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Spike Milligan
78 Not Out
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A Truly Remarkable Interview
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78 Not Out
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And Finally

Interviewed by Jim Godbolt 1996

young_20spike.jpg

One of the great comics of our time, Spike Milligan, is a keen jazz enthusiast and a one-time dance band musician.

His unique, surrealistic, perspective of the world, allied to a strong sense of the absurd, combine to make him the very funny man that he is. One of the more famous manic-depressives.

About ten years ago I answered the telephone and a vaguely familiar voice enquired, Is that the dreaded Godbolt? I dont know about the dreaded bit, but I own to the name. Who are you?
Spike Milligan.
Oh, yeah. and who will you be next week? The Aga Khan, Mick Jagger or Charlie Chaplin?
If thats your attitude, Ill ring off .

It hit me that the caller was indeed Spike Milligan and I spluttered my apologies. We had not previously met. A somewhat disjointed conversation ensued, myself rather in awe of a famous man and totally surprised that he should call me.

Since, we have spoken over the telephone and corresponded several times but, recently, one of my letters drew a peeved comment: I had to read that in fucking instalments.
Chastened, I replied:

Rgt lng ltr.Nr agn .

J God

In one of my letters I asked him for an interview to be published in JARS. Spike rang, but my phone was out of order.

He not only sent me a telegram asking me to ring him, but asked Ronnie Scott to ring me. I was flattered. As a hack and editor, I am rarely flattered. More often flattened.

On a bitterly cold day in March, I took the train to Rye and was driven to Spikes lovely house overlooking the Sussex Downs by his charming wife Shelagh, who took me into an elegantly furnished lounge with an open fireplace and a log fire.

She brought in tea and cakes. In walked a silver-haired, frail figure with piercing eyes who greeted me in a hoarse voice.

It was Spike, now 78, who had a triple-bypass heart operation three years ago, but, as I was to discover, his brain is quick-silver quick and his comments needle sharp. Because I knew of his sudden mood swings and being rather in awe of him - a touch of hero-worship - I felt rather ill at ease, the unease increasing when we shook hands and he gasped in pain.

Mind you, I think he put that on a bit. He peered quizzically at a sheaf of papers I had with me.
Ive been doing my homework on you, Spike.

I began fiddling with the Sony tape recorder, and worried that it might not pick up his faint voice, moved closer to him. I noticed how expressive his eyebrows are.

Would you like to sit on my lap, he enquired, the voice mock-stern (I think) but those eyes twinkling. I politely declined the offer and started my questions.
JG: Spike, this is a lovely part of England, which you eloquently describe, as it was in 1940, in your book Adolf Hitler - My Part In His Downfall*, recalling the days when you were called up to the Army and stationed in Bexhill.

Now, 55 years later, you are back, but in somewhat different circumstances. But Id like to ask you about an even earlier phase in your life, the childhood and adolescence in Catford, South London.

Did you listen to the dance bands of the day -Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Ambrose, Billy Cotton and Lew Stone on the radio and 78s?

SM: Oh, yes, and Paul Whiteman with the Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby present. I was a great fan of Bings. I won several Bing Crosby contests in such prestigious venues as Ladywell Baths and St. Cyprians Hall, Catford.

I played the ukulele and then string bass, carting that bloody great thing around on public transport. I would pre-empt cracks from bus and tram conductors with, No, I dont tuck it under my chin, no I dont know where it died, and Im not taking it to be buried.

Its amazing how each of these jokers thought they were the first to make those cracks, each one falling about with laughter at their sallies. Or were about to before this prat put a stop to their fun.

JG: You then played trumpet with pianist Tommy Brettells New Ritz Revels, a six-piece semi-pro band, which you describe as a bunch of spotty musicians held together by hair oil. Did you play any jazz in that band?

SM: Yes, all the standards - Limehouse Blues, Rose Room, Lady Be Good, Bugle Call Rag, things like that. I took the hot solos. I admired Harry James, the hot Harry James with Benny Goodman, and Bunny Berigan.

I tried to play like Bunny. We got ten shillings a gig.

JG: Did you ever envisage becoming a professional musician?

SM: Yes, I was auditioned for third trumpet in Oscar Rabins Romany Band at the Hammersmith Palais, but Adolf Hitler put paid to that. I was called up in 1940 - by force.

JG: In Adolf Hitler - My Part In His Downfall, you wrote some hilariously funny things about service bands and I would like to quote some of this material in the interview.

