'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says “Farewell” to Spike Milligan, comedian and clown of the surreal who died of kidney failure at the age of 83 on February 27th 2002. The son of an army Warrant Officer Spike was born Terrance Alan Milligan in Poona, India on April 16th 1918. Receiving his early years of education both in India and Burma, the family returned to the UK on his father’s retirement, setting up home in the south east of England.


The outbreak of war in 1939 would see Spike working in a munitions factory at the Woolwich Arsenal. Soon, like virtually all men of his generation, he found himself being called into the armed forces. Serving in the Royal Artillery in Tunisia and Italy, being shell shocked in North Africa, which many believe led to his destabilising personality in later years. During the closing stages of the war he met the late Harry Secombe and they worked together as a comedy duo in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit.


The war years finally over and Spike was back on Civvy Street in 1946. Determined to make a career in show business but with little idea how to channel either his ideas or talent, the remainder of the decade remained fruitless for him. Spike renewed his friendship with Harry Secombe during the early days of the 1950s, while Harry was a struggling comic at London’s Windmill Theatre.


The pair started to hang out at Westminster’s bohemian watering hole The Grafton, owned by scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton who was doing quite well, joke writing for radio comedian Derek Roy. The Grafton pub was a magnet for eccentrics and, like a jigsaw, the pieces fell into the right places, as Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine hung out with Milligan and Secombe.


The seeds of the Goon Show were sown in a back room of this West London pub. Peter Sellers, who even in those early years had the best contacts, presented a selection of Goon Show scripts to a totally disinterested BBC. Despite their reservations Milligan, Secombe, Sellers and Bentine were given a trial run, using the working title “Crazy People”. Beginning in May 1951 it was swiftly renamed to “The Goon Show”, losing Michael Bentine, whose surreal comedy style clashed with Milligan’s. The show ran for 26 weeks of each year for nine years featuring, for much of its run, the Caribbean born band leader Ray Ellington, whose eclectic tastes introduced Louis Jordan tunes and other black American R&B to a mainstream British audience.


The pressure on Milligan was immense as many of the Goon Show scripts were his own creation and, by 1960, they called it a day. Personal demons haunted Milligan and a number of nervous breakdowns along with a failed marriage and a reputation for being extremely difficult meant he almost had to beg for work during those early years of the 1960s.


It would be 1963 before success returned, playing the part of Ben Gunn in Treasure Island at the City of London Mermaid Theatre. During the same period, in collaboration with John Antrobus, he wrote the bleak comedy “The Bed Sitting Room”. Set in the aftermath of the third world war it ran for a number of years at various theatres, both in London and the provinces until finally being made into a film in 1970. The same period also saw him on television with his extremely off the wall shows “World Of A Beachcomber” and “Q5”.


In the decade of the seventies he turned his attention to the cinema, appearing in a number of films including “The Magic Christian” in 1971, “The Devils” of the same year, “The Three Musketeers” in 1973, “The Last Remake Of Beau Geste” in 1977 and Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” in 1978.


Spike also wrote a number of books based on his wartime exploits naturally, all laced with his goonish humour such as “Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall”, “Rommel. Gunner Who?” and “Where Have All The Bullets Gone?”

Milligan was of course a great jazz fan, even playing trumpet in various combos during his lean, immediate post war years.


A few years ago in the company of 'Tales From The Woods' subscriber Mike Bunning, we were in Ronnie Scott’s Soho jazz club to see the one time orchestra of the late Count Basie. I spotted Spike in the audience and, after the first set, Spike slow and doddery on his feet, made his way to the gents. Not wishing to miss the opportunity to shake the great clown’s hand, after a moment or two I followed. (Keith, I worry about you, I really do – H). Once inside I found him surrounded by a group of admirers. With Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine long gone and more recently Harry Secombe, Spike’s passing marks the end of a golden era.


Keith Woods