Spike Milligan 1918 – 2002
February 02, 2009
Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan KBE 1918 – 2002 known as Spike Milligan, was an Anglo Irish comedian, writer, musician, poet and playwright.
Spike Milligan took his second wife Patricia Ridgeway, who refused medication that had been tested on animals, to see a homeopath when she was dying of cancer, and Spike was impressed by the dedication and integrity offered to his wife by the homeopath, who depite the ‘utmost dedication’ shown, refused payment for his services.
Spike Milligan was very close to homeopathic supporters Prince Charles, Robert Graves, and Paul McCartney.
Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918, the son of an Irish-born father, Captain Leo Alphonso Milligan, MSM, RA, who was serving in the British Indian Army. His mother, Florence Mary Winifred Kettleband, was born in England.
He spent his childhood in Poona (India) and later in Rangoon (Yangon), capital of Burma (Myanmar). He was educated at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Poona, and St Paul’s Christian Brothers, de la Salle, Rangoon.
He lived most of his life in England and served in the British Army, in the Royal Artillery in World War II.
During most of the late 1930s and early 1940s Milligan performed as an amateur jazz vocalist and trumpeter before, during and after being called up for military service in the fight against Nazi Germany, but even then he wrote and performed comedy sketches as part of concerts to entertain troops.
After his call up, but before being sent abroad, he and fellow musician Harry Edgington (nicknamed Edge ying Tong which gave birth to one of Milligan’s most memorable musical creations, the Ying Tong Song) would compose surreal stories, filled with puns and skewed logic, as a way of staving off the boredom of life in barracks.
During World War II he served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery, as Gunner Milligan, 954024 with the First Army in the North African campaign and then in the succeeding Italian campaign. He rose to the rank of Lance Bombardier and was about to be promoted to Bombardier when he was wounded in action in Italy.
Subsequently hospitalised for a mortar wound to the right leg and shell shock, he was demoted by an unsympathetic commanding officer (identified in his war diaries as Major Evan ‘Jumbo’ Jenkins) back to Gunner. It was Milligan’s opinion that Major Jenkins did not like him due to the fact that Milligan constantly kept the morale of his fellow soldiers up, whereas Major Jenkins’ approach was to take an attitude towards the troops similar to that of Lord Kitchener.
An incident also mentioned was when Major Jenkins had invited Gunners Milligan and Harry Edgington to his bivouac to play some jazz with him, only to discover that the musicianship of the aforementioned gunners was far superior to his own ability to play the military tune ‘Whistling Rufus’ (albeit badly).
After his hospitalisation, Milligan drifted through a number of rear echelon military jobs in Italy, eventually becoming a full time entertainer. He played the guitar with a jazz and comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio in concert parties for the troops.
After being demobilised, Milligan remained in Italy playing with the Trio but returned to England soon after. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group he described as composed “of bomb-happy squaddies”) he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays, that displayed many of the key elements of what would later become The Goon Show ( originally called Crazy People) with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine.
Milligan returned to jazz in the late 1940s and made a precarious living with the Hall trio and other musical comedy acts. He was also trying to break into the world of radio, as either a performer or as a script writer.
His first success in radio was as writer for comedian Derek Roy’s show. Milligan soon became involved with a relatively radical comedy project, The Goon Show. Known during its first season as Crazy People, or in full, “The Junior Crazy Gang featuring those Crazy People, the Goons!”, the name was an attempt to make the programme palatable to BBC officials by connecting it with the popular group of comedians known as The Crazy Gang.
Milligan was the primary author of The Goon Show scripts (though many were written jointly with Larry Stephens, Eric Sykes and others) as well as a star performer. Milligan had a number of acting parts in theatre, film and television series; one of his last screen appearances was in the BBC dramatisation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and he was (almost inevitably) noted as an ad libber.
One of Milligan’s most famous ad lib incidents occurred during a visit to Australia in the late 1960s. He was interviewed live on air and remained in the studio for the news broadcast that followed (read by Rod McNeil), during which Milligan constantly interjected, adding his own name to news items.
As a result, he was banned from making any further live appearances on the ABC. The ABC also changed its national policy so that talent had to leave the studio after interviews were complete. A tape of the bulletin survives and has been included in an ABC Radio audio compilation, also on the BBC tribute CD, Vivat Milligna [sic].
Milligan also wrote verse, considered to be within the genre of literary nonsense. His poetry has been described by comedian Stephen Fry as “absolutely immortal
- greatly in the tradition of Lear”. His most famous poem, On the Ning Nang Nong, was voted the UK’s favourite comic poem in 1998 in a nationwide poll, ahead of other nonsense poets including Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
This nonsense verse, set to music, became a favourite Australia wide, performed week after week by the ABC children’s programme Playschool. Milligan included it on his album No One’s Gonna Change Our World in 1969 to aid the World Wildlife Fund. In December 2007 it was reported that, according to OFSTED, it is amongst the ten most commonly taught poems in primary schools in the UK.
