Arts & Culture
‘He’s a comedy genius, not a cantankerous old figure’ – Ian Hislop and Nick Newman on new play celebrating Spike Milligan
October 14, 2022
With his battles against the BBC, the State and authority, his notoriously archaic and offbeat humour and satire, it is no wonder the Spike Milligan story has fascinated Ian Hislop and his long-term co-writer Nick Newman, writes Colin Young.
And when they were approached by a television producer to write a play on the Goon Show creator, the pair, who have been collaborating on Spitting Image, BBC commissions and their own plays for more than 30 years, jumped at the chance.
At 64, cartoonist Nick is the older of the pair.
He was a boyhood Goon Show fan, huddled round the wireless with his family in the early 1950s – Ian claims he was too young – and would eventually recite entire episodes, still doing so to this day.
Ian came to the joy and wit of Milligan later in life – not least as editor of satirical magazine Private Eye, where the comic’s influence has remained to this day.
Spike Milligan, Nick reveals, was a frequent correspondent and contributor when Richard Ingram and Peter Cook were on the editorial team.
Their new play Spike comes to Darlington Hippodrome next week; telling the tale of the funnyman’s journey from entertaining the troops with comedy and jazz during the Second World War, when he saw fierce action in North Africa and Italy, to launching the Goon Show with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellars.
Initially, post-war austerity-hit Great Britain wasn’t sure what to make of this new satirical, off-beat, occasionally surreal humour.
And BBC executives certainly weren’t.
That led to confrontation which has now provided a rich source of material to the pair, who previously and most recently wrote Wiper’s Times – the true story of a satirical newspaper published from the front during the First World War.
Thanks to several hundred pages of correspondence between Milligan and the Beeb, the two modern day writers were able to construct a new play for the stage to celebrate the eccentric comedian, poet, playwright, actor and musician – and downright pain in the Establishment’s rear end.
Nick says: “A BBC producer gave us pages and pages of letters of correspondence between Spike and the BBC management; we read them and found it all incredibly funny.
“He spent years battling with the BBC to get stuff on and, having finished the war, Spike just carried on his battles with Hitler and Mussolini, but with the BBC, because he liked to fight.
“Some of it was class warfare. Spike was working class.
“When you read his war memoirs, you can tell he didn’t have time for the officer class and after the war, all these officers went straight into the BBC and ran it.
“So he was at loggerheads from the start, and the BBC management were always saying, ‘there’s too much in The Goon Show about the war, it’s too noisy, there are too many explosions’.
“All the letters provided the backbone to the play because it was Spike basically fighting over everything you can think of with the BBC – although mostly about money – but also scheduling, and all the usual gripes that writers had, and still have.”
“It did sort of feel a bit familiar,” interjects Ian, who has had his fair share of run-ins with authority over his 36 years at the helm of Private Eye, and as a regular contributor on Have I Got News For You, alongside Paul Merton.
He adds: “We just thought this was fantastic material.
“Obviously, it’s not in copyright, so into the play it goes!
“We both had this idea that basically Spike needed to fight someone.
“He’d spent the war fighting the officer class and being incredibly cross with these men in blazers before he was injured at the Battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy.
“Then he went to the BBC after the war, and they were still there.
“So he fought the next battles.
“That’s essentially the basis of the play, how these amazing working class non-officers – Milligan, Sellars and Secombe – had their break in the army, to be funny, and then burst into austerity Britain and persuaded people to put them on the radio.
“It’s a great story.”
Milligan, a prolific writer and creator, who died 20 years ago aged 84, also suffered mental health issues throughout his life, which the pair have used as a basis of humour in the play, rather than cast a shadow over it.
But it is the material in the letters which drive the show and reveal he was clearly misunderstood by BBC hierarchy and that he was prepared to go to task with them over any issue, including whether he played his trumpet too loudly.
Nick says: “Like Spike, we have had experience of competing with management, but they made the mistake of thinking they could have repartee and a bit of joshing with Spike in these letters, which is where the relationship becomes quite funny.
“There is a line in the play where one BBC manager says, ‘perhaps I might venture I should be writing scripts and you should be running the department’, and you cannot believe a BBC manager is saying this to a comic genius, who was still inspiring comics in the 1990s.”
“They had quite a nerve, you know”, adds Ian.
“And I really don’t think they understood Spike at all.
“And he wouldn’t stop. He would take his letters all the way to the director general.
“In one, he complains he’s getting paid less than Galton and Simpson, who wrote the Hancock Show, and he gets this rather weedy response from the top of the BBC saying, ‘well, you have to understand, Spike, there’s two of them.’
“And he replies, ‘exactly! I’m doing this on my own!’”
This fractious relationship between the creative comic and his TV bosses has resonated with Ian and Nick, and in fact brought back far from fond memories of their time as Spitting Image script writers in the 1990s.
They had the misfortune of working for a TV company linked to Robert Maxwell, which made the infamous ITV political puppet show, and the (eventually) disgraced former Mirror owner didn’t take too kindly to his own creation, or being the brunt of the jokes and the chaos that pursued him in the Sunday night sketches.
Ian, now 62, who was himself a Spitting Image ‘victim’, says: “When we started writing together on Spitting Image, on the board of the television company that produced the programme, there was a man called Robert Maxwell and we were trying to get sketches about Robert Maxwell on to the television at the time.
“We’ve used quite a lot of our experiences in the play, but there was a moment on one memorable Spitting Image episode when, having tried to stop us getting any interesting material on at all, a group of BBC executives invited us to watch the show with them, ignored us completely, and toasted each other’s bravery with champagne and didn’t offer us a drop at all.
“They really didn’t get it. It was hysterical.”
Tuesday’s opening night concludes with a Q&A with the audience – and the challenge of keeping the Q side of it primarily around the play and Spike Milligan, rather than Ian’s views of the current political landscape in Britain.
It is bringing Spike Milligan’s humour and writing and wit to new audiences, which is driving and delighting Ian and Nick as they head round the country – and come to Darlington Hippodrome.
“Our own children don’t know who The Goons are…” says Ian, before Newman quickly adds: “They do now!”
Ian says: “We are attempting to give a piece of education on a comedy genius and, in the nicest possible way, show that he’s not some boring, cantankerous old figure from the past, who you might just remember your grandmother talking about.
“It is timeless comedy.
“There’s nothing quite like hearing audiences laugh at a joke from the Goon Show, which was written nearly 70 years ago.
“That’s just wonderful.”
Tuesday, October 18 – Saturday, October 22
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s new comedy Spike is coming to Darlington Hippodrome, with a cast including Gavin and Stacey star Robert Wilfort alongside Mischief Theatre’s Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd.