Spike Milligan, recipient of awards for contribution to British comedy, but an Irish writer

Taking a look at the life of Spike Milligan on what would have been his 101st birthday

In 1994 his contributions to British humour were acknowledged when he received a lifetime achievement award for comedy during a ceremony at the London studios. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

In 1994 his contributions to British humour were acknowledged when he received a lifetime achievement award for comedy during a ceremony at the London studios. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

 

“What would you rather have, a boring truth or an exciting lie?” – Leo Alphonso Milligan.

The above quote, attributed to his father by Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan appears to have been a question the son repeatedly returned to throughout his life. He labelled his Irish father a “fantasist”, a man who constructed an extraordinary alternative reality where he spent his time wrestling tigers, shooting elephants and strangling cobras. The apple certainly didn’t fall far from the tree.

Yet before he set about constructing his own unique fictional worlds for the benefit of the British public young Milligan experienced life as a child of the colonial elite in India and Burma, worked as a jazz trumpeter in post-depression London and fought with the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. Each experience would later provide him with fuel for countless anecdotes for chat show appearances and comedic sketches.

Background

Born in Ahmednagar in the state of Maharashtra, India in 1918, following his father’s retirement form the military in 1931 the family moved to England. Depression-era London came as a profound culture shock to the 12-year-old, accustomed as he was to the privileged way of life he had enjoyed in the Indian subcontinent.

He performed as a jazz trumpeter and a vocalist in clubs around London in the late 1930s

Finding himself of reduced means he reportedly saved up the money to purchase his first trumpet by selling tobacco he pilfered from the cigarette factory he worked in as a teenager. He was a natural musician and soon had also mastered the guitar, drums and the piano. He performed as a jazz trumpeter and a vocalist in clubs around London in the late 1930s before he was drafted in the British Army following the outbreak of the second World War.

War

Spike Milligan: ““I had a great surge of being Celtic. I would like to be known as an Irish writer. Of course I already was.”
Spike Milligan: ““I had a great surge of being Celtic. I would like to be known as an Irish writer. Of course I already was.”

He would take part in the Allied operations in North Africa and Italy, but also spent a good deal of his time amusing his fellow soldiers. His desire to entertain and distain for authority figures, protocol and bureaucracy were characteristics that were amplified during his time in the armed forces. He often used episodes from this period of his life, either real or invented, to highlight the ludicrous nature of blind obedience to one’s superiors, like when a commander attempted to chastise him with the immortal line: “Silence when you speak to an officer!”

Touring

Once back in England with the war behind him he began touring with the Bill Hall Trio before teaming up with Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine to create the legendary “Goon Show” for BBC Radio in 1951. It was here that he pioneered the use of abstract sound effects on radio, something that had never been tried before. Their surrealist comedy show was a phenomenal success and Milligan ended up writing 26 half hour shows a year for over 8 years, a substantial project which took a great toll on his mental wellbeing and marital relations but made him and his co-stars national celebrities.

Milligan ended up writing 26 half hour shows a year for over 8 years, a substantial project which took a great toll on his mental wellbeing and marital relations but made him and his co-stars national celebrities
Milligan ended up writing 26 half hour shows a year for over 8 years, a substantial project which took a great toll on his mental wellbeing and marital relations but made him and his co-stars national celebrities

Irish Citizenship

After the run ended he spent the next decade struggling to find work. With the introduction of the British Commonwealth Immigration Act he also found himself stateless, so in 1962 he applied for Irish citizenship “I had a great surge of being Celtic. I would like to be known as an Irish writer. Of course I already was.”

His later years would see him move from radio to television, though his efforts weren’t always well received.

In 1994 his contributions to British humour were acknowledged when he received a lifetime achievement award for comedy during a ceremony at the London studios in which he infamously referred to the Prince of Wales as a “little grovelling ba***rd”.

Throughout his life he had also suffered from bipolar disorder which made his behaviour unpredictable and erratic and he was prone to frequent bouts of depression. For him his writing served as a salve for his troubled mind, allowing him to escape the responsibilities and duties he had to contend with in the “real” world; to avoid the boring truth in favour of the exciting lie.

Spike Milligan: “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (I told you I was ill)
Spike Milligan: “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (I told you I was ill)

Were he still alive today April 16th would see him celebrate his 101st birthday. An Irishman by right of birth and inclination, his distinct comedic style has ironically helped to shape the purview of British comedy ever since. Yet his final joke was an Irish one, and is inscribed on his headstone “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (I told you I was ill).

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.