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Spike Milligan [1918-2002]

By: Steve Brookes MBE

Spike Milligan, his death is a loss and really the end of a big era.


I was saddened by the death at 83 of my hero - writer and broadcaster Spike Milligan - who never failed to make me laugh.

Does anyone reading this remember when Milligan and the early tour of the Goon Show came to the Coventry Theatre, and Milligan, for once, did fail to amuse. He came on stage, looked at the audience, yelled out ‘You hate me don’t you!’ and locked himself in his dressing room.

Writer of some of the most unique humour in the country and a conservationist, Spike was strongly anti war. What he called his trilogy of seven books of war memoirs proceeds from Victoria Station, on his way to be a soldier ‘On our side!’ “An officer gave me a travel warrant and a photo of Hitler marked this is your enemy. I searched the train. He wasn’t on it! I wanted to go home. But a big sergeant kept hitting me, so I stayed.”

Wounded at the end of the war, his humour moved to a harsher reality, and this frequently brought him into conflict with the BBC. He wrote the Goon Show, which ran for 248 programmes in the fifties. Created in a totally lunatic style, it featured Milligan’s wartime friends and comedians, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers.

Eventually the pressure of being funny to order took its toll, and he suffered breakdowns, leading to manic depression. But still the humour shines through, and for fine examples of his work I would recommend his books Puckoon or Silly Verse for Kids.

In his book 'The Goon Show Companion' Spike Milligan sums up his radio writing skills with the words 'Its all in the mind you know. Just say 40 thousand pink elephants wearing football shorts, and there they are.'

Milligan hated the BBC for its stuffy attitude, but was made (and partly destroyed) by it. Radio is alive, well, and living as a form of popular culture in the United Kingdom. The rush to apply for available broadcast licences has not decreased, and in most areas at least three commercial stations are available, matched by all five BBC radio stations.

If we consider the historical facts of radio content, we see that within the United Kingdom 'only the BBC continues to broadcast features, plays and comedy, but whereas these could once be found on each of the three networks it operated, they are now largely confined to one. Radio Four.'

The popular culture of radio comedy has, since the late 1970's, become derailed, and as Comic writer and ex BBC staff member Barry Took says 'The simple fact is that the BBC no longer has the cash to present a show of the weight of "Take it from here", "The Goon Show", "Round the Horne" and the rest, and the money that radio can spend on comedy went into transfers of shows from television. It may be a losing battle but it would be foolish to write off radio comedy altogether.'

However, as an aficionado of the form, I feel that Took is incorrect in his surmise. Radio Comedy was at its height during the period of 1939 to 1969, The Second World War and the post war revival, when the 'tonic of laughter' was needed by the people and offered by the BBC. It effectively became a 'force fed' and massively consumed popular culture.

The comedy of the day was based on the principle that a free man can laugh through disaster and the ridiculous, a slave cannot; there were no comedy programmes in occupied Europe. The day to day events of the war were balanced by the ordinary people against the activities of a range of comics and comedy shows. The earliest elements of sit-com started around the time of the build up to war.

Took writes ' "It's that Man Again" apart, it must be admitted that radio comedy during the period of 1939-45 was of poor quality. Many top staff had been called up. Censorship was strict and the authorities unwilling to sanction material "damaging to morale" - that’s to say, jokes about rationing, the blackout, poor conditions in the forces, and inadequacy and incompetence in high places. All these things were a natural source of humour, and in fact became later in the war the very essence of comic radio.'

In the BBC Green Book of the 1940's, the following rules pertained to radio comedy.

Programmes must be at all cost kept free of crudity, coarseness, and innuendo. Humour must be untainted.

There is an absolute ban on: -

Jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind.

Suggestive references to Honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitution, Ladies underwear, eg, winter draws on. Animal habits, eg rabbits. Lodgers or commercial travellers. Avoid derogatory references to solicitors, miners, the working class, coloured races, strikes or disputes, the black market, Chinese men, and harems.

Inspite of these draconian measures to protect the public interest, the needs of the people for such entertainment grew and radio comedy thrived. It became the popular cultural form. But it must be remembered that there was little other entertainment. Laughing at the antics of Tommy Handley and his ITMA team relieved long scary nights. In his 1948 book on the programme, ITMA producer Francis Worsley said 'The success and popularity of the culture surrounding ITMA was that it was essentially a radio show, which was not meant to be seen.'

Comedy on radio was first heard in the performances of the like of Max Miller, Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley, and then Milligan’s brilliant Goon Show became a household name and lived in lunacy or surrealism. In one episode, Spike Milligan obtained the services of BBC senior presenter John Snagge to try to tempt announcer Wallace Greenslade back to the Home Service. Ray Ellington 'Who shall I say craves audience?'

John Snagge 'Tell him its John Snagge-no wait- say its Snaggers-he whose voice was heard from the Thames motor launch (which usually fails) - he whose voice tell the masses of a watery contest 'twixt men in slender willow craft that race between Mortlake brewery and their Olympic goal.

Ray Ellington 'Gor blimey mate.'

John Snagge 'Dear listeners- I was led across a marble courtyard of solid wood- and there Silver fountains gushed claret. And there, lying on a silken hammock suspended Between two former television toppers was Wallace Greenslade.

Greenslade 'Ah, John, dear John. You couldn't have arrived at a better time. I was just about to unveil a small plasticine statue of myself.

Screen visualisation of such a scene is impossible.

The growth of the style was reflected in subsequent shows such as Round the Horne, The Navy Lark and the softer radio version of Monty Python, called I'm Sorry I'll read that again. The current vogue of radio wallpaper does not allow the development of a comic style and slowly and irrevocably, comedy as a genre, a popular cultural form, has receded into the memory, and the death of Milligan, I feel, marks the end of a great era.

Steve Brookes MBE

Copyright © - Steve Brookes 2002 - All rights reserved


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