Spike Milligan

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Spike Milligan
Birth name Terence Alan Milligan
Born 16 April 1918
Ahmednagar, British India
Died 27 February 2002, age 83
Flag of England Rye, East Sussex, England
Children Jane

Terence Alan Milligan KBE (16 April 1918–27 February 2002), known as Spike Milligan, was an Irish writer, artist, musician, humanitarian, comedian, and poet. He played the piano, trumpet, guitar and saxophone and was the creator, the principal writer and a performing member of The Goon Show.


  • 1 Biography
    • 1.1 Early life
    • 1.2 Second World War
    • 1.3 Radio
    • 1.4 Ad-libbing
    • 1.5 Poetry
    • 1.6 Plays
  • 2 Personal life
    • 2.1 Australia
    • 2.2 Health
    • 2.3 Controversy
    • 2.4 Campaigning
    • 2.5 Family
    • 2.6 Death
  • 3 Legacy
  • 4 Radio comedy shows
  • 5 Other radio shows
  • 6 TV comedy shows
  • 7 Other notable TV involvement
  • 8 Theatre
  • 9 Films
  • 10 Books
  • 11 Quotations
  • 12 External links
  • 13 References


Spike Milligan in his younger days.
Spike Milligan in his younger days.

Early life

Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918, to an Irish-born father who was serving in the British Indian Army. He spent most of his childhood in Rangoon (Yangon), capital of Burma.

Though he lived most of his life in England and served in the British Army, he was refused a British passport in 1960. This was partly because he had been born outside Britain to an Irish father, Leo Milligan (of Sligo, Ireland), but also because he refused to take the oath of allegiance, despite advice from Prince Charles. Milligan took Irish citizenship instead.[citation needed]He continued to live and work in the United Kingdom.

Second World War

During most of the late 1930s and early 1940s he performed as an amateur jazz vocalist and trumpeter, both before and after being called up for military service, but even then he wrote and performed comedy sketches as part of concerts to entertain troops. After his call-up, but before being sent abroad, he and fellow musician Harry Edgington would compose surreal stories, filled with puns and skewed logic, as a way of staving off the boredom of life in barracks.

During World War II he served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery, as Gunner Milligan, 954024 with the First Army in North Africa and then in Sicily and Italy. He rose to the rank of Lance-Bombardier and was about to be promoted to Bombardier when he was wounded in action in Italy. Subsequently hospitalized for shell shock, he was demoted by an unsympathetic commanding officer back to Gunner.

After his hospitalization, Milligan drifted through a number of rear-echelon military jobs in Italy, eventually becoming a full-time entertainer. He played guitar with a jazz/comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio in concert parties for the troops. After being demobilised, Milligan remained in Italy playing with the Trio but returned to England soon after. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group he described as composed "of bomb-happy squaddies") he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays, that displayed many of the key elements of what would become The Goon Show with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine.


Milligan returned to England in the late 1940s and made a precarious living with the Hall trio and other musical comedy acts. He was also trying to break into the world of radio, as either a performer or as a script writer. His first successes in radio was as writer for Derek Roy show. Milligan soon became involved with a relatively radical comedy project, The Goon Show. Known during its first season as Crazy People, or in full, "The Junior Crazy Gang featuring those Crazy People, the Goons!", the name was an attempt to make the program palatable to BBC officials by connecting it with the popular group of comedians known as The Crazy Gang.[citation needed]

Milligan was the primary author of The Goon Show scripts (though many were written jointly with Larry Stephens, Eric Sykes and others) as well as a star performer.


Milligan also had a number of acting parts in theatre, film and television series; one of his last screen appearances was in the BBC dramatisation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and he was (almost inevitably) noted as an ad-libber. One of Milligan's most famous ad-lib incidents occurred during a visit to Australia in the late 1960s. He was interviewed live-to-air and remained in the studio for the news broadcast that followed (read by Rod McNeil) during which Milligan constantly interjected, adding his own name to news items. As a result, he was banned from making any further live appearances on the ABC. The ABC also changed its national policy so that talent had to leave the studio after interviews were complete. A tape of the bulletin survives and has been included in an ABC Radio audio compilation, also on the BBC tribute CD, Vivat Milligna [sic].


