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Monday, 24 June, 2002, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Saying goodbye to the last Goon
Peter O'Toole, second left, and his sister Patricia O'Toole Coombs, right and Stephen Fry
Peter OToole with his sister Patricia and Stephen Fry (middle right)

The formality of a thanksgiving service would have been anathema to the subversive and pomposity-puncturing Spike Milligan.

But it was immediately clear that Monday's event at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square was to be no wake.

On what for 2002 was an unusually beautiful day, friends, colleagues and admirers of the late comedian arrived to the pealing of the church bells in an atmosphere more reminiscent of a wedding.

Service for Spike Milligan
Old Army comrades of Milligan's were there
Several generations of comedians - from Milligan's contemporary Eric Sykes to Eddie Izzard - were present, along with a wide range of those whose lives had been touched by the comic, including former Labour leader Michael Foot, ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, Barry Humphries, Ned Sherrin, Barry Cryer and record producer Sir George Martin.

Talking to reporters outside the church, Paul Merton said: "The Goons were revolutionary and you can still see echoes of their work today."

Milligan was, added Merton, "a passionate man who spent a lot of his life dealing with mental illness".

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry lampooned his own reading at the service
Denis Norden said Milligan was "the only truly authentic British genius I've known in my life - with the possible exception of Peter Sellers".

And Joanna Lumley described him as "an extraordinarily sweet man".

"Of course you want to celebrate his life and be happy - but there's a tremendous poignancy because we loved him so much," she added.

The service included readings from the Bible and Shakespeare, Milligan poems, a jazz ballad and hymns.

Humour was never far away.

Spike Milligan
Joanna Lumley described Milligan as "an extraordinarily sweet man"
The well-known sceptic Stephen Fry, reading from St Mathew Chapter 11, prefaced his contribution with: "If you can make head or tail of it, you have my undying respect."

And after Barbara Dickson's rendition of Here's That Rainy Day - Milligan's favourite song - the audience broke the protocol of such events by applauding.

Eric Sykes's tribute was virtually a stand-up turn, while even the Reverend Nicholas Holtam raised a laugh by comparing the notoriously unstable Milligan with John the Baptist.

"The difference is that John the Baptist only lost his head once," he said.

St Martins-in-the-Fields
St Martins-in-the-Fields is in the heart of London
More seriously, he added: "Give thanks for his wisdom and madness, for making us see the preciousness of life and its absurdities."

As the 700-strong congregation spilled back out into the sun, tourists and Londoners gathered to watch this unusual cross-section of the entertainment world sharing anecdotes.

Peter O'Toole told a cluster of listeners what he called his "favourite Goon story".

"It's about Titus Andronicus, a heavy Shakespeare play, with Larry Olivier and his then wife Vivien Leigh.

Denis Norden
Denis Norden spoke of Milligan's "authentic genius"
"After Vivien Leigh had her tongue ripped out, she used to put under her wig a pair of earphones - so she could listen to the Goon show," remembered O'Toole.

Londoner Carol Kwai, looking on, said Milligan was "a nutcase, but a nice nutcase".

And Eddie Lee from Newcastle said that Milligan meant "the Goons - and a lot of good times".

It was a quintessentially English farewell to the Irishman, born in India, who changed the face of British comedy.

Fans pay respects

His comic art




Picture gallery
Spike's life in pictures

See also:

24 Jun 02 | Entertainment
08 Mar 02 | Entertainment
26 Oct 01 | Entertainment
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