“Spike” Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918 to an Irish-born officer in the British Army and his wife.
Though he lived most of his life in England and served in the British Army, he was declared stateless in 1960, and took Irish citizenship.
He suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten mental breakdowns. He was a strident campaigner on environmental matters, particularly arguing against unnecessary noise. He served in the Royal Artillery in World War II in North Africa and also Italy, where he was hospitalized for shell shock.
During most of the 1930s and early 1940s he performed as a jazz trumpeter but even then he did comedy sketches. After his hospitalisation he played guitar with a jazz/comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio, at first in concert parties for the troops and, after the war, for a short time on stage. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group, in his own words, “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 and Michael Bentine.
Spike Milligan in his younger days
He was the primary author of The Goon Show scripts (though many were written jointly with Eric Sykes) as well as a star performer, and is considered the father of modern British comedy, having inspired countless writers and performers with his work on The Goon Show and his own Q series, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Writing a show a week affected his health greatly and caused him to have a series of nervous breakdowns. On one occasion, Peter Sellers had to lock his door against a knife-wielding Milligan; on another, Sellers and Harry Secombe broke into Milligan’s dressing room, fearing he was suicidal. Eventually lithium was found to be the most effective treatment.
Milligan also wrote nonsense verse for children, the best of which is comparable with that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and (while depressed) serious poetry. He also wrote 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 (1976)
The Prince of Wales was a noted fan, and Milligan caused a stir by calling him a “little grovelling bastard” on television in 1994. He later faxed the prince, saying “I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?”. A knighthood (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) was finally awarded in 2000.
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 February 27, 2002, at his home in Rye, East Sussex.
I for one sadly miss him and I hope he would approve of this small tribute.