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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 10:57 GMT
Milligan's comic genius
Spike Milligan
Milligan wrote most of The Goon Show
Spike Milligan called himself a clown. He was the master of the surreal, whose humour was anarchic, spontaneous and frequently unexpected. But his life was darkened by profound depression.

He made his reputation in the 1950s in The Goon Show on radio. He originated the idea, wrote much of the zany fantasy in the programme, and played many of the parts.

Although his later career took in TV, films and novel writing, poetry, children's books, volumes of autobiography and even songs, he was irritated that he was still mainly associated with The Goon Show.

Milligan as soldier
Army experiences inspired several books

The son of an Army warrant officer, Terence Milligan was born in India in 1918 and received his early education at convent schools in India and Burma.

On his father's retirement the family returned to Britain, living in south east London. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Milligan became an unskilled labourer at Woolwich Arsenal. On Saturday nights he played the trumpet in a jazz group.

When he was called up he served with a heavy regiment of the Royal Artillery in Tunisia and Italy. It was in Italy that he met the late Harry Secombe, and during the closing stages of the war they worked together as comedians in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit.

Creator of The Goons

They kept in touch after the war and in 1951, with two other ex-servicemen, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine, they launched the radio series that soon became famous as The Goon Show.

Spike Milligan played many of the parts, ranging from Minnie Bannister to Moriarty and, perhaps most memorable of all, Eccles.

The programme continued for six years before the members of the team went their separate ways. In 1972 there was a special performance to mark the 50th anniversary of the BBC.

The Goons
The Goons: Milligan, Secombe and Sellers

Spike Milligan had been shell-shocked during the war, and was to suffer several nervous breakdowns, the first while under pressure to churn out the Goon Show scripts.

His first wife left him at that time, and they were later divorced. They had three children. Much of the time acute depression made him melancholy and anti-social.

He once said: "One thing in the world I wanted was a long-lasting friendship. Just like a wanted a long lasting marriage. Just like I wanted to live in one house all my life, the house I was born in.

"I am a nostalgia freak. I don't know what this yearning for anchorage in my life is."

Campaigner

He campaigned against cruelty to animals, damage to the environment, smoking, the use of muzak in public places and for compulsory contraception in developing countries.

He wrote and took part in many radio programmes besides The Goon Show and also made some notable contributions to television, including the various Q series, The World of Beachcomber and, more recently, Deadyawn in BBC TV's adaptation of the sweeping Gormenghast trilogy.

Spike Milligan co-wrote, and appeared in, Marty Feldman's Comedy Machine for ITV, which won the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1972.

Spike + cow
At times, he preferred the company of animals to that of humans

His fleeting film appearances included The Devils, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Monty Python's Life of Brian.

He also had stage successes, in the surreal Bed-Sitting Room, which he wrote in collaboration with John Antrobus in 1969 and Son of Oblomov, where he gave a Goonish twist to what was supposed to be a straight part.

He was a popular Ben Gunn in Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre in the early 1970s and was the writer of Ubu Roi in 1980. There were also various one-man shows.

Popular author

Spike Milligan had dozens of books published, ranging from verse to works for children and novels. His first, Puckoon, published in 1963, about the partitioning of an Irish village, became a best-seller and spawned a film. When he wrote it, he had never been to Ireland.

His next novel, The Looney, did not come out until 1987, but many of his earlier books were very successful, including several based on his wartime experiences, Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall, Rommel: Gunner Who? and the later Where Have All the Bullets Gone?

These war memoirs, mixing outrageous anecdotes with often moving passages reflecting the nature of conflict on individuals, struck a chord with people of all generations.

Spike looking glum
Depression cast a shadow over his life

Always in the background, though, there was illness. In October 1990 he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital suffering from depression after the death of his mother. It was only one of many such episodes which recurred throughout his life.

Two years later he was sent a letter informing him that he was to be made an honorary CBE, and thought he had been the victim of a practical joke when, having written back to accept, his name was left off the published list of Queen's Birthday Honours.

After such a typically Milliganish mix-up he did eventually receive his CBE and, at New Year 2000, an honorary knighthood though, owing to his refusal to swear allegiance to The Queen, he was not a British citizen.

Rugby lover

Spike Milligan loved rugby union, too, and especially watching Ireland and his beloved Rye. Spike Milligan's second wife died in 1978: they had a daughter. He married again in 1983.

Spike Milligan was a towering influence on British comedy, taking music hall ideas and weaving into them his own hilarious absurdities.

His fascination with language and the grotesqueries of everyday life took humour to another level, one which, even today, rates a debt of gratitude from writers and performers alike.



Fans pay respects

His comic art

AUDIO/VIDEO

LOCAL MEMORIES

TALKING POINT

Picture gallery
Spike's life in pictures

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