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Spike in the tale: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

In their co-written play satirists Ian Hislop and Nick Newman honour the father of alternative comedy. They tell David Simper how gaining access to BBC archives illuminated the dark comic genius of Spike Milligan for them – and about one particularly extreme encounter he had with a kitchen utensil

When Spike Milligan attacked Peter Sellers with a potato peeler he thankfully failed to kill him, but remarkably the comedians’ friendship survived as well.

“We found some letters from Sellers, written just before his death, basically saying, can we work together again? I mean, the two of them fell out all the time and were very competitive. But they did realise that working together was the best thing they ever did,” says Ian Hislop, who knows knows something about comedy partnerships.

The Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You presenter has teamed up with cartoonist and comedy scriptwriter Nick Newman to write Spike, an absurdly funny new play that delves into the inner workings of one of our most unique and brilliantly irreverent comedy minds. Thankfully, the process has left neither of them reaching into the utensils drawer, and the pair share an obviously congenial relationship as they chat to Blackpool Social Club about the production, which arrives at the Grand Theatre next month.

Spike commemorates the life of Terence Alan Patrick Sean Milligan – affectionately known as Spike – soldier, musician, comedy pioneer and long term post-traumatic stress survivor. Milligan was the legendary Goon Show’s writer, moving onto the Q TV comedy series, and wrote books including Puckoon and Adolf Hitler: my part in his downfall. He was also a poet, including children’s classic, On the Ning Nang Nong, and performed in plays including Treasure Island and Oblomov. Born in British colonial India in 1918, Milligan died in 2002 – living a long life despite the many threats he made on his own life in his near 84 years.

“We were aware of his mental health issues, and a lot of his life wasn’t particularly happy,” says Hislop. “But the bit of his life that was extra-ordinary, were those first years on leaving the army and creating the most successful radio show ever. That’s the bit we wanted to really celebrate.”

The play focusses, then, “on the triumph of the Goon’s” which Milligan performed alongside Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreal humour, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects and light music interludes.

“Up until 1950 radio comedy was just variety stuff, you know. Mother in law jokes and such,” says Hislop. “And then suddenly along comes Spike and suddenly it’s surreal, absurdist, it’s ground-breaking. Quite an interesting moment in comedy history for us, I think.”

Spike got quite resentful of the fact that he was helping make Peter Sellers extremely rich and a film star. And that’s why Spike decided he had to go and kill him.

Milligan served as a signaller in the Second World War and left the army having been blown up and seriously injured at the 1944 Monte Cassino battle. Hislop and Newman clearly consider that this experience under-pinned a lot of his comedy and generally combative attitude to life.

“One of the things that we realised when we were writing is that almost every single Goons episode, and almost every single sketch ends with an explosion. We think we turned his PTSD into comedy.

“He’s incredibly funny about mental health. When he was on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair [a Radio 4 programme about mental health], being interviewed by Anthony Clare, it’s a very serious interview, but he just can’t stop making jokes, even though he’s talking about his own mental health and it’s very serious topic. In the middle of it he says, ‘My mother was highly strung, she was hanging from the ceiling’. That’s an incredibly black joke,” says Hislop.

“Yeah, he just throws it out, you know,” Nick Newman agrees. “Just as he made lots of very funny comments about death like, ‘I’m not scared of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens’. Things like that. Which are sort of better than Woody Allen really.”

In the course of their research Hislop and Newman found that Milligan had serious breakdowns too, particularly in the period they were writing about.

“There are two major breakdowns that we cover in the play, but they’re both tinged with humour,” says Newman “You know, he maintained that a lot of the time people weren’t getting the joke, but when he tried to hang himself from the ceiling at Coventry Hippodrome that was taking the job too far. That’s what his loved ones thought.

“Millions of people suffer from mental health problems, but there’s only one person who wrote the Goons. So, the focus of this play will be on how the comedy works.”

But can the two be separated? Milligan suffered from a bipolar disorder, which more than one other comedian has also encountered. So how in particular did that affect him – was it the root of his genius or did it hold him back from greater glory?

“It was all part of what he did achieve. I don’t think he would have achieved more if he hadn’t had it,” says Hislop. “I think it was all part of who he was. I mean, who’s to say that if he hadn’t had that experience at Monte Cassino, which seems to have been the spark of his mental health problems, he may not have gone into comedy at all?”

“I do think show business is not the best world for dealing with mental health,” adds Newman. “You rely on extreme highs and then dealing with endless rejection and disappointment. But I think that may be what attracts people who have the confidence to go into it.

“I think performers inevitably have the great highs and great lows that come with the reaction of an audience. You have good nights and bad nights. In terms of our own play, some nights it goes really well; sometimes you come out thinking, god, have we done the right thing here? What’s gone wrong? And it’s just audiences and I think if you’re a performer it’s much more intense. I can well see that it would polarise you.”

Milligan was married three times and had six children. How do they feel about this play, that places their father back on stage and represents a formative part of this career?

“Jane Milligan, his daughter came to the show, which was great,” says Hislop. “I mean, pretty nerve wracking for us, but she was very kind about the show. She thought it was terrific and said, ‘That’s my dad’. She recounted that she’d fought with the church authorities, because they wouldn’t let her put ‘I told you I was ill’, on Spike’s gravestone. It’s now on in Gaelic. Spike also loved to fight with the authorities.”

Spike writers Nick Newman and Ian Hislop

That deep streak of anti-authoritarianism ran through Milligan’s output. Where did this come from and how did people deal with it?

“There’s an element of resentment of the officer class,” Newman points out. “That comes from one officer who was very unsympathetic to him when he was blown up. This officer literally did suggest that maybe being exposed to more explosions would be good for him.”

