You don't have to be mad to work here...

John Antrobus remembers the strange days of Associated London Scripts

It was an inauspicious, and unlikely, birthplace for some of the finest comedies this country has ever produced.

Five storeys above a greengrocers on the shabby Uxbridge Road in Shepherds Bush, West London, if you squeezed past the unopened crates of fruit and veg and up the dangerously rickety staircase, you would once have found Associated London Scripts, an ambitious co-operative of talented comedy writers.

It had been Spike Milligan’s idea. And he recruited his friend Eric Sykes along with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and earned backing of Frankie Howerd. They signed up a receptionist Beryl Vertue, now one of Britain’s top independent producers, responsible for the likes of Men Behaving Badly. Later came insurance man Johnny Speight, a furniture salesman and future Dr Who creator Terry Nation and a young writer called John Antrobus.

They were young, they were talented, they were idealistic, they were at the vanguard of a new, socially satirical movement in comedy. It was bound to go wrong.

The combination of creative pressures, personality flaws and the gallons of alcohol consumed during the legendary lunchtime sessions in the haunts around Shepherds Bush all took their toll on the team.

And now Antrobus has created a new play based around those exciting, if often difficult, times, which he promises is more than a simple ‘tears of a clown’ melodrama or a slice of straightforward nostalgia.

Of Good Report is dedicated to Speight, and concentrates on the turbulent relationship they had as they worked together on the Frankie Howerd radio show.

He said: “Comedy writers weren’t just creating jokes, they had lives, they had problems and they died. When you start it’s a great giggle. They were good days, but there was unhappiness to come.

“Spike’s manic depression is well-documented, and me, I escaped alcoholism 35 years ago. I spent time in a drying-out clinic – at least that’s what you would call it today. They were mental hospitals in those days. But I saw myself as a political refugee in there.

“We didn’t lack intelligence, wit and satire. But we lacked self-examination.”

And that’s what Antrobus is making up for now. He has already written memoirs of his time with the tormented Milligan, called Surviving Spike Milligan, in which he touched on his drink problem.

He wrote: “Do not believe the reports of the glamorous life of an alcoholic. I would not trade my best day drinking for my worst day sober.

“It’s true that I did write while I was in the depths of alcoholism, but for others to suggest that to heal an artist of his sickness may heal him of his talent is unmitigated bollocks.”

But not everyone in the chaotic Uxbridge Road headquarters was as troubled as he, or the manically depressed Milligan.

“Ray [Galton] and Alan [Simpson] seemed more steady,” Antrobus says now. “They were wonderful writers who did a great job week after week. But even they would sit in silence for days until they had an idea

“But then Alan got to the point where he couldn’t take in any more. He said he should have been a shipping clerk, and that’s exactly what he did. He left to do that job.

“When Alan blew the whistle on his writing career, Ray wrote with Johnny Speight, who had a different approach. Johnny would never examine his work, he would never rewrite. But Spike did so obsessively.”

Antrobus’s play is being premiered in South London’s White Bear Theatre, which also developed the hit nostalgic revival Round The Horne… Revisited!.

His script depicts the parting of ways between himself and Speight as sour and frosty. But in converstaion, he is more circumspect than the play, suggesting that the on-stage characters and events may not be entirely factual, instead merely capturing the spirit of the times.

But of Speight, who died in 1998 at thee age of 78, Antrobus will say: “ I enjoyed working with him – and drinking with him. He introduced me to George Bernard Shaw.”

The two made an unlikely couple. Antrobus, a right-winger who had just quit Army officer training, and Speight, a straight-talking Stalinist from London’s East End.

Antrobus remembers: “I left Sandhurst at 21 because I didn’t want to kill people I thought I’d be a famous comedian and writer.

“I spent two months sending scripts to Galton and Simpson and their new agency Associated London Scripts They partnered me with Speight, this gruff man from the East End.

“We were so different. Stalin was his hero. He would say ‘purge the bastards’ and had a five-year plan for his career.”

It perhaps wasn’t the best time to be on the radical left. As Antrobus explains: “The war had only been over ten years and the BBC was full of bomb-happy ex-Army types who thought they were still in Burma

“Cold War paranoia reigned. I’ve go this character George Beckett, a mysterious BBC executive with MI5 connections It wasn’t a witch-hunt like McCarthyism, but radicals wouldn’t get the jobs and they would be slowly eased out.”

Slowly, though, things changed, in society and in comedy alike. “To get rid of censorship was great,” Antrobus recalls. “I worked on That Was The Week That Was, which was radical at the time.” But he’s not quite so keen on how attitudes have ended up.

“Now you have this insidious political correctness. Johnny Speight’s work is hardly shown these days, and that’s why this play is dedicated to him

“Johnny Speight wasn’t racist. His work wasn’t racist. But Alf Garnett was racist. You have to write characters who are bigoted or blind, that’s comedy. Simple as that.”

First published: November 9, 2004

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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.