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Spike Milligan
Son of Oblomov

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And Finally

Adapted from Ivan Goncharovs Oblomov

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You could have bought a programme with one of these

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Perhaps the most Milliganesque of his theatrical performances was in an adaptation of Ivan Goncharovs Oblomov.

Departing quickly from the text, and indeed the plot, Milligan effectively reworked the show so drastically that it was retitled Son of Oblomov for its highly successful tour.

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Me and my mad mate Milligan

by Carrie Buckle

Spike Milligan lay confined in bed on stage in one of his first serious lead roles in an adaptation of the 19th Century Russian novel Oblomov.

It wasn't really Spike and he didn't stay confined to his bed for long.

The classic play opened at the Lyric Theatre, London, on October 6, 1964, and roused little praise from audiences or critics.

But by the end of the third week, Spike forgot his lines, shouted for a prompt and began to ad-lib furiously.

He went outside his role to the point where his lines bore almost no resemblance to the original script.

After five weeks at the Lyric, the show transferred to the Comedy Theatre in the West End, where it was retitled Son Of Oblomov.

The audience was heckled, the cast was heckled and Spike was hailed as a genius.

The play was declared a resounding success by critics and was even visited by the Queen on her 40th birthday.

It played to sell out-audiences for three years and only finished because Spike announced he had had enough, from his bed of course.

It was in this arena young actress Barbara Whatley, then just 21, first came into contact with the comedian.

Barbara, 60, who grew up in Rottingdean and launched her acting career at the Palace Pier theatre, Brighton, before spending 17 years in the West End, said: "I was young and naive and was in one of the most glossy, fashionable productions.

"It was an overwhelming experience. I had always been a Goons fan but was not in awe of Spike.

"He was not an arrogant man and I was lucky because he liked me.

"If he didn't like you that was another matter, of course. But in all our time together we never had a single argument. I think it was because I was a listener."

While at the Lyric Theatre, she had played the supporting role of Katya.

Despite her lack of experience, she soon got her big break and was promoted to the lead role of Olga.

On her first night, after no rehearsal with Spike, she walked on stage.

Her heart was thumping with fear and when she spoke her lines to Spike, who lay in bed, he replied "Who are you?"

Because the management were scared of upsetting Spike, the cast had been forbidden from coming out of role.

Barbara, who now lives in Worthing, said: "I looked over to him and he had a baby's rusk in his mouth like Bugs Bunny. I freaked and couldn't speak. He just kept asking who I was. Eventually I whispered 'Barbara Whatley' and he told the audience to give me a round of applause.

"That was typical of Spike, he was a compassionate man who loathed conventions. He cut through every piece of red tape with his razor mind."

Spike pushed all boundaries in the play just like he gave birth to a new brand of comedy. No one was immune from his irreverence for conventions, not even royalty.

Spike is today remembered for calling his friend Prince Charles "a grovelling little bastard" at the British Comedy Awards.

But years before that he displayed similar sentiments to the Queen.

Barbara, who now acts in television programmes and sits on the board of the Actors Bebnevolent Fund, said: "The Queen was coming to see the play to celebrate her 40th birthday.

"The management asked Spike if it was okay if we started the play five minutes early, so the Queen could slip in unseen. Spike replied 'I have my doubts as to whether the Queen has bought a ticket - all the other buggers have bought theirs. So the answer is no.'"

Despite this, the Queen invited Spike to her private birthday party at Kensington Palace after the show.

But in true Spike-fashion, he declined to accept the invitation until the second half.

By this time, he had already imitated Queen Victoria by putting a lace doily on his head.

When asked about his relationship with Prince Charles, Mrs Whatley said: "Spike told me how Charles used to phone him up now and again and invite him round. Then he joked: 'I wonder what he'd say if I said I was busy?'

"He described Prince Charles as a kind man with the soul of a poet."

But of course, Spike, who suffered from depression, could be much harsher than mockery.

Most people will have heard of how he tried to attack his good mate Eric Sykes with a potato peeler.

But few know about the time he took a gun into the Comedy Theatre after a member of the cast annoyed him.

Barbara said: "The police arrived and when they went into Spike's dressing room, he produced a water pistol instead.

"Spike had accused the man of sabotaging the play. They refused to look at each other on stage and eventually the man left. If he didn't like you, that was that."

On one occasion, Spike walked off stage and disappeared for three days after someone spoke back to him. It turned out Spike, a frustrated musician, had driven in his tinted Mini to Ronnie Scott's jazz club to play his trumpet.

Spike's cyclical bouts of depression inevitably led to parallels being made with the character he played in the play.

