Archive for Spike Milligan

The Monday Intertitle: Spike

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by dcairns


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.

The Great Edinburgh Trams Disaster

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by dcairns


WC Fields as “The Great McGonigle” in THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.

I like trams. I like riding on them, and seeing them in movies. I was a little perplexed when Edinburgh decided to get a tram system of its own, since we already have a very good bus service. Advertisements for the imminent new transport system couldn’t quite explain what it was going to bring to the table. Maybe it would be more environmentally friendly? Unfortunately, the unexpected amount of time the project has taken to be completed means it’ll be all but impossible to offset the carbon footprint of five years worth of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. And nothing can offset the damage done to businesses by closed roads, and to quality of life by all the roadworks.

I attended Marvelous Mary’s annual William McGonagall Dinner, in celebration of the world’s worst poet (a Scotsman, naturally), and was asked to write something about the trams, on the grounds that McGonagall always liked to get his teeth into a good rail disaster. So I did. If you survive to the end, the last word will give you a free lesson in Scottish slang, which may come in useful someday, who knows?


(after William McGonagall)

Though the people of Edinburgh had their qualms

It was decided that they should ride about in tralms

Which would convey them about the town

With half going up and the rest of them going down

From the airport to the town beneath

All the way down to the Port of Leith

So the roadworks began and ripped up the roads

While the people were disturbed by the sound of drilling outside their abodes

And this went on for years and years

But still, the people said, “No tram appears!”

Just perpetual inconvenience and obstruction

Caused by all the digging and construction

Accompanied by runaway expense

That made the costs become truly immense

So that finally, to save some loot

The council decided to shorten the route

So it led from the airport to the centre of town

Which left those in Leith feeling rather let down

But no inquiry could place the blame

For what became known as Edinburgh’s Shame

And still there is no sign of trams

Because Edinburgh Town Council are a load of bams.


Bams = idiots

Praise the Titanic

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2012 by dcairns

Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria and Spike Milligan as McGonagall in Joe McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, filmed in Glorious Brownoscope.

Marvelous Mary had her annual William Topaz McGonagall anniversary dinner, in honour of Scotland’s great contribution to literature, the world’s worst poet.

That dynamo of dourness, John Laurie, reads a McGonagall “classic”.

For the first time I heard the theory that the Great McGonagall might have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, which I guess would explain why he never quite took in the fact that his poetry wasn’t greatly respected, nor any good. An artist like Modigliani could continue in the face of universal indifference driven by the fact he knew his work was great. The only difference with McGonagall is that his unshakeable self-belief was entirely misplaced. He should have had unshakeable self-disbelief. The only difference between William McGonagall and a genius, in other words, is that William McGonagall was not a genius.

Last year I composed a couplet in the McGonagall style (no scansion or rhythm, with a contrived rhyme at the end) to widespread acclaim at the dinner table. It was on the theme of the sinking of the Titanic, since McGonagall loved to versify about great disasters such as the collapse of the Tay Bridge. This year, since it’s the anniversary of the sinking, it was required of me to write the whole poem, despite the fact that nobody, especially me, could remember the original couplet. This is what I scrawled at dinner, based on the McGonagall principles of humorlessness, lachrymose bathos, fractured sing-song beats, and clunking repetitions —


It was in the year of nineteen hundred and twelve

That the Titanic into the ocean did delve.

She sank like a stone, though of steel she was made

And the passengers on deck were extremely dismayed.

When she set sail from Liverpool dock

The crowds at the harbour did clamour and flock

For none did suspect that this unsinkable boat

Could ever do anything other than float.

But midway across the Atlantic came a voice full of dread

From a desperate lookout who cried “Iceberg! Dead ahead!”

The the ship turned to starboard to avoid the collision

The Fates did not smile but just laughed with derision

And the vessel was ruptured, its hull torn

And started to sink, which the captain did mourn.

To the lifeboats the passengers hurried at speed

But could not all fit in, so some ended up deid.

Including one passenger from the fair town of Dundee

Who could not find a seat and was thus lost at sea.

And many other casualties were the people in steerage.

They would not have been there had they been in Burke’s Peerage

And had the White Star Line sufficient lifeboats provided

All those souls would not have perished when the ship and iceberg collided.

A word of advice — if you have the option, skip the 3D conversion job of James Cameron’s “timeless classic” and see the newly restored A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, scripted by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, both at the top of their game.

“I’ll see you your Leo DiCaprio, Mr Cameron, and raise you one David McCallum.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 613 other followers