Spike Milligan was the most curious of characters: He was the ultimate subversive, yet a man who remained loyal to the integrity of his beloved England to the end. His work was far-reaching, incendiary, scintillating, satirical, and laced with a romanticism that stemmed from the rivers of his ancestral Irish home. And yet behind the posturings came a more silent character, clearly more than happy to let the work speak for itself than to let the work speak for him.
In John Lennon, he had a direct contemporary, another singular icon who was as happy laughing at the world as it was laughing at him. He frequented the Beatles concerts, delivering a series of overblown, grotesque silhouettes that were more than pleasantly reminiscent of the cartoon-like characters that frequented ‘A Show Called Fred’, the television serial Milligan co-opted with Peter Sellers and Richard Lester, ‘A Show Called Fred’. They were bawdy, brilliant demonstrations of comic ingenuity, punctuated by a style that was quintessentially English in its outlook. Milligan continued the nutty narrative on ‘Q’, a show that may have directly led to Monty Python.
“Terry Jones and I adored the Q shows, which preceded Monty Python,” Michael Palin once said. “They were filled with surrealism and invention and took huge risks.” John Cleese was another fan, and The Pythons were anxious to use their comedic “uncle” in the Life of Brian, although the irreverent comic was more concerned with locating some of the remaining bastions from the First World War to collaborating with the comedic troupe he had unwittingly launched.
Milligan’s career began in radio, where he acted as part of ‘The Goon Show’. The show was vivacious, vibrant and deeply visceral, culminating in a series that was lit with fire and energy. It was the beginnings of a new form of alternative comedy, entertaining children over the land during the 1950s. It helped that the work was visual, giving listeners the chance to visualise the characters in their own heads. And although Eddie Izzard was that little too young to recognise the importance of the material from a generational point of view, he did feel that Milligan pre-empted a new form of comedic endeavour.
“From his unchained mind came forth ideas that just had no boundaries,” Izzard proclaimed. “And he influenced a new generation of comedians who came to be known as ‘alternative’.” The characters were wet with ambition, as puns and pitiful poems were committed to the ears of the lowly, occasionally lonely, listener. Milligan’s wit, wordplay and whimsy frequently caught the listeners off guard. A gander around the shop was met with a barbed “house-trained” descriptor; a fortified glass of milk was met with laughs of “brandy”; and then there was the caterwauling, the cutting remarks and the musical vignette that brought audiences further into the idiosyncratic hole with the gang.
But radio couldn’t sustain the comic forever, and he turned to television to bring the etchings of his creativity to further life. Where he stood in 1951 a man of music and mirth, he now re-emerged as the voice of a new generation, pre-empting the alternative movement with a series of blinding vignettes. Milligan worked with Sellers and Lester on The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which was a favourite of The Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Out of all The Beatles, Harrison had the greatest time for British comedy, and he made it his mission to fund many of the decade’s more incendiary works during the 1980s.
Milligan was friends with Prince Charles, interrupting the Prince of Wales in the 1990s to call him a “little grovelling bastard” on live television. He could be eloquent, but he could be equally cutting, never mincing words when the beef was there to be sliced and sizzled. But what he brought was a canniness, especially during the prime years of his television career, gifting Britain a face they could depend on to be waggish.
He had hoped to be buried under the epitaph: “I told you I was ill.” As it happened, the inscription was written in his father’s Irish, “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite”, and the rascal type words never escaped the fans who still congregate at his headstone to this day.
What would he have made of modern comedy? At this point, that’s almost a philosophical question, but the spark, singular nature and shimmering style that had cemented his work still continue to prop its head when it’s most appropriate to do so. Where Milligan triumphed as a writer, he also excelled as a performer and regularly infused his sketches with a biting aphorism. In one telling segment, he cautioned British viewers to the dangers of prejudice, particularly when it came to their neighbourly island: Ireland.
Stream one of his sketches below.