Spike Milligan
(Filed: 28/02/2002)

SPIKE MILLIGAN, who has died aged 83, created through the Goon Show a new form of British humour - zany, surrealist, inconsequential, chaotic; a mixture of inspired fantasy and unmitigated bathos."Milligan is the great god of us all," said John Cleese, who readily acknowledged the master's influence on Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Yet if the Goon Show, which flourished between 1951 and 1960, pointed the way to the future, it also drew heavily upon nostalgia for the Victorian past, as though Kipling had somehow become mixed up with Salvador Dali.

Milligan's roots were in India, and all the Goons were ex-Servicemen. The starting point of Goon humour, Milligan once explained, "is one man shouting gibberish in the face of authority, and proving by fabricated insanity that nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living".

Milligan himself played many of the characters that tumbled out of his mind: Eccles, the loveable, toothless dimwit; Spriggs, given to nasal objections from the back of the hall during meetings; Abdul, the twittering bearer or dragoman; the vague, hen-like Minnie Bannister, spinster of the parish; and Count Toulouse-Moriarty of the House of Roland, an impoverished cosmopolitan of the 1920s.

The parts assigned to the other Goons were equally of Milligan's invention. Peter Sellers acted the smooth villain Hercules Grytpype-Thynne and the shameless ex-Indian Army Major Bloodknok. He also took on Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister's equally poultry-like associate; Willium "Mate" Cobblersliam, a despairing, croaking Cockney; and Bluebottle, a ludicrous personification of schoolboy dreams of glory.

Harry Secombe was Neddy Seagoon, forever involved in some crazy enterprise - laying a telephone line to "17a, Africa" or taking part in a drum race from John O'Groats to Land's End. In the Goon Show, Alan Brien wrote, "the non-sequitur, the paradox, the pun, the cliche, the sick joke were released like starving rats in a henhouse. Situations and characters which formerly would only have cropped up in a psychiatrist's case-book, were unveiled with deadpan bravado."

By no means everyone found the Goons irresistible; nevertheless the show attracted some seven million listeners, and made Milligan a national figure. But the triumph eventually became a source of grievance. " 'Wrote the Goon Show - died' : that's how people think of me," Milligan complained when Channel 4 ran a spoof obituary in 1991.

As the author of more than 50 books he had reason to complain. Among them were six volumes about his war experiences - Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971); Rommel: Gunner Who? (1974); Monty: My Part in His Victory (1976); Mussolini: My Part in His Downfall (1978); Where have all the bullets gone? (1985) and Goodbye Soldier (1986). These were a strange mixture of touching description, acute insight and total lunacy.

In addition he turned out children's books, collections of nonsense, a novel (in fact, a set of gags set against an Irish background) entitled Puckoon (1963) and several volumes of verse, not to mention his own versions of The Bible, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Wuthering Heights and Black Beauty. Invariably the critics acknowledged the talent - genius, as some saw it - while deploring Milligan's lack of discipline. But it was hardly possible to combine such riotous invention with measured order. The most remarkable thing about Milligan was that he maintained his rate of output despite being, in his own phrase, "a full-time professional neurotic". Periods of frantic energy alternated with bleak and prolonged periods of withdrawal.

Several times he underwent ECT treatment, until it was discovered that lithium was the most effective treatment. In appointing himself patron of the Manic-Depression Fellowship, and in publishing, with Anthony Clare, The Survivor's Guide to Depression (1993), Milligan knew what he was about. Milligan had a dangerous predilection for biting the hand that fed him. The Royal Family, in particular, suffered. On her 39th birthday in 1965 the Queen went to see Milligan in Son of Oblomov; afterwards he dined with her and Prince Philip.

This did not prevent Milligan from observing, in 1988, that the Prince was "f***ing lucky to marry the Queen. He was nothing when he met her. His arse was hanging out of his trousers." Prince Charles also became a butt. Having for years expressed his admiration for Milligan, he found himself described in 1994 as "a grovelling little bastard". Such outbursts were bubbles bursting on the surface of a deep misanthropy. "Most people bore me to death," Milligan would say. "I have no time for stupid people."