It’s a view that beggars belief today, but might have been quite common at the time when PTSD was less understood. It’s clear that not only Milligan had suffered, although he was one of a few who had been helped to become comedy geniuses.

“BBC executives, Dennis Main Wilson and Peter Eaton, had similar war experience to Spike,” says Newman. “There’s a point where Peter Eaton turns on Spike – and this is absolutely true – and says, ‘You’re not alone in this, you know, we’ve all been there’. Peter Eaton was at Dunkirk, Dennis Main Wilson was one of the first people on the Normandy beaches. Not everybody made such a big deal of it like Spike, but the deal that he made of it did fuel his comedy. There’s a line in the play where somebody describes The Goons as shell shock on radio and that’s pretty much it.”

Legend has it, too, that after a performance of the play Oblomov, attended by now King Charles five times, Spike unsheathed a katana sword and asked the Queen to knight him. She declined. An incident the two writers were unaware of.

“I’m amazed that the royal family went to see Oblomov because it was such a chaotic production,” says Hislop. “I know people who did go and see it, including prior Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams, who said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Spike didn’t stick to the script at all: at the moment a new character came on stage, the actors had no idea what Spike was going to say or do. Ingrams said the looks of panic were worth the price of admission on their own.”

But Hislop and Newman do touch on Milligan’s relationship with royalty in the play.

“I think comedians can be sort of court jesters really,” says Newman. “You can get away with anything if you do it in the right spirit. Then Spike repaid all that patronage by describing Prince Charles as a grovelling little bastard, which was pretty extraordinary.

“If you think people have been claiming in the last week that we’ve forgotten how to do deference in this country. No, I don’t think we ever were very good at deference and Spike certainly didn’t even start.”

At the end of the play we’ve got a list of people who credit Spike as a main influence on them: the Python’s, French and Saunders, the Kumars… All these people say, oh yes that was Spike.

And, despite the incident, it’s reported that Spike remained on close friendly terms with the now King until the former’s death. His relationship with his employers – the BBC – wasn’t always so smooth however. It was being given access to the BBC’s correspondence with Milligan and its internal memos that gave Hislop and Newman “the backbone of the story”.

“So we knew that there was a battle going on with the BBC. And from that, we then thought, well, what would best illustrate that?” says Hislop. “The letters are incredibly funny between him and management. He was always funny, even when he was furious. There are 250 episodes of the Goons, it’s a huge amount of material and you have to be very selective to get the bits that serve the story. However, it was quite a natural bit of selection on the whole.”

“As an example,” adds Newman, “We came across an episode which I had never heard of, a parody of George Orwell’s 1984, called 1985. This was a landmark BBC programme, a television drama starring Peter Cushing. It was deemed to be the greatest thing the BBC had ever produced. Spike produced a parody of it two weeks later called 1985, in which the BBC was satirised as the Big Brother corporation, which supported our story, really.

“It’s a lot of fun when you see it, because it’s a really funny episode, classic Spike. The BBC has turned him into a star and made his entire life, they put on the best drama ever and two weeks later he just takes the piss.”

And, as characterised by reaching for the potato peeler, his relationship with his friends and co-workers was equally fraught with highs and lows. Peter Sellers was the best man at Milligan’s first wedding, before he set out to kill him.

“From the BBC letters, what’s clear is that what really gets to Spike about Sellers is the fact that he’s paid almost double what Spike is paid, despite Spike having to spend his entire life writing because the other two Goons didn’t write at all,” says Hislop. “Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe could also go off and do shows every night earning phenomenal amounts of money, which Spike couldn’t do.

“And then on top of that, Sellers was also making demands of Spike to write two shows together, so that he could go off and make a film. Not surprisingly, Spike got quite resentful of the fact that he was helping make Peter Sellers extremely rich and a film star. And that’s why Spike decided, in the moment of a mental health episode, he had to go and kill Peter Sellers. Despite all of that, I think that their friendship ultimately survived.

“That’s what I mean about the breakdowns being tinged with humour,” adds Newman. “When he attacked Peter Sellers with a potato peeler, it’s funny – possibly not for Peter Sellers – and you think, well, was he doing that deliberately for comic effect? I wouldn’t put it past him. It obviously happened, but what Peter remembered about it and what Spike did was rather different. Only somebody with a very odd comic genius tries to use a potato peeler like that.”

Hislop points to a series about Peter Sellers and his home movie collection. He was a compulsive filmmaker and shot lots of cine films.

“A lot of it is him mucking about with Spike. They obviously had a great rapport, a lot of fun. Spike, obviously, was very fond of him in spite of the odd rush of blood to the head.”

The affection has been reciprocated throughout the decade, with comedian Eddie Izzard describing Spike as the father of alternative comedy. Do they agree?

“Yes, I think he’s the father of almost all comedy, myself,” says Hislop.

“At the end of the play we’ve got a list of people who credit Spike as a main influence on them: the Python’s, French and Saunders and the Kumars etc etc,” adds Newman. “All these people say, oh yes that was Spike.

“And we end with that because we think, you know, whether you know his stuff or not before you come into the theatre, you should come out thinking blimey, he was good.”

Spike is at The Grand Theatre 15-19 November

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    I have worked in the housing and transport professions for several local authorities, specialising in policy, strategy preparation and bid writing. Having always had an interest in film, the visual arts in general, theatre, music and lterature, I thought it would be good to combine the writing experience with these interests to contribute to altBlackpool. In addition to writing, my hobbies include watercolour and pastel painting, photography, woodwork, cycling and vegetable gardening.

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