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banner Saturday, 30 December, 2000, 00:49 GMT
Spike's comic genius hailed
Spike Milligan
By Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

Spike Milligan's description of himself as "a clown" does little justice to the full range of his talents.

Besides his hugely influential work as a comedian, he has distinguished himself as an actor, playwright, poet, musician and best-selling author.

A master of the surreal, his humour is anarchic, spontaneous and frequently unexpected, as witnessed by his anarchic Q series on television.

But Spike Milligan's life has been darkened by profound depression.

A youthful Spike Milligan in the Army
His war memoirs are best-sellers
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, he became an unskilled labourer at Woolwich Arsenal by day, playing jazz with local bands at night.

Wartime service

Following his call-up he served with a heavy regiment of the Royal Artillery in Tunisia and Italy.

By now renamed Spike, after the spike on the end of his double bass, he met fellow gunner Harry Secombe in Italy.

During the closing stages of the war; they worked together as comedians in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit.

Spike Milligan with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers
With fellow Goons Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers
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 played many of the parts, ranging from Minnie Bannister to Moriarty and, perhaps most memorable of all, Eccles.

The programme ran for six years before the members of the team went their separate ways.

Depression

Spike Milligan was shell-shocked during the war, and has since had a dozen nervous breakdowns, the first while under pressure to churn out the Goon Show scripts.

Spike has said that manic depression is like missing a skin, and he has often found the world over-crowded and too noisy.

Much of his eccentric irreverence as a comedian has been the expression of what he calls "protest against the human race".

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

A sad-looking Spike Milligan
His life has been darkened by depression
Besides the Q series, he has appeared on both the large and small screens in features such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Monty Python's Life of Brian and, more recently, the BBC production of Mervyn Peake's sweeping Gormenghast novels.

On stage, his successes have included his own surreal The Bed-Sitting Room.

His first novel, Puckoon, about the partitioning of an Irish village, is currently being filmed in Ireland, starring Richard Attenborough and Elliot Gould.

Acclaimed author

Among dozens of other works are his acclaimed war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall, Rommel: Gunner Who? and the later Where Have All the Bullets Gone?.

These books, which mix outrageous anecdotes with often moving passages reflecting the true nature of conflict on individuals, have struck a chord with people of all generations.

And his poetic abilities were recently recognised when the nonsense poem Ning Nang Nong was voted the nation's favourite comic poem in 1999.

Spike Milligan in Gormenghast
A recent appearence in Gormenghast
Today, the 82 year-old Spike Milligan lives with his third wife Shelagh in a house which he famously detests in Sussex.

He is a frail figure who, despite a recent triple heart bypass - "I couldn't afford any more" - still continues to write and passionately follow his beloved rugby union.

His influence on British comedy has been huge, taking music hall ideas and weaving into them his own intricate absurdities.

His lifelong fascination with language and the grotesqueries of everyday life has taken humour to another level, one which today, perhaps more than ever, rates a debt of gratitude from comic writers and performers alike.

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