November 11th, 2002

Spike Milligan

For a change, I thought I’d start off this month’s column with a few jokes of mine I’ve been working up. Ready? . . . “Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion!” “Anybody can be 52 but it takes a bus to be 52b!” “I’m a guerrilla!” “Did you say gorilla?” I know – rubbish, aren’t they? Sorry. However, I have a confession – they’re not mine at all. I stole them. They are the work, in fact, of the Founding Father of Modern Comedy, Spike Milligan, culled at random from throughout his career.

Spike Milligan is the century’s most over-rated comedian. Granted, it’s understandable why the nation guffawed at The Goons – in the lightheadedness that followed World War II, folks were prepared to laugh at anything, even Arthur Askey. With Milligan, however, there was supposedly a difference. His characters, from Private “hello dere” Eccles (“his economy drive consists of only wearing one sock”) to Major Bloodnok to Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (“subject of a police investigation on homosexuality”) and sagas of batter puddings, atomic dustbins and Mongolian bagpipes bequeathed England its cherished tradition of “zaniness”.

However, while lines such as “A glass of fish and chips, please” are unaccountably bizarre, that’s all they are. Critics used to marvel at how quickly Milligan used to write his Goons scripts – but given that they’re just random forays into the looking-glass world of nonsense, it’s hardly surprising. What’s more – and this is more evident when seeing Milligan on TV on the unlamented Q series – beneath the superficial layer of unfunny surrealism, his comedy is rooted in every stock device, old costume and archaic stereotype known to chuckledom. His “mad” universe is populated by pompous colonels, dimwits, scantily clad girls, batty professors, African chiefs. His methods are shamelessly crass – “silly” names, going cross-eyed, appearing from behind a desk with no trousers, false noses, pulling your hat down over your head.¬†Far from establishing the first principles of avant garde comedy, he embodies every basic pratfall any half-decent comedian should avoid.

What’s doubly annoying is that, like Robin Williams, his face is permanently etched in a self-congratulatory half-chortle at his own mirth. Ah, they say, but both Python and Peter Cook are indebted to Milligan. They are – but only for their crap bits. They were always funniest when there was a logic to their absurdism, a scathing point, as in the Parrot sketch or Beyond The Fringe. With Spike, there was never any point – that, “hilariously”, was the point! That Milligan suffers from depression is evidence to some of a dark, serious side underpinning his comedy. But Milligan’s political pronouncements mark him as a thin-skinned misanthropist (his aggressive animal rights stance animals and hatred of “noise pollution” are giveaways here). His comedy is an escape from, not an expression of, his morbid broodings. The bulk of anecdotal evidence suggests he was a rude and unpleasant individual. His ambiguous and certainly unreconstructed obsession with race took the (needless to say), haplessly laughless form of the sitcom Melting Pot, in which he wrote and starred as a blacked-up Pakistani. The series had to be pulled.

Milligan’s legacy is in every “You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!” sign, every pub bore talking in a Bluebottle-style voice, that tediously “bonkers!” strain of comedy that keeps the British stinted, makes icons of Chris Evans and Noel Edmonds. Milligan may be universally venerated but while Hancock, Bilko, old Ealing comedies are endlessly rerun, The Goons, the Q series, Down Among The Z Men never are.

There’s a reason for this. They’re funereally unfunny. Z-Men is particularly dire. Q became so bad that once again, the Beeb had to reject a series from Milligan so as not to embarrass the old man. A recent film version of Puckoon sank like a stone. To say that it was a waste of Sean Hughes’s talents indicates the whiskery, arthritic paucity of the source material. Programmers know the truth about Milligan but dare not speak it, for fear of being labelled heretics. Now that the miserable old sod is six feet under, however, the truth can finally be bellowed. NOT FUNNYYYYYY! ! ! ! ! !

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