The same point of view was expressed more wittily and succinctly in a gag he wrote about a Japanese man: "Why does everyone dislike me?" "Saves time." Milligan readily involved himself in good works - financing a farm for children in Finchley, helping battered women, crusading against cruelty to animals (he was a determined foe of hunting). He also dedicated himself to conservation projects, notably Victorian lamp-posts and the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens.

Yet he was also something of a faddist - about noise, about smoking, about punctuality - and was always eager to tell other people what they were doing wrong. Invariably at odds with authority, he gave way to mocking incredulity that anyone could disagree when he laid down the law. In particular Milligan would express bitter astonishment at the foolishness of mankind in tolerating overpopulation. Though he had been born a Roman Catholic, and continued to hang a crucifix above his bed, he perpetrated a sketch against the Catholic doctrine of birth control, in which he pulled a picture of the Pope from his flies while singing Ave Maria.

His outrage, however, did not prevent him fathering two illegitimate children in the 1970s, along within four children within wedlock. The condition of Milligan's talent was that he never grew up. On the negative side, he remained all his life liable to give way to sudden, uncontrollable rage when confronted with authority. On the positive side, he retained a clear, fresh and essentially innocent vision that enabled him to draw infinite humour from the inanities of conventional existence.

Terence Alan Milligan was born in India on April 16 1918 at Ahmednagar military hospital in the province of Bombay. The Milligans were of Irish ancestry - Terence's great-grandfather Michael had been born in Donegal in 1816 - and dedicated both to the Army and the theatre.

Michael Milligan had joined the Royal Artillery; his son William established the family in London and became scenery manager at the Queen's Palace of Variety in Poplar; and Leo, Terence's father, was an RSM in the Indian Army. Terence's mother, nee Florence Kettleband, came from a family which had a pronounced theatrical - and a musical - tradition; with her husband she put on an act at the Bombay Palace of Varieties. Terence's infancy was spent at Poona in a household liberally supplied with Indian servants. As a pupil at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Poona, he had the first of his brushes with authority, when the Mother Superior presumed to call him out before the entire school. "I wish nothing better for her," he wrote as an adult, "than to be have been raped and murdered by a crazed terrorist."

In 1924 the Milligans moved to Rangoon where, the next year, Terence's brother Desmond was born. Among those who visited their house, in the shadow of the Golden Pagoda, was Eric Blair, alias George Orwell. Terence was exposed to further Roman Catholic education at St Paul's High School. In 1933 Leo Milligan, through no fault of his own, was discharged from the Indian Army, and the family's life dramatically changed. Leaving the relative luxury of Burma, they found themselves, as Terence later put it, "entombed in south-east London" - specifically in two rooms in Riseldine Road, Catford.

Terence's dreams of becoming a pilot were swiftly snuffed out by the entrance exam to the RAF training school. He was condemned to a series of soul-destroying jobs in local firms and, worst of all, at the local laundry. Working as a packer in Deptford, he flogged cigarettes he had stolen and found himself in court for his pains. Thanks to an impassioned speech from his father - "he's a good worker, Sir, and gives all his paltry wages to his mother" - he was let off.

Milligan's only hope of escape was through music; indeed it had been to raise funds to buy a trumpet that he had resorted to crime. Entirely self-taught until he wangled himself in an evening course in orchestral practice at Goldsmith's College, he also played the drums, guitar and double bass, and became a leading light in Tommy Brittell's New Ritz Revellers at Brockley.

The other positive feature in his life was that women found him highly attractive. Moreover he knew how to capitalise on the fact, alternating between ardour and indifference. One of his early girlfriends bought him his first trumpet - not that it did her much good.

