By Stagedoor Johnny
Everything goes back to Spike, they say;
all the alternative comedians, that is, if they can hold down a passing journalist long enough. He is the font, the spring
that irrigates the new comedy, we owe it all to Spike! they cry over their bottles of San Miguel.
Thus the new comedy is fifty years old, sophisticating itself as it multiplies away from the primordial first raspberries
of the de-mobbed Denmark street neer-do-wells who would go to any length to avoid a proper job, thank God.
I suppose our modern Edinburgh trough feeders, hanging round like wild dog for a snip of the Channel 4 carcase are creating
a lineage for themselves, as is the human wont to seek tribal identity, breeding, a connection to the aristocracy hidden in
the sock drawer;
we like to be conferred on, particularly if the ancestral conferrer can be invested with heroic power so the listener
accepts that some of that elixir has passed down in the genetic comic double helixes to bless the modern applause junky knitting
the eulogies between Buds at Grouchos.
Alas, the Zeus of Goonery has fallen from Olympus into the Jeffrey Archer free fields of Elysium, canonised and ripe for
fresh mythologizing, a national treasure, a glitter-strip of a particular England, torn away, like Spam, forever.
We are the less. No man is an island entire of itself, but Spike was a bloody big clod washed away by the sea.
I have a direct connection to Spike Miligna that well known typing error. For a part of the summer of 1971, I was his
My first experience of Spike was a clip on the ear from my brother as I sprinted noisily past when he had his own conch
fastened to the old Pye steam radio.
My brother is twelve years older than I and I suppose was some kind of fifties teenager groping blindly but vigorously
out of the post war darkness towards a glorious future of rock and roll and new style y-fronts. The Goons was the sound of
I remember the streets of my provincial town being full of grown men doing funny voices. I thought the world had gone
mad, but it had gone sane with laughter.
Something new was happening, another set of little waves eroding the dolmen slabs of Empire and the traditions of unquestioning
obedience that had got us India.
I was a teenager before the Goons got to me. I simply had slipped between the cracks and grown up in a Goon free period.
My conversion occurred in the attic of a friend who appropriately enough, was an aspiring jazz drummer.
He had a long-playing-type record and its effect was instant and permanent. So, this was what my brother had cuffed me
A ragged idiot staggered into a fog-laden Limehouse area.
SEAGOON Evening folks. Christmas time and still no offers of pantomime.
English humour has always been salted with the surreal but the mainstream comedy had come to us from Music Hall. Spike
arrived through the side door from jazz.
His humour had more to do with that free-flowing creativity than the traditional gags and carefully manicured turns of
The war too with its abundance of comedy shows designed to make the nation laugh through the Blitz had also pushed the
traditional stylistic envelopes of humour, but Spike took a letter opener to the whole thing.
Thank you Professor Moriarty
As a young man down to his last roll-up I heard of an agency buried in the backwoods off the long and winding road to
Cricklewood that offered unskilled, mind-numbing work to unemployed Thesps, and was duly despatched to clean house for several
bourgeois wives buried in the suburbs who complained I was too slow and inefficient and one church organist and choirmaster
who asked if I had ever considered modelling swimwear and offered extra money for the pleasure of my legs.
Offer declined. Legs still depressed.
One day I was sent as a gardener to a Mrs Milligan of 127 Holden Road Finchley. The house was a large Victorian villa
in a silent street. The back dropped away to reveal a basement, which opened onto a huge garden.
Mrs Milligan was a tall dark haired, charismatic lady of striking but somewhat worried looks. There was a small Scottish
nanny who flitted about like a character from AA Milne, half mouse, half Ayrshire.
The first clue I had that I might be in a hallowed place was when I had to get something in the garage and noticed a large
cardboard box methodically folded flat and tucked against the wall addressed to Mr. S. Milligan, 127 Holden Rd. N. The give-away
was the name of the sender Mr. P. Sellars.
Had I strayed onto Holy Ground? Was I in the garage of the comedic Elysian Fields? I panicked. What would I say if I ever
He wasnt around.
