Green room – An Irishman’s Diary on Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan in Dublin in 1982. Photograph: Eddie Kelly
As the centenaries come thick and fast, it is perhaps not too much of an imposition to suggest that one, in particular, should not be forgotten: that of the birth of Spike Milligan, who frequently celebrated his Irish ancestry, and even wrote an Irish comic novel, Puckoon.
He was born in April 1918 in India, where his father – a member of an Irish family that had emigrated to Britain in the 19th century – was a serving officer in the British Indian Army. Spike’s first school was the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Poona, in the Indian uplands. Leo Alphonsus Milligan enlivened his son Spike’s childhood with hundreds of stories about Ireland, some of them true, others fantastical. Spike himself, however, did not acquire an Irish passport until 1962, after his British passport had been withdrawn when the British Commonwealth Immigrants Act of that year removed his automatic right – and that of millions of others – to British citizenship.
When I interviewed him in London for The Irish Times in 1963, just after the publication of Puckoon, he recalled with pleasure and pride the acquisition of his Irish passport. “I rang up the Irish embassy”, he told me, “and asked them if I could become an Irish citizen and they said ‘God, yes.’ I signed one or two forms and it was all over. Got a free drink too. Feel much better know.”
We first of all had to clear up a misunderstanding: he had seen a green Rolls Royce parked near the restaurant where we met, and had assumed, from its colour, that it belonged to the journalist from The Irish Times. He was plainly disappointed to discover that its owner was, in fact, the Nigerian High Commissioner.
Puckoon, he told me, had taken him four years to write. Although he had never read At Swim-Two-Birds, Myles na gCopaleen’s famously zany novel, there are undoubted similarities: the early pages of Puckoon include a surreal philosophical dialogue between the author and the narrator about the aesthetic value of a pair of legs assigned by the former to the latter. And the unpredictability of its characters may also owe something to his admiration for Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, which he described to me as “a great play”.
The full text of Puckoon was never published. As originally written, it included a chapter, omitted from the original text, which his publisher’s solicitor said would land him in court, but in fact, as Spike explained to me, had been “put in to show how easy pornography is, and to send the while thing up”.
This was not his last battle with the assumed limitations of law or public taste. Later, he invoked his Irish ancestry and – blacked up – played a character called Kevin O’Grady, a half-Pakistani, half-Irish factory worker, in the 1969 TV comedy series Curry and Chips, written by Johnny Speight. Despite the fact that it had actually been written to expose and satirise racist attitudes in the Britain of that era, it evoked a storm of complaints for the profusion of of racist epithets it contained. It was unceremoniously axed after a very short run and one viewer objected vociferously to what in 1969, was still regarded as “bad language” (he complained about 59 uses of the word “bloody” in one episode).
Spike loved writing for children, and told me delightedly of how his daughter Laura – who contributed to a recent memorial BBC radio programme about him – had once written a school essay featuring the punishment of a witch who had been consigning to a horrible fate in which she “had an ant in her knickers and didn’t get any dinner”.
Although he attended Mass in his local Catholic church every Sunday, Spike had a poor opinion of most of the sermons he heard. “Why don’t they stop talking in generalities and name the jobs that have to be done?” he asked. And he added, more presciently than perhaps he or anyone else could have known: “When the bishop of Southwark, for instance, starts asking people to clean out the stables, why doesn’t he name the stables and the people who own them? And what about his own stables?”
Despite intermittent episodes of depression, he was an extraordinarily productive writer for television and the stage, not to mention his inimitable contributions to the Goon Show, and penned no fewer than seven volumes of memoirs.
Most appropriately, he penned his own epitaph, which appears on his headstone in the graveyard of the church of St Thomas in Winchelsea. After the church authorities had demurred at his own choice of inscription, which was “I told you I was ill”, he had it translated into Irish, which apparently evaded any possible censorship on grounds of taste, and still reads: “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite.”