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Spike Milligan
Spike: An Intimate Memoir
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And Finally

'Pete was insane and evil. Spike was slightly touched but with a heart of gold. I loved them both'

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Ghost in the Noonday Sun, the 1972 film starring Peter Sellers and scripted by Spike Milligan, was so bad it was never released. And no wonder, says Milligan's friend and agent Norma Farnes who has just written a book about him. She watched the two men drive cast, crew and director crazy under the boiling Cyprus sun

Monday November 3, 2003

The Guardian

I saw Peter Sellers at his worst during the filming of Ghost in the Noonday Sun in 1972. It was supposed to be a swashbuckling pirate comedy, not exactly Errol Flynn. Spike Milligan returned from filming The Three Musketeers with Raquel Welch in Madrid, and was due to fly out almost immediately to join the shoot in Cyprus.
 
Shortly before he left, the director, Peter Medak, called to say that it was imperative for the sake of all concerned that I should accompany him. This could mean only one thing: trouble.

Whenever Spike flew to meet Pete, he and his driver Bert were always at the terminal to greet him. But we arrived at Nicosia airport and there was no sign of either of them. Was it a joke of some sort wondered Spike. Instead, the producer, Gareth Wigan, met us. We went to collect our luggage. We waited. And waited. Spike was near hypnotised by the turning carousel by the time it shuddered to a halt.

"My bag is missing," he screamed. "I won't be able to sleep." His voice rose a few decibels. "AND I WON'T BE ABLE TO WORK."

The missing bag was packed with his remedies: tranquillisers, sleeping tablets, uppers, downers, the lot.

"I'll have to catch the next plane to London. That's what I'll do."

I knew he meant it. Wigan assured him that the company doctor would supply everything he required. Not good enough. He was going back by the next plane. Before he could find his way to the departure lounge an airline representative arrived to say another passenger had mistakenly picked up his bag and it was on its way to Famagusta. Wigan arranged to send a taxi to collect it but Spike refused to leave the airport until it was in his hands.

Four hours later, we left for our base in Kyrenia, Spike nursing the bag on his lap, determined not to let it out of his sight. Then Wigan told us the news he had been saving.

"Pete has locked himself in his villa and won't see or speak to anyone until Spike looks at the rushes. He thinks they're a disaster but if you" - looking at Spike - "think they are funny, he will continue with the film. Otherwise he's off."
So that was it: temperament. Everything was back to normal.
Spike and I went with Wigan to the viewing room. After three or four minutes Spike ordered: "Stop! This is on a disaster course." At that point Medak arrived. Spike outlined his ideas and Sellers beamed his approval: "Everything will be all right now that Spike's here."

Except that Peter did not turn up for the first day of filming the new scenes. Everyone hung around for hours before he phoned to tell Spike that he was mentally ill and unable to work. Naturally, Spike was sympathetic, but I wondered what Pete was up to now. We got the answer the next day when Pete did not show again and once more phoned Spike.

"I'm being crucified," he told him. "It's made me so ill I can't possibly work."

Nor did he for three days. He had suddenly decided a vase in his Swiss home might be facing the wrong way. That could ruin the villa's vibes. He phoned his secretary, Sue Evans. "Fly to Gstaadt and take the vase back to London." Only once the vase was relocated was he prepared to resume filming.

In the meantime, Medak had shot without Pete. When he realised how much Spike had improved the script he decided Spike could film during the day and rewrite of an evening. Medak, I thought, you are pushing your luck.

Filming was on Cyprus's famous 12-mile beach and on board an Arab dhow moored off it. There was a lazy swell and the boat pitched, rolled and yawed in a stomach-churning, corkscrew motion. On the fourth day Pete turned up on the beach. Everyone was barefoot, but Pete, as well as avoiding the sun, had a thing about getting sand between his toes, so he was wearing black socks. He also had a plan, but that did not become evident until later.

With the film's mounting problems, it was a bonus that Spike fell in love with Kyrenia, the coastline and countryside. He spurned the offer of a chauffeured limousine and instead opted for a self-drive Mini Moke. "Always have your own wheels," he told me.

Just as everyone seemed eager to do everything they could to make the film a success the sea became unseasonably rough and seasickness made a mockery of the schedules. First, the makeup girls succumbed, followed by those in wardrobe. Actors Tony Franciosa and Spike's old pal, Bill Kerr, and the remainder of the cast came next, and Medak and the sound crews were the last to be afflicted. But work had to continue.
 
Spike and I were fine, and Pete had his own solution, having hired a speedboat to stand by the dhow. Between shooting and during the lunch break he would get into this much steadier craft and recline under a canopy to protect him from the sun, leaving the rest of us to cope as best we could. His behaviour made me uneasy. Something was going on in that devious mind of his.

Out it came one evening. "The script is being fucked around too much. It's not on."

Medak did not buy that. He believed the problem was that Pete did not look at the script until minutes before shooting. Spike backed up Medak and told Pete where he could go.

Everything went back to being normally abnormal but it was not long before Pete tried a new tactic. He had already fired the two original producers and now he had Medak in his sights. Spike did not like that one little bit. Pete then fell ill, too ill to work, and production came to a halt.

