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|Birth name||Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan|
16 April 1918|
Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, British India
|Died||27 February 2002
Rye, East Sussex, England, UK
|Spouse||June Marlow (1952–60)
Patricia Ridgeway (1962–78)
Shelagh Sinclair (1983–2002)
|Notable works and roles||The Goon Show, Q, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall|
Terence Alan Patrick Seán "Spike" Milligan KBE (16 April 1918 – 27 February 2002) was an Irish comedian, writer, musician, poet, playwright, soldier and actor. His early life was spent in India, where he was born, but the majority of his working life was spent in the United Kingdom. He became an Irish citizen in 1962 after the British government declared him stateless. He was the co-creator, main writer and a principal cast member of The Goon Show, performing a range of roles including the popular Eccles.
Milligan wrote and edited many books, including Puckoon and his seven-volume autobiographical account of his time serving during the Second World War, beginning with Adolf Hitler: My part in his downfall. He is also noted as a popular writer of comical verse; much of his poetry was written for children, including Silly Verse for Kids (1959). After success with the ground-breaking British radio programme, The Goon Show, Milligan translated this success to television with Q5, a surreal sketch show which is credited as a major influence on the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
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Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918, the son of an Irish father, Captain Leo Alphonso Milligan, MSM, RA (1890–1969), who was serving in the British Indian Army. His mother, Florence Mary Winifred Kettleband (1893–1990), was born in England. He spent his childhood in Poona (India) and later in Rangoon, capital of Burma (Myanmar). He was educated at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Poona, and St Paul's Christian Brothers, de la Salle, Rangoon. He lived most of his life in England and served in the British Army in the Royal Artillery during World War II.
During most of the late 1930s and early 1940s Milligan performed as an amateur jazz vocalist and trumpeter before, during and after being called up for military service in the fight against Nazi Germany, but even then he wrote and performed comedy sketches as part of concerts to entertain troops. After his call-up, but before being sent abroad, he and fellow musician Harry Edgington (nicknamed Edge-ying-Tong which gave birth to one of Milligan's most memorable musical creations, the Ying Tong Song) would compose surreal stories, filled with puns and skewed logic, as a way of staving off the boredom of life in barracks. One biographer describes his early dance band infiltration: "He managed to croon like Bing Crosby and win a competition: he also played drums, guitar and trumpet, in which he was entirely self taught". He also acquired a double bass, which he took lessons on and would strum in jazz sessions. Milligan had perfect pitch.
During World War II, he served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery, as Gunner Milligan, 954024 with the First Army in the North African campaign and then in the succeeding Italian campaign. He rose to the rank of Lance Bombardier and was about to be promoted to Bombardier when he was wounded in action in the Italian theatre at the Battle of Monte Cassino. Subsequently hospitalised for a mortar wound to the right leg and shell shock, he was demoted by an unsympathetic commanding officer (identified in his war diaries as Major Evan 'Jumbo' Jenkins) back to Gunner. It was Milligan's opinion that Major Jenkins did not like him because Milligan constantly kept the morale of his fellow soldiers up, whereas Major Jenkins's approach was to take an attitude towards the troops similar to that of Lord Kitchener. An incident also mentioned was when Major Jenkins had invited Gunners Milligan and Edgington to his bivouac to play some jazz with him, only to discover that the musicianship of the aforementioned gunners was far superior to his own ability to play the military tune 'Whistling Rufus'.
After his hospitalisation, Milligan drifted through a number of rear-echelon military jobs in Italy, eventually becoming a full-time entertainer. He played the guitar with a jazz and comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio in concert parties for the troops. After being demobilised, Milligan remained in Italy playing with the Trio but returned to England soon after. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group he described as composed "of bomb-happy squaddies") he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays, that displayed many of the key elements of what would later become The Goon Show (originally called Crazy People) with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine.
Milligan returned to jazz in the late 1940s and made a precarious living with the Hall trio and other musical comedy acts. He was also trying to break into the world of radio, as either a performer or as a script writer. His first success in radio was as writer for comedian Derek Roy's show. After a delayed start, Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine joined forces in a relatively radical comedy project, The Goon Show. During its first season the BBC titled the show as Crazy People, or in full, "The Junior Crazy Gang featuring those Crazy People, the Goons!", an attempt to make the programme palatable to BBC officials by connecting it with the popular group of theatre comedians known as The Crazy Gang.