Spikes manic-depressive condition made all relationships variable. I dont know why he wasnt living under the family roof,
but days went by and I relaxed into the garden life content that I might never meet the great man.
I was entombed in a basement flat in those days and the garden became my summer, the high Finchley uplands, three feet
above sea-level, expanding long warm days under Larkins high builded cloud moving at summers pace etc etc and so on.
It was 80 to 100 yards from back door to the stream at the bottom. A large patio stepped down to a lawn girdled by flowers
leading to a group of cedars at the bottom right hand corner.
The garage was on the left. Beyond this section was a kids area with swings and a leaky, freestanding swimming pool which
I patched, and beyond that the jungle, an untended meadow of long grasses, weeds and wild flower approaching Spikes wooden
bungalow, a cream coloured pavilion (as I remember it) squatting under the trees like a gay woodmans hut, where he had written
Hitler. My part in his Downfall.
This had just been published about six months previously. Spike was heavily pregnant with rest of his war requiems and
about to burst his waters.
The big window in his pavilion/hut (a miniature representation of an anglicised corner of an Indian field, a wooden suggestion
of Empire and cricket, the public school playing fields and the char wallah assuring there is honey still for tea) looked
away from the house onto the trees and stream that boundaried him off from the rest of Finchley and the known world.
One wall was floor to ceiling books, backdropping an armchair for reflection or depression, and a desk and bentwood chair
for work. There were photos of the Sellars and Secombe and others, some possibly from his early days in India, I cant remember.
On the door was a small Catholic ceramic of the Mother and Child circled by a felt tip inscription: This was my refuge
till they came and took it away and made it my tomb.
Yed think he was the only bugger in the war. intoned the Scottish nanny frequently.
This is Sean, my stepson, chimed Paddy, Spikes second wife, You know what he does? He drives his motor bike to the South
Coast, sits on a rock till the tide maroons him, waits till it goes out, gets off the rock and comes home. What sort of thing
is that to do?
For all I know he may have been pondering the mysteries of the Universe. I once knew a philosopher who gave it up because
there wasnt a living in it.
He became an accountant the best case of being hanged for a sheep as a lamb I know of. Perhaps Sean was just trying it
as a summer job.
He seemed content. The family constantly called me in for tea and gossip and for some reason one day the long dead American
actor Jeff Chandler cropped up as a subject.
Rather virile sort said Paddy, Dont you think he looks the virile type, Nanny? Nanny raised her Ayrshire eyebrows at me
and one felt some subtext billowing beneath the Miligna.
One evening, Paddy asked me if Id do a bit of overtime and scrub the patio, as Spike and Marty Feldman were having dinner
with the Bishop of London. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that one.
I was merrily hosing the patio and thrashing a yard brush up and down when I sensed someone standing behind me watching.
I turned and saw Spike for the first time. He was incredibly striking.
His skin was a beautiful Irish olive if there is such as thing as an Irish olive and his eyes were bright blue; the
light bulbs behind them turned up at maximum level. He was wearing a blue tie-dye denim suit.
The whole image was of blazing, intense, rich blue. I just stared, utterly speechless, yard brush and widdling hose in
hand. There was a very long pause as he held me like a gazer caught by the basilisk, mesmerised by the penetrating cornflower
Then the great man spoke and I shall never forget the first thing I heard him say.
You gotta use Vim!
He disappeared into the house and reappeared with several canisters of Vim, that well known, but I think now extinct,
household scourer one of post war Britains domestic emblems, alongside Spam, Omo and HP sauce.
He emptied a canister in an area of about one square foot. Use plenty of it. See? He took the hose from me and played
it on the mound of Vim, which immediately exploded and disappeared to the four corners of the garden like a family of frightened
Spike pressed ahead regardless, scrubbing a virginal white spot into the dingy expanse of the patio.
See? Vim, Vim! You gotta use Vim!
Spike was in one of his phases between depression, either ascending to mania or on the fast glide down, I dont know which,
but everything happened in double time.
