Though it was broadcast on BBC4 last Wednesday, it was only last night that I caught up with Spike Milligan: Love, Light and Peace, a beautiful ninety minute documentary about the late comedian and ex-Goon, which made much use of private photos, tapes and films made or collected by Milligan about his family and himself. With the aid of these, the programme took a look at Milligan’s life that was as open and honest about his failings as Milligan had always been himself.
And it’s still available on the BBC iPlayer, until 8 January 2015: watch it, please.
Terrance Alan Milligan, of Irish stock, born in India in 1918, known for almost all his adult like, professionally and personally as Spike, comedian, ex-Goon, pivotal figure and perhaps the most important person in twentieth century comedy.
Already, the word is there, the one word that could never not be appended to any mention of Milligan, no matter how much he may have wanted to escape from it: Goon. Ex-Goon, one of four very privileged men to have held that title, alongside Michael Bentine (briefly), Harry Secombe and Peter Sellars. Spike Milligan, write and performer in The Goon Show, perhaps the most popular comedy of the Fifties, and certainly the most influential of the century. Almost all of what we have experienced in comedy since the start of the Sixties derives, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, from the Goons and from Spike. Monty Python may be better known, better remembered, because their comedy was delivered on television and in film, visual media to which we respond, and not in radio, a fading medium. But without the Goons, and Milligan, there would have been no Monty Python, or not for probably another twenty years at least.
But Love, Light and Peace, the title taken from Milligan’s sign off to all his correspondence, gave no undue time to the Goons, and was all the better for it. This was a programme about Spike the man, about his whole life, and whilst it was measured out largely about the things he was involved in throughout his career, it was equally concerned with the measure of the man. It took in the wildly successful stage plays in the Sixties, The Bed-Sitting Room and Son of Oblomov, massive anarchic attractions, and the later BBC2 Q series’ (Q5, Q6, Q7 etc), the first of which that alarmed the nascent Pythons by preceding everything they were planning to do.
There wasn’t room for everything: I was particularly sad not to see any mention of the late Sixties The World of Beachcomber series, adapted by Milligan from J. B. Morton’s long-running Daily Express column, which I found hysterically funny, and no reference to his books, barring a passing mention of his memoirs. But there couldn’t have been a complete accounting of everything Milligan did and still have room to speak about Spike the Man, Spike the husband and father.
The programme included extensive contributions on screen from three of his children, daughters Laurel, Sile and Jane (son Sean was not involved, except in childhood films), who spoke with loving honesty about him as a father, most notably in the case of Laurel, who praised Milligan for never ever saying a word against her mother (first wife June) after their divorce, taking onto himself the whole of the blame for the breakdown, even though elsewhere in the programme he speaks of his belief that June had been unfaithful to him.
The only area to which the documentary could not do justice was, properly, Milligan’s life-long issues with depression. Nowadays, we call it bipolar disorder, but Spike and his contemporaries knew it and spoke of it as manic depression. Traditionally, it’s associated with his experiences in the War, brought on by shell-shock in Italy in 1944, when he was bombed, but the children believed that it had been in him from his birth, and one of the few new pieces of information that I learned was that, two years before his death. and after decades of Milligan’s issues, his father Leo confessed that he too had suffered throughout his life with depression.
But Love, Light and Peace could only talk about that side of Spike, through Milligan’s relentless honesty, and the voices of his children and his close friends and collaborators: it could not show it, could not show the other side of Spike, because it didn’t exist, on film, on tape. The closest was a short film, made by Milligan himself to highlight his own treatment in a mental hospital at the hands of a cruel, arrogant, ignorant nurse, berating him for being self-indulgent when other people ‘have it worse’. The excerpt was brief and violent, but nothing more was needed.
Of course, the documentary was stuffed with clips of Milligan at work, including extremely rare footage of ITV’s mid-Fifties attempts to put the Goon humour onscreen, and an excerpt from the Australian adaptation, in which Milligan also appeared, The Idiot Weekly. It didn’t matter where they came from, every single clip had me laughing out loud, even as the programme’s more personal elements had tears welling.
I think that Spike Milligan was a genius, that he did more to influence what comedy could be than any other single person in my lifetime. Not everything he did was brilliant, especially towards the end of his life but for The Goon Show alone he deserves every accolade there ever could possibly be. Almost all of his brilliance came from his manic depression and thereby lies the rub. If that was, as has been suggested so many times, due to his war experiences, then that led to the extremely difficult question: how much of Milligan’s life were we prepared to sactrifice? If it were possible to go back in time to that exact moment, to pull him away from the bomb that shredded his nerves, preserve him from anything else that might have been a trigger, is it true to say that we would have lost the comic genius entirely, with all that entails? But would we then have had a happier Spike Milligan, released from the depressive episodes that made his life? If that were demonstrable, what choice would we, as his devoted audience, make?
That was a dilemma the documentary did not raise, let alone try to grapple with, but it was a personal reaction, and one that i have had many times before. I think – I hope – that of given the chance to play God like that, I would have chosen the happy man over the genius.