The first episode was broadcast on 28 May 1951 on the BBC Home Service. Although he did not perform as much in the early shows Milligan eventually became a lead performer in almost all of the Goon Show episodes, portraying a wide range of characters including Eccles, Minnie Bannister, Jim Spriggs and the nefarious Count Moriarty. He was also the primary author of most of the scripts, although he co-wrote many scripts with various collaborators, most notably Larry Stephens and Eric Sykes. Most of the early shows were co-written with Stephens (and edited by Jimmy Grafton) but this partnership faltered after Series 3. Milligan wrote most of Series 4 himself, but from Series 5 (coinciding with the birth of the Milligans' second child, Seán) and through most of Series 6, he collaborated with Eric Sykes, a development that grew out of his contemporary business collaboration with Sykes in Associated London Scripts. Milligan and Stephens reunited during Series 6, but towards the end of Series 8 Stephens was sidelined by health problems, and Milligan worked briefly with John Antrobus. The Milligan-Stephens partnership was finally ended by Stephens' death from a brain haemorrhage in January 1959 and Milligan later downplayed and disparaged Stephens' contributions.
The Goon Show was recorded before a studio audience, and during the audience warm-up session, Milligan would play the trumpet, while Peter Sellers played on the orchestra's drums. For the first few years the shows were recorded live, direct to 16-inch transcription disc, which required the cast to adhere closely to the script, but by Series 4 the BBC had adopted the use of magnetic tape. Milligan eagerly exploited the possibilities the new technology offered—the tapes could be edited, so the cast could now ad-lib freely, and tape also enabled the creation of groundbreaking sound effects. Over the first three series Milligan's demands for increasingly complex sound effects (or 'grams', as they were then known) pushed the available technology and the skills of the BBC engineers to their limits—effects had to be created mechanically (foley) or played back from discs, sometimes requiring the use of four or five turntables running simultaneously. With magnetic tape, these effects could be produced in advance and the BBC engineers were able to create highly complex, tightly edited effects 'stings' that would have been very difficult (if not impossible) to perform using foley or disc. In the later years of the series many Goon Show 'grams' were produced for the series by members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a notable example being the famous "Major Bloodnok's Stomach" effect, realised by Dick Mills.
Although The Goons elevated Milligan to international stardom, the demands of writing and performing the series took a heavy toll. During Series 3 he suffered the first of several serious mental breakdowns, which also marked the onset of a decades-long cycle of manic/depressive illness. In late 1952, possibly exacerbated by suppressed tensions between the Goons' stars, Milligan apparently became irrationally convinced that he had to kill Sellers, but when he attempted to gain entry to Sellers's neighbouring flat, armed with a potato knife, he accidentally walked straight through the plate-glass front door. He was hospitalised, heavily sedated for two weeks, and spent almost two months recuperating; fortunately for the show, a backlog of scripts meant that his illness had little effect on production. Milligan later blamed the pressure of writing and performing The Goon Show for both his breakdown and the failure of his first marriage.
A lesser-known aspect of Milligan's life in the 1950s and 1960s was his involvement in the writers' agency Associated London Scripts. Milligan married for the first time and began a family. This reportedly distracted him from writing so much that he accepted an invitation from Eric Sykes to share his small office leading to the creation of the co-operative agency.
Milligan made several forays into television as a writer-performer, in addition to his many guest appearances on interview, variety and sketch comedy series from the 1950s to the 2000s. The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (1956) starring Peter Sellers was the first attempt to translate Goons humour to TV; it was followed by A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred, both made during 1956 and directed by Richard Lester, who went on to work with The Beatles. During a visit to Australia in 1958, a similar special was made for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, "The Gladys Half-Hour", which also featured local actors Ray Barrett, and John Bluthal, who would appear in several later Milligan projects. In 1961, Milligan co-wrote two episodes of the popular sitcom Sykes and A..., co-starring Sykes and Hattie Jacques, and the one-off "Spike Milligan Offers A Series Of Unrelated Incidents At Market Value".
The 15-minute series The Telegoons (1963) was the next attempt to transplant The Goons to television, this time using puppet versions of the familiar characters. The initial intention was to 'visualise' original recordings of 1950s Goon Show episodes, but this proved difficult to achieve in practice because of the rapid-fire dialogue and was ultimately frustrated by the BBC's refusal to allow the original audio to be used. 15-minute adaptations of the original scripts by Maurice Wiltshire were used instead, with Milligan, Sellers and Secombe reuniting to provide the voices; according to a contemporary press report, they received the highest fees the BBC had ever paid for 15-minute shows. Two series were made in 1963 and 1964 and (presumably because it was shot on 35mm film rather than video) the entire series has reportedly been preserved in the BBC archives.
