This day is important—at least in this post—for three reasons: the Beatles released their first record, “Love Me Do”, on this day in 1962, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” premiered their first show on this day in 1969, and I breathed my first breath on a Saturday night on this day in 1957.
For the longest time I thought these two events were signs of some greatest that I would achieve. Let it be understood from this day onward that God is definitely a practical joker.
But I’m not writing about me and Python and the Beatles sharing this day. This is written to introduce you readers to the man with whom the Beatles and Python share a connection and without whom they arguably may not have existed or would have been different—perhaps even detrimentally different.
Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan, otherwise known as “Spike”, is also one of my comic heroes.
In America, Spike Milligan is largely unknown even though his contribution to the Beatles and Python is easily recognizable. It seems some smart PBS or syndication executive would have run Spike’s “Q” series over here back in the 70s as “the Goons” as they are affectionately referred were aired on many public broadcasting stations. After all, Benny Hill made it to America.
Silly American programming executives.
Milligan, along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (and Michael Bentine at the beginning), created The Goon Show, which was a BBC radio show that ran from 1951 to 1960 and was not only hilarious, it was revolutionary.
Before the Goons, British comedy was largely the music hall variety with baggy pants, silly hats and joke jokes, similar to our early vaudeville. The Goons shaped a type of humor that has inspired much of British humor today. It was surreal, it was silly, it lampooned contemporary events as well as the stuffy, upper class British culture of the day.
How the Goons inspired Python is easier to see because both are comedy. In fact, Milligan’s Q5 series was broadcast months before the premiere of the Pythons, and in the Q link above, John Cleese recalls telephoning Terry Jones and discussing with him how terrified they were because Milligan was already doing the show they wanted to do.
Not only that, but all the Pythons were schoolboys when the Goons were influencing all of Britain in the 50s.
Another school boy influenced by the Goons in the 50s was John Lennon. Back in 1972 Lennon wrote a review for a book of Goon Show Scripts. Lennon was also a big fan of Lewis Carroll. But the Goons contributed much to Beatle humor, not to mention personnel.
George Martin, the man who brought the Beatles music alive—along with the Beatles, of course—produced records for Peter Sellers and the Goons. In fact, recognizing Martin’s connection with the Goons was one of the things that endeared Martin to the Beatles, according to Martin in, perhaps, several interviews. In fact, George Martin served as Milligan’s best man for his 1962 wedding.
Richard Lester, who directed “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” also directed “The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film” with Sellers and Milligan. The same high-speed silliness in “A Hard Day’s Night” was first explored in “The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film”.
Milligan suffered several mental breakdowns, a true example of the fine line between madness and genius.
It is no accident that the root of the word “funny” is “fun”. And despite Milligan’s manic depression, The Goons are pure escapist fun. The silliness is contagious. And the genius can be influential as well.
The Goons had fun doing the show as the adlibs and off-mike laughter will attest. One cannot help but get carried away with them. If you’ve had a bad day, the Goons will soon make you better. My two favorite characters are Bluebottle (Sellers) and Eccles (Milligan).
So, my birthday present to all of you is Spike Milligan. I hope he brings you as much joy and pleasure as he has me. I was introduced to him by an ex-writer for Late Night with David Letterman.
I haven’t been the sane since.
Below is the first link to what sitting in the audience for a Goon broadcast must have looked like. It was filmed in 1966 for a show for Harry Secombe, the rotund Goon.
Embedding was disabled, but you can access part 1 through this link:
This is part 2:
Explore Milligan and the Goons and I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.