II of Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, claiming that, during training, gun crews resorted to shouting “bang” in unison as they had no shells to practice with. The unit was later re-equipped with the BL 7.2-inch howitzer and saw action as part of the First Army in the North African campaign and then in the succeeding Italian campaign. Milligan was appointed lance bombardier and was about to be promoted to bombardier, when he was wounded in action in the Italian theatre at the Battle of Monte Cassino. He was hospitalized for a mortar wound to the right leg and was demoted by an unsympathetic commanding officer (identified in his war diaries as Major Evan “Jumbo” Jenkins) back to Gunner. It was Milligan’s opinion that Major Jenkins did not like him, because Milligan constantly kept up the morale of his fellow soldiers, whereas Jenkins’ approach was to be stern and bullying. A compounding incident may have been that Jenkins invited Gunners Milligan and Edgington to his bivouac to play some jazz with him, only to discover that their musicianship was far superior to his own.
After hospitalization, 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 demobilized, Milligan remained in Italy playing with the trio but returned to Britain 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, which displayed many of the key elements of what would later become The Goon Show (originally called Crazy People) with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine.
Milligan returned to jazz in the late 1940s and made a precarious living with the Hall trio and other musical comedy acts. He was also trying to break into the world of radio, as a performer or script writer. His first success in radio was as writer for comedian Derek Roy’s show. After a delayed start, Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine joined forces in a relatively radical comedy project, The Goon Show. During its first season the BBC titled the show as Crazy People, or in full, The Junior Crazy Gang featuring those Crazy People, the Goons!, an attempt to make the program palatable to BBC officials, by connecting it with the popular group of theatre comedians known as The Crazy Gang.
The first episode was broadcast on 28 May 1951 on the BBC Home Service. Although he did not perform as much in the early shows, Milligan eventually became a lead performer in almost all of the Goon Show episodes, portraying a wide range of characters including Eccles, Minnie Bannister, Jim Spriggs and the nefarious Count Moriarty. He was also the primary author of most of the scripts, although he co-wrote many scripts with various collaborators, most notably Larry Stephens and Eric Sykes. Check out my main post for more details: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-goon-show/
Milligan made several forays into television as a writer-performer, in addition to his many guest appearances on interview, variety and sketch comedy series from the 1950s to the 2000s. The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (1956), starring Peter Sellers, was the first attempt to translate Goons humor to TV. It was followed by A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred, both made during 1956 and directed by Richard Lester, who went on to work with the Beatles. During a visit to Australia in 1958, a similar special was made for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, “The Gladys Half-Hour” which also featured local actors Ray Barrett and John Bluthal, who appeared in several later Milligan projects. In 1961, Milligan co-wrote two episodes of the popular sitcom Sykes and a…, co-starring Sykes and Hattie Jacques and the one-off “Spike Milligan Offers A Series of Unrelated Incidents at Market Value”.
The 15-minute series The Telegoons (1963), was the next attempt to transplant the Goons to television, this time using puppet versions of the familiar characters. The initial intention was to give a visual representation of original recordings of 1950s Goon Show episodes, but this proved difficult because of the rapid-fire dialogue and was ultimately frustrated by the BBC’s refusal to allow the original audio to be used. 15-minute adaptations of the original scripts by Maurice Wiltshire were used instead, with Milligan, Sellers and Secombe reuniting to provide the voices; according to a contemporary press report, they received the highest fees the BBC had ever paid for 15-minute shows. Two series were made in 1963 and 1964 and (presumably because it was shot on 35mm film rather than video) the entire series has reportedly been preserved in the BBC archives.
Milligan’s next major TV venture was the sketch comedy series The World of Beachcomber (1968), made in color for BBC 2. It is believed all 19 episodes are lost although audio survives. That same year, the three Goons reunited for a televised re-staging of a vintage Goon Show for Thames Television, with John Cleese substituting for the late Wallace Greenslade but the pilot was not successful and no further programs were made.
In early 1969, Milligan starred in blackface in the situation comedy Curry & Chips, created and written by Johnny Speight and featuring Milligan’s old friend and colleague Eric Sykes. Curry & Chips set out to satirize racist attitudes in Britain in a similar vein to Speight’s earlier creation, the hugely successful Till Death Us Do Part, with Milligan ‘blacking up’ to play Kevin O’Grady, a half-Pakistani–half-Irish factory worker. The series generated numerous complaints, because of its frequent use of racist epithets and ‘bad language’ – one viewer reportedly complained of counting 59 uses of the word “bloody” in one episode – and it was cancelled on the orders of the Independent Broadcasting Authority after only six episodes.
Director John Goldschmidt’s film The Other Spike dramatized Milligan’s mental breakdown in a film for Granada Television, for which Milligan wrote the screenplay and in which he played himself. Later that year, he was commissioned by the BBC to write and star in Q5, the first in the innovative “Q” TV series, acknowledged as an important precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which premiered several months later. There was a hiatus of several years, before the BBC commissioned Q6 in 1975. Q7 appeared in 1977, Q8 in 1978, Q9 in 1980 and There’s a Lot of It About in 1982. Milligan later complained of the BBC’s cold attitude towards the series and stated that he would have made more programs, had he been given the opportunity. A number of episodes of the earlier “Q” series are missing, presumed erased. In 1979 he hosted an episode of The Muppet Show.
