Spike in the tale

Nick Newman and Ian Hislop delved into the BBC’s correspondence archive to research their stage biopic of Spike Milligan

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“Most biopics of comedians are all tears of a clown, about deeply troubled individuals, and you come out feeling miserable,” explains Nick Newman. “But we wanted people to come out with a song in their heart.”

Newman is talking about Spike, a play co-written with Ian Hislop and concerning the titular Spike Milligan. The work examines the trials, tribulations, triumphs and failures of the arch-satirist, writer, actor and poet who – along with colleagues Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers – is widely credited with helping birth modern comedy when their Goon Show was launched on BBC radio in 1951. His subsequent CV is varied and prolific, each turn pushing that singular surrealism and caustic wit in new directions.

“We like to explore why people like jokes, what it’s all about and what makes people funny,” says Newman. “And one of the things about Spike’s story that seemed so interesting is this constant battle he had between himself and the BBC, which fuelled the comedy. He was so annoyed with people all the time, but he was always attacking the BBC.”

Granted access to the BBC’s extensive archive, Newman and Hislop waded through an avalanche of correspondence between Milligan and his paymasters.

“They found Spike a very difficult person to pigeon-hole as he created a surreal world of his own and was awkward with it,” says Newman. “They really didn’t know what to do with him and accordingly treated him as what they called ‘a freak contributor’, paying him much less than his colleagues in The Goons.

“And as a bitter and frustrated writer this story appealed to me, and Ian too.”

Newman has written with Hislop since their schooldays over half a century ago. The pair have collaborated on scripts for Dawn French and Harry Enfield, worked extensively on Private Eye magazine – which Hislop has long edited – and penned sketches for the Spitting Image television series.

Also in their collective résumé is a 2008 film titled A Bunch Of Amateurs where, according to Newman, “we discovered the budget for Burt Reynolds’ wig was more than they were paying us as writers. That really put us in our place so we can sympathise with Spike.”

Milligan was seriously wounded during the Second World War while fighting in the Battle of Monte Cassino, suffering physical and mental injuries. His subsequent unsympathetic treatment at the hands of British army officers is widely viewed as the beginning of his psychological deterioration and, in the opinion of Newman, the start of his humorous ire being directed toward those in power.

“Up until the moment Spike was blown up I think he was just a funny man who enjoyed jokes as jokes,” he says.

“But from then, and clearly suffering from shell-shock, he changed because of the way those who were supposed to be his superiors behaved. His father had always said to him ‘the world is run by idiots’ and after his treatment by the army he decided that was exactly right.”

Despite tackling these aspects of Milligan’s story head on, Spike the stage production has already been described as “a caper” and is quickly gaining accolades.

“We’re really lucky to have such a fantastic cast and it’s a very joyful production,” says Newman. “The fact Milligan became so successful is encouragement to us all.”

Spike is at the Grand Theatre Blackpool, 15-19 Nov (blackpoolgrand.co.uk) 

Photo: Robert Wilfort (centre) as Spike Milligan. (Credit: Pamela Raith Photography)

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