Sunday March 3, 2002
After years of fan worship, I finally got to interview the great Spike Milligan for The Observer in 1995, writes Sean
O'Hagan. It was a surreal and, at times, sad encounter.
Initially, he was grumpy and unaccommodating, but soon snapped out of it and, as the anecdotes and reminiscences flowed,
he grew animated and mischievous.
There was a strict time limit on the interview, which meant we never touched on his masterful war memoirs, Adolf Hitler,
My Part in His Downfall , and Rommel? Gunner Who? or Puckoon.
In interview, as on stage, Spike's thought processes were predictably unpredictable. He seemed fascinated by both my Irishness
and my lapsed Catholicism, returning to them again and again, and insisting, as he had done many times before, that his name
translated into Gaelic as 'small tonsured one'.
His jokes, it has to be said, gave him as much, if not more pleasure as they did his audience. He spent an inordinate
amount of the interview creased up in childlike giggles.
As that other great Irish surrealist Flann O'Brien once said: 'We will not see his like again.' What follows is my original
piece from 3 December 1995.
I am waiting in the reception of his agent's Bayswater office when Spike Milligan emerges, wide-eyed, from an adjacent
room. 'Norma!' he shouts, seemingly oblivious to my presence. 'Where the fuck is Norma?' Norma is Spike's agent.
At this moment, she is one floor and several rooms away, dealing with a bemused Eric Sykes who, minutes earlier, had turned
up minus his briefcase. 'I left it in the bloody restaurant. It's the one with ES on it.'
I wonder whether I should tell Spike about Eric's predicament but he seems somewhat agitated. 'Bloody hell!' he mutters
in mock desperation. 'Where is anybody?' He stops suddenly and peers at me, not bemusedly like Eric had done earlier, but
in a more troubled way.
Spike looks like a startled pensioner.
I notice that his shirt is speckled with crumbs. He does not acknowledge my presence but simply shuffles past and, like
Eric before him, disappears up the stairs, leaving me to wonder if life is meant to imitate art in quite such a disturbing
'How are you?' I say when we are finally formally introduced.
'That's a bit of a cliché,' he retorts grumpily. Oh dear. Help! 'Can't you see he's nervous, Spike?' Norma interjects.
Then, sarcastically: 'I can't imagine why, can you?' Spike ignores her interjection. He is looking at me intently, though
with what sort of intent I am not quite sure. 'You're Irish, aren't you?' he says finally. I nod.
'Me too. Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?' I take a deep breath, wondering where this is all leading. 'Catholic,' I
reply, 'lapsed.' His face lights up. 'I'm one, too. In fact, I'm a lapsed Catholic and a practising Catholic.
I practise all the time. Then I lapse. Then I practise a bit more. It never stops. Am I making sense?'
Where Spike Milligan is concerned, there is no definitive answer to that last question. This is a man, after all, who,
when he has not been deadly serious or terminally depressed, or both, has devoted his life to not making sense.
A man who, it is generally acknowledged, invented contemporary comedy with The Goon Show and the even more madcap Q series.
'I think I was the first not to think in terms of punchlines or even jokes,' he explains, when I ask him about the genesis
of his particular brand of absurdist humour. 'I'd sit in Jimmy Grafton's bar and test my routines on the drinkers.
They never laughed.
That's when I knew I was out on a limb.' Was he aware, back then, that he was an iconoclast or was it simply a case of
doing what came naturally? 'A bit of both, actually.
Myself and Sellers always thought of ourselves as comic Bolsheviks. We wanted to destroy all that went before in order
to create something totally new. We were actually very serious about that.'
It is hardly surprising, then, that Spike has never become part of the comedy establishment.
The grizzled old guard have, in turn, been more than happy to keep Spike at arm's length, but that may be more to do with
his reputation for erratic and often dangerous mood-swings.
He is now Britain's most celebrated manic depressive, but for a long time he was seen as simply another madcap comic genius.
'Manic depression is a terrible thing,' he tells me matter-of-factly, 'particularly when it is undiagnosed. It has,' he
sighs, words trailing off into a whisper, 'caused me to behave unreasonably in the past.'
He once tried to kill his friend and fellow Goon Peter Sellers with a potato knife for no real rea son other than, 'Sellers
was being his usual selfish self and I was, unluckily for him, at the end of my tether'.
In retrospect, Spike acknowledges that the pressure of 'turning out a finished Goon Show script every week for half a
year' was the prime reason for this aberration, as well as for the break-up of his first marriage and his subsequent nervous
'I've actually been on stage in manic depression,' he says, shaking his head at the absurdity. 'And I made them laugh.'
More often than not, though, when the darkness descended, he would wake up in a psychiatric ward.
There have also been quite a few run-ins with the law. He once put a brick through the window of the Institute of Contemporary
Arts as a protest against an art installation that electrocuted live goldfish.
Recently, he made the tabloids when he fired an airgun at a teenage intruder in his garden. Though Irish, he possesses
that peculiarly English trait of preferring animals to humans.
'Humans are boring,' he states in all seriousness, 'and they're cliché-ridden. They do tend to bug me rather a lot.' When
Spike Milligan was once asked how he imagined his public pictured him, he replied: 'Eccentric, funny, ill.'
That is probably still the case.
'I'm an outsider,' he says, without a trace of bitterness or self-pity. 'I used to send scripts to the television people,
but they'd send them back with Unfunny written on them.'
He seems suddenly deflated, confounded by the vagaries of time and taste. 'They don't seem to want to let me in. I guess
I've gone out of fashion.'
This, sad to say, seems to be true. The last script Spike wrote featured two old comedians who could no longer find work.
It was written for Eric Sykes and himself to star in.
It was rejected, stamped, metaphorically at least, Unfunny. The ironies are too many and too close to the bone to dwell
on here, but to his credit, he does not appear to be bitter, simply bemused. 'I've got the message.
They're too comfortable with Coronation Street and EastEnders. Coronation Street,' he says, suddenly leaning close and
whispering conspiratorially, 'is the asshole of soaps.'
For a moment, his disgust at the world, and the world of entertainment in particular, is palpable. For some time now,
his books, and his extraordinary poems - some mad, some gut-wrenchingly sad - have been the sole outlet for his undiminished
and often unedited imagination.
The earlier manic energy that underpinned Milligan classics such as Puckoon and Adolf Hitler has given way to a more whimsical
though no less wacky narrative approach.
He recently published his own version of the Bible. 'I took all the turgid bits and spiced them up. Zacharias was this
old bore who ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot, so I gave him third-degree burns.'
His next book is a reworking of Frankenstein where the monster is an 'addictive smoker who goes round people's houses
going, "Have you got a fag?"' He creases into a fit of protracted giggling as he mimics the monster's voice. Now
77, Spike Milligan still lives in a world of his own, albeit one where, as Tony Hancock once noted, 'funny is not necessarily
For the last few years, with the aid of his daily dose of lithium carbonate, Spike seems to have finally found a modicum
of contentment. 'My wife said to me the other day, "You don't talk to me any more", but I don't seem to have that
much to say any more.'
There are many things, however, that still annoy him intensely. 'I'm a very private person. All that showbiz lot thrive
on attention, but I absolutely hate being recognised.' Unfortunately, for him, he is still recognised rather a lot.
He suddenly looks exhausted. What, I ask him in conclusion, does he write in the space marked 'occupation' in his passport?
He thinks for a moment.
'Author. Though I could also put clown, poet and painter.' And what would his epitaph be? 'I told you I was ill.' He laughs
to himself again, a little ruefully this time. Any regrets? 'I wish I'd done it more often,' he says, grinning.
So do we, Spike, so do we.