|Birth name||Terence Alan Milligan|
|Born||16 April 1918 |
|Died||27 February 2002, age 83 |
Rye, East Sussex, England
Terence Alan Milligan, KBE, CBE (16 April 1918–27 February 2002), known as Spike Milligan, was an Irish writer, artist, musician, humanitarian and comedian. He also played the piano, trumpet, and saxophone and was the creator, principal writer and performing member of The Goon Show.
Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918, to an Irish-born father who was serving in the British Army.
Though he lived most of his life in England and served in the British Army, he was refused a British passport in 1960, having been born outside Britain to an Irish father, Leo Milligan, who was born and raised in the working class area of Holborn Street, Sligo in Ireland. Milligan took Irish citizenship instead and never forgave the British Government.
During World War II he served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery, as Gunner Milligan, 954024 with the First Army in North Africa and then in Sicily and Italy. He rose to the rank of Lance-Bombardier and was about to be promoted to Bombardier when he was wounded in action in Italy and hospitalized for shell shock; an unsympathetic commanding officer demoted Milligan back to Gunner prior to his first breakdown.
During most the late 1930s and early 1940s he performed as an amateur jazz vocalist and trumpeter, both before and after being called up for military service, but even then he wrote and performed comedy sketches as part of concerts to entertain troops.
After his hospitalization he drifted through a number of rear-echelon military jobs in Italy, eventually becoming a full-time entertainer and ending up playing guitar with a jazz/comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio in concert parties for the troops; after being demobbed he remained in Italy playing with the Trio but returned to England soon after. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group, in his own words, "of bomb-happy squaddies") he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays, that displayed many of the key elements of what would become The Goon Show with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine.
Milligan returned to England in the late 1940s and made a precarious living with the Hall trio and other similar acts mixing music and comedy, while attempting to break into the world of radio, both performing and scriptwriting. His first successes in this area were with material for the Derek Roy show, but he and some of his friends soon became involved with a much more unorthodox project - Crazy People, which rapidly mutated into The Goon Show.
Milligan's memoirs cover the years from 1939 to 1950 (essentially his call-up, war service, first breakdown, time spent entertaining in Italy, and return to the UK) in seven volumes.
He was the primary author of The Goon Show scripts (though many were written jointly with Larry Stephens, Eric Sykes and others) as well as a star performer, and is considered the father of modern British comedy, having inspired countless writers and performers, including Monty Python's Flying Circus, with his work on The Goon Show and his own Q series. Writing a show a week affected his health greatly and caused him to have a series of nervous breakdowns. On one occasion, Peter Sellers had to lock his door against a potato-peeler-wielding Milligan; on another, Sellers and Harry Secombe broke into Milligan's dressing room, fearing he was suicidal. Eventually lithium was found to be the most effective treatment.
He also had a number of acting parts in theatre, film and television series; one of his last screen appearances was in the BBC dramatisation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and he was (almost inevitably) noted as an ad-libber. One of Milligan's most famous ad-lib incidents occurred during a visit to Australia in the late 1960s. He was interviewed live-to-air and remained in the studio for the news broadcast that followed (read by Rod McNeil) during which Milligan constantly interjected, adding his own name to news items. As a result, he was banned from making any further live appearances on the ABC. The ABC also changed its national policy so that talent had to leave the studio after interviews were complete. A tape of the bulletin survives and has been included in an ABC Radio audio compilation, also on the BBC tribute CD, Vivat Milligna.
Milligan also wrote nonsense verse for children, the best of which is comparable with that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the most famous probably being "On the Ning Nang Nong". This nonsense, set to music, became a favourite Australia-wide, performed week after week by the ABC children's programme Playschool. Milligan included it on his album No One's Gonna Change Our World in 1969 to aid the World Wildlife Fund.
While depressed Milligan wrote serious poetry. He also wrote a very successful series of war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971) and Rommel: Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert (1974). He wrote comedy songs, including "Purple Aeroplane", which was a parody of The Beatles' song, "Yellow Submarine". Glimpses of his bouts with depression which led to the nervous breakdowns, can be found in his serious poetry, which is compiled in Open Heart University.
After their retirement, Milligan's parents and his younger brother Desmond moved to Australia. His mother lived the rest of her life in the coastal village of Woy Woy on the New South Wales Central Coast, just north of Sydney; as a result, Milligan became a regular visitor to Australia and made a number of radio and TV programmes there.
From the 1960s onwards Milligan was a regular correspondent with Robert Graves. Milligan's letters to Graves usually addressed a question to do with classical studies. The letters form part of Graves' bequest to St. John's College, Oxford.
He suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten mental breakdowns.
The Prince of Wales was a noted fan, and Milligan caused a stir by calling him a "grovelling little bastard" on television in 1994 . He later faxed the prince, saying "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?" He was finally made a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) in 2000. He had been made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992.
He was a strident campaigner on environmental matters, particularly arguing against unnecessary noise, such as the use of Muzak.
In 1971, Milligan caused controversy by attacking an art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery with a hammer . The exhibit consisted of catfish, oysters and shrimp that were to be electrocuted as part of the exhibition.
In 1996, he successfully campaigned for the restoration of London's Elfin Oak.
He was also a public opponent of domestic violence, dedicating one of his books to Erin Pizzey.
Milligan had three children with his first wife June Marlow: Laura, Seán and Síle. He had one daughter with his second wife Patricia Milligan: the actress Jane Milligan. He had no children with his third (and last) wife Shelagh Sinclair. The four children have recently collaborated with documentary makers on a new multi-platform program called I Told You I Was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan (2005) and web site, (see ).
Even late in life, Milligan's black humour had not deserted him. After the death of friend Harry Secombe from cancer, he said, "I'm glad he died before me, because I didn't want him to sing at my funeral". A recording of Secombe singing was played at Milligan's memorial service. He also wrote his own obituary, in which he stated repeatedly that he "wrote the Goon show and died". In a BBC poll in August 1999, Spike Milligan was voted the "funniest person of the last 1000 years".
He died from liver disease, at the age of 83, on 27 February 2002, at his home in Rye, East Sussex.
The film of Puckoon, starring his daughter, the actress Jane Milligan, was released after his death.
Milligan lived for several years in Holden Road, Woodside Park and at The Crescent, Barnet, and was a strong supporter of the Finchley Society. His old house in Woodside Park is now demolished, but there is a blue plaque in his memory on the new house on the site. The Finchley Society is trying to get a statue of him erected in Finchley. There is also a campaign to erect a statue in the London Borough of Lewisham, where he grew up (see Honor Oak) after coming to the UK from India in the 1930s.
In accordance with his last wishes, his headstone bears the words "I told you I was ill." As his local church refused to allow these words on a headstone in its cemetery, a compromise was reached with the Irish language translation, "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite."
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted amongst the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
On 9 June 2006 it was reported that Professor Richard Wiseman had identified Milligan as the writer of the world's funniest joke as decided by the Laughlab project. Professor Wiseman said the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag - anxiety, a feeling of superiority, and an element of surprise. .
Milligan contributed his recollections of his childhood in India for the acclaimed 1970s BBC audio history series Plain Tales From The Raj. The series was published in book form in 1975 by Andre Deutsch, edited by Charles Allen.