Milligan also wrote verse, considered to be within the genre of literary nonsense, for children, the best of which is comparable with that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the most famous probably being "On the Ning Nang Nong". This nonsense verse, set to music, became a favourite Australia-wide, performed week after week by the ABC children's programme Playschool. Milligan included it on his album No One's Gonna Change Our World in 1969 to aid the World Wildlife Fund.

While depressed, Milligan wrote serious poetry. He also wrote a novel Puckoon, parodying the style of Dylan Thomas, and a very successful series of war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971) and Rommel: Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert (1974). Milligan's seven volumes of memoirs cover the years from 1939 to 1950 (essentially his call-up, war service, first breakdown, time spent entertaining in Italy, and return to the UK).

He wrote comedy songs, including "Purple Aeroplane", which was a parody of The Beatles' song "Yellow Submarine". Glimpses of his bouts with depression which led to the nervous breakdowns, can be found in his serious poetry, which is compiled in Open Heart University.


Spike Milligan also wrote the one-act play The Bed-Sitting Room which premiered at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. It was adapted to a longer play, which premiered at the Mermaid Theatre, London.

Personal life


After their retirement, Milligan's parents and his younger brother Desmond moved to Australia. His mother lived the rest of her life in the coastal village of Woy Woy on the New South Wales Central Coast, just north of Sydney; as a result, Milligan became a regular visitor to Australia and made a number of radio and TV programmes there. In 2007, a new, million dollar cycle bridge was named after him.

From the 1960s onwards Milligan was a regular correspondent with Robert Graves. Milligan's letters to Graves usually addressed a question to do with classical studies. The letters form part of Graves' bequest to St. John's College, Oxford.


He suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten major mental breakdowns, several lasting over a year. He spoke candidly about his condition and its effect on his life:

"I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalised and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much... Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning - I go to a dinner table now and I don't say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going - so that is depressing in itself. It's like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is 'good evening' and then I go quiet"



The Prince of Wales was a noted fan, and Milligan caused a stir by calling him a "little grovelling bastard" on live television in 1994 [2]. He later faxed the prince, saying "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?" In reality he and the Prince were very close friends [3],and he was finally made a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) in 2000. He had been made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992.


He was a strident campaigner on environmental matters, particularly arguing against unnecessary noise, such as the use of Muzak.

In 1971, Milligan caused controversy by attacking an art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery with a hammer [4]. The exhibit consisted of catfish, oysters and shrimp that were to be electrocuted as part of the exhibition.

In 1996, he successfully campaigned for the restoration of London's Elfin Oak.

He was also a public opponent of domestic violence, dedicating one of his books to Erin Pizzey.


Milligan had three children with his first wife June Marlow: Laura, Seán and Síle. He had one daughter with his second wife Patricia Milligan: the actress Jane Milligan. His last wife was Shelagh Sinclair. The four children have recently collaborated with documentary makers on a new multi-platform program called I Told You I Was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan (2005) and web site.[5]


Even late in life, Milligan's black humour had not deserted him. After the death of friend Harry Secombe from cancer, he said, "I'm glad he died before me, because I didn't want him to sing at my funeral". A recording of Secombe singing was played at Milligan's memorial service. He also wrote his own obituary, in which he stated repeatedly that he "wrote the Goon show and died". The epitaph on his headstone is "Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite", Irish for "I told you I was ill". In a BBC poll in August 1999, Spike Milligan was voted the "funniest person of the last 1000 years".

He died from liver disease, at the age of 83, on 27 February 2002, at his home in Rye, East Sussex.


The film of Puckoon, starring his daughter, the actress Jane Milligan, was released after his death.

The Holden Road plaque.
The Holden Road plaque.

Milligan lived for several years in Holden Road, Woodside Park and at The Crescent, Barnet, and was a strong supporter of the Finchley Society. His old house in Woodside Park is now demolished, but there is a blue plaque in his memory on the new house on the site. The Finchley Society is trying to get a statue of him erected in Finchley. There is also a campaign to erect a statue in the London Borough of Lewisham, where he grew up (see Honor Oak) after coming to the UK from India in the 1930s.

He had once quipped that he wanted his headstone to bear the words "I told you I was ill." He was buried at St Thomas's Church cemetery in Winchelsea, East Sussex, but the Chichester Diocese refused to allow these words on a headstone. A compromise was reached with the Irish language translation, "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" and additionally in English "Love, light, peace".

