Book review: Box 18 - The Unpublished Spike Milligan

Edited by Norma Farnes

On the inside flap of Box 18 is the usual publishers’ biographical blurb: ‘Spike Mulligan was born in 1918 to a British military family… He wrote and performed in the Goon Show. The series made his name and occasionally broke his sanity…’ You know the sort of thing.

But it seems so redundant. If you didn’t already know who Spike Milligan was, and weren’t already aware not only of his work but his manic-depressive personality and his odd obsessions, too, this anthology would be baffling. For much of it is simply odd ephemera from an often grumpy old man: correspondence with the District Works department about street lighting or to the Daily Mirror about immigration; letters to Harrods quibbling over a bill; and scribbled diary entries crying ‘I’m so lonely’ or ‘fuck the system’.

This, though, is not any grumpy old man, but a comic genius, and such material gives us some glimpse into his day-to-day concerns as well as evoking a different era – when people did write letters, rather than emails, for starters.

Box 18 – so called after the file into which Milligan would stuff his ideas, half-written sketches and doodles – is billed as the Unpublished Spike Milligan; and it comes as quite a surprise to find that anything at all falls into this category, so prolific was he in creating TV programmes, spoof novels, books of children’s poetry and war memoirs – all while working as a performer, too. But included her are some more stories and verses for children, comedy skits and an unperformed Goon Show (this one has previously been published, as it happens), many of which are reproduced in his own hand.

There’s also a selection of grainy but evocative monochrome photographs from various phases in Spike’s long career, plus reproductions of all sorts of scraps of work: from telegrams to postcards to the Irish passport that gives lie to his claim of being a stateless person.

This collection was put together by Milligan’s long-serving – and long-suffering – agent, Norma Farnes, and effectively acts as a companion piece to Spike: An Intimate Memoir, her book about working with him in Orme Court, Bayswater. It provides corroborative evidence of the man he described in that tome, with his notes at various stages of depression, of his taking stand for animal welfare and of his long-running battle to get a British passport despite being unwilling to swear allegiance to the Queen, feeling his service record proved that more than any red-tape ceremony ever could.

Milligan’s wit often shines through; though this is not a book with particularly humorous intent. Even the previously unpublished comedy ideas give more of a flavour of Milligan rather than offering an undiscovered classis. In life, Milligan’s erratic, scattergun approach to comedy often led to wildly variable quality, with unmatchable brilliance cheek-by-jowl with juvenile silliness – and it would be naïve to think this industrious publisher would have left an unfinished gem languishing in a box file.

But, as far as fading documents can give an impression of a man, these 256 pages succeed. For die-hard Milligan fans, this well-presented coffee table book will be a must-have; though everyone else might be better off with a more straightforward biography - or let his work speak for itself.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Box 18: The Unpublished Spike Milligan is published by HarperCollins at £18.99. Click here to order it from Amazon at £11.38.

Published: 13 Nov 2006

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.