He left me to Vim and hose on behalf of the Bishop and Marty Feldman and in the days that followed roared around the garden
and house like a bluebottle on amphetamines. A concrete bench went up like a time-lapse film.
One second there was a pile of white concrete slabs and cement; the next there was a white seat, shining in the sun under
Spike was bad-tempered. I had to leave for a commercial interview one day and he wished me luck, but I didnt hear him
and asked him to repeat himself.
He screamed at me and I sloped off with my thespian tail between my legs, but mostly he was tensely pleasant and I got
the impression, slightly uneasy in my presence, perhaps because I was a punter, perhaps because I was a young actor.
Paddy had been a singer and loved the fact that I was an actor, albeit temporarily gardening. I could tell she missed
it, but suspected it was the idea of being a singer she missed and not the reality.
The theatre is the greatest business in the world in ones head. The reality of course, is different. Look at Spike. At
one time he was probably less well known than Terry Scott.
The agency rang me one evening and instructed me to tell no one I was working for the Milligans. I assume this sensible
condition was laid down by Spike.
I never told him what he meant to me; I dont know how he would have reacted, favourably I would have thought, and a whole
interesting area of conversation and larking about might have opened up, but Ive never been blessed with the ability to rise
above my speechlessness, so we just pottered about the garden and that was probably what suited him.
His youngest daughter Jane was impish and irritated me, but he adored her.
She once shoved her bare bum in my face and Spike said Christ shes starting young. which at the time was less than I expected
from the crown prince of lateral wit.
I dont know what I expected: sheer surreal brilliance all the time? I was as capable of suburban expectation as the next
His elder daughter Jane would occasionally emerge from the basement flat she occupied and irradiate the summer with her
He did tell me one anecdote, which I later heard him repeat on the telly. When he finished the Goons no one knew what
to do with him so he spent two years signing on the dole at Finchley.
In those halcyon days the unemployed and unemployable stood in line, signed a chit, took the chit to another line, stood
there till their turn at the desk, and were given unemployment benefit in cash.
It was a mornings gainful employ, made a chap feel he were doing something for his money. One day the man in front of
him collapsed and Spike found no pulse. He started pumping the poor blokes chest. How is he? asked one of the other dole queue
I think hes dead. said Spike.
Struth, responded someone, They must have offered him a job.
I enjoyed working for the Milligans. Spike introduced a tension into the family whenever he appeared and Nanny behaved
like the naughty private when the sergeant major was about.
He was a whirlwind. But they were an easy, attractive bunch and would have been content to go on working for them but
I got a message to see a director in a flat in Moscow Road one Saturday morning and by the time I got home from the audition
there was a message that I was being offered a season at a brand new repertory theatre and could I be there by ten o clock
In those days actors were offered seasons. I rang the agency from the theatre on the Monday and they said they would send
someone else in my place to the Milligans and I was deeply offended to be replaced in a such a casual manner.
The termination of my employ in that Indian English garden dragging clouds of artillery fire and Goonery in its wake was
to pass without ceremony.
I never saw Spike or his family again.
I always hoped I would meet him one day its a small profession and people do meet up. I would tell him I was his gardener.
But of course, I didnt and I wonder who took my place.
Paddy died some time ago.
Holden road was sold for thirty grand to a property developer who tore it down and a hideous development stands on the
The garden as it was, no doubt will have been obliterated. Its the way London seems to have gone; a city inherited by
property developers, the Breughelesque homunculi of Thatchers obsessions tearing everything down, alchemically converting
London from a people friendly city into a money friendly city.
The bungalow probably ended up in a skip.
He could have sold it to Charles Saatchi who might have stood it beside Tracey Emins shed. If he paid the untidy Great
One a hundred thousand big ones for her shed and her un-made bed, lazy cow, what would the little pavilion where Hitler.
My Part in his Downfall and Spike suffered several real, clinical depressions have brought? Not much. Spike wasnt really
a market unit. He had too much wit for shit.