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Spike Milligan
Australian Reviews - Three Books On Spike Milligan
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Australian Reviews - Three Books On Spike Milligan
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And Finally

The Australian view on three books on Spike Milligan

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Spike Milligan may have been mad, bad and dangerous to know but he was above all a comic genius, Barry Oakley concludes


Spike Milligan
Humphrey Carpenter
Hodder & Stoughton,

Spike: An Intimate Memoir
Norma Farnes
4th Estate,

The Essential Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan
HarperCollins,

With these books you do a three-step. With the biography, you're taken as far as the windows (Humphrey Carpenter never having met the man) you're looking in. Norma Farnes' memoir opens the door and takes you right up alongside the lovable clown who turns out to be a monster (which is what both books show him to be). The third proves that the monstrousness doesn't matter: essential Milligan is comic gold.

A Milligan biography can't proceed in the normal birth-to-death straight line because in his life there weren't any lines, only waves. Spike was either soaring, when he was manically productive, or sinking, when he'd lock the bedroom door and drug himself to sleep or stare up into the blackness for days.

Carpenter traces his manic depression to his wartime experiences, which, despite the funny books it produced (Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), was no joke. Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall was the closest to the truth, because it was in Italy that he had a nervous collapse after being wounded (only slightly) by a piece of shrapnel.

The army psychiatrist barked at him that he was going to get well "that was an order". But when he rejoined his battery, the sound of even his own unit's shells upset him, and he ran for his dugout. He was demoted from lance bombardier to plain gunner and developed a stammer. At a rehab centre near Naples he was classified B2, which he said meant "loony".

But after he fell apart, his imagination crept out from wherever it was hiding, and when he joined Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and a youthful and still plump Peter Sellers, it was let loose. "Four young men," noted The Evening News, "have formed themselves into what they call the Goon Club and meet regularly in a London pub, with a strange ritual and a handshake of their own."

After two years of knocking on doors, the BBC let them in, and on Sunday, May 27, 1951, they recorded the first Goon Show, initially called Crazy People. Their radio audience quintupled to 2 million in a few months. There were more than 200 Goon Shows, and if you can believe Milligan (you can't), he more or less wrote the lot. This was one of his panoply of weaknesses. He never showed public gratitude to anyone. He was also not to be crossed. Tell him at a script conference that one of his gags wasn't funny and he might walk out on the spot.

His favourite walk-out time was just before a performance, and when he went on the theatre circuit, it turned the life of his secretary-manager Norma Farnes into a nightmare. When he was on tour with The Bed Sitting Room at Nottingham, he rang her to say he wasn't going on that night: "Sixth row from the front, the third seat's squeaking and it's driving me mad." He insisted that every one of the 1400 seats be oiled.

The more we read of Farnes' Intimate Memoir, the more Milligan emerges as someone we'd prefer not to be intimate with. "Watch out, he's clicking." This meant his tongue was sticking to the top of his mouth because he was popping tranquillisers, and the insults dished out to his staff as he began to plunge were preceded by "a sucking noise".

One of his therapies, apart from pills and alcohol, was trips to Australia, to see his mother in Woy Woy. Australia's casualness relaxed him, and while on tour here he generally behaved himself, apart from his tendency to recycle material. But when his mother died in 1990, his depression grew worse, and despite best-selling books and a CBE from his admirer Prince Charles ("grovelling little bastard," Spike called him), his last decade was one of physical and mental fragility.

Milligan was a racist, a misanthrope, a serial adulterer, a liar, a tyrant, a solipsist (although he could also be suddenly and unpredictably generous). But when you boil him down, take out the toxins and get The Essential Spike Milligan, he just has to be forgiven, because some of his scripts, stories and poems are unalloyed genius, and Alexander Games has put the best of them into this book. Here he is on tour with a group of army entertainers, in a bucking plane over newly liberated Europe: "Our Polish juggler, Benn Futz, is airsick. Hodges gives him a nylon sock as a sick bag. I watch it hypnotically as the sock becomes the shape of a foot."

mike@spikemilligan.co.uk