Milligan also wrote verse, considered to be within the genre of literary nonsense. His poetry has been described by comedian Stephen Fry as “absolutely immortal—greatly in the tradition of Lear.” One of his poems, “On the Ning Nang Nong”, was voted the UK’s favorite comic poem in 1998 in a nationwide poll, ahead of other nonsense poets including Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
While depressed, Milligan wrote serious poetry. He also wrote a novel Puckoon and a series of war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971), “Rommel?” “Gunner Who?”: A Confrontation in the Desert (1974), Monty: His Part in My Victory (1976) and Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall (1978). Milligan’s seven volumes of memoirs cover the years from 1939 to 1950 (his call-up, war service, first breakdown, time spent entertaining in Italy and return to the UK).
Bernard Miles gave Milligan his first straight acting role, as Ben Gunn, in the Mermaid Theatre production of Treasure Island. By chance I met Milligan outside the Mermaid one afternoon. He was sitting on the ground smoking a cigar. He abruptly left, dropping his cigar which I picked up and kept for a number of years. Treasure Island played twice daily through the winter of 1961–62 and was an annual production at the Mermaid Theatre for some years. In the 1968 production, Barry Humphries played the role of Long John Silver, alongside William Rushton as Squire Trelawney and Milligan as Ben Gunn. Humphries wrote, “Milligan’s best performance must surely have been as Ben Gunn. Milligan stole the show every night, in a makeup which took at least an hour to apply. His appearance on stage always brought a roar of delight from the kids in the audience and Spike had soon left the text far behind as he went off into a riff of sublime absurdity.”
In 1961–62, during the long pauses between the matinee and the evening show of Treasure Island, Milligan began talking to Miles about the idea he and John Antrobus were exploring, of a dramatized post-nuclear world. This became the one-act play The Bed-Sitting Room, which Milligan co-wrote with John Antrobus and which premiered at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury on 12th February 1962. It was adapted to a longer play and staged by Miles at London’s Mermaid Theatre, making its debut on 31 January 1963. It was a critical and commercial success and was revived in 1967 with a provincial tour before opening at London’s Saville Theatre on 3 May 1967. Richard Lester later directed a film version, released in 1969. You can find the full movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de0w8tU0j1U It’s a bit of a period piece now. I saw it when it first came out, and was marginally traumatized by it because of its savage view of the world I lived in at the time. Some of Terry Gilliam’s more apocalyptic movies clearly were influenced by it.
To the end of his life, Milligan maintained a twisted sense of humor. After the death of Harry Secombe from cancer, he said, “I’m glad he died before me, because I didn’t want him to sing at my funeral.” Perhaps as a wry backhander, a recording of Secombe singing was played at Milligan’s memorial service. He also wrote his own obituary, in which he stated repeatedly that he “wrote the Goon Show and died.” Milligan died from kidney failure, at the age of 83, on 27th February 2002, at his home in Rye in Sussex. On the day of his funeral, 8th March 2002, his coffin was carried to St Thomas Church in Winchelsea, East Sussex, and was draped in the flag of Ireland. He had once said that he wanted his headstone to bear the words “I told you I was ill.” He was buried at St Thomas’ churchyard but the Chichester diocese refused to allow this epitaph. A compromise was reached with the Irish translation, Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite and in English, “Love, light, peace.” The additional epitaph “Grá mór ort Shelagh” can be read as “Great love for you Shelagh”.
I could give you Milligan quotes for a month and not be exhausted, but I’ll settle for a few of my favorites:
All men are cremated equal.
A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.
All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.
Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.
My Father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic.
I’m not afraid of dying I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Milligan’s food habits are elusive. He is known to have invited the likes of Prince Charles and Dusty Springfield to dinner but I cannot find anything on the kinds of things they ate. His daughter, Jane, records that during the day he had tea and toast, and that was it. There’s this from his poetry:
The Herring is a lucky fish
From all disease inured.
Should he be ill when caught at sea;
Immediately – he’s cured!
You can cure your own herrings, and I could give you a recipe, but you are quite capable of looking one up on your own. It’s not hard, just time consuming. Besides, commercial varieties are not all that bad, and satisfy my occasional cravings. I like herrings, cured, and preserved in sour cream over the straight pickled variety. Dill is my preferred seasoning, with dark brown bread as an accompaniment for an open-faced sandwich. Very Norse of me, no doubt.
If you want to go to town, you can make all manner of sauces for pickled herrings, including cream and mustard, or horseradish, or a tomato sauce with hot pepper. You can serve them separately in their sauces with bread, and let guests make their own choices. I’d also recommend pickled herring salad with mandarin orange slices and shaved fennel. While facing the fact that pickled herrings are strongly distinctive (like Milligan), they are versatile (also like Milligan).