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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Spike Milligan: A Tribute

My sole appearance alongside Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Barry Humphries, Richard Lester, and a number of other comedy luminaries occured in a book published ten years ago. Spike Milligan: His Part in Our Lives collected over 40 reminiscences about the legendary Goon Show creator, and editor Maxine Ventham discovered me through the Goon Show Preservation Society’s American archivist, Dick Baker, who generously passed along to me the task of writing something from a Yank’s point of view. 

                                                                             

SPIKE MILLIGAN WAS no more than a name rattled off at the end of each Goon Show when I first fell under his influence. I knew that he wrote, or co-wrote, each episode, and provided one or more voices, but the first few shows I heard were so difficult to understand that I couldn’t begin to appreciate his contributions to them.

Sadly, this reflected the general lack of Milligan appreciation in the U.S.A. in the early 1970s. My journey from curious Yank to ardent fan probably mirrors that of anyone else in the States who discovered and enjoyed the Goon Shows. It’s a lot of work, or was back in those pre-Internet days, but it also meant you were part of an eager, exclusive club. Which meant that (as is true of any collection of Americans with discriminating taste) we’re few but we’re great company. Spike’s books and recordings get next to no American distribution, and the Public Broadcasting Systems, our non-commercial television network, helped Monty Python achieve cult status while ignoring the “Q” series entirely.

Ah, but the “Marty Feldman Comedy Machine” crept in as a summer replacement on a commercial station in 1972, and there was my first glimpse of Spike in his glory – and by then I was 16-year-old Goon Show fanatic, eager to immerse myself in Milliganiana.

As a teenager growing up in suburbia – the New York City suburbs, to be exact – I inherited the community’s sense of rootlessness. Few of my friends and none of my neighbors were born in this town; almost none of those who were my age then live there now. Fathers worked in the city, and so did some moms, although most tended home and kids during the final generation that could afford to live that way.

Developing a sense of self was difficult. Developing a sense of humor was vital. Movies were funny, of course, and I soon discovered the Marx Brothers. I note with some pride that my first high school detention, for skipping a class, was earned when I went to a friend’s house to watch “The Cocoanuts” on television. That’s also the time I discovered Peter Sellers as a film comedian during a late-night TV encounter that changed my life. He shared the screen with Alec Guinness and others in “The Ladykillers,” and the surprise ending was my introduction to black comedy. It gave me a sense of hope.

Radio, during the late 1960s and early ’70s, was nearly barren of all but music and news, but I discovered one broadcast stalwart holding forth weeknights: Jean Shepherd, a master storyteller whose antic universe welcomed misfits like me. Radio also was my source for classical music, a genre I pursued both for emotional complexity of the music and because it marked me as an iconoclast. A favorite radio source was a New York City station broadcasting from Riverside Church. Being an affiliate of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds educational programming, WRVR also aired the Goon Shows.

I listened because of an enigmatic listing in a magazine called “FM Guide.” “The Great Bank of England Robbery,” it began. “’Tis not such a far cry from the respectable Bank of England to a hovel in the Street of a Thousand Dustbins (in London’s Chinatown) in whose sinister atmosphere the seeds are planted for the crime of the century ... ” And Peter Sellers was named as a co-star.

The listing made no sense, and the program itself seemed to make less sense. A rapid-fire exchange of voices, in dialects I couldn’t understand, punctuated by rip-roaring laughs at jokes I couldn’t fathom. I tried again the following week, and managed to catch a couple of the punch lines. The week after that I tape-recorded the show.

As I listened again and again to “The Case of the Fake Neddie Seagoons,” the mists cleared. The dialects grew intelligible. Better still, the jokes emerged, and they were funnier than anything I’d encountered before – because they were rooted in a nonsensical logic that barnstormed through the imagination and demanded that you try to envision the absurd.

Of course Henry Crun was trapped inside a rosewood piano. Where else would he be? It therefore made sense that his every spoken syllable should be accompanied by a muffled note, giving his sentences a plangent melody. Because the context of the episode already was ridiculous, this all made sense.

What pushed it into the stratosphere of looniness was the discovery that Minnie Bannister, Crun’s aged helpmate, had to discover in which of their many rosewood pianos he was trapped, and thus ensued a magical sound-effect: lids slamming, notes sounding, and the logic-free yet somehow sensible dialogue of this couple.

Sorting out the voices was more challenging. After the musical “Pickwick” was shown on American TV, I knew that Harry Secombe was Neddie Seagoon. Peter Sellers was obviously giving voice to Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, which meant that Spike was the sniveling Moriarty. Through careful study of pitch and timbre I charted the Milligan path: Minnie Bannister. Eccles. Yodeling Jim Spriggs.

