One of the last times I saw Spike Milligan was at an awards lunch at a London hotel late in 1998. It was one of those days when all the various sides of the man were on show; his eccentricity, his humour, his prickliness and his emotional vulnerability – all had their moment.
Spike arrived wearing his own specially designed version of an Edwardian frock coat and, though he was frail, he was far from sorry for himself. He looked round the room with a mixture of mischief and belligerence.
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To a radio producer who offered him a cheery greeting, Spike replied, equally cheerfully, “I’ve been looking for your name in the obituaries for the last five years!” When a woman squatted down by his chair to talk to him, Spike muttered, “You used to be much taller.”
Norma Farnes, Spike’s indomitable agent, had put him next to me at lunch. “Help me look after him,” she’d asked, ominously. Steak was served. “You’re barbarians,” muttered Spike – a vociferous vegetarian – as we tucked in. When the compere – Steve Punt, I think it was – opened the proceedings, everybody laughed politely except Spike, who frowned and peered at the stage. “Who’s he?” he asked loudly.
It was Spike at his most provocative, and when he was proclaimed winner of the Radio Comedy Award for The Last Goon Show of All, I feared what might follow. But as soon as it was announced, the assembled gathering rose to their feet as one and applauded Spike all the way to the stage.
It was applause of sustained intensity, as if everyone felt this might be their last chance to thank this truculent national treasure for everything he’d ever done, and everything he meant to them.
On and on it went. Spike took his award and, to a crescendo of cheers and applause, he very slowly made his way back to the table. Norma looked concerned. “Why didn’t you say anything?” Spike shook his head. “I was overcome,” was all he said, and when he sat down I could see tears in his eyes.
More than 40 years earlier, the thought of being in the same room as Spike Milligan, let alone being asked to look after him, would have been the stuff of my wildest dreams. I knew his name. I heard it every week. He was the man who wrote The Goon Show, the funniest show on the radio – a show that broke all the rules, with a cast of potty characters with strange voices and weird sound effects that caused my father to ask if the wireless was tuned properly.
The Goon Show made me aware that it was all right to laugh myself silly. At school, laughter was seen as something dangerously subversive, something that should not be encouraged. “What’s so funny, Palin?” I was often asked. I longed to say, “Well, sir, everything,” but of course I didn’t.
So to hear a radio programme, sanctioned by the BBC Home Service, which incited small boys to laugh at everything, was completely liberating. Not only did The Goon Show make me laugh, it made me want to make other people laugh, inventing my own silly voices and daft stories and outlandish characters.
What I know now, but what I didn’t realise at the time, was that listening to Spike Milligan and his friends was my comedy apprenticeship.
Some years later, Spike sent a letter of congratulation to me and my colleagues during the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a series that drew much of its inspiration from the man himself.
Spike’s Q5 series, tapes of which were sadly wiped, had been full of enviably subversive ideas. In one show, every time an actor came on, a subtitle flashed on the screen showing his take-home pay.
In another, all the costumes had a BBC label on. We poached Spike’s director, Ian MacNaughton, for Monty Python. And it was through Ian that I met my hero for the first time.
I realised straightaway that there was a lot going on in Spike’s head, not all of it good. Sometimes we could laugh together. At other times he would withdraw to a very dark place where his brilliant flashes of surreal humour were replaced by paranoia and despair.
I appreciated for the first time that The Goon Shows were a work of genius and a great deal of pain. Spike blamed the pressure of producing 26 of them a year for nine years for a series of mental breakdowns. But when the sun came out, Spike would be warm and affectionate and generous.
One of my most treasured possessions is a postcard from him in his characteristically long, loopy hand: “Ripping Yarns are Super – more please.”
So it means a lot to me to be presenting, with Spike’s daughter Jane, Spike Milligan: Inside Out, a two-part Radio 4 documentary in which we unearth recordings of Spike reflecting on his life and career.
I remember a meal Spike and a group of us had together in Monastir, Tunisia. Spike had been visiting some of the battlefields he’d fought on in the Second World War, and by sheer coincidence the Pythons were filming Life of Brian nearby.
Spike was on great form. He recounted his favourite Ripping Yarn. It was hilarious but I hardly recognised a word of it. It was Spike’s version. The dead parrot sketch was, he raved, the funniest thing he’d ever seen, even if in his retelling, the Norwegian Blue became the Arctic Grey.
In all sorts of ways, including his books, his poems, his children’s stories, his letters to Private Eye, Spike enriched my life. I did try telling him that, but it was never easy.
Spike Milligan: Inside Out is on Monday 11.30am Radio 4