Been thinking about Spike Milligan a lot, for various reasons — I met a director of his, and a co-star. Then Anne Billson and I met for the first time in Camden Market and found a neat DVD shop, selling out-of-print obscurities on a semi-legal (well, illegal, really) basis, and they had a four-part series entitled Milligan In… which aired in 72-73, just before he appeared in THE THREE MUSKETEERS as Raquel Welch’s husband (“But it was only acting,” he reflected sadly).
What a disturbing thing — Milligan was a complicated individual, shellshocked from WWII, bipolar, a philanderer, and a genius. His genius was comedic, but he was also a poet — talented, but not superlatively so. Also a self-confessed racist — a mixture of the generational thing, his being a child of Empire brought up initially in India, a stubborn inability to grasp the niceties of political progress. Milligan’s race jokes are usually fairly inoffensive — punning on phrases that use the words “black” or “white” — but they’re not usually very funny. And there are too many of them. And then there are awkward bits that don’t seem like jokes at all.
One episode features a silent-movie sketch based around the idea of an unemployment crisis for comedians. The intertitles are hilarious, including one that has no words, just a spinning bow tie, and a speechless reply that’s just black space in a decorative frame. And there’s a beautiful joke involving a bicycle that gets eaten, leaving only its skeleton. The skeleton of a bicycle.
But there’s also a sequence of closeups when Spike enters the job centre and sees lots of people of different races waiting ahead of him. The implication is clear — these non-white people are taking our jobs. And there’s no joke to it, it’s just a slice of unpleasant Daily Mail racism. But then Milligan pans to the floor and redeems himself with a shot of the skeletal remains of a jobseeker, subtitled “Harry Secombe” (portly Welsh comic and sometime sidekick to Spike). Pan onto a second set of remains, labeled “Tommy Cooper” (another beloved British comic, very popular with Anthony Hopkins).
There were a lot of racist comics on telly in the seventies. But the others weren’t mad geniuses. The most liberal or even radical comedy people in Britain today still idolise Spike — we’ve all decided to sort of look the other way concerning his racial politics. This sketch from the later “Q6″ series, which is one of the funniest things I ever saw, is introduced as being about “Why mixed marriages don’t work” — another cringeworthy moment. But the sketch is funny because it’s about the domestic life of a dalek, the dalek is married to a lady, there’s a child dalek, the daleks can’t steer and keep bumping into the furniture, contrary to the advice of Mr Lunt, and also the lead dalek has Spike Milligan’s voice issuing electronically from its steel carapace. And they keep blowing things up. That’s a lot of funny elements, any one of which would have had me in a breathless, full-on asthmatic agony of mirth when I first saw it. The combination nearly made my ribcage explode.
The fact that the Dalek is wearing a sort of sloppy attempt a a turban is vaguely wrong, slightly funny, and ultimately easy to ignore amid the rest of the stuff going on. A Dalek bumping into a table is already, to me, funnier than anything, ever.
Later in Spike Milligan In… there’s a parody of the very respectable BBC kids’ show Blue Peter. Everybody grins terrifyingly. Milligan, in fright wig, is the most disturbing, but the guy parodying BP presenter John Noakes is really good too. The girl is Madeline Smith, of Hammer glamour fame, which cues us to expect knockers on display at some point. Sure enough, the show leaves the studio as the presenters narrate a film clip of their “skiing holiday in Islington.” They go into a shack and get rat-arsed on whisky. They play strip poker and Miss Smith is shortly down to her very skimpy undies. Violence breaks out. The Noakes figure is beaten unconscious, Madeline is bound and helpless and Milligan advances with ferocious lust —
Oh yeah, sexism. They had that in the seventies too. Milligan again was guilty, and again mainly because he refused to understand it. Here, he clearly felt this was something the audience would enjoy seeing. Which argues for a dim view of us — but at the same time, the assumption must be based on Milligan himself regarding it as something HE would like to see. Porn is always fantasy autobiography.
But this sequence, highly reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s legendary sci-fi TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics, is so disturbing it’s kind of good. Society collapses into horrific barbarism while a studio audience laughs and applauds. And the stock footage of clapping schoolkids is augmented by the laugh track played on top. Everyone is implicated.
The whole show is such a tonal stramash – poetry written for Milligan’s children, silent movie parody with racist propaganda, absurdity, songs (also written by Milligan), and now rape and bondage in a reversion to savagery — it’s impossible to watch without a queasy feeling. We also laughed, sometimes very hard. “It makes you feel stoned,” Fiona observed.
The Milligan mind was not disciplined, though it was amazingly fertile. It’s uncertain if he ever did anything that approached perfection, except backwards. But this series, very far from perfect and not his most likable, does present arguably the most complete picture of his virtues and vices.
Madeline Smith’s further crimes against womankind ~
This is an actual thing. The 1970s were different, and not really in good ways.