Spike Milligan, The French House, Soho, 1989. Photo © John Claridge.
[The first Goon Show was broadcast in May 1951.]
Excerpts from Peace Work* (1991) by Spike Milligan:
I must get up to London. Harry has a week out from Variety, I can get him on Gerrard 0081. I dial out, a lady answers ‘Kidston Villas’.
‘Can I speak to Harry Secombe?’
‘Just a minute.’
I hear her call Mr. Secombe – Mr. Secombe – I hear his distant chattering.
‘Coming- Coming – Hello, Hello, Secombe here.’ His voice is expectant. ‘Hello, Hello,’ he repeats in a police voice.
I say, ‘Mr. Selcon, it’s about this thirteen year-old girl’
We arrange to meet at Jimmy’s that evening. When we do arrive Jimmy [Grafton] invites us up to his lounge for dinner – his wife Dorothy serves us. ‘What’s the matter with your face?’ says Jimmy.
I said, ‘I shaved.’
Jimmy laughed, ‘Well, I shave but that doesn’t happen to my face.’
‘Well, it bloody happened to mine’
‘I told you you shouldn’t have let him come’ giggled Secombe.
‘You Secombe, I pointed with a quivering finger, ‘you shall be accursed, all your sons will have wives with moustaches and three legs.’
Dinner now proceeded. ‘Is he always like this dear?’ said Dot to her husband.
Jimmy is acting as Harry’s manager with an agent called Frank Barnard. Harry is doing Variety whenever he can, his name very small on the bill.
Jimmy is writing scripts for an ex-Geraldo singer called Derek Roy, who fancied himself as a comic. Somehow or other I found myself sleeping in Jimmy’s attic office and whenever, writing scripts; it was a pretty mad establishment, with two young children James and Sally whom I told stories to. To add to it there was a rhesus monkey, ‘Jacko’ and a bulldog, Buller, plus Minty, a Siamese cat. The pub [The Grafton Arms, Strutton Ground, Victoria] was very popular and served meals, Jacko seemed a bit dispossessed, so I put a rug atop a hot water tank and it became his refuge. Alas, it was right over the kitchen stove, a lethal position when food for the pub lunches was simmering on top, and I actually saw Jacko pee – and watched it land, of all things – in the Pea Soup where Louis the cook stirred it in: mind you, this wasn’t a regular occurrence.
Harry is due to appear at the Hackney Empire so all of us arrange to see him including Hall and Mulgrew. However, Hall says no. ‘I’m not going to that fucking death hole – I’ll never forget how we died the bloody death there.’ Cheer up, woeful fellow, come and see Harry Secombe die there. But no. In the bar I meet Peter Sellers again; he is plump-faced and wearing gloves, all a cut above the rest of us tramps.
‘Oh Jimmy’ I say, is it worth £10 scriptwriting for Derek Roy, the man who kills 99 per cent of all known jokes?’
Jimmy said, ‘Patience, it can lead to bigger things.’
I tell him I don’t need bigger things, mine are big enough, ask any heavy plant operator.
‘There could be a series’ says Jimmy.
‘What of disasters? Roy is not funny.’
‘It’ll put money in your shatteringly hollow account,’ he says.
So when he’s in the bar serving I bang away at the jokes.
Jimmy organises a night with The Goons, as we have decided to call ourselves. So one evening, after hours, we have an ad-lib session. [Michael] Bentine starts the ball rolling, ‘Gentleman, now you know why I’ve called you here?’
‘No we don’t’ we murmur.
‘Very well, we’ve been besieged in this fort for, does anybody know?’
‘Forty days’ says one.
‘Fifty’ says another.
‘Any advance on fifty?’
‘Right, we’ve been besieged forty, fifty and seventy days. Gentlemen, you will synchronise watches.’
They all adjust their watches, but never say a word, the phones supposedly rings, Secombe answers. ‘Hello, Fort Agra, hello? Just a minute.’ He holds his hand over the phone, ‘Does a Mrs Gladys Stokes live here?’ No sorry Mrs Stokes doesn’t live here.
SELLERS: Someone has to go and get reinforcements.
ME: Yes, someone has to.
SECOMBE: Yes gentlemen, someone has to go and get reinforcements.
SELLERS: Good, well that’s settled.
I suppose it would only be a matter of time before someone in the BBC might use us. There was one enlightened producer streets ahead in perspicacity, Pat Dixon, totally unrevered by the BBC but directly responsible for giving us the break. Already we had produced the first comedy show on the new Third Programme (for unknown reason now called Radio 3), they can’t leave alone can they, using Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Benny Hill. It was the first comedy show without an audience, I used to go and listen through the studio door, I was desperate to be given a break as such on the media; Secombe, Sellers, Bentine are all working and earning. If I hadn’t written myself into The Goon Show, I’d never have been heard of.
© Spike Milligan Productions
[The London Column would like to thank Jane Milligan and the Milligan family for the above.]
* Penguin Books.