Spike is a brand new drama that celebrates the life and work of the comedy genius. Written by Nick Newman and Ian Hyslop, it’s the story of young Spike Milligan, coming out of World War II and writing and performing with The Goon Show – an event that happened.
As the play heads to Blackpool’s Grand Theater later this month, the duo behind it answered a few questions
How did the play come about?
Nick Newman [NN]: We wanted to write something about Spike to coincide with the centenary of his birth – we didn’t quite hit that deadline, but we did make it on his 104th! From the beginning, we wanted it to be a celebration. There are many biopics of comedians that tell the ‘tears of a clown’ story. And while you can’t escape Spike’s mental health issues, for us it was something we saw powering his comedy.
Ian Hislop [IH]: We didn’t want the audience to come away thinking, ‘The only thing that really mattered about this person was that they were sad and unhappy. And now I am too!’. We want them to think, ‘The important thing about this guy is that he made it all!’ And that made a large number of people very happy. And still does. The play contains two very serious incidents involving Spike’s breakdown, both of which he promptly turns into comedy. That in itself is fascinating.
Did you want to celebrate Spike because you were a fan of the Goon show when you were younger?
NN: Maybe. I remember reading Spike’s war memoirs when I was in school and just crying with laughter. And The Goon Show, I grew up on that. My father was in the RAF and we were in a place like Singapore where there was no television. All we had to do was listen to acetate recordings of The Goon Show. I can still quote parts and bores for Britain.
IH: I’m a lot younger than Nick, so I haven’t heard them the first time. i missed The joy of making this play for me was that Nick says, ‘This is really funny. Really funny and brilliant writing.’ And I went back and heard it and was horrified. I was so used to old Spike and old Harry Seccombe and Peter Sellers that I forgot that when they first came in, they were vacated, they were really young, and they blew the place up. away
And the people in charge of the BBC couldn’t stand it. They had no idea what this group was doing, and they basically wanted to shut them down. They believed they were noisy and chaotic and no good. All of which was true: that’s what made them so attractive. So the challenge for me with the play was: Can we bring it all to life on stage?
And what does this play show: the battles between Milligan and the BBC?
NN: When we first started writing, we managed to get hold of a large collection of correspondence between Spike and the BBC and from BBC management about Spike. And that gave us the premise of the story. Because it was quite clear that Spike, who had been fighting Hitler and Mussolini for five years, went to the BBC and started fighting them. It was a continuation of the war by other means.
IH: Spike always hated the BBC. He was angry that they didn’t pay him enough and didn’t respect him and was trying to get rid of him. There was something about institutions that he found incredibly annoying – but also productive and comforting. They wouldn’t be what they were without them. Finally, the BBC gave him two brilliant producers, who turned the chaotic mess that was Goons into one of the greatest radio programs of all time. So they both enabled and discouraged him.
NN: Some of it was class warfare, I think, because Spike was working-class. As you can tell from his war memoirs, he had no time for the officer class. And of course, after the war, all these officers went straight to the BBC and ran it. So Spike was at odds with them on that basis.
As we tried to reflect in the play, BBC management always said: The Goon Show is too much about war, too noisy, too many explosions. And this Spike was unleashing his demons. One reviewer described Guns as “like shell-shock on the radio,” and that says it all. That was Spike’s experience: it was shell-shock. And he continued to reflect that in his work.
IH: It’s interesting, because we think of the 1950s as incredibly respectable and then luckily satire came along in 1961 and everything changed. But that’s not how it happened. The great satirists Richard Ingrams and Peter Cook were huge fans of Spike. And Michael Palin, who we worked with on our film The Viper’s Times, told us, ‘People say Monty Python was very influenced by The Goons. And yes: it was!’
NN: In the play, we show how ironic Spike was. Peter Sellers with the BBC disputed the impression of the Queen. The BBC took Spike in and said ‘You can’t parody the Queen!’ No one had done it before: a direct satire of the monarchy. The BBC thought everyone would be put in a tower. But then three years later, Prince Philip invited the hooligans to be his representatives in the Cambridge Tiddlywinks competition.
IH: Prince Philip clearly thinks Goons has done a very humorous portrayal of his wife. Which was dear to me.
Did doing it live in the theater help you get closer to the spirit of Gangster’s work?
IH: When you put something on a live stage, you can bridge the gap to the audience and have real fun with it.
Spike, Grand Theater Blackpool, Tuesday, November 15 to Saturday, November 19. Details from www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk