Saturday, November 21, 2009
Poet of the Month - Spike Milligan (1918 - 2002)
"Spike" Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918 to an Irish-born officer in the British Army and his wife. Though he lived most of his life in England and served in the British Army, he was declared stateless in 1960, and took Irish citizenship. He suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten mental breakdowns. He was a strident campaigner on environmental matters, particularly arguing against unnecessary noise. He served in the Royal Artillery in World War II in North Africa and also Italy, where he was hospitalized for shell shock. During most of the 1930s and early 1940s he performed as a jazz trumpeter but even then he did comedy sketches. After his hospitalisation he played guitar with a jazz/comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio, at first in concert parties for the troops and, after the war, for a short time on stage. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group, in his own words, "of bomb-happy squaddies") he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays, that displayed many of the key elements of what would become The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine. Spike Milligan in his younger days He was the primary author of The Goon Show scripts (though many were written jointly with Eric Sykes) as well as a star performer, and is considered the father of modern British comedy, having inspired countless writers and performers with his work on The Goon Show and his own Q series, including Monty Python's Flying Circus. Writing a show a week affected his health greatly and caused him to have a series of nervous breakdowns. On one occasion, Peter Sellers had to lock his door against a knife-wielding Milligan; on another, Sellers and Harry Secombe broke into Milligan's dressing room, fearing he was suicidal. Eventually lithium was found to be the most effective treatment. He also had a number of acting parts in theatre, film and television series; one of his last screen appearances was in the BBC dramatisation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and he was (almost inevitably) noted as an ad-libber. One of Spike's most famous ad-lib incidents occurred during a visit to Australia in the late 1960s. He was interviewed live-to-air and remained in the studio for the news broadcast that followed (read by Rod McNeil) during which Milligan constantly interjected, adding his own name to news items. As a result, he was banned from making any further live appearances on the ABC. The ABC also changed its national policy so that talent had to leave the studio after interviews were complete. A tape of the bulletin survives and has been included in an ABC Radio audio compilation, also on the BBC tribute CD, Vivat Milligan. Milligan also wrote nonsense verse for children, the best of which is comparable with that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and (while depressed) serious poetry. He also wrote a very successful series of war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971) and Rommel? Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert (1976). He also wrote comedy songs, including Purple Aeroplane, which was a parody of The Beatles' song, Yellow Submarine. After their retirement, Milligan's parents and his younger brother Desmond moved to Australia. His mother lived the rest of her life in the coastal village of Woy Woy on the New South Wales Central Coast, just north of Sydney; as a result, Spike became a regular visitor to Australia and made a number of radio and TV programmes there. From the 1960s onwards Milligan was a regular correspondent with Robert Graves. Milligan's letters to Graves usually addressed a question to do with classical studies. The letters form part of Graves' bequest to St. John's College, Oxford. In 1972, Milligan caused controversy by liberating a live shark from an art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. In 1996, he successfully campaigned for the restoration of London's Elfin Oak. The Prince of Wales was a noted fan, and Milligan caused a stir by calling him a "little grovelling bastard" on television in 1994. He later faxed the prince, saying "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?". A knighthood (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) was finally awarded in 2000. Milligan had three children with his first wife June Marlow: Laura, Seán and Síle. He had one daughter with his second wife Patricia Milligan: the actress Jane Milligan. He had no children with his third (and last) wife Shelagh Sinclair. The four children have recently collaborated with documentary makers on a new multi-platform program called I Told You I Was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan (2005) and web site, (see[]). Even late in life, Milligan's black humour had not deserted him. After the death of friend Harry Secombe from cancer, he said, "I'm glad he died before me, because I didn't want him to sing at my funeral". A recording of Secombe singing was played at Milligan's memorial service. In a BBC poll in August 1999, Spike Milligan was voted the "funniest person of the last 1000 years". He died from liver disease, at the age of 83, on February 27, 2002, at his home in Rye, East Sussex. The film of Puckoon, starring his daughter, the actress Jane Milligan, was released after his death. The Holden Road plaque Milligan lived for several years in Holden Road, Woodside Park and at The Crescent, Barnet, and was a strong supporter of the Finchley Society. His old house in Woodside Park is now demolished, but there is a blue plaque in his memory on the new house on the site. The Finchley Society is trying to get a statue of him erected in Finchley. There is also a campaign to erect a statue in Lewisham, where he grew up after coming to the UK from India in the 1930s. In accordance with his last wishes, his headstone bears the words "I told you I was ill." As his local church refused to allow these words on a headstone in its cemetery, a compromise was reached with the Irish language translation, "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite." In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted amongst the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.