SM: Permission granted..

I took my trumpet to war. I thought Id earn spare cash by playing Fall In, Charge, Retreat, Lights Out, etc. I put a printed card on the Battery Notice Board, showing my scale of charges.

* Fall In 1/6d
* Fall Out 1/-
* Charge 1/9d
* Halt 468.00
* Retreat (Pianissimo) 4/-
* Retreat(Fortissimo) 10/-
* Lights Out 3/-
* Lights Out played in private 4/-

While waiting for these commissions Id lie on my palliasse and play tunes like Body and Soul and I Cant Get Started. It was with mixed feelings that I played You Go To My Headwatching a hairy gunner cutting his toe-nails'

JG: You attracted two jazz addicts, pianist Harry Edginton and guitarist Alf Fildes. You needed a drummer and you advertised in Part Two Orders: Wanted.

House trained drummer. Academic training an advantage, but not essential. No coloureds, but men with names like Duke Ellington given preference.

SM: No-one applied, but one day I heard someone hammering a piece of Lease Lend Bacon. Thats how we found a drummer, Douglas Kidgell.

We hadnt a drum kit, but we knew of one lying fallow under the stage of the Bexhill Old Town Church Hall and we requisitioned it to prevent it falling into the hands of the Germans.

SPIKE MACKINTOSH

JG: You were posted to Egypt, then to Italy, where you were wounded in battle. Here you were in a band that took part in a contest and one of the judges was someone I knew very well.

Spike Mackintosh, then a Lt. in the Tank Corps. He died only recently.
(Again I quote from one of Spikes war book memoirs, Where Have All The Bullets Gone?) .*

The compere for the contest was Captain Philip Ridgeway. He was as informed on dance bands as Mrs Thatcher was on groin-clenching in the Outer Hebrides.

The other judges were Lt. Spike Mackintosh and Lt. Eddie Carroll, a pre-war bandleader. Can you believe it? We didnt win! I wasnt even mentioned. At the contest I heard shouts of Give him the prize. No-one listened, even though I shouted loud enough.

Never mind, there would be other wars.

JG: Did you speak to Lt. Mackintosh?

SM: Heavens, no! He was an officer and I was only a Gunner.

JG: Did you ever hear him play trumpet?

SM: No.

JG: A pity. He was a very fine player, I assure you.
Not surprisingly, given the nature and the history of the interviewee, and my nervousness, the conversation took some odd twists and turns.

Somehow, pianist/composer Reginald Foresythe, son of a British barrister and a West Indian mother, and active in the thirties, came up.

He wrote pieces with titles like Dodging a Divorcee and Serenade to A Wealthy Widow. Spike referred to him as Frederick Forsyth, the spy fiction author. Involuntarily, this old trainspotter made a correction.

Those eye-brows tightened and I got the fish-eye.
Are you correcting me?, he sternly enquired.
No, I quickly replied. For all I know Frederick may have also been a pianist, an obviously feeble get-out. I speedily moved the conversation to Duke Ellington.

SM: I particularly loved The Mooche by the Duke.

JG: I know. Last year I sent you a cassette of six versions.

SM: So you did. Thanks very much. Have another piece of cake In the amorphous nature of this dialogue, the names of Gracie Fields, Arthur Tracey, The Street Singer, and Cavan OConnor came up and Spike gave imitations of these worthies.

I was treated to Sing As We Go for Gracie, Marta, You Rambling Rose of The Wildwood for Tracey and Im Just A Strolling Vagabond for OConnor. He likes a warble does Spike.. .

I mentioned that Id seen a reference in one of his books to Hooray Henries, and told him of my part in the coining of that term, but he didnt appear to be particularly impressed.

I also made the mistake of telling a funny and got the I-tell-the-jokes-round-here look. Similiar experiences with Ronnie Scott should have taught me this lesson.

BIX BEIDERBECKE and CHARLIE PARKER

JG: What were your reactions, given your musical background in the swing era, to the advent of be-bop?

SM: I loved it - at once. CharlieParker! The man was a magician! Such a flow of invention.
(Here, I was treated to yet another Milligan vocal rendering -of These Foolish Things, although not quite with the Parker phraseology).

JG: When you returned home from the war you tuned into the battery-run bakelite radio and found Harry Roy and his Tigeragamuffins.

SM: Awful, fucking awful! Roy never could play the clarinet. Having heard Parker, Gillespie and Monk, it was so corny.

