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Portrait of a Goon (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Portrait of a Goon (1959)
Portrait of a Goon, or A Day in the Life of Spike Milligan
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 6/12/1959
14 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
PhotographyJohn McGlashan
 A. Arthur Englander

With: Spike Milligan

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A typically zany day in the life of comedian Spike Milligan.

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The last Monitor item to be broadcast in Ken Russell's first year as a professional filmmaker was a brief portrait of what purported to be a day in the life of the comedian Spike Milligan (1918-2002), then at the height of his fame with BBC Radio's The Goon Show (1951-60) and various Peter Sellers collaborations on ITV.

In many ways, Russell's approach mirrors that of his first BBC film, A Poet in London (tx. 1/3/1959), in that it intersperses interviews with Milligan with sequences of him performing. Sometimes this consists merely of him reading one of his nonsense children's poems (four are read in full) or telling a surreal anecdote straight to camera, but at other times Russell's visual imagination is pressed into service with a full-scale set-piece.

The first of these sees him singing a comic song in front of a montage of death and destruction (Russell would adopt a similar approach in Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, tx. 26/3/1961, this time with serious intent), the second reconstructs a violent altercation between Milligan and the (unseen) members of the Royal College of Organists, who object to his harmonica playing, while the most elaborate sees him climbing the steps of the Albert Memorial in order to have a shave while playing an old Goon Show episode on an ancient cylinder-driven phonograph.

So far, so characteristically zany (and Russell may be the ideal director for material like this), but the two interviews catch Milligan in a more thoughtful mood as he sits in a canvas chair beside Hyde Park's Serpentine. In the first, he explores the nature of comedy and how it often derives from tragedy, and the comedian's gift is to catch the precise moment when it's appropriate to laugh. This analysis is almost identical to that proffered by Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (US, 1989) some thirty years later. In the second, Milligan admits that children are his favourite audience, and laments the fact that their parents, in seeking to curb their silliness, often end up sapping their sense of humour altogether.

This film was the first of what turned out to be many portraits of memorably eccentric figures that Russell would shoot for Monitor - others include the horn dancers in The Light Fantastic (tx. 18/12/1960), the collector-cum-artist Bruce Lacey in The Preservation Man (tx. 20/5/1962) and the single-minded painter A.W. Chesher in Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (tx.1/7/1962).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Tragedy into comedy (2:05)
2. Alfresco shaving (2:45)
3. On children (2:21)
Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)
Preservation Man, The (1962)
Englander, A. Arthur (1916-2004)
Milligan, Spike (1918-2002)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years