Britain's Master of Comic Anarchy
Spike Milligan remains uproarious - and a national institution
EDINBURGH — IT is one of life's little injustices that while most people in the world have heard of the late film comedian Peter Sellers, a few million less have heard of Spike Milligan. Yet at one time these two names - along with Harry Secombe - were household words. They were ``The Goons.'' Today, Mr. Milligan - now a septuagenarian, though still at heart a seven-year-old - remains a national institution in Britain, just as he has been since the time of the postwar (that's World War II) radio comedy series ``The Goon Show.''
To anyone who lived through the '50s in Britain - when this wildly original extension of the medium of ``wireless'' erupted over the nation's airwaves with fanciful glee and incomprehensibility - it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that there are today vast pockets of the world's peoples who haven't heard of either ``The Goon Show'' or Milligan. They are, it must be said, sadly deprived - though it would be hard to explain why.
Milligan provided an extraordinary range of characters and voices, noises, silences, and situations of surreal and anarchic tendency for The Goon Show, that convention-subverting mix of nonsense, in-jokes, out-jokes, bad-jokes, running gags, and other forms of unlikeliness. He also wrote most of it.
Mr. Sellers went on to be an international star of the screen, of course, and Mr. Secombe also to a lesser degree.
But apart from unpredictable appearances on TV talk-shows, writing has been the main Milligan contribution - comic verse for all ages, serious verse, a novel called ``Puckoon,'' a series of best-selling books about his wartime experiences (notably ``Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), children's stories (some 37 books in all).
He remains through it all a unique purveyer of silliness and wit, of daft insight and childish disruption, carrying on in the 20th century what people like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear started in their own way in the 19th.
The latest evidence (disputed only by doubters) that Milligan is alive and well and still living in his own fantasy world, was a personal appearance last month on the ``Fringe'' of this year's Edinburgh Festival. It was a one-man affair: just Milligan, a table, a chair, and a glass of water - oh, and a folder of verse.
He hoped we hadn't been misinformed: He was going to read us some of his serious poetry. Later, to everyone's (and his) obvious satisfaction, he launched into a monolog of madly inconsequential verse, stupid and affectionate recollection, and dotty jokes: Milligan being Milligan.
``And now,'' he said, ``a Poem for the Lonely'' - then, after a pause, looking straight at the audience, added ``Hullo!''
At one point he described the kind of humor he likes, the kind that leads from a normal situation to an unexpected one, wires-crossed, disconnected worlds tripping over each other. He likes humor that takes on an independent life of its own. And - clearly a family man to the roots - he relishes unconscious na"ive or child humor.
Milligan has introduced numerous phrases and witticisms into British usage, some of them only slightly more comprehensible than his oft-quoted: ``I'm walking backwards for Christmas,'' a remark said or half sung at any time by any character in any episode of ``The Goon Show'' - an all-purpose phrase.
At Edinburgh he tried to read his audience a poem by a favorite bad poet he has done much to make infamous, the Scottish Victorian versifier known as The Great McGonnegal (the Goons renamed him McGoonigal, naturally).
The poem was so appalling that Milligan got fed up with it half-way through. ``I can't read this stuff!'' he muttered.
Clearly there are limits even to Milligan's delight in the absurd.