Another awful noise was Billy Ternent and his tinky-poo band. It made me realise just how much music had changed since Id been away and how the world I knew had changed, too.

Spike talked of the musicians he admired; guitarists Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian, trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Warren Vache, Doc Cheatam, Clifford Brown and Bix Beiderbecke.

SM: Beiderbecke! Such a pure sound. No vibrato. Im Coming, Virginia is my favourite Bix. Full of German angst, though.

JG: In your book, Peace Work,* you had a fantasy about Dizzy live at your home in Leathwell Road, Deptford, South London.

Dizzy live at 3 Leathwel! Wow! Sing Dizzy, blues
Hey there Dizzy playing at Leathwell Road!
Hey there Dizzy playing at Leathwell Road!
You play that music
A knighthood will be bestowed...oh, yeah!

SM: I was then very much into modern jazz and sorry that I, a good swing player, was no longer playing trumpet with all these things happening. I was then on guitar with the Bill Hall Trio on the halls.

JG: Humphrey Lyttelton ?

SM: Oh, I would have been a much better player than Humph, but my lip went. Of the saxophone players Spike admired, he talked of Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Freeman and... Ronnie Scott....

In contrast to this generous praise, I saw the acidolous side of Spike Milligan.

JG: You wrote in Peace Work of going to a party and asking band-leader Tito Burns what did he play and he replied that he played cards.

SM: Yes-ho ho ho - and years later, when Burns was quite a well-known figure, I came across him and enquired, Are you still playing cards? Revenge is sweet, Jim.

There were one or two more sharp comments. Hes not a man to suffer fools gladly. He enquired about the economics of JARS and I told him that the club pays me the cost of production and for delivering it to the specialist shops every week, that my wages came from getting the advertising, and therefore I was primarily a space salesman and a delivery boy who did a bit of editing and writing in between.

He seemed mildly amused by this reply. No more. Its hard work getting a laugh out of comics.

JG: Can I have your impressions of Ronnie Scotts Club?

SM: The clubs fine, the musics fine, its your fucking customers that are a bane. Noisy lot.

JG: (Rather boldly) But, Spike youve been known to have the odd heckle. You chiyaked George Melly, for instance.

SM: No I did not. I was cheering him on. I like Georges act.

JG: I often see pianist Stan Greig, who was in John Chiltons Feetwarmers backing Melly, and he tells me that, in 1979, you sat in on trumpet for three numbers and played - in his own words - very well. Do you miss being a trumpet player?

SM: Yes. There was a lovely euphoria about improvising on good tunes, but the lip and wind have gone and I content myself playing piano.

ENTHUSIASM FOR JAZZ

JG: Im glad to see that, despite your widely varying activities outside of music, you still retain your interest in jazz.

You have written the prefaces to various jazz books, including Ronnies Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues, and you championed that marvellous pianist Alan Clare, using him on your TV shows.

In Peace Work, describing your experiences on the halls, you added, I still let jazz music run through my head, always had and always will.

SM: True. I see you have read my books, unlike some of my interviewers.

Spikes enthusiasm for jazz was unquestionable, but hes somewhat hazy on jazz history. Bix Beiderbecke never recorded Wolverine Blues - Spike was confusing Bix being one of the Wolverines, nor, as he alleged, did Red Allen record with the Chocolate Dandies, but I held my peace.

I didnt want another whack of those eyebrows.
I suddenly realised that the Sony wasnt running. I was choked.

How much had I missed of this stimulating, if somewhat un-nerving, conversation. I was apologetic, fearing that Spike would think I had wasted his time by not checking the machine out first - which I had.

He was very charming and considerate, told me to relax, was personally complimentary, and said I could ring him at any time to check points, a nice gesture from a very busy man. I asked if he had a tape recorder I could use. He emphatically shook his head.

SM: I have nothing to do with modern technology. I dont even have a typewriter.

I was astonished. All that tremendous literary output - some fifty books - in longhand! Yet another surprising facet of this extraordinary man.

He is writing, or, rather, re-writing, Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier .

SM: Im sending it up. Im a bit of a iconoclast.
The understatement of the century. Miss Du Maurier must be heaving in her grave.

I would liked to have talked longer with Terence Alan Milligan, a man whose television shows and books have made me laugh so much, but I sensed he wanted to continue ravaging Rebecca, and I took my leave, feeling all the better, despite the angst and the technological hang-ups, for making the journey.

JIM GODBOLT

* All titles included in Milligans War, published by Penguin Books.



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