Milligan's next major TV venture was the sketch comedy series The World of Beachcomber (1968), made in colour for BBC 2; however, it is believed all 19 episodes are now lost. That same year, the three Goons reunited for a televised re-staging of a vintage Goon Show for Thames Television, with John Cleese substituting for the late Wallace Greenslade, but the pilot was not successful and no further programmes were made.
In early 1969 Milligan starred in the ill-fated situation comedy Curry & Chips, created and written by Johnny Speight and featuring Milligan's old friend and colleague Eric Sykes. Curry & Chips set out to satirize racist attitudes in Britain in a similar vein to Speight's earlier creation, the hugely successful Till Death Us Do Part, with Milligan 'blacking up' to play Kevin O'Grady, a half-Pakistani/half-Irish factory worker. The series generated numerous complaints because of its frequent use of racist epithets and 'bad language' - one viewer reportedly complained of counting 59 uses of the word "bloody" in one episode - and it was cancelled on the orders of the Independent Broadcasting Authority after only six episodes.
Director John Goldschmidt's film The Other Spike dramatised Milligan's nervous breakdown in a film for Granada Television, for which Milligan wrote the screenplay and in which he played himself. Later that year, he was commissioned by the BBC to write and star in Q5, the first in the innovative "Q" TV series, acknowledged as an important precursor to Monty Python's Flying Circus, which premiered several months later. However there was a hiatus of several years before the BBC commissioned Q6 in 1975. Q7 appeared in 1977, Q8 in 1978, Q9 in 1980 and There's a Lot of It About in 1982. Milligan later complained of the BBC's cold attitude towards the series and stated that he would have made more programs had he been given the opportunity. A number of episodes of the earlier "Q" series are now missing, presumed wiped.
From 1995-98 he voiced the highly successful children's animated series Wolves, Witches and Giants for ITV. The series was written by Ed Welch, who had featured in the "Q" series and had collaborated with Spike on several audio productions and produced and directed by Simon & Sara Bor. The series was show in over 100 territories including the UK and USA.
Milligan also wrote verse, considered to be within the genre of literary nonsense. His poetry has been described by comedian Stephen Fry as "absolutely immortal - greatly in the tradition of Lear." His most famous poem, "On the Ning Nang Nong", was voted the UK's favourite comic poem in 1998 in a nationwide poll, ahead of other nonsense poets including Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. This nonsense verse, set to music, became a favourite Australia-wide, performed week after week by the ABC children's programme Playschool. Milligan included it on his album No One's Gonna Change Our World in 1969 to aid the World Wildlife Fund. In December 2007 it was reported that, according to OFSTED, it is amongst the ten most commonly taught poems in primary schools in the UK.
While depressed, he wrote serious poetry. He also wrote a novel Puckoon, and a series of war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971), "Rommel?" "Gunner Who?": A Confrontation in the Desert (1974), Monty: His Part in My Victory (1976) and Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall (1978). Milligan's seven volumes of memoirs cover the years from 1939 to 1950 (his call-up, war service, first breakdown, time spent entertaining in Italy, and return to the UK).
He also wrote comedy songs, including "Purple Aeroplane", which was a parody of The Beatles' song "Yellow Submarine". Glimpses of his bouts with depression, which led to the nervous breakdowns, can be found in his serious poetry, which is compiled in Open Heart University. He is also the author of the famous story of a Christian boy who has cancer, Goodbye Peace Letter.
"a man of quite extraordinary talents...a visionary who is out there alone, denied the usual contacts simply because he is so different he can't always communicate with his own species...".
Treasure Island played twice daily through the winter of 1961-62, and was an annual production at the Mermaid Theatre for some years. In the 1968 production, Barry Humphries played the role of Long John Silver, alongside William Rushton as Squire Trelawney, and Milligan as Ben Gunn. To Humphries, Milligan's "best performance must surely have been as Ben Gunn ... Milligan stole the show every night in a makeup which took at least an hour to apply. His appearance on stage always brought a roar of delight from the kids in the audience and Spike had soon left the text far behind as he went off into a riff of sublime absurdity."
In 1961-62, during the long pauses between the matinee and the evening show of Treasure Island, Milligan began talking to Miles about the idea he and John Antrobus were exploring of a dramatized post-nuclear world. This became the one-act play The Bed-Sitting Room, which Milligan co-wrote with John Antrobus, and which premiered at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury on 12 February 1962. It was adapted to a longer play, and staged by Miles at London's Mermaid Theatre, making its debut on 31 January 1963. It was a critical and commercial success, and was revived in 1967 with a provincial tour before opening at London's Saville Theatre on 3 May 1967. Finally it was made into a film in 1969.
