For thirty-six years, Norma Farnes was Spike Milligan’s manager, agent and Mother Confessor. She was also his friend. Since Milligan’s death in 2002, Norma has shown a loyalty to their friendship, which our world of social networks, Friending, Following and +1ing may never replace. For Ms. Farnes has been collating and editing the millions of words written by the late, great comedy genius, into a series of books - Box 18: The Unpublished Spike Milligan, The Compulsive Spike Milligan, Memories of Milligan - and now, Milligan’s Meaning of Life, his “autobiography of sorts”.
Who else but Norma Farnes could have edited together this fabulous collection of loose threads, extracts, and letters, which make Milligan’s Meaning of Life, such a brilliant autobiography.
As Norma explains in her introduction:
‘A sort of autobiography’. Yes, Spike would have liked that. I can hear him saying, ‘Yes, well, I suppose I’ve had a sort of life.’
...His many followers will, no doubt, find gaps, but it wasn’t my intention to give a complete account - rather an impressionistic journey. I did my best, but as Spike used to say to me: ‘That’s what worries me.’
Farnes should have no fears, as she has compiled a marvelous book, cherry-picking from the best of Milligan’s various writings. Farnes has a terrific eye for the telling phrase and revealing sentence, which presents Milligan as a bruised, sensitive, mercurial, inspired and very funny man. A man who had long bouts of severe depression, suffered terrible nervous breakdowns, was riddled with shyness and insecurities, yet through it all produced some of the our best, funniest and most memorable comedy.
During his life, Milligan produced over eighty books, ranging from poetry (Silly Verse for Kids to Small Dreams of a Scorpion), prose (most notably Puckoon, one of the best comic novels written), and his 7 volumes of War memoirs, starting with the hilarious Adolf Hitler - My Part in His Downfall, plays (The Bed-Sitting Room and countless radio scripts form The Goons and his own classic comedy series Q. In very real terms, Milligan produced more work, and of a higher quality, than most novelists or writers ever achieve in a lifetime.
Born Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan, in India in 1917, Milligan was raised in a loving, wonderfully eccentric family, and his childhood “was like a Kipling story.”
Milligan’s grandfather was Sergeant Trumpeter Kettleband, who fought in the Boer War, and won the South African Medal, and long service medal. Contrary to his later image as pacifist and peace campaigner, Milligan was always proud of his army background, and told anyone who was interested that he came from a long line of military men.
His father, Leo Alphonse, had been given the name Percy Marmaduke, until at the baptism, the priest convinced his parents to choose instead the name of the current Pope. Being dutiful Catholics, they obliged.
His mother was a brilliant, strong-willed and intelligent woman, who Farnes once described to Milligan as, “If you had a vision of one woman that built the British Empire it would be your mother.”
Milligan followed the family tradition more by accident than choice, when he was conscripted into the army in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. Milligan spent 6 years in battle, fighting in Africa and then Italy, where he was invalided after being blown-up by a mortar.
Indeed, we won the war, but I lost five precious years. I was to mourn and still do, the physical break-up of my family;
He had a nervous collapse, and this sense of loss he acutely felt, was to shadow Milligan’s adult life through bouts of depression.
There are a number of things which go towards my depression. One of them is that I am completely ridden in nostalgia. I get sad when my children aren’t children any more. I get depressed I am old…And it haunts me, the past, it haunts me.
After the war, Milligan performed with a variety of musical groups, slowly finding his talents as a comic and writer. He soon realized he could easily become a comedy star.
I remember seeing Danny Kaye in The Kid From Brooklyn and thinking, I should be doing that…that was me up there. I realize now that while I was young, vigorous, good-looking and a natural clown I should have gone just for that, it was the right time for my type of clowning…
But a fear of unemployment, and a lack of self-belief, kept him in harness working for other’s musical acts. It was a meeting with a fellow performer who he’d first met during the war that was to change Spike’s fortune.
Harry Secombe was a Lance Bombadier in the Royal Artillery when Milligan first met him. Their paths crossed again after the war, when both were starting off as stage performers. Their reunion took place in a bar, the Grafton Arms, and soon Milligan and Secombe formed the nucleus, with Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine, of The Goons.