He returned a few days later, probably late by design, for a shoot on the 12-mile beach. The rest of the cast and crew had been waiting for him, sweltering in temperatures of 43C, for four hours. There are no printable words for what they now thought of the star. Medak described the scene to me.

"He arrived in his speedboat, fell into the water as he got out, and walked up the beach, dripping wet. He drew me away from the crew so they couldn't hear what he was about to say, put his arms round me and said, 'Darling, you know what we should do.
 
You should quit this film and, as I have director approval in my contract, I'll turn down every director they put up. They won't pay you if you quit but under the terms of my contract they have to pay me in full. So then I'll quit and give you half of my money and the picture will be shut down.' He gave me that conspiratorial look of his. 'What do you think, darling?'

"I looked at him. The water was dripping off him and there was a look of insanity about him. I pointed to the crew. 'You see all those poor fuckers. They've been building the camera tracks since five this morning in the baking sun, no shade. You turn up four hours late and you don't even have your makeup on.
 
You're soaking wet, totally out of your mind and you make this proposal. Now understand this. We both agreed this contract. You are the one that got me into this fucking film and the only way you'll get me out of it is to put on your wig, your false teeth and your costume and let's shoot it.' He didn't speak to me directly for about three weeks."

Then one day Pete went up to him and once more put his arms round him. Here we go again, thought Medak.

"Darling," he said, "in 10 days' time, a Sunday, we start night shooting. So the day is free and I've decided to shoot this Benson and Hedges commercial I've told you about, and because I love you I want you to direct me and Spike in it."

Medak stared at him and said: "I can't even get this fucking picture finished because you won't speak to me directly and now you want me to do this commercial on the only day I can rest and sleep. Get some other fucking idiot to do it or do it yourself. It should be easy for you because you know everything better than anyone else." Pete just looked at him.

"Needless to say Sunday came round and there I was," Medak told me, "shooting this commercial with him and Spike in Kyrenia harbour with them wearing their pirate outfits."

The plot of the commercial was simple enough. Pete, Spike and a cohort, played by James Villiers, were supposed to be breaking into a customs shed. Pete had to jam a Benson and Hedges packet into the alarm bell so it would not ring. Medak went up to him and explained the shot, which had already been agreed and storyboarded. The lighting would reflect beautifully on the gold packet as he held it in his hand.

"Daddy," Pete said, "didn't anyone tell you I can't touch a cigarette packet? I simply can't touch it."

"You've got to be putting me on," Medak said. "Here we are, filming a cigarette commercial for which you are getting paid a fortune, and now you say you can't touch the packet."

"No, I can't," Pete said. "I'm chairman of the Anti-Smoking League and it's in my contract that I'm not allowed to touch cigarettes. Dennis [Sellinger, his agent] should have told you."

Medak was speechless. "You mean to tell me you are getting 50,000 and a Merc and you won't touch the packet?"

Pete nodded.

Medak went over to Spike, who was taking his shoes off. "This lunatic friend of yours won't touch the cigarette packet and flash it in the light so I can get a great shot of it. He won't touch it!"

Spike backed away from him, took a step too far, pitched over the edge of the harbour and fell into the boat that had been prepared for the last shot, in which the actors were supposed to make their getaway.
 
Now Spike, from the boat he had broken, said: "I can't touch the packet either. I'm deputy chairman of the Anti-Smoking League. Don't ask me to do this because I'll have to say no and I don't want to say no to you."

Medak wondered if he was the one who had lost touch with reality. He said: "He's getting 50,000 and you're getting 25,000 for a one-day shoot and neither of you will touch the cigarette packet? You both knew this was a cigarette commercial. You're putting me on."

Spike swore on his life that he was not. In desperation, Medak turned to Villiers. "These two idiots won't touch the cigarette packet and they are getting 75,000 between them."

Villiers said he wished they would pay him that much; he was only on 2,000 and he could see that disappearing, which was a problem because he needed it to settle his bar bill.

"Where's the bloody cigarette packet?" he asked. "Show me what to do."

Medak was grateful to him because he needed his 3,000 for his overdraft. They started to shoot again. Pete, of course, kept his 50,000 and the car, and Spike donated his fee to charity to save three trees in Finchley.

Although filming was not finished, I had to return to London on urgent business. The other producers were anxious for the film shot so far to be delivered to them in London, so I offered to take it with me. Spike pleaded with me not to go. "You are leaving me facing a disaster. How can you do this to me?"

In the end, Ghost was so bad it never went on general release. Everyone wrapped it up and left Kyrenia. It was not long before the Turkish invasion, when the beautiful medieval harbour was bombed and destroyed.

Medak's hair had turned grey in the process of filming. "It took 70 days to shoot and me five years to recover," he said. "Pete and Spike were geniuses. Pete was insane and evil. Spike was slightly touched but delightfully so and with a heart of gold.
 
I loved them both, which must make me more insane than the two of them put together. Afterwards I wondered why I had forgotten to ask Pete about all the dope he smoked. Wasn't that banned in the rules of the Anti-Smoking League?"

Extracted from Spike: An Intimate Memoir, published by Fourth Estate

mike@spikemilligan.co.uk