Milligan was portrayed by Edward Tudor-Pole in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted amongst the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

On 9 June 2006 it was reported that Professor Richard Wiseman had identified Milligan as the writer of the world's funniest joke as decided by the Laughlab project. Professor Wiseman said the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag - anxiety, a feeling of superiority, and an element of surprise. [6]

Lynsey De Paul is a patron of the Spike Milligan Statue Memorial Fund.

Members of Monty Python greatly admired him, and gave Milligan a cameo role in their 1979 film, Monty Python's Life of Brian when Milligan happened to be holidaying near where the Pythons were filming.

Radio comedy shows

  • The Goon Show (1951 - 1960)
  • The Idiot Weekly (1958 - 1962)
  • The Omar Khayyam Show (1963 - 1964)
  • Milligna (or Your Favourite Spike) (1972) The title is based on Milligan's introduction in The Last Goon Show of All as "Spike Milligna, the well-known typing error".
  • The Milligan Papers (1987)

Other radio shows

Milligan contributed his recollections of his childhood in India for the acclaimed 1970s BBC audio history series Plain Tales From The Raj. The series was published in book form in 1975 by Andre Deutsch, edited by Charles Allen.

TV comedy shows

  • The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d
  • A Show Called Fred
  • Son of Fred
  • The World of Beachcomber
  • Q5, Q6, Q7, Kuwait (Q8) Q9 and There's A Lot of It About
  • Curry & Chips

Other notable TV involvement

  • Tiswas 1981 edition
  • Narrator of The Ratties (1987), a children's cartoon series written by Mike Wallis and Laura Milligan, Spike's daughter.
  • The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town ran as a serial in The Two Ronnies in the 1970s.
  • Special guest star of the January 18, 1979 edition of The Muppet Show


  • Treasure Island (1961, 1973 - 1975)
  • The Bed-Sitting Room (1963, 1967) written by Milligan and John Antrobus
  • Oblomov Opened at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1964. It was based on the Russian classic by Ivan Goncharov, and gave Milligan the opportunity to play most of the title role in bed. Unsure of his material, on the opening night he improvised a great deal, treating the audience as part of the plot almost, and he continued in this manner for the rest of the run, and on tour as 'Son Of Oblomov'.


  • The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), post-apocalyptic comedy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and also Arthur Lowe; written by John Antrobus based on the Milligan/Antrobus play. Milligan had a small role as a postman named "Mate", which was also the name of a Goon Show character.
  • The Great McGonagall, untalented Scottish poet (based on William Topaz McGonagall) angles to become laureate, with Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria.
  • Down Among the Z Men (1952), played Eccles in a detective/military black and white film with all The Goons including early member Michael Bentine and original announcer Andrew Timothy.
  • The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn, a Goon-like 2-reel comedy ("Mukkinese" = "mucky knees").
  • The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, a silent comedy, Richard Lester's debut film.
  • Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, a film adaption of the first volume of his autobiography. Spike played the part of his father. The role of the young Spike Milligan was played by Jim Dale.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972) as Gryphon.
  • The decrepit manager of a seedy London hotel in Bruce Beresford's The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972).
  • Monsieur Bonacieux, husband of Madame Bonacieux (Raquel Welch) in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973).
  • The prophet abandoned by his flock in Life of Brian.
  • The traffic warden who eats the ticket in The Magic Christian.
  • The decrepit Geste family retainer Crumpet in The Last Remake of Beau Geste, with Marty Feldman.
  • Monsieur Rimbaud in History of the World, Part I.
  • Country postman Harold Petts in Postman's Knock (1962).
  • A royal herald who accidentally blows a spy's cover in Yellowbeard.
  • A policeman who briefly talks to Dr. Watson and Stapleton when they first arrive on the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World 1973 childrens comedy


