This evening I watched John Sergeant’s programme on Spike Milligan. This was an emotional experience which included the collision between my own recollections of Spike’s work, and my own childhood; my rationalisation of his biography, mainly to do with World War Two, and other influences, including, for example, a series of tweets from David Quantick which were rather mean-spirited and all along the lines of “this would have been better if they had asked me to present it”. There was also the consideration of Spike’s legacy to the children of today.
There was something strangely reassuring about the programme. John Sergeant spoke to Eddie Izzard and Michael Palin and came to the conclusion that Spike Milligan is the grandfather of contemporary British comedy. For a man who changed everything in his field, it seemed strange to produce another documentary which was the equivalent of a security blanket.
I remember the moment I decided to burn a CD for Jared (then 8 years old, now 11) which included I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas, Ying Tong Song, and The Q5 Piano Tune. It also included Right, Said Fred (that’s a track by Bernard Cribbins, not a band from the early 90s) and selected others. It was because he had just been given an MP3 player and all he seemed to have on it was ‘Girls Aloud’. I have nothing against ‘Girls Aloud’ except that it is as certain as anything can be that nobody will be listening to them in twenty years time. I thought back to the time when I first heard Ying Tong Song on 7-inch vinyl. My friend Lucien (three years my senior) and I used to listen to it. We laughed so much that we hyperventilated and nearly made ourselves sick. The part we fixated on the most was the whistle of the bomb descending, the detonation of which interrupted “Ying Tong -”. What I learnt from that, at the age of 7, was that life is mostly marginal, provisional, and contingent on chance outcomes.
My father served in the RAF during World War Two and World War Two is the metaphor by which I live my life. I have 1938 days (when opportunities to avert disaster are wantonly missed), 1939 days (when wearied resignation sets in), 1940 days (when one has to stand up, alone, against seemingly impossible odds), 1941 days (when the tide seems to turn but it does no immediate good – in fact it makes the current situation worse), 1942 days (when the fate of the whole world balances on the edge of a knife), 1943 days (when great issues are decided but the outcome is still uncertain), 1944 days (when the tide turns but at great human cost and victory still seems remote), and 1945 days (when the problem at hand is solved, only to be replaced by one which is in some ways worse and is certainly more complicated.)
My impression of Spike Milligan is that he was brought up by parents who were eccentric to the point of madness (weren’t we all?) and he could not cope with reality. Onto a psyche which was bi-polar and depressive was dumped a chain of experiences which included the threat of death. The introduction to one of the volumes of Spike’s war memoirs contains the words, “and they [meaning the dead] would have been the first to join in the laughter and that laughter was, I am sure, the key to victory.” That was disingenuous. It shows one of Spike’s great failings as a writer of things other than sketches, which is to get the show/tell balance completely wrong (i.e. too much in favour of telling).
What Spike went on to produce was not “laughter as the key to victory”. That would have made him sound like a sub-department of the War Office. What he went on to produce was a set of techniques for taking the piss out of absolutely everything. He virtually dictated that everything would have the piss taken out of it, forever. The institution on which he left the deepest mark is the BBC. No other organisation on earth spends as much time and money on its own ridicule.
Spike is undoubtedly a genius. He is, like so many other geniuses, noticeably overrated. Rudyard Kipling was a poor novelist, but a great poet and short story writer. Similarly, Spike is a brilliant sketch-writer and possibly the greatest musical comic the modern world has heard, but much of the rest of his output is poor.
I leave you with my favourite fragment from one of his sketches.
A white Mercedes with tinted windows drives along a street in a London suburb. It screeches to a halt. Some men in Bedouin headdresses and dark glasses get out. They open the boot, inside which is a dustbin. The men look furtively around, pick up the dustbin, and unceremoniously dump the contents on the pavement. They chuck the dustbin aside, close the boot, get back inside the car, and drive off with all speed.
Spike Milligan, dressed as a tramp, a person who obviously makes no contribution to the Exchequer, looks aghast out of the window of a derelict building.
“Don’t put your crap there! That’s where we put OUR crap!”
The BNP manifesto in 11 words. Genius.