While depressed, Milligan wrote serious poetry. He also wrote a novel Puckoon, parodying the style of Dylan Thomas, and a very successful series of war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (book) (1971), “Rommel?” “Gunner Who?”: A Confrontation in the Desert (1974), Monty: His Part in My Victory (1976) and Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall (1978). Milligan’s seven volumes of memoirs cover the years from 1939 to 1950 (his call-up, war service, first breakdown, time spent entertaining in Italy, and return to the UK).
He wrote comedy songs, including “Purple Aeroplane”, which was a parody of The Beatles’ song ”Yellow Submarine”. Glimpses of his bouts with depression which led to the nervous breakdowns, can be found in his serious poetry, which is compiled in Open Heart University. Spike Milligan also co-wrote the one-act play The Bed-Sitting Room, with John Antrobus. It premiered at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. It was adapted to a longer play, which made its debut at the Mermaid Theatre, London.
Milligan contributed occasional cartoons to the satirical magazine Private Eye. Most were visualizations of one-line jokes. For example, a young boy sees the Concorde and asks his father “What’s that?“. The reply is “That’s a flying groundnut scheme, son.”
After their retirement, Milligan’s parents and his younger brother Desmond moved to Australia. His mother lived the rest of her long life in the coastal village of Woy Woy on the New South Wales Central Coast, just north of Sydney; as a result, Milligan became a regular visitor to Australia and made a number of radio and TV programmes there, including The Idiot Weekly with Bobby Limb.
He also wrote several books including Puckoon’ during a visit to his mother’s house in Woy Woy. In July 2007, it was proposed that the suspension bridge on the cyclepath from Woy Woy to Gosford be named after him.
From the 1960s onwards Milligan was a regular correspondent with Robert Graves. Milligan’s letters to Robert Graves usually addressed a question to do with classical studies. The letters form part of Robert Graves’ bequest to St. John’s College, Oxford.
He suffered from severe bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten major mental breakdowns, several lasting over a year. He spoke candidly about his condition and its effect on his life:
“I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalised and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much… Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning - I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going - so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”The Prince of Wales was a noted fan, and Milligan caused a stir by calling him a “little grovelling bastard” on live television in 1994. He later faxed the prince, saying “I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?” In reality he and the Prince were very close friends, and he was finally made a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) in 2000. He had been made an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992.
He was a strident campaigner on environmental matters, particularly arguing against unnecessary noise, such as the use of muzak.
In 1971, Milligan caused controversy by attacking an art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery with a hammer. The exhibit consisted of catfish, oysters and shrimp that were to be electrocuted as part of the exhibition. He was a strong opponent of cruelty against animals and, during an appearance on Room 101, chose fox hunting as a pet hate, and succeeded in banishing it to the eponymous room.
In 1996, he successfully campaigned for the restoration of London’s Elfin Oak.
He was also a public opponent of domestic violence, dedicating one of his books to Erin Pizzey.
Milligan had three children with his first wife June (Marchini) Marlow: Laura, Seán and Síle. They were married in 1952 and divorced in 1960.
He had one daughter with his second wife, Patricia Ridgeway: the actress Jane Milligan (b. 1964). Milligan and Patricia were married in June 1962 with George Martin as best man. The marriage ended in 1978 with her death.
In 1975 Milligan fathered a son, James, in an affair with Margaret Maughan. Another child, a daughter Romany, is suspected to have been born at the same time by a Canadian journalist named Roberta Watt.
His last wife was Shelagh Sinclair, to whom he was married from 1983 to his death on 27 February 2002. Four of his children have recently collaborated with documentary makers on a new multi-platform programme called I Told You I Was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan (2005) and accompanying website.
In October 2008 an array of Milligan’s personal effects were to be sold at auction by his third wife, Shelagh, who was moving into a smaller home. These included a grand piano salvaged from a demolition and apparently played every morning by Paul McCartney, a neighbour in Rye in East Sussex.
Even late in life, Milligan’s black humour had not deserted him. After the death of friend Harry Secombe from cancer, he said, “I’m glad he died before me, because I didn’t want him to sing at my funeral.” A recording of Harry Secombe singing was played at Milligan’s memorial service. He also wrote his own obituary, in which he stated repeatedly that he “wrote the Goon show and died”.
Milligan died from liver disease, at the age of 83, on 27 February 2002, at his home in Rye, East Sussex. On the day of his funeral, 8 March 2002, his coffin was carried to St Thomas’s Church in Winchelsea, Sussex, and was draped in the flag of the Republic of Ireland. He had once quipped that he wanted his headstone to bear the words “I told you I was ill.” He was buried at St Thomas’s Church cemetery in Winchelsea, East Sussex, but the Chichester Diocese refused to allow this epitaph. A compromise was reached with the Irish translation, “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite”, and additionally in English, “Love, light, peace”.