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And Finally

Michael Palin
Thursday February 28, 2002

palin.jpg

'There is very little of his work that is easy, conventional or blandly acceptable. It's all so Spiky' - a Python remembers a Goon.

I first came across Spike Milligan in the mid-1950s, when I was 12, listening to the revelatory radio series that was the Goons. Spike was both actor and writer, and I couldn't imagine what sort of person came up with these wonderfully rich, inventive scenarios every single week.

The importance of the Goons was that it was my own generation's programme and taste. My parents didn't know what was going on when they heard Henry and Minnie Crun, Eccles and all these strange voices. I think my father thought the wireless was broken, that one of the valves had gone. It was delicious to enjoy it myself, without the embarrassment of listening to it with my parents. Until then my experience of radio comedy had been through shared programmes such as Much Binding in the Marsh and Take It From Here, so this was a quantum leap and I thought it was extraordinarily exciting.

In my first term at Oxford I became close friends with Robert Hewison and one of the things we had in common was a shared love of the Goons and of Spike's work. There was an album he had produced called Milligan Preserved, which had a picture taken by Angus McBean of Spike's head in a jar. We thought that was wonderful. Inevitably, when I began writing my first comedy material at Oxford, I was greatly influenced by what he was writing.

Terry Jones and I adored the Q shows, which preceded Python. They were filled with surrealism and invention, and he took huge risks. He was the first writer to play with the conventions of television - having all his characters wear their costume name tags on screen, and captions to show the take-home pay of each actor as they appeared. It was glorious stuff. He played with the medium - sending up presenters or leaving gaps in the programme - just as he had in the Goon Show.

I liked the characters he built up, the cheek and audacity of his jokes, the fact that there were completely surreal moments, with no connection between one thought and the next. When it came to Python, Terry Jones and I were so impressed that we looked for the name of the director on the end of Q4 and hired him. That's how we met Ian MacNaughton, Spike's director who became the Python director.

I met Spike on several occasions at the BBC and got to know him quite well, though he was always rather a god-like figure. We all admired him greatly and used to go out after Python transmissions and have a meal together. Quite by chance, Spike was taking a holiday in Monastir in Tunisia when we were filming The Life of Brian, so he got to this hotel full not only of a film crew but the Pythons too. We put him in the film and he was brilliant as the man who finds Brian's shoe and gets trampled on - it was a marvellous Spike performance, though I can remember him being slightly testy about the number of takes it needed to shoot the scene. He was on holiday after all.

About a year previously, Spike had sent me a very nice note about my Ripping Yarns series, written in his wonderfully stringy, looping script, saying how much he had enjoyed it. We were out at dinner in Monastir one night and Spike was regaling the gathering with the joy of Ripping Yarns. He proceeded to describe one of the stories, but it was completely as told by Spike and bore little relation to the characters I had written. Instead, he bounced off the characters with wild improvisations of his own.

I never wrote with him - Spike was from a different generation and we were all rather hierarchical in those days - and it would in any case have been quite tricky. He was a wild card and you were never quite sure what he would do. You could never pin him down and that was the essence of his comedy. He liked aiming the cannon at people, and if he felt upset about something he would really go for it. He wanted to have a free hand and to do things his own way. There would have been easier ways to write the Goon shows, but he insisted on writing the whole lot himself even though it gave him a nervous breakdown. It was more important to him to work that way, and thus preserve his individuality and independence, than to compromise and become a paler version of Spike Milligan. To his credit, he never did do that. There is very little of Spike's work that is easy, conventional or blandly acceptable. It's all Spiky .

His film The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) was way ahead of its time and encouraged a lot of us who wanted to make films in that surreal vein. That will be remembered, as will his books. The latter were never consistent, but they had some brilliant jokes and turns of phrase, and some genuinely moving reminiscences of the war. There was a side of Spike that was poetic, and he was rather a good poet. One of my particular favourites went The boy stood on the burning deck/ Whence all but he had fled/ Twit. His children's books were popular - my own children's favourite was Badjelly the Witch.

Though Spike had a very successful career, he regretted not having more television exposure after the Q shows. He was never ignored, but there was a feeling in Spike that the powers-that-be never really appreciated him. Yet that was one of the sources of his energy - a feeling close to paranoia. There was an obsessiveness in his work: he wrote intensely and things had to come from deep within him. The heart of Spike was in everything he wrote.

He campaigned for causes such as the environment and animal rights, and almost felt an identity with the animals and trees he fought for. He had an earthy, strong, spiritual quality and would never back down. That sometimes made him look a bit foolish, but the brilliant thing about him was that he could make a joke about anything, take on anybody.

On the TV show to celebrate his 80th birthday, the presenter was talking about him and you suddenly heard this voice from behind the set - "shut up and get on with it". It was Spike. Even at the age of 80, he was sending things up, and refusing to lie down and be conformist.


mike@spikemilligan.co.uk