It was the outbreak of the Second World War that took Milligan out of his rut. He joined D Battery of the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, which was stationed at Bexhill-on-Sea. As the leading member of the Battery band he not only found an outlet for his musical talents - "honestly, we were the Beatles of Bexhill" - but also began to develop a reputation as a comedian. It was at this point that the name Spike began to take hold.

A girlfriend called Beryl Southby, a singer with the BBC, encouraged him to enter a BBC instrumentalists' competition at Maida Vale. He won, and as a prize made a record with the band, accompanied by the blind pianist George Shearing. Music remained to the fore even after the Battery moved to North Africa in January 1943 and engaged in the siege of Tunis (Milligan was a signaller). Milligan particularly recalled a military concert in the vast French theatre at Fort de l'eau: "that night the ego got its first taste of honey."

In September 1943 the Battery - with Milligan still clutching his trumpet - crossed the Mediterranean to Salerno and marched north towards Naples. Exhausted and suffering from piles, Milligan was wounded in the left leg by mortar fire, and reduced to a shaken, incoherent and lachrymose wreck. "I ran out of courage," he later explained.

The sense of failure never left him. Later in life he would express admiration for Telegraph obituaries - "all those war heroes. Makes me wish I had done a bit more." After several months in rehabilitation camps at Afrigola and Banio he was given jobs as a wine waiter and a driver. Music once more came to his rescue, until the doctor told him to stop playing the trumpet in order to relieve a chest pain.

Milligan the comedian now came into his own, writing and acting in two entertainments: Black Baggage, a parody of Leon Gordon's White Cargo, and Men in Gitis, a satirical sequel to Mary Hayley Bell's Men in Shadows. Both were huge successes. Only the brigadier remained unamused, and therefore willing to see Milligan transferred to the Central Pool of Artists in Naples. There he appeared in Over the Page, with Harry Secombe, and formed a trio with Bill Hall (violin) and Johnny Mulgrew (double bass). He also embarked on a passionate affair with an Italian woman, Toni Pontani.

Discharged from the Army in October 1946, Milligan returned to live with his parents at Deptford, and played at night clubs with the Bill Hall trio. In 1947 the trio played on television and toured Switzerland and Italy, but then split up. Despite Harry Secombe's recommendation, Milligan failed an audition for a job at the Windmill theatre. He found his true metier at the Grafton Arms, Victoria, a pub run by a scriptwriter called Jimmy Grafton. There in 1948 he joined forces with Michael Bentine, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe, to delight the customers with riotous and anarchic persiflage directed against bureaucracy and officialdom. Before long Milligan was living in an attic at the Grafton.

In 1948 and 1949 he had some success as a comedian at the Nuffield Centre, central London; one reviewer called him "the British answer to Danny Kaye - and how". He also appeared in a radio series, Hip Hip Hoo Roy. But the beginning of the 1950s found him touring Army bases in East Anglia as a comedian with the Frank Weir Orchestra. Morale was not improved when a pilot Goon Show was rejected - sparking in Milligan a lasting paranoia about the BBC. Better counsels eventually prevailed, and on May 28 1951 the first Goon Show, billed as Those Crazy People, The Goons, was broadcast. Within six weeks it was popular enough to be moved from 6.45 pm on Mondays to a peak time (7.45 pm) on Thursdays.

All the same, three producers had already fallen by the wayside before the eventual arrival of Dennis Main Wilson. The strain of providing weekly scripts was intensified by the demands of paternity (Milligan's first child was born in November 1952), and by continuing rows with the BBC. Milligan was particularly irked by their refusal to allow him to impersonate Sir Winston Churchill. "We could have beaten the Fringe by ten years," he later complained.