Jimmy Grafton who ran the bar, was also writing scripts for a mediocre BBC radio comic called Derek Roy. Milligan said he thought Roy’s scripts were trash, which led Grafton (rather magnanimously) to offer Milligan a job as co-writer. This was how Spike started his career as a writer. In the evenings, Milligan, Secombe, Benitine, and Sellers improvised shows at the bar:
Bentine starts the ball rolling, ‘Gentlemen, now you know why I’ve called you here?’
‘No, we don’t.’ we murmur.
‘Very well, we’ve been besieged in this fort for, does anybody know?’
‘Forty days,’ says one.
Any advance on fifty - ?
‘Right, we’ve been besieged forty, fifty and seventy days. Gentlemen, you will synchronize watches.’
They all adjust their watches, but never say a word, the phone supposedly rings, Secombe answers, ‘Hello, Fort Agra, hello? Just a minute.’ He holds his hand over the phone, ‘Does a Mrs Gladys Stokes live here?’ No, sorry Mrs Stokes doesn’t live here.
SELLERS: Someone has got to go out and get reinforcements.
ME: Yes, someone has to.
BENTINE: Yes someone has to.
SECOMBE: Yes gentlemen, someone has to go and get reinforcements.
SELLERS: Good, well that’s settled.
ME: Run up the Union Jack.
SELLERS: Right sir.
ME: Wait, that flag should be red, white and blue.
SELLERS: Yes, I thought I’d run up the white part first.
The improvs took place most nights and lasted for hours. Eventually, the BBC offered Milligan and co. a series. After the first two, Bentine left, and then, Secombe, Sellers and Milligan forged the team that created a new form of comedy and became world famous, as The Goons.
The Goon Show lasted ran from 1951 until 1960, and consisted of 238 prgrams, and 12 specials.
As John Cleese once remarked, Spike “Milligan “is the Great God of all” modern British comedy. Milligan liberated comedy away from the feed-line / punch-line of traditional stand-up, into a bizarre and wonderful world of imagination, where the humor grew organically from the situation and characters - Neddie Seagoon, Eccles, Bluebottle, Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Count Jim Moriarty, and Major Denis Bloodnok.
Without Milligan there would never have been Peter ‘n’ Dud, Firesign Theater, Monty Python, Alternative Comedy, Eddie Izzard and even shows like The Mighty Boosh.
At first, Secombe and Sellers received higher salaries than Milligan, as they were considered “stars”. But it was Milligan who did the most work, and carried the strain to make the series work. It led to his breakdown.
The best scripts I ever wrote were when I was ill. I’ve just recalled this - the ones that I wrote best were when I was ill - a mad desire to be better than anybody else at comedy, and if I couldn’t do it in the given time of eight hours a day I used to work twelve, thirteen and fourteen. I did, I was determined. There was a time I was positively manic. I was four feet above the ground at times, talking twice as fast as normal people…
...i was so ill when I wrote those scripts, particularly at the beginning, that now when I think back, that is what I remember. Of course I take pleasure in the fact I made people laugh and the scripts still do. But it was a terrible price for me. If I could choose now, which of course I cannot, I think I would choose to be free of the illness and not have written the Goons. It took that much out of me. It caused me that much pain - and pain for my wife and children too.
Of course, no one knew about Milligan’s torment, all they heard was the originality of the jokes and the characters created by a genius at work.
By 1961, Sellers was a Hollywood actor, Secombe was stage and TV star, and Milligan was beginning to venture out on his own. After his second breakdown, when he tried to murder Sellers with a potato knife, Milligan worked on his comic novel Puckoon, its success launched his long and acclaimed career as a writer.
During the sixties, Milligan had major successes on the stage with Son of Oblomov and The Bed-Sitting Room (made into a so-so film by Dick Lester). He then returned to TV with his legendary Q series, the the fore-runner to Monty Python. Then he launched the first of 7 war memoirs with Adolf Hitler - My Part in his Downfall. Milligan was unbelievably productive (and still managed to have affairs and children in and out of marriage). He also coped with his second wife’s terminal cancer, and managed to reach his eighties still writing and performing.
Milligan’s like will rarely be seen again, and we’re lucky to have been born within his time on this little olde planet. Thankfully, his autobiography of sorts, Milligan’s Meaning of Life is a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to this great and gifted genius, and is a perfect reminder as to why Spike Milligan is still such a cherished and deeply loved man.
Previously on Dangerous Minds