Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan

Date of birth: 16-04-1918
Date of death: 22-02-2002

Terence Alan 'Spike' Milligan was born on April 16, 1918, in Ahmed Nagar, India - the son of an army Captain.

The family came back to England in 1933 when his father retired from the army, and Spike later studied at Lewisham Polytechnic, while playing the trumpet in local jazz bands.

He was conscripted at the outbreak of the Second World War, serving in the Royal Artillery in Italy and North Africa, where he met Harry Secombe. After the war, Secombe introduced Milligan to Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine and comedy history was made.

They performed as a quartet in the Grafton Arms pub in London's Victoria, which led to the radio show The Crazy People, which was renamed The Goon Show after the success of its first series led the BBC to drop its objection to the name.

The consistently groundbreaking show, the most influential in British radio comedy, ran for nine years from 1951.

After the team dissolved - save for the 1963 TV puppet show The Telegoons and a 1972 one-off reunion - Milligan continued to work in radio, creating the Omar Khayyam Show, before moving to television.

His most enduring small screen project was the freeform BBC2 show Q - which lurched uncomfortably from pure genius to offensive, poor-quality sketches- ran for six series from 1969 to 1982.

Less successful ventures included LWT's Curry and Chips - in which he controversially played a Pakistani.

Milligan has found more acclaim as a humorous novellist with semi-autobiograpical works such as Adolph Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, spoofs like Treasure Island: According to Spike Milligan and comic novels, most notably Puckoon.

Sadly, Spike's comic genius is seemingly driven from his the clinical depression he has suffered since 1956.

He has been married three times and has six children

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Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive

Review of the new documentary about the comedy genius

So much has been said about Spike Milligan that another documentary is unlikely to change the narrative of a tortured genius damaged by war and the demands of cranking out Goon Show after Goon Show single-handed.

However, Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive certainly fleshed out the image, thanks to the access treasure trove of material the comedian carefully filed away over his lifetime. Even the fact that a man with such a turbulent mind maintained such meticulous records is a revelation in itself.

With current sensibilities, it can be hard to grasp just how revolutionary Milligan’s work was, although a very formal interview included here shows the rigidity of the broadcasting establishment that his anarchy challenged.

Unseen work projects, in script or video form, are one thing – but the personal effects are, of course more illuminating. It is heartbreaking to hear his voice on tape saying all the treatments he underwent for his bipolar disorder have been a failure. Meanwhile, the cartoons he sketched while in a psychiatric unit say so much about him maintaining his sense of humour at the worst times.

Interestingly, his children recall only happy times at home, even while the demands of the Goon Show were taking their toll. ‘Childlike’ is a word that cropped up frequently about Milligan himself, so no wonder he cherished the company of his offspring. Even they hadn’t seen the footage of Spike being interviewed with his own parents Leo and Florence. And who knew they were entertainers themselves, having a Wild West novelty act?

We also hear Spike’s poetic descriptions of his childhood in India, though being a child of Empire instilled some attitudes that haven’t held up so well. This film could never gloss over the racist tropes of shows like Curry And Chips, in which he blacked up to play a Pakistani – controversial even at the time – and didn’t.

Nor did the documentary overlook other failings of his career, that sometimes he could produce mediocre ‘that’ll do’ dross. But, as contributor David Quantock pointed out, there are more than enough works of genius to compensate.

In the years before he died in 2002, aged 83, Milligan felt undervalued by the BBC and struggled to get his work on air after his last Q series ended in 1982. He ascribed it to not being an Oxbridge graduate, and it clearly grated.

In the film, Milliganesque animations liven up the presentation of the material and interviews. And rather than the standard parade of talking heads being presented in isolation, celebrity fans such as Al Murray, Eddie Izzard and Ian Hislop are seen getting genuinely excited at laying their hands on items their comedy hero once owned. It can be no coincidence that all those involved already had a strong interest in history in general, so appreciate the value of primary sources.

And Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive had an embarrassment of such riches, enabling it to achieve the seemingly impossible task of shedding new light on this one-of-a-kind comedic titan.

Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive aired on Sky Arts and is now available on demand and via the streaming service Now

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Published: 8 Dec 2022


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