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Milligan, Spike (1918-2002)

Writer, Actor, Comedian, Musician

Main image of Milligan, Spike (1918-2002)

The well-known typing error Spike Milligna (born Terence Alan Milligan in Ahmaddnagar, India on 16 April 1918) undoubtedly possessed the most original and creative mind among those who emerged onto the British comic scene following the Second World War. John Cleese was to refer to him as "the great god of us all", for Milligan's anarchic and surreal humour played a vital role in transforming and reinvigorating British comedy in the postwar era, exerting a profound influence on his contemporaries and on a generation of comedians to come.

He began his performing career as a musician before and during the war (he learnt to play the guitar, trumpet, piano and drums as a teenager), and between bouts of active service in North Africa and Italy he played with a variety of bands. Following his discharge in 1946, he continued to play (on guitar) with one of those bands, The Bill Hall Trio, and it was with them that he made his television debut on the 25th January 1947 in Variety (BBC).

The trio split soon after, and Milligan, with his burgeoning comic aspirations, went solo as a stand-up comedian. Encountering little progression in this field, he was presented with the opportunity of collaborating on the script of a new BBC radio series, Hip Hip Hoo Roy (1949) starring Derek Roy. In the event, not only did he co-write it, but he also became a cast member, receiving third billing.

He subsequently wrote for a number of 1950s radio shows, but it is one in particular for which he will always be remembered - The Goon Show (1951-60). Co-starring Milligan with Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and, up to July 1952, Michael Bentine, The Goon Show was a revelation in a grey postwar austerity Britain, its surreal humour patently fresh and original.

In the wake of its radio success, an attempt at adapting The Goon Show's humour for television soon followed, in the form of Goonreel (BBC, tx. 2/7/1952), a spoof version of the BBC's newsreel service which included all the original four Goons - the only television programme to do so.

Three ITV series can also be viewed as Goon-related, although only Sellers (as star) and Milligan (as writer and occasional performer) were involved: The Idiot Weekly Price 2d (ITV, 1956), A Show Called Fred (ITV, 1956), and Son of Fred (ITV, 1956). They were well enough received to win Milligan a Society of Film and Television Arts award for writing in 1957.

Television work was relatively scarce for Milligan in the 1960s (he had acquired a reputation for being difficult), although he appeared in the comedy special Spike Milligan (BBC, tx. 5/9/1961), the sketch series Milligan's Wake (BBC, 1964-65), and, 'blacked-up', as the Asian/Irish Kevin O'Grady (aka 'Paki Paddy'), in the controversial Curry and Chips (ITV, 1969), written by Johnny Speight.

He finally found a winning formula for his humour with Q5 (BBC, 1969). With its surreal sketches - invariably featuring characters adorned with luggage tickets attached to their clothing and/or wearing large false noses - and cast members, especially Milligan, frequently collapsing in laughter, it often gave the appearance of unrehearsed anarchy. It bemused many, but enough were amused for the BBC to produce five more series, although only beginning after a six-year gap: Q6 (1975), Q7 (1978), Q8 (1979), Q9 (1980) and There's a Lot of it About (1982), Q10 in all but name.

His talents were by now increasingly focused on literature, encompassing verse, novels (including his justly lauded seven-volume wartime memoirs), children's stories and even a guide on coping with depression, from which he had suffered for many years. This interest in the literary world manifested itself on television with the poetry series Muses with Milligan (BBC, 1964-65).

It was not long after his final Q series in 1982 (the last television series he would make), that he declared himself to be "the leper of the light entertainment industry", claiming that the industry was no longer interested in his brand of humour. Although he made occasional guest appearances on other's shows, and became the subject of numerous tributes in later life, he was to appear in only two more specials of his own: The Last Laugh Before TV-AM (C4, tx. 2/12/1985) and An Evening with Spike Milligan (ITV, tx. 24/2/1996).

He received an honorary CBE in 1992 and an honorary knighthood in 2001. He died from kidney failure on 27 February 2002.

John Oliver

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Let's Go Crazy (1951)Let's Go Crazy (1951)

Nightclub-set revue vehicle for Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Controversial but hilarious comedy about a reluctant messiah

Thumbnail image of Penny Points to Paradise (1951)Penny Points to Paradise (1951)

Pre-Goons comedy with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe

Thumbnail image of Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, The (1960)Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, The (1960)

Surreal, dreamlike comedy from Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Curry and Chips (1969)Curry and Chips (1969)

Notorious sitcom starring Spike Milligan as an Irish/Pakistani worker

Thumbnail image of Now and Then: Spike Milligan (1967)Now and Then: Spike Milligan (1967)

Bernard Braden interviews the comedian and Goon Show founder

Thumbnail image of Portrait of a Goon (1959)Portrait of a Goon (1959)

A typically zany day in the life of Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Q5, Q6 etc. / There's a Lot of It About (1969-82)Q5, Q6 etc. / There's a Lot of It About (1969-82)

Surreal, unhinged sketch comedy from ex-Goon Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)

Groundbreaking post-Goons outing for Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Sykes and a... (1960-65)Sykes and a... (1960-65)

First sitcom pairing of Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)


Thumbnail image of Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)