While Spike would lock himself away in his room when the storm clouds descended, Oblomov vowed to stay in bed.

Barbara said: "It was one of the saddest things to feel the pain Spike carried with him. You could see it in his eyes. It was bliss when the depression lifted."

Meanwhile, in the play, Oblomov's friends hoped to entice him out of his melancholy through the power of love.

Barbara played Olga, a Russian aristocrat with enormous wealth and beauty, who eventually beguiled him.

Spike too had a love of women.

He even admitted to having slept with three of the lead ladies in the play in his autobiography The Family Album.

But this was where the parallel with the two characters stopped.

Barbara's experience of Spike was very different.

She said: "Women were drawn to Spike.

"However, I think our friendship survived because we were always only the greatest of friends.

"I was never attracted to him physically. His nickname for me was Earthy because I was dark-haired then and he said I had the figure of someone you see picking apples off the trees in the fields of Europe."

Her fondest memory of their time together during the play was when he would invite her to his dressing room in the second interval.

She said: " He would pour me a glass of his favourite rose wine and talk about art and his children. He said I was a good listener and had humour to cover bad situations."

Right up until his death they kept in regular contact. Spike signed his letters to her with "Love, light and peace as always to you Barbara".

When she married Sussex wicket keeper Rupert Webb in 1983 he sent the couple a bouquet of rhubarb, with the words "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb" as an anagram on their names.

Spike continued to call Barbara several times a year to have a chat, usually late at night.

She said: "The last time I talked to him was last November. He called to have a chat and asked me what I was doing for Christmas. But he was quite poorly at that point."

She said she could hear him saying his epitaph: "I told you I was ill".

On the day he died, aged 83 at his home in Rye, she got a call from her husband Rupert Webb to tell her the news.

Barbara sighed, put her head in her hands and said: "I just felt he was completely unique. He could be harsh but also had great generosity of spirit.

"He taught me how to have fun and made me realise you don't have to accept what is handed out to you in life.

"He broke down every conceivable barrier. Spike Milligan can never be repeated."

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Vale Pete, Dud and Spike ... John Clare recalls an England where comic genius roamed and life was one big laugh.

I think Paul Scofield had begun his great season of Lear, but when we arrived in London in the mid-1960s, the first play we saw was Son of Oblomov, purely because Spike Milligan was in it.

Just ahead of us Bing Crosby crossed the Soho street and went on into the theatre. His tweed jacket and perfectly blocked "casual" fedora were so immaculate he looked like a papier-mache model of himself.

A couple of days later we were stopped in our tracks by his waxwork in Madame Tussaud's. He offered no opinion. Do not forget Bing.

Even I was dimly aware that Oblomov was a young man who would not get out of bed, but in Son of the frenetic Spike was more out than in. You were supposed to imagine him supine in spirit, while in fact he was everywhere, including halfway up the wall, trying to climb to a pretty girl in a box seat.

At one point someone called, "Hark, here he comes", while a group of the cast looked off to the left. Spike entered stage right. They did not seem to appreciate this, an impression that was confirmed later on a BBC talk show. London's thespians did not approve.

Hell, it was only one play, not a sudden plague of ad-libbing. At one point Spike sang with a trio of actors up the front of the stage, then shook his head, despairing of their efforts, and reached out over the footlights, crying, "Is there a Bing Crosby in the house?"

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His next piece, Oblomov, was just as successful, opening at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1964.

It was based on the Russian classic by Ivan Goncharov, and gave Milligan the opportunity to play most of the title role in bed.

Unsure of his material, on the opening night he improvised a great deal, treating the audience as part of the plot almost, and he continued in this diverting manner for the rest of the run, and on tour as Son Of Oblomov.

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In "Son of Oblomov" on the London stage years ago, Spike Milligan and Bill Owen were a few minutes into the opening dialogue when Spike noticed some late-comers being shown to their seats.

"Hold it Bill, hold it," he said to Owen. Then, moving to stage front, he addressed the hapless newcomers who by now had the spotlights on them.

"Where the hell have you been?" he berated mockingly. Then, without waiting for an answer, he said to Owen: "OK, Bill. Start again!" And they did, with all the dialogue now sounding like a 33 played at 78.

No doubt an old trick, but as fresh and funny as any of his wonderful irreverent material for those of us lucky enough to have seen it live.

Thanks for the memories, Spike!
Chris Lake-Smith, USA (ex-UK)

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Miss Joan Greenwood was at the Lyric in a comedy - Oblomov, with Spike Milligan - and went with it to the West End when it was re-titled Son of Oblomov. She left the cast, however, after seven months, announcing that "enough is enough".

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Joan Greenwood

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