This being our first Video Night since the world officially ended on 27th February 2002, we simply have no choice but to devote the evening in its entirety to sucking wistfully on some choice citrus fruits lovingly (if somewhat haphazardly) grown in the orange groves of Mr Spine Milligna, the well-known typing error. Spike's comedy career stretched over seven decades, and we've got something from each and every one…
Spike started as a professional entertainer in the 1930s, playing trumpet in his local dance band, but it wasn't until the war that he started performing comedy. By the end of the war he was one third of a musical comedy act called the Bill Hall Trio. This led to Spike's one and only appearance on film in this decade — a very brief snatch of the trio performing. In case you can't tell, Spike's the one with the guitar.
After splitting up with the trio, Spike decided to pursue a career as a solo comedian, performing various acts on the music hall circuit, most of which met with complete bafflement on the part of the audience. He was also trying to break into radio, and finally in 1949 he was invited to co-write and appear in the Derek Roy series Hip Hip Hoo Roy. It was this show that gave birth to Eccles, who would become so vital a part of Spike's most famous creation in the 1950s…
The Goon Show is, of course, Spike's greatest achievement, though all too often it is over-emphasised at the expense of Spike's many, many other creations. But since it is quite simply the funniest work in the entire history of written or recorded comedy, one shouldn't really complain. Various attempts were made to transfer the series to film, most of Spike wanted nothing to do with, but here's the one time they got it right. It's based on Spike's original radio scripts, and Spike and Peter Sellers created some splendid visual gags to complement these (though both of them get only "additional material" credits in the opening titles). Sadly Harry Secombe was under contract to Ealing Studios at the time and couldn't appear, so Dick Emery acts as substitute, as he did on quite a few radio Goon Shows. Interestingly the film was re-released in 1974 as a supporting short for Monty Python & the Holy Grail, which has given rise to the mistake made by quite a few filmographies, which list Spike as being in that film.
Well, knocking out up to 26 Goon Shows a year for ten years, obviously. As if that wasn't enough, he was also radically redefining television comedy with A Show Called Fred, releasing hit records like The Ying Tong Song, and becoming a bestselling author for the first time with his enduring book of nonsense poems, Silly Verse for Kids (1959), still a children's favourite today. The same year he was also the subject of a documentary for the first time, Ken Russell's Portrait of a Goon.
One fine day, Peter Sellers decided to get all his mates together and shoot a short film in the fields near his house. It cost about £50 to make and ended up being nominated for an Oscar. Inevitably it was Spike who came up with most of the ideas, and contrary to what it says in the credits, it was Spike was actually directed the film. Unfortunately he had to leave for Australia on the last day of filming, and Dick Lester finished it off and put his name to it. Since Lester was recognised as one of British cinema's most promising young directors (soon to be hitting the big time with films such as A Hard Day's Night), this actually helped the film be seen by a much wider audience (including the Academy Award judges), though it means that once again Spike did not get the credit for something that was almost entirely his work. In any event, it remains one of the weirdest films ever made, and far more radical than any film venture Spike had previously been involved in.
Spike's TV career took off during the 60s — solo shows included Muses with Milligan and Milligan's Wake (both 1964-5), both on the new BBC2 channel. In 1968 he was the star and co-author of World of Beachcomber, comprising dramatisations from the amous newspaper column by J B Morton, one of Spike's key influences. The success of this was directly responsible for Spike being allowed to transform TV comedy forever with the infamous Q5. I've burbled on at great length on previous occasions about the significance of this show — so important is it that the BBC wiped most of it, and try their very best never to let anyone ever see what's left. Only two episodes survive on the original colour videotape, but two more were recently rediscovered on black and white 16mm film. Not that we'll ever get to see them, of course, but here is a compilation of every single bit of the series that has escaped from their evil clutches in the 14 years since I first got a video recorder — a whopping 6 minutes of entirely incomplete clips which totally fail to give any impression of the radical format of the show. But it's all I've got, so make the most of it!
The 60s was Spike's period as a West End theatre star. Bernard Miles gaves him his big break at the Mermaid Theatre, playing Ben Gunn in an extraordinarily successful production of Treasure Island which ran from 1961 for well over a year. Spike spent every minute backstage writing his own play with John Antrobus - The Bed Sitting Room was launched in 1963 and was both another smash hit and a major contribution to the satire boom of the 60s. Spike left after a year but the show carried on for several months more. In 1964 he began a production of the Russian classic Oblomov; so outrageous were his ad-libs that the show was promptly renamed Son of Oblomov and became one of the biggest hits of the 60s, running for three years. Spike followed this with a national tour of The Bed Sitting Room in 1966-7 (my parents were lucky enough to see it when it came to Edinburgh) then a revival of Treasure Island. An audio recording was made of the latter, but no other recordings of any sort exist for any of the others, thus leaving a massive part of Spike's career virtually forgotten.
Goodness knows how, but Spike also found time to attempt a brief film career for MGM-British, mostly comprising cameo or supporting roles but including one star vehicle, the much under-rated Postman's Knock (1962). He also released his first solo album, Milligan Preserved (1961), produced by George Martin, and wrote some of his funniest books, including A Dustbin of Milligan (1961), The Little Pot Boiler (1963) and of course the work which redefined the comic novel, Puckoon (1963).
