Monday, February 27, 2006

Spike Milligan: Goon, Loon, Manic Depressive Comic Genius


Interview conducted in 1995, for the launch of the book, Spike Milligan: A Celebration. By Alastair McKay


The telephone rang. Spike focused on the occasional table. "This?" He picked up the phone and spoke. "This is your friendly district visiting rapist. Have you registered?" On the other end of the line someone was trying to contact Spike Milligan’s wife. Looking half-apologetic, he put down the receiver. "I hate that ordinary ‘Hello, who’s speaking please?’ I want to get past that. Make them think."
This sort of thing seemed to happen often in Spike’s house. It happened first when he walked into the drawing room. "Don’t stand up," he said, "I’m not the Pope."
It was a good day. It was not hard to imagine what a bad day might be like - there were enough black flashes to suggest an unforgiving streak - but his mood was indulgent.
The house sat in a lane once popular with smugglers, near Rye in Sussex - a Camberwick Green corner of England, all windmills and tea shops selling sugar mice. "At night you can hear the crackling of rheumatism from Rye," Spike offered quietly. On the mantelpiece, a hand-written sign ("No smoking. We are trying to give up lung cancer") vied for attention with a family photo and a Bafta.
Milligan put a marzipan cake on the table and arced his hand around the room. "This was all beyond me at one time. I don’t believe I’ve got it."
His first 15 years were spent in India, where his father, a career soldier, was based. Though they lived in married quarters, the Milligans had three servants. "I think of a country with golden sunshine 24 hours a day. And then that terrible heat that would come over the land. Because I was born over there I didn’t feel it. And the monsoons - we used to run and the rain was warm."
The family moved to London when Spike was 15, and he had not been back to India. "I’ve got photographs of the house I used to live in and they’re full of wogs, about 12 of them, and the whole building is falling down. It would be heartbreaking to go back and see that."
(It was hard to say whether the use of the word "wogs" was mischievous, malevolent or the product of a colonial upbringing.)
England was a disappointment. His mother had told him it was a land where chocolate and cream could be had for a penny. "She hadn’t seen it since 1912. She didn’t know.
"Actually, early on I was aware of being Irish, because my mother on St Patrick’s Day used to pin on a little badge of St Patrick and a little green ribbon. I wish I still had it."
Still, he was happy to fight for what he perceived to be his country during the Second World War. It was in 1956, when the British government insisted that passport holders swear an oath of allegiance, that he realised what the country thought of him. He was, however, honoured with a CBE. "It’s a thing on a string. It’s not really that exquisite. You could get one, you feel, at Marks & Spencer."
Many of Milligan’s troubles can be traced to a single incident. In 1942, he was involved in a mission to carry wireless batteries up a mountain. He was hit on the head by a mortar. It blew his helmet off, leaving a strap-mark under his chin. "I suddenly started to stammer, and I couldn’t control it. I said: ‘Fellas, I can’t make it.’ They took me back and put me in a forward aid station. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I didn’t seem to be able to do much. And they gave me a big mug of tea with lots of sugar in. That’s what you give somebody who’s had shock. So I gurgled it down.
"Sometimes the human race is quite lovely. I was sitting in this ambulance and I was still shaking, and we were going through the gun lines, and the guns were going dadada, and I couldn’t stand it, I was covering my head. A soldier next to me, he had his arm all bloodied, and bandaged. He did the most wonderful thing. He put his arm around me and said, ‘There chum. It’s all right.’ I’d love to have met him and thanked him."
Milligan had some difficulty convincing the authorities of the seriousness of his condition. "It’s called battle fatigue. In World War One it was called shellshock. And cowardice. That was another word. They’d have shot me, tied me to a wagon wheel. But my major didn’t understand. He said to me: ‘Come on, pull yourself together.’
"Anyway they took me off, and that was the end of my contribution to World War Two."
He had no real idea what to do after his fighting days were over. He was sent to be a wine steward at an officers’ mess, but was moved after an unwelcome sexual advance from a male officer. ("I said: ‘Don’t you ever f***ing do that again. Sir.’") He moved into entertainment, playing trumpet too loudly in a big band. From there he was switched to the central pool of artists, where he met Harry Secombe, and into a three-man dance band, at £10 a week, with officer status. "We became quite famous in Italy. We used to knock them flat playing this jazz, very fast."
He moved into writing for Secombe, who became the foremost comedy star on radio. Chance meetings with Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine led to the Goons. Milligan wrote all the scripts. The Goons, he says, turned comedy in a different direction. "It started to go sideways."
His comic influences were Jacques Tati, WC Fields ("the voice of insincerity") and the Marx brothers.
"An example. Groucho was singing a love song to Margaret Dupont. She was a very tall woman. ‘I love you my dear I always will.’ Suddenly there’s a knock on the door. She says: ‘Duck behind the couch.’ So he went behind the couch and the husband came in, and Groucho stood up and said: ‘There’s no duck behind this couch.’
"That’s where it’s at for me. There’s no actual joke, no question and answer. There just is."
Milligan said he took his sense of humour from his Dundonian grandmother, Flora Burnside, who had an infectious, hysterical laugh, often delivered in response to the misfortunes of others. "If my father banged his head on a lintel, he would shout: ‘Ooh bloody hell! Who left that there?’ She would run away and laugh and laugh and laugh. My mother used to join her.
"Living with an Irish father is rather like living in a cage with a sedated lion. You’re OK as long as he doesn’t come to.
"He woke me up at three o’clock one morning. I said: ‘What is it dad? He said: ‘Look - I’ve never shot a tiger.’
" ‘Did you say you’d never shot a tiger?’
"‘Yes.’
"‘So why tell me?’
" ‘I’ve got to tell somebody.’
"I thought all fathers were like that."
From his father, Spike inherited a literal sense of humour.
"He’d point and say: ‘Look.’ I’d say: ‘What?’ He’d say: ‘a finger’. "
It was the after-effects of shellshock, coupled with stress and the failure of his first marriage, which produced Milligan’s first breakdown. He had to write a new Goon Show every five days, 26 episodes a year for nine years, and had four breakdowns close together. He was diagnosed as neurotic, prone to self-pity, manic depressive. Shock therapy allowed him to cry, hypnotherapy to sleep, but there was no cure.
"The depression is like having somebody extracting you from yourself, and there’s nothing left except this pain. It’s one universal pain."
After his initial breakdowns, Milligan was in and out of mental homes. The thing that kept him going was an inner voice - he thought it might have been his mother’s - saying, "You are still worth it, you are still somebody. You will make it".
The way to cope, he said, was to stop your spirits from going too high, so that they had less distance to fall.
"It’s like an old plane. You take off and you don’t go too high and you don’t go too low."
Towards the end, his attitude was pessimistic. The rare lovelinesses of the human race seemed to be happening less frequently. The land, he said, would soon be taken over by roads. All the non-edible animals would become extinct.
I asked whether humankind was a disappointment. He said "yes," then recited a poem: "I wish I loved the human race / I wish I loved its stupid face / And when I stood and talked to one, I wish I thought / what jolly fun."
He was not laughing.