Where the Sellers vocal parade gave us a series of well-constructed, even plausible characters, Spike’s were just plain off the wall, and thus even more appealing. Bluebottle was the perfect embodiment of the cowardly schoolboy braggart, but Eccles managed to drag a fully-functioning alternate universe into his appearances. And poor Henry Crun, piano diversions notwithstanding, had to contend with a housemate who was wont to let rip on the rhythm saxophone, accompanying herself in strangulated rock-and-roll numbers.

(Seeing Milligan’s technique of voicing this character years later, in the “Last Goon Show of All” video, I was even more impressed: He grabs his own Adam’s apple and tortures it into Minnie’s flamboyant vibrato.)

Every week I taped the Goon Show and went through it several times. I’d never laughed so hard before. I was a goner, and yet I knew practically nothing about the British music hall history that so informs those shows, nothing about England itself and why particular references got such big audience laughs (but to this day I’m nervous about visiting East Acton), nothing about the radio-comedy tradition the Goons so radically sundered. It didn’t matter.

I found a list of books by Milligan and ordered them from Foyle’s. I also learned that Spike had written a play, which I thought would be fun for my high-school theater arts class to mount. With teenaged temerity, I wrote to ask about the play’s availability, and managed an unintentionally snotty aside to ask if those book I’d ordered were any good. A couple of weeks later a letter from Spike himself dropped into my mailbox.

“When you get the seven books,” he replied, far more politely than I deserved, “YOU tell me if they’re good, I think they are!!” And he gave publication info for The Bedsitting Room.

Not surprisingly, the play was far too far-out for a suburban American high school drama group, but Milligan’s vision of post-apocalyptic England, with its improbable plot and antic one-liners, was a comforting reminder that a good laugh is more beneficial than any amount of ducking and covering – “The Bedsitting Room,” like all of Milligan’s work, is refreshingly hypocrisy-free.   It’s no coincidence that four of my high school friends and I sought careers in radio work. Although we missed the heyday of American radio, the Goon Shows stretched our imaginations and taught us the powerful magic of a pictureless medium. The series ran for many months on WRVR, then ended. Although I’d taped as many as I could, it amounted to a small collection and I knew there were more to be heard.

I was in my last year of high school. An older friend was already working for a radio station situated at a nearby university and known for its alternative ways. If I could secure a contract, he assured me, he’d broadcast the shows.

The timing was good: the school’s drama club was about to spend a week in London, attending West End shows. I wrote to the BBC and was told to call at the offices of Transcription House.

And so I did. And met, head-on, the organization that has long been Spike’s salvation and bane.

Dressed in a decent suit and tie, hair unfashionably short, accompanied by a similarly attired friend, I thought I cut a convincingly businesslike figure. “Come in, come in,” said the gentleman to whose office we were conducted. “Have a seat. Let’s have some tea.”

In an instant, tea and biscuits were served. “I’d like you to hear something,” our host said, putting an LP on the turntable in his office. “We’ve re-engineered some of the Goon Shows for distribution. I think you’ll like this.”

What they’d done was force it into phony stereo, pushing the voices to one channel or the other, racing sound effects across the aural image area. Old recordings, especially in pre-digital days, were noisy. This meant that the noise, too, had to travel; the only way to try to subvert that was to add more noise. It sounded awful.

“That’s nice,” I said.

“We think this will make the shows more appealing to the FM market. For how many weeks did you wish to renew?”

Renew? “We’ve never broadcast them before,” I said.

“Aren’t you from the Corporation for Pubic Broadcasting?”

“No, sorry. I’m with a station in Connecticut.”

“What network?”

I began to perspire. “It’s not a network, really. It’s just one station. WPKN.”

The BBC man got out his copy of the Broadcast Yearbook, a compendium of radio station information. “WPKN,” he repeated, thumbing through pages. He looked up with concern. “It’s a college station!” he said. I nodded. He read on. “It’s a Pacifica affiliate,” he said, and this time I heard scorn.

“Well, yes,” I said. Pacifica was once a small network of rabidly left-leaning stations that also provided news feeds to sympathetic entities like WPKN. I expected to see the tea service summarily wrenched from the room, but the man recovered and thrust some contract papers and a souvenir carry-bag in my hands and showed us, politely, to the door.

