Under the guise of humour, they poke fun at the establishment, satirise the weighty and conduct what
would otherwise be treasonable behaviour. Once the principals reappear on stage, they flee to the wings to cheers and catcalls.
In the first Elizabethan era, Shakespeare's clowns were inheritors of the ancient dramatic tradition
of carnival, that dramatic subtext where the almost unsayable was almost said under certain defined conditions.
The second Elizabethan era had only begun when the Goon Show began on BBC radio.
Written mostly by Spike Milligan and performed by him with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, comedy
in the English language was never to be the same again.
Milligan captured the tiny window that the carnival tradition offered and unleashed a hurricane on
post-war and post-imperial Britain. By the time the Irishman, the Jew and Welshman were finished eight years later popular
culture would never be the same again.
To understand the magnitude of Milligan's subversion one has only to recall that in 1951, when the
Goons began, the BBC enjoyed a monopolistic cultural role in British society.
White, male, upper middle class, Oxbridge-dominated and entrusted with maintaining the core beliefs
of the British class system, it was actually a cultural dinosaur in that post-war world. (Radio newsreaders were still required
to wear dinner jackets to read the evening news.)
Like all great originals, Milligan's scripts challenged all established consensus; not just the established
parameters of comedy, but also the ways in which the political and cultural establishments regarded themselves.
His zany accents undermined preconceptions about 'proper speech'. His bizarre characters ruthlessly
satirised establishment icons and, most subversive of all, his material strayed into areas conventionally long forbidden to
The old music hall comic tradition that the Goons undermined was duly respectful of established authority
and could be both xenophobic and jingoistic to order. Milligan's material dispensed with mothers-in-law and sex with mad majors,
daft vicars and pompous authority figures.
It was at once post-modern and post-imperial, eclectic, obsessional, iconoclastic and fantastic.
It was brimming with intelligence, compassion, humanity and anger drawing on energies as disparate
as Dali and Myles na gCopaleen, the Cubists and even Beckett. While the anarchy was Irish, the anger was English post-imperial.
No wonder alarm bells began to ring as the Goon Show came to enjoy huge popularity. Writing years later,
Milligan revealed that the BBC eventually forbade him then to comment on or satirise actual events.
(No doubt our friends in MI5 had Milligan's membership of the British Communist Party in the 1930s
on his confidential file at Broadcasting House.)
He wrote: "All we could be was funny, but it had no point. We could have been lethal, but the BBC would
never let us do any real voices, or anything to do with reality. That broke my heart."
Milligan in his scripts was increasingly forced to withdraw into a surreal world. But precisely because
he continued to draw from the real world, he was increasingly to call on more and more fantastic comic devices to disguise
his subversive intentions.
Reading the gushing tributes from the BBC this week, one would hardly recognise the deeply unhappy
relationship he had always had with the corporation.
After the Goon show it condemned him to obscurity for a generation before he finally returned with
the 'Q' television series in the 1980s.
Then for the last 20 years of his life, to his very great bitterness, the BBC continued to ignore him.
The tragedy, as Milligan eventually was to discover is that the truly original very soon become unemployable within any establishment.
The truth not told in last week's obituaries is that for the last 20 years of his life, as he was driven
to writing books, making chat show appearances and writing letters to newspapers, the British comic establishment sidelined
Certainly he was notoriously difficult to work with: he called shits "shits" without batting an eyelid,
and his manic, increasingly paranoid, attitudes made for cosmic confrontations.
In the end, chafing at what he called the abandoned years, he even grew to hate the fact that the legacy
of the Goons was being hung around his neck as the sum of his achievements.
That Was The Week That Was and Monty Python would never have been possible had Milligan not opened
that window with the Goons.
Now everyone claims to recognise his maniacal progenitive genius. What a pity they waited for his obituaries
instead of telling him when he was alive. Tragically, for one so tormented by both comic and tragic alter-egos, in his last
years Milligan increasingly found that living with Spike Milligan the clown as opposed to Spike Milligan the man, reaped a
I last met him a decade ago and found him courteous, but angry and disillusioned. Yet another comedy
television project had foundered and he had become obsessed with over-population and restoring Victoriana.
He spoke too with such affection and passion about Ireland that I suspected that this place, which
he hardly knew at all, was really his imaginative personification of his late father, Leo Milligan from Sligo.
Happily, with his third wife he seemed to have finally found a deeply loving and, importantly, a protective
But still there was a sense of a boiler burning with nothing to heat, a huge chaotic energy now turning
only wheels in his own head. But true to form he could corpse you in a moment.
He told me that on his first meeting his idol Groucho Marx he enthused so much that the great man suddenly
stopped him and said, "Do you mind if I do the next 20 minutes on my own?"
Now all the comics will have to do it all on their own.
In Shakespeare, clowns or fools are familiar figures. They strut the stage between crowns and cornets,
mimicking, jibing and cajoling. They bring the house down, as the pit recognises rare moments of subversion.