On 6 October 1964, Milligan appeared in Frank Dunlop's production of the play Oblomov at the Lyric Theatre in London, based on the novel by Russian writer Ivan Goncharov. Per Scudamore's biography, "Milligan's fans and the theatrical world in general found it hard to believe that he was to appear in a straight play...He refused to be serious when questioned about his motives. In the story, Oblomov decides to spend his life in bed. Spike decided to identify with his character, and told disbelieving reporters that he thought it would be a nice comfortable rest for him. This was of course, prevarication. Spike was actually intrigued with Oblomov and had read a translation of Ivan Goncharov's novel."
Milligan's involvement transformed the play. The first night started poorly. Joan Greenwood played Olga and later recalled that her late husband Andre Morell thought the show was so appalling, they should get her out of the play. Per Scudamore:
Nobody seemed at all comfortable in their roles and the audience began to hoot with laughter when Milligan's slipper inadvertently went spinning across the stage into the stalls. That was the end of Spike's playing straight. The audience demanded a clown, he became a clown. When he forgot his words, or disapproved of them, he simply made up what he felt to be more appropriate ones. That night there were no riotous first night celebrations and most of the cast seemed to go home stunned. The following night Milligan began to ad lib in earnest. The text of the show began to change drastically. The cast were bedevilled and shaken but they went along with him ... Incredibly, the show began to resolve itself. The context changed completely. It was turned upside down and inside out. Cues and lines became irrelevant as Milligan verbally rewrote the play each night. By the end of the week, Oblomov had changed beyond recognition. Andre Morell came again... and afterwards said 'the man is a genius. He must be a genius - it's the only word for him. He's impossible - but he's a genius!'. After Oblomov had run for a record-breaking five weeks at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, it was retitled Son of Oblomov and moved to the Comedy Theatre in the West End.
In an interview with Bernard Braden, Milligan described theatre as important to him: "First it was a means of livelihood. And I had sort of lagged behind my confederates, that I…remained in the writing seat. And I realise that basically I was quite a good clown…and the one and only chance I ever had to prove that was in Oblomov when I clowned my way out of what was a very bad script…I clowned it into a West End success and uh, we kept changing it all the time. It was a tour de force of improvisation… all that ended it was I got fed up with it, that's all."
As illustrated in the description of his involvement in theatre, Milligan often ad-libbed. He also did this on radio and television. 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 Milligan's most famous ad-lib incidents occurred during a visit to Australia in the late 1960s. He was interviewed live on 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 Milligna [sic].
Film and television director Richard Lester recalls that the television series A Show Called Fred was broadcast live. "I've seen very few moments of genius in my life but I witnessed one with Spike after the first show. He had brought around a silent cartoon" and asked Lester if his P.A. took shorthand. "She said she did. 'Good, this needs a commentary.' It was a ten-minute cartoon and Spike could only have seen it once, if that. He ad-libbed the commentary for it and it was perfect. I was open-mouthed at the raw comedy creation in front of me."
Milligan contributed occasional cartoons to the satirical magazine Private Eye. Most were visualizations of one-line jokes. For example, a young boy sees the Concorde and asks his father "What's that?". The reply is "That's a flying groundnut scheme, son." Milligan was a keen painter.
In 1967, applying a satirical angle to a fashion for the inclusion of "superman" inspired characters in UK television commercials, Milligan dressed up in a "Bat-Goons" outfit to head up a series of television commercials for British Petroleum. A contemporary reporter found the TV commercials "funny and effective". From 1980-82, he advertised for the English Tourist Board, playing a Scotsman on a visit around the different regions of England.
Milligan married his first wife, June (Marchinie) Marlow, in 1952. They had three children - Laura, Seán and Síle - but divorced in 1960. He had one daughter with his second wife, Patricia Ridgeway (known as Paddy): the actress Jane Milligan (b. 1966). Milligan and Patricia were married in June 1962 with George Martin as best man. The marriage ended with her death from breast cancer in 1978.
In 1975 Milligan fathered a son, James (born June 1976), in an affair with Margaret Maughan. Another child, a daughter Romany, is suspected to have been born at the same time to a Canadian journalist named Roberta Watt. His last wife was Shelagh Sinclair, to whom he was married from 1983 to his death on 27 February 2002. Four of his children collaborated with documentary makers on a new multi-platform programme called I Told You I Was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan (2005), which includes an accompanying website.