When the BBC complained about the late delivery of his scripts, something snapped. Milligan seized a knife and ran into Peter Sellers's adjoining flat. "I was so mad," he recalled, "I thought that if I killed Peter it would come right. I think I just wanted them to lock me up. I was totally demented." Fortunately Milligan's wife warned Sellers not to open the door. Milligan was removed to an isolation ward at Muswell Hill, where he was kept for a time in a straitjacket. Though back with the Goon Show by March 1953, he had several breakdowns over the next few years. Yet this was also a time of great achievement. The Goon Show went from strength to strength, and was hardly less successful in Australia (where Milligan's parents had emigrated and which he himself frequently visited), New Zealand, Rhodesia and the United States.

At the same time Milligan tried his hand at various television scripts for independent television. Wolf Mankowitz greeted The Idiot Weekly Price 2d (1956) with delight: "At last here is humour which is intelligent, pointed, skilful, professionally conducted, specifically television and very, very funny." This was followed by A Show Called Fred, which heralded the arrival of surrealist comedy on television. Thirteen years later Milligan reverted to the same kind of humour in a series called Q5 (later followed by Q6, Q7, Q8 and Q9), but it was still ahead of its time. Only the cognoscenti were impressed. "When we first saw Q5," John Cleese has observed, "we were very depressed because we thought it was what we wanted to do and Milligan was doing it brilliantly."

From 1956 Milligan also made a series of records, many of them related to the Goons. I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas, issued in 1957 with the Ying Tong Song, went to the top of the charts. When the show ended he published his first book, A Dustbin of Milligan (1961), which, alongside assorted burlesques and graffiti, contained some original verse:

There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in,
But they're ever so small
That's why the rain is thin.

In 1961 Milligan combined with John Antrobus to write The Bed-Sitting Room, first staged as a one-act play at Canterbury in 1962 by Tomorrow's Audience, a repertory company with which Richard Ingrams was involved. By the next year the piece had expanded and transferred to the Mermaid and Duke of York's. The play postulated a Third World War which has just finished after two minutes 28 seconds (including the peace treaty). Buried underneath the nonsense, puns and clowning was a serious desire to bring home the horrors of nuclear radiation.

In 1964 Milligan appeared at the Lyric, Hammersmith in the name part of Obolomov, a dramatisation of Ivan Goncharov's novel about a young nobleman so overcome by ennui that he never leaves his bed. Milligan guyed the text unmercifully, ad-libbing at will. Many critics gave him short shrift, but the show was such a success that it moved to the West End as Son of Oblomov.

Meanwhile in 1957 Milligan had featured in a short film by Richard Lester called The Case of the Mukkinese Battlehorn. This was a success, but was eclipsed by The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1960), an 11-minute entertainment made on a shoestring and consisting of assorted crazy scenes - including a man rushing into a field to scrub the grass, and another character who places a gramophone record on a tree stump and runs madly around it with the recording arm.

Milligan had parts in more grandiose, if poorer, films such as The Magic Christian (1970), The Devils (1971) and The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977). Better were Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), with Milligan as the Gryphon, Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1980).

In 1987 Milligan left his house in Potter's Bar for a modern rambling house in Sussex, which he was soon professing to hate. Yet, though he attached a nameplate reading "The Blind Architect", he did not move. The books continued to flow, and so did his complaints about not being properly appreciated by the BBC. Of his later books, the most interesting was a collection of his correspondence with Robert Graves, Dear Robert, Dear Spike (1991).

In 1992 Milligan was appointed an honorary CBE - honorary, because he had adopted Irish nationality after a brush with the Passport Office in the 1960s. He joked that he would rather be a member of the Hackney Empire than the crumbling British one. Even so, he was appointed an honorary KBE in 2001. To the end, Milligan remained incapable of failing to crack a joke when the opportunity presented itself, professing relief at the death of Harry Secombe last year with the declaration: "Now I won't have to have him singing at my funeral."

Spike Milligan married first, in 1952 (dissolved 1961) June Marlowe; they had a son and two daughters. He married secondly, in 1962, Patricia ("Paddy") Ridgeway, who died in 1978; they had a daughter. He married thirdly, in 1983, Shelagh Sinclair.