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Spike Milligan
Ever The Old Flatterer!
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And Finally

The Spike Milligan I knew - and loved

By Maxine Ventham

maxspike1.jpg


For several days I had been braced for the worst; I knew Spike was clinging on to life by the merest thread but he had pulled through before and I prayed he would do so again.

It didn't look good but who could ever predict what the Great Spike Milligan would ever do next? Well, he took me by surprise for the last time when I heard he had indeed slipped away and I am grieving with the rest of the country for a true comedy genius.

However, I am also grieving for the loss of a dear friend and a lovely man. I met Spike and his wife, Shelagh, five years ago when I organised a Convention at which Spike and his fellow Goon, Sir Harry Secombe, were reunited. I was suffering with depression at the time and that combined with my love of comedy meant we struck up a bond.

A few months later, Shelagh rang me and I went down to Sussex to see them and share dinner at Spike's favourite Indian restaurant in Rye. He was an amazing companion, able to talk about art and artists, animals, jazz, his beloved rugby and religion.

He could also converse with the waiters in their own language, as he had spent the first years of his life in India. All very impressive. Out of the blue, he asked me, "Are you a Catholic?"

"A lapsed one," I replied.

Quick as a flash he said, "How can you be lapsed? You don't say of Jews that they are lapsed, they remain Jewish, so you can't be a lapsed Catholic."

I have never said it since! This was one of the remarkable aspects about Spike; his ability to see right through something and instantly come back with a completely new perspective, one that could change what you thought from that moment on.

His words stayed in your head, I don't know how or why but they just did.

Once when he took me to his local pub, there was a painting of two shire horses ploughing a field. We admired it together and he pointed out some of the better features of the picture.

"Look at their breath in the mist. You know, it's an honour to stand beside a shire horse."

It is! Now, whenever I see one, I think of Spike and that thought.

His love of animals meant he had supported all sorts of causes through his life, financially and morally. He wasn't afraid to stand up and be counted, if it meant doing something outrageous - he'd do that too and not just in public.

He once spent an entire night trying to help a moth out of his lounge.

Personally speaking, what particularly impressed me was his tremendous kindness and empathy for me whenever I had a bout of depression. As soon as he heard about it, he would ring up.

On the first occasion, he took me completely by surprise. When I answered the phone, I trotted out the standard, "How are you?"

"How are YOU?" Came the reply.

I told him the truth and he asked if I would like to go out to dinner with him. I told him I would and he said, "Right, see you this evening." This evening!

I was hundreds of miles away!

I drove down to Rye and when I arrived he came towards me with his arms outstretched and gave me a gentle hug, I could have cried but I didn't.

That visit was the first of many 'cures' I spent with him. He was a good nurse, albeit and unconventional one. He insisted I must sit down and rest, I wasn't to be anxious about my lack of appetite or worry about anything.

"Relax, this is a stress free house." He shuffled around the room and made up a fire, he knew how comforting they can be and we sat and watched the flames together. In the morning, he came in, unannounced, with a bowl of Weetabix with brown sugar on and filled to the brim with milk - this was how he liked it and he automatically assumed I would too.

I have to say, it was strangely comforting.

I don't want to make him seem saintly - he wasn't. He had a temper on him, which could flare up without notice and with his intellect behind it, I found him truly terrifying.

He never used it on me, thank goodness, but occasionally there'd be a flash of the Milligan fire. One night, he came down for some wine and found Shelagh and me still up and chatting. "What's the matter? Can't you talk in daylight?" We were just stumbling for words, when Tigger, their cat, came in and fussed round Spike.

He bent down and was instantly totally different, stroking him and cooing. When he went back upstairs, Shelagh explained that he had reacted as a naughty boy might at being found out raiding the larder (or in this case, wine rack) and I turned and said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, Tigger." The moment had passed and it didn't mean anything to him.

On a recent visit, Shelagh and I were talking about Spike's compassion and the remarkable impact he has had on peoples' lives. We came up with the idea that a book which sought to emphasize this and in which people (famous or not) could talk about Spike in their own words might be a wonderful way to pay a tribute.

When Spike joined us and we mentioned our conversation, he said, with his usual enthusiasm, "Do it!" So I have and, ironically, I finished it last week and it's due for publication very soon; bittersweet indeed.

The last time I saw Spike, although frail, he looked in a good way. He was peaceful and calm, gazing at me with soft blue eyes, the fire in them was out. I said, "You look well," and he replied, "Why shouldn't I? There's nothing wrong with me."

His take on reality was as different from mine then as it had always been. I kissed him when I left and he said,
"A kiss from a pretty girl, it's not too late for me."

Ever the old flatterer!

END

mike@spikemilligan.co.uk