Spike Milligan: Goon but not forgotten
(Filed: 28/02/2002)

The troubled genius of post-war comedy has died aged 83. Neil Tweedie appreciates an original talent who created the Goons and inspired Monty Python

SPIKE MILLIGAN once said he liked the idea of heaven - but if Jeffrey Archer was there he'd rather go to Lewisham. Lord Archer is still safely with us, and so yesterday heaven took delivery of one of the most original talents in British entertainment, the one from whom all modern surrealist comedy in this country can trace its roots.

"Wrote Goon Show and died," was the abridged obituary offered by Milligan himself, back in 1990. He did rather more than that, producing prodigious amounts of comic and serious verse and prose and excelling as a jazz trumpeter. But the BBC radio show that began in 1951 will be the creation for which he is most remembered.

The Goons' forays into the fantastic blew away the conventions of British comedy and punctured the gloom of austerity for the post-war generation. He was the last of the Goon line, his co-conspirators, Michael Bentine, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, predeceasing him. Milligan's creativity was bought at a price. He was accompanied throughout most of his life by the black dog of manic depression. His private life was as untidy as his mind. He was serially unfaithful and had two illegitimate children, but he retained the loyalty of his family.

Milligan died at the age of 83 at his home near Rye, East Sussex, yesterday following a long period of ill health. His third wife, Shelagh, who had nursed him through his last years, was with him.

Terry Jones was among the comedians admitting their debt, describing him as the father of Monty Python. "What so thrilled me about Spike Milligan's humour was the way it deconstructed the very nature of things so we could see them with new eyes," he said. "In some ways it performed the function of poetry - but then the best comedy does. And Milligan's was the best comedy."

After his celebrated description of the Prince of Wales at an award ceremony as a "little grovelling bastard", he sent a fax to the Prince saying: "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question now?" The answer came in March last year when the pair met at St James's Palace. Milligan got his knighthood, albeit an honorary one due to his father's Irish nationality.

Terence Alan Milligan was born in India on April 16, 1918, the son of an Irish Regimental Sergeant Major. He was 16 when he was brought to Britain. He was sacked from his first job as a mechanic because he continually fused the lights. His time with the Royal Artillery in North Africa and Italy was the basis of a series of biographical works, funny and bitter in equal measure. Milligan saw friends die and suffered the humiliation of court martial after suffering the first of many breakdowns.

But the war also fed his sense of the absurd. Relating the capture of a group of Germans in North Africa, he wrote: "We captured them at a place called Jabul Mahdi and, the way they came across the hill in their neatly pressed uniforms, you'd have thought that they were in charge of us. There was their officer in front of them, giving the lead off word of command. "He carried a white flag in which our sergeant major blew his nose. And that was only the beginning."

Milligan met Secombe, Sellers and Bentine in London after the war. They were all ex servicemen and their mutual experience of military absurdity was to inspire much of the Goon Show. His comedic career would evolve into theatre and the Q series of comedy sketch shows on television, but in later life it was writing that dominated. That, and the campaigning.

Milligan hated smoking, nuclear weapons, factory farming and noise. It was noise that drove him from London to the refuge of Rye. His home was littered with "No Smoking" signs, and a notice on the large front door said: "This door can be closed without slamming it. Try it and see how clever you are." He could go to frightening lengths in pursuit of his ideals. In 1986 he was thrown out of Harrods after trying to stuff 28lb of spaghetti down the mouth of the food hall manager. "I told him it might give him some idea of how a goose feels being force-fed maize to make pate de fois gras," explained Milligan.

But always there was the pain, a pain he explored in the poem Manic Depression:

The pain is too much
A thousand grim winters grow in my head
In my ears the sound of the coming dead
All seasons, all same
All living all pain
No opiate to lock still my senses.
Only left the body locked tenser