  • Silly Verse for Kids (1959); the 1968 paperback edition omits one poem and adds some from the next two books
  • A Dustbin of Milligan (1961)
  • Goblins
  • The Little Pot Boiler (1963)
  • Puckoon (1963)
  • A Book of Bits, or A Bit of a Book (1965)
  • A Book of Milliganimals (1968)
  • Badjelly the Witch (1973)
  • The Looney: An Irish Fantasy (1987)
  • The Bedside Milligan
  • "The War (and Peace) Memoirs"
    • The seven memoirs were also recorded as talking books with Spike reciting them in his own inimitable style.
    • Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971)
    • Rommel? Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert (1974)
    • Monty: His Part in My Victory (1976)
      • This and the previous two books were released and publicised as the first, second, and third part respectively of a trilogy.
    • Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall (1978)
      • This was announced as the fourth part of his trilogy.
    • Where Have All the Bullets Gone? (1985)
    • Goodbye Soldier (1986)
    • Peace Work (1992)
  • Small Dreams of a Scorpion
  • Hidden Words: Collected Poems
  • Open Heart University
  • Startling Verse for All the Family
  • Sir Nobonk and the Terrible Dreadful Awful Naughty Nasty Dragon
  • A Mad Medley of Milligan
  • Transports of Delight
  • More Transports of Delight
  • Depression and How to Survive It (with Professor Anthony Clare), medical biography.
  • It Ends with Magic
  • The Murphy
  • Milligan's Ark
  • The "According to" Books
    • The Bible—the Old Testament According to Spike Milligan
    • Black Beauty According to Spike Milligan
    • D.H.Lawrence's John Thomas and Lady Jane: According to Spike Milligan—Part II of "Lady Chatterley's Lover"
    • Frankenstein According to Spike Milligan
    • The Hound of the Baskervilles According to Spike Milligan
    • Lady Chatterley's Lover According to Spike Milligan
    • Robin Hood According to Spike Milligan
    • Treasure Island According to Spike Milligan
    • Wuthering Heights According to Spike Milligan


  • "When I look back, the fondest memory I have is not really of the Goons. It is of a girl called Julia with enormous breasts."
  • Of his honorary CBE—"I can't see the sense in it really. It makes me a Commander of the British Empire. They might as well make me a Commander of Milton Keynes—at least that exists."
  • On his bouts of clinical depression— "It's the nature of who you are. You will see sunsets in a special way, you will see life in a special way. The Milligans are like Arab racehorses. We'll kick the stable to pieces, but we'll always win the race."
  • Of heaven— "I'd like to go there. But if Jeffrey Archer is there, I want to go to Lewisham."
  • http://www.spikefest.co.uk/ The annual Lewisham 'Spikefest' Comedy Festival
  • The Spike Milligan Appreciation Society
  • Spike Milligan's TV Q series
  • Previously unheard audio of one of Spike Milligan's last one-man shows. Extrageographic Magazine.
  • The web site to accompany the new documentary, I Told you I was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan
  • Spike Milligan at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Guardian newspaper obituary for Spike Milligan
  • Link to BBC poll article
  • Comprehensive list of Spike's works (illustrated)
  • PDF Document: Kettering Magazine - The fanzine of elderly comedy - 700k file, contains detailed article on Milligan and his role in the film The Great McGonagall
  • Puckoon website
  • Spike Milligan @ Catharton Authors
  • References
    1. ^ Depression and how to survive it, First Edition, Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare,1994
    2. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,658856,00.html
    3. ^ Depression and how to survive it, First Edition, Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare,1994
    4. ^ http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/T/turner_2001/ShockTactics_t.htm
    5. ^ http://www.spikemilliganlegacy.com
    6. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/5064020.stm
    v  d  e
    The Goons
    Michael Bentine • Spike Milligan • Harry Secombe • Peter Sellers
    Other Contributors Dick Emery • Kenneth Connor • Valentine Dyall • George Chisholm • Ray Ellington • Max Geldray • Wallace Greenslade • Dennis Main Wilson • Charlotte Mitchell • Larry Stephens • Wally Stott • Eric Sykes • Andrew Timothy
    Radio and TV Series The Goon ShowThe Telegoons
    Films Let's Go CrazyPenny Points to ParadiseDown Among the Z MenThe Case of the Mukkinese Battle HornThe Running Jumping & Standing Still Film
    Characters Cast members and their Characters • Major Bloodnok • Bluebottle • Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister • Eccles • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne • Count Jim Moriarty • Neddie Seagoon
    General information Episodes and archiving • Running Jokes
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