Dispiriting as it was to hear the Goon Shows so badly stereo-ized, some friends and I eventually negotiated a contract that put a brief series of programs into our hands. And the BBC has gone on to redeem itself with a series of cassette and CD reissues that restore the shows – such as still exist – to their former (and monaural) glory.   Late-night television vigils yielded viewings of “Invasion Quartet,” “Postman’s Knock,” and “The Bedsitting Room.” ‘The Three Musketeers” hit movie screens here in 1973, and Spike got some envious scenes as Raquel Welch’s befuddled husband, all of which proved that Milligan’s talents as an actor translated easily from radio to screen. And, uniquely, to the stage as well, as I discovered when the occasional British book or magazine came my way. I longed to see “Son of Oblomov” or his well-regarded turn in “Treasure Island.”
Milligan with Eric Sykes

Radio genius, underused film star – that would have been acclaim enough, and enough to sustain my admiration. Then his war memoirs began arriving, not to mention the high-spirited Puckoon, and I found a new author to collect, with the added challenge of keeping up with a prolific writer whose books never appear over here. And it wasn’t only books he wrote: his name turned up as the author of liner notes to jazz recordings – and his war memoirs filled out the background of Milligan the trumpet player.

When I learned he was a fan of Bunny Berigan and other classic musicians, I sent him some tapes of reissues I’d recently collected. In his reply, he mentioned his sadness at
the gradual decreasing, on a world-wide scale, of music of this ilk as used by the pop orientated raging radio stations. On television, of course, jazz is dead dead dead. I cannot understand the mentality, but I loathe it whatever it is.
In another letter, he wrote,
‘modern’ popular music is the pits to me, it’s as welcome as Hitler in a synagogue. 99 percent of people know or feel bugger-all. Recently I started composing music, at a dinner party one of the guests requested I play a tape of it. I put it on, they talked all the way thru and then said ‘Lovely.’ Bullshit! I played some to [jazz trumpeter] Warren Vaché – and he listened, better still he liked it, and took a few tunes with the intention of playing them, so I was well pleased.
And his songs need no further endorsement than recordings by such artists as the King’s Singers. Eventually I also became aware of Milligan the environmentalist. I had an inkling when he was a guest in the mid-70s on a television talk show that pretended to be more erudite than most; the final segment brought on an animated Milligan to join Jonathan Miller and Bernard Levin, and all three were inspired to some fantastically funny exchanges. Dick Cavett, the host, attempted to keep up with Spike’s stream-of-consciousness parries and at one point confirmed that the comedian was trying to save a tree somewhere in London. Spike didn’t pursue the subject, and it was several years before I learned about the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens, but word of Milligan’s involvement with groups like Greenpeace continued to filter over to the States.

Hollywood stars as political activists has become something of a cliché, carrying a side-image of wealthy actors with too much free time trying to assuage their guilt over being so rich from doing so little. Milligan’s example was a far different story. Here was a man clearly and passionately committed to the cause, who lived the precepts he preached. I have read and heard his opinions not only on the terrible abuse of nature and natural resources, but also complaints that range from noise pollution to overpopulation. He couldn’t be more correct, and his was one of the voices that persuaded my wife and me to enhance our family with but one child.   When I hear my five-year-old daughter sing “On the Ning Nang Nong,” I feel a terrific pleasure at having passed along Spike’s legacy. As a writer of children’s stories and poems – and a performer of same – he’s unsurpassed, part of that pantheon that includes Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear and, in the current world, Maurice Sendack.

(And keep in mind that he’s quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. Check the listings for “goon,” “skint,” and “well-gowned,” among others.)

So much of what passes for children’s literature is just the work of a hack not good enough to pen decent fiction, condescending to a misguided idea of how children speak among themselves – and therefore just as ineffective (and damaging) as baby talk. Milligan’s work speaks directly to kids, treating them as equals while playing to their wonderfully uncensored sense of the absurd.

The kids my daughter is growing up amidst have a tougher haul than I did at that age: Now, thanks to television and the schoolroom, they can have all of their thoughts pre-thought, all their opinions pre-created. The massive entertainment forces of Disney & Co. rob them of their imaginations even as they siphon off their parents’ cash.

Spike’s work teaches them dangerous things like thinking for themselves and laughing at the bureaucratic forces that want to imprison their impulses. I envy those in his native country who have grown up with easy access to his influence.

Thanks to the popularity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on American television, British comedy has been more accessible in terms both of acquisition and understanding. I think a 16-year-old American today has an easier time figuring out the Goon Shows than I had all those years ago. And I’ve tried to do my share to pass along the legacy, which means that there’s a sizeable quantity of books and tapes in circulation that I doubt I’ll ever see returned.

“Do they still play the Goon Shows in America?” Spike asked in one of his letters. “I can’t believe it! I mean, it’s 34 years since they started. I never dreamed.” I don’t doubt that he’s sincerely surprised, but he’s also far too modest. More than one English friend has characterized Milligan as a national treasure, and you’re lucky to have him in your midst. Over here it’s been a challenge to keep up, but, as with all challenges, the effort of remaining a fan has been all the sweeter for costing that effort.

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