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And Finally

Spike the recluse leaves a rich history

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By Lawrence Marzouk

Most fans send gushing letters, perfumed and sealed with a kiss, to their idols. Richard Riding lovingly posted photographs of himself, in a toga, wearing a crash helmet, standing in a dustbin, holding an umbrella.

Most recipients of such correspondence would have swiftly passed the details on to the police but Spike Milligan responded with words of encouragement for Mr Riding's zany endeavour.

Little did they know this would be the start of a beautiful relationship between two very different men whose lives criss-crossed between the personal, professional and down-right strange.

The photographs and memorabilia that Mr Riding, a freelance photographer from Greyhound Hill, Hendon, collected along the journey now form an exhibition on Milligan, arguably the UK's most influential comic.

Milligan was a post-war pioneer of alternative comedy, and is best known for his work on the radio show, The Goon Show. He spurred on legions of jokes without a punchline, paving the way for other champions of the anarchic, including Monty Python.

A mercurial figure, riddled by self-doubt and depression, Milligan like so many comic geniuses was an enigma.

He was also a founding member of the Finchley Society in 1971 and campaigned tirelessly to preserve Barnet's environment and its historic homes.

Milligan moved from Holden Road, Finchley, to Monkenhurst, Hadley, in 1974. The venue was used for a dinner party to thank the Finchley Society committee members, then numbering nearly 1,000, and their partners, for helping to build up the society and protect Finchley during the Seventies.

Milligan-related anecdotes are aplenty in Barnet. One recounts how his star-struck next-door neighbour would descend on his front door after every performance, singing his praises.

Milligan is said to have appreciated the gesture initially, but soon became bored. To turn the tables he went to congratulate the unsuspecting neighbour on his lawn-mowing prowess.

But his exuberant professional persona and political demagogy were very much at odds with the quiet and depressive character that Mr Riding encountered on so many occasions. This exhibition provides a real insight into the troubled man's life, his many facets and his comic genius.

Mr Riding had two idols in the Sixties: Mozart and Milligan. He wasn't the kind of man to blush in public, clambering around an iron railing to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four, or building a shrine to Bohemia in the fireplace of his Hendon home.

But when he was commissioned by an advertising agency to take pictures of Milligan (to whom he had earlier sent the wacky pictures) for the shooting of a television commercial for Dairy Crunch, he felt star-struck. For each 15-second advert, Milligan donned a different outfit, including a Hitler costume and another of an official chocolate taster. Milligan had remembered the photos from Riding and at the end of the day, he asked Riding if he knew where he lived.

"My first thought was that he had lost his memory, though in fact he had just lost his driving licence through some misdemeanour. When I replied that he lived in Holden Road, Finchley, he asked me if I would drive him home. I thought I had arrived in heaven," said Mr Riding.

After a trip in Mr Riding's clapped-out Mini, the photographer seized the opportunity of a recompensing cup of tea at Milligan's house to ask if he could take some photos of his family. Milligan agreed and, over the next few years, Mr Riding would visit regularly.

Mr Riding lent the Groucho Letters to Milligan and the copy is displayed at the Hendon exhibition, with Milligan's annotation still visible, accompanied by a letter which reads: "I am returning the book of the Groucho Letters. I am sorry I read them whilst I was in a depression and I wrote on the inside. Really sincerely, Spike Milligan."

An example of one of Milligan's ecological campaigns is also included in the exhibition. A photo of Milligan in colonial hunting garb has the words 'Milligan foxes the council' printed underneath. It follows with "Please forestall Bexley Council gassing fox family. I will have them released in the countryside where they can be safely torn to bits by the local hunt."

Mr Riding said: "He would invite me into his home. I would sit watching the television and remain for three hours in silence. I got to know his wife. She was more friendly.

"He was a very complex bloke. When he was working for Dairy Crunch, he would do exactly what he was told. [When I was taking pictures of him and his family] when he was in a mood and he didn't want to smile, that was it, he didn't."

"Paddy [Milligan's wife] was easy-going and tried unsuccessfully to convince me that Spike was not god-like but a normal human being. Generally speaking, he was very quiet. He didn't strike me as funny around the house, though he would crack a few jokes."

The last time Mr Riding saw Milligan was when he turned up at his home uninvited with a film crew and the comedian Marty Feldman. As Mr Riding opened the door, Spike said: "What the hell are you doing here?"

Feldman and Milligan were filming a TV show which involved jousting musketeers and Mr Riding spent the day snapping them in action. These photographs are also on display.

Twenty-five years later, Mr Riding's wife met Milligan at an event in Kensington. "To my chagrin, he said that he had never heard of me. Perhaps my association with Spike Milligan had been a dream after all. Fortunately, my photographs and memorabilia prove otherwise."

The small exhibition at Church Farmhouse Museum, Greyhound Hill, Hendon, is a photographic testimony to Milligan's work on radio, television, vinyl and in print. Ending in February 2004, the exhibition is open from Mondays to Thursdays, 10am to 1pm, and 2pm to 5pm; Saturdays from 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 5.30pm; and Sundays from 2pm to 5.30pm.

3:26pm Tuesday 4th November 2003

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Spikes former home on market for 1.75m

By Sophie Kummer

Its imposing Gothic tower has welcomed the likes of Prince Charles and a naked Peter Sellers.

And now Monkenhurst, the Hadley mansion which was home to the late comic genius Spike Milligan for the best part of a decade, could be yours for a mere 1.75million.

After moving there in 1974, Spike spent 10,000 restoring many of its period features to their Victorian splendour, including a stained glass window depicting Barnet as one of the key sites of a battle in the Wars of the Roses.

It merits a passing mention in Pevsner, the architectural bible, as: "a tall, romantic Gothic [house] of 1880 with tower over the entrance, big Gothic staircase window to the first floor and half-hipped roof. Enlarged 1915 with stained glass brought from Northumberland House, Charing Cross."

Milligan famously entertained Prince Charles, a big fan of The Goon Show, at his family home in The Crescent, Hadley Common, as well as comedian Peter Sellers, who once turned up naked as a practical joke. With wit as sharp as his fellow Goon, Milligan turned the naked actor away from his door and forced him to wander the leafy streets surrounding Hadley Common.

A founding member of the Finchley Society, Milligan was tireless in his fight to protect Barnet's historic homes and became president of the society and later its patron, even when he moved out of the area to Hadley Wood.

He made Monkenhurst the venue for a supper party thrown to thank the Finchley Society committee members then numbering nearly 1,000 and their partners, for helping to build up the society and protect Finchley's environment during the 1970s.

The house boasts landscaped gardens and a swimming pool, as well as neighbours including Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu.

The present owner, Stephen Friel, said he has spent more than 250,000 refurbishing the house, as a previous owner left it completely derelict.

"Bathrooms were smashed and I think it was used for raves," he said. "But even when Spike lived there, I get the feeling it wasn't all furnished. It is such a big, rambling house, I wouldn't be surprised if it hadn't all been done."

The house is available through FPD Savills in Hadley.

10:30am Wednesday 9th October 2002


mike@spikemilligan.co.uk