In October 2008 an array of Milligan's personal effects were sold at auction by his third wife, Shelagh, who was moving into a smaller home. These included a grand piano salvaged from a demolition and apparently played every morning by Paul McCartney, a neighbour in Rye in East Sussex.
Shelagh Milligan died in June 2011.
He suffered from severe bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten major mental breakdowns, several lasting over a year. He spoke candidly about his condition and its effect on his life:
I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalised and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much... Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning - I go to a dinner table now and I don't say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going - so that is depressing in itself. It's like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is 'good evening' and then I go quiet.
The Prince of Wales was a fan, and Milligan caused a stir by calling him a "little grovelling bastard" on live television in 1994. He later faxed the prince, saying "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?" It wasn't; in reality he and the Prince were very close friends, and Milligan was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) in 2000. He had been made an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992.
In 1971, Milligan caused controversy by attacking an art exhibition, consisting of catfish, oysters and shrimp which were to be electrocuted, at the Hayward Gallery with a hammer. He was a staunch and outspoken scourge of domestic violence, dedicating one of his books to Erin Pizzey.
Even late in life, Milligan's black humour had not deserted him. After the death of 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. He also wrote his own obituary, in which he stated repeatedly that he "wrote the Goon show and died".
Milligan died from liver disease, at the age of 83, on 27 February 2002, at his home in Rye, East Sussex. On the day of his funeral, 8 March 2002, his coffin was carried to St Thomas's Church in Winchelsea, East Sussex and was draped in the flag of the Republic of Ireland. He had once quipped that he wanted his headstone to bear the words "I told you I was ill." He was buried at St Thomas's cemetery but the Chichester diocese refused to allow this epitaph. A compromise was reached with the Irish translation, "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite", and, additionally in English, "Love, light, peace". According to a letter published in the Rye and Battle Observer, Milligan's headstone was removed from St Thomas's churchyard and moved to be alongside the grave of his wife.
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's bequest to St. John's College, Oxford.
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 the London Borough of Lewisham where he grew up. After coming to the UK from India in the 1930s he lived at 50 Riseldine Road, Brockley and attended Brownhill Boys' school (later Catford Boys' School, which was demolished in 1994). Lynsey De Paul is a patron of the Spike Milligan Statue Memorial Fund.
There is a plaque and bench located at the Wadestown Library, Wellington New Zealand in an area called "Spike Milligan Corner".
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedians' Comedian, he was voted among the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. In a BBC poll in August 1999, Milligan was voted the "funniest person of the last 1000 years".
Milligan has been portrayed twice in films. In the adaptation of his novel Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, he was played by Jim Dale, while Milligan himself played his own father. He was portrayed by Edward Tudor-Pole in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004). In a 2008 stage play, Surviving Spike, Milligan was played by the entertainer Michael Barrymore.
On 9 June 2006 it was reported that Richard Wiseman had identified Milligan as the writer of the world's funniest joke as decided by the Laughlab project. Wiseman said the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag: anxiety, a feeling of superiority and an element of surprise.
Eddie Izzard described Milligan as "The Godfather of Alternative Comedy". "From his unchained mind came forth ideas that just had no boundaries. And he influenced a new generation of comedians who came to be known as 'alternative'." Members of Monty Python greatly admired him. In one interview, which was widely quoted at the time, John Cleese stated "Milligan is the Great God to all of us". The Pythons gave Milligan a cameo role in their 1979 film, Monty Python's Life of Brian, when Milligan happened to be holidaying in Tunisia, near where the film was being shot. Graham Chapman gave him a minor part in Yellowbeard.
After their retirement, Milligan's parents and his younger brother Desmond moved to Australia. His mother lived the rest of her long life in the coastal village of Woy Woy on the New South Wales Central Coast, just north of Sydney. As a result, Milligan became a regular visitor to Australia and made a number of radio and TV programmes there, including The Idiot Weekly with Bobby Limb. He also wrote several books including Puckoon during a visit to his mother's house in Woy Woy. Milligan famously named Woy Woy "the largest above ground cemetery in the world" when visiting in the 1960s. In July 2007, it was proposed that the suspension bridge on the cyclepath from Woy Woy to Gosford be named after him.
Milligan contributed his recollections of his childhood in India for the acclaimed 1970s BBC audio history series Plain Tales From The Raj. The series was published in book form in 1975 by André Deutsch, edited by Charles Allen.
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