If Spike seemed astoundingly prolific in the 60s, it was nothing compared to the 70s. Television took up much of his time — four more series of Q as well as numerous seasonal specials and his contributions to The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine. But he still found time to write an episode of Ronnie Barker's solo show, Six Dates with Barker (1970). It proved so successful that six years later it was expanded to become one of the most memorable parts of The Two Ronnies. Baker himself did the adaptations (hence the "and a gentleman" in the title credits) but the first episode was entirely Spike's work — and here it is!
We only have time for a short extract, but this was one of Spike's odder TV appearances. He had been pestering ITC for some time to let him on the show (the correspondence is reproduced in More Spike Milligan Letters (1984)) and was finally allowed on towards the end of the third series. In fact it doesn't work as well one might have imagined — the apparently chaotic style of the show belies the considerable technical complications involved, so everything had to be very carefully planned and rehearsed in advance — not something Spike was ever good at! The awful canned laughter doesn't help either — whoever put it on simply didn't have enough laughs recorded to keep pace with Spike's torrent of dialogue! However Spike seemed to enjoy the experience enormously, and as far as I'm concerned that's all that matters…
More to the point what wasn't he up to?? Several radio shows including the series Milligna or Your Favourite Spike (1972-3); umpteen records including A Record Load of Rubbish (1970), Badjelly the Witch (1974) and The Snow Goose (1976); dozens of TV appearances (see above); several films including superb parts in Digby the Biggest Dog in the World (1973) and The Three Musketeers (1974), as well as writing and starring in his absurdist biopic The Great McGonagall (1974); and more than 20 books including the first four volumes of his bestselling war memoirs, children's classics like my all-time favourite Dip the Puppy (1974), and his first two volumes of serious poetry, Small Dreams of a Scorpion (1972) and Open Heart University (1979).
After There's a Lot of It About in 1982, the BBC suddenly decided to stop employing Spike, so he had more time to devote to his one-man stage shows, which he toured throughout Britain and Australia with great success. This show was filmed in Perth (the Australian one, that is) in 1984, and it's classic Spike — hilarious and completely insane!
With the BBC turning their back on him, Spike made many TV appearances on other stations, including his own show for the new Channel 4, The Last Laugh Before TV-AM (1985), as well as guest appearances on shows as varied as Pob's Programme, Supergran, The Sooty Show and Eric Sykes's Mr H is Late (1988). With Eric he starred in a Johnny Speight pilot called The Jewel in the Crown, but it was never broadcast. He made a memorable appearance in Mel Brooks' film The History of the World Part One (1981), and released a number of LPs, many based on his books such as Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1981) and Unspun Socks from a Chicken's Laundry (1982). But writing new books was his main preoccupation — he wrote or co-wrote at least 26 books during the decade, including more war memoirs, more poetry (both serious and comic) and another novel (The Looney (1987)).
Spike had to grab his chances where he could during the 90s, as it was clear that nobody was willing to give him his own TV or radio series. He had long been a chat show favourite, but now such appearances became like gold dust to his fans. Here's a classic appearance on Jonathan Ross's Channel 4 series, made shortly before his 75th birthday.
Plenty of live shows and other public appearances throughout the country (a certain afternoon in York in 1994 has to count as the greatest moment of my life!), and plenty of books too — another 25 in this decade, including the enchanting It Ends with Magic (1990) and the long-running According to… series (1993-2000), which at least started brilliantly with Spike's versions of The Bible and Lady Chatterly's Lover. One more film appearance — in Eric Sykes's The Big Freeze (1993) and (very) occasionally a one-off TV or radio show like An Evening with Spike Milligan (ITV, 1993) and Fleas Knees & Hidden Elephants (BBC Radio 4, 1994). Also an unabridged reading of all his war memoirs, released on cassette between 1991 and 1995. And in 1998 the BBC grudgingly gave him Spike Night to mark his 80th birthday — three hours long but not a single repeat of any of his classic shows.
Ill health forced Spike to keep a low profile in his last few years, but this gem stands out as his last great TV work. An animated adaptation of his much-loved children's book (published in 1973), this made Christmas Day 2000 a very special occasion. And to make it even better, the BBC finally allowed one of Spike's programmes to be shown on BBC1 (ever since BBC2 was invented he had been relegated solely to its narrow confines, a source of endless annoyance to him). So watch it and sigh for those happy days when the world was a better place, because Spike was in it.
Sadly, not very much. The BBC didn't bother to involve him in Goons Night (2001), marking the 50th anniversary of their greatest radio success. He was supposed to appear in the film version of Puckoon (supposedly completed in 2001 but not released until 2003) but never did, presumably due to illness. But he did make a memorable appearance in the BBC's doomed version of Gormenghast (2000), and was as prolific as ever in book form — a third novel (The Murphy) and (at long last) an autobiography, The Family Album, which tells his life story in words and pictures up to the mid 1970s (a second volume, alas, was not to be). His final published work was the introduction to the BBC anthology, The Nation's Favourite Children's Poetry (2001), in which Spike earnestly hopes that his readers will not contract leprosy! Needless to say, a large number of Spike's poems were included in the book, including The Ning Nang Nong, which had recently been voted the nation's favourite comic poem. One would like to hope that this provides proof that Spike will continue to be remembered by the Great British Public, but with the BBC unlikely ever to repeat any of his works except for The Goon Show, and with only a tiny fraction of his books currently in print, it's all too likely that the greatest comic genius of the 20th century will simply be forgotten.
But not by Aaardvark.