Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spike Milligan

There's a campaign growing to put up a statue of comedian Spike Milligan (1918-2002) in Lewisham - inevitably there's a facebook group. Milligan was actually born in India but first moved with family to South London when he was 12, in 1931. He went to Brownhill Road School, where he was surprised to find 'chaps wanking - they used to go in the toilets and wank', and then nearby to St Saviours School in Lewisham High Road. In 1933 his family rented part of a house at 22 Gabriel Street, Honor Oak Park, later moving to 50 Risedine Road nearby. He recalled this period in a poem, 'Catford 1933' (anybody got a copy?) and later still joked about heaven "I'd like to go there. But if Jeffrey Archer is there I want to go to Lewisham."

In 1934 Milligan got a job at Stones' Engineering in Deptford (Arklow Road) and later worked at Chislehurst Laundry. After being sacked from a tobacconist for stealing cigarettes he worked as a labourer at Woolwich Arsenal.

Meanwhile he had won a crooning contest at the Lady Florence Institute in Deptford, come second in a talent show at Lewisham Hippodrome and sung at St Cyprians Church Hall in Brockley and Ladywell swimming baths. He taught himself the ukulele, bass and trumpet and guitar ("My mother bought my first guitar for eighteen shillings from Len Stiles’ shop in Lewisham High Street") and took music classes at Goldsmiths in New Cross. He played with local dance bands including the New Era Rhythm Boys and Tommy Brettell's New Ritz Revels (pictured, Spike on right) in South London dance halls.

After serving in the army in World War Two, Milligan moved in with his parents for a while at 3 Leathwell Road, Deptford, before leaving South London and finding fame through the Goon Show on radio.

So does he deserve a statue? I guess that depends on your view of statues and who should be commemorated. I don't think the decision should be made on the basis of politics, but it would be dishonest to pass over the fact that some of his comedy was incredibly racist. He appeared blacked-up as a 'pakistani' in the TV series Curry and Chips (1969) and his books feature many Jewish and Asian jokes. In a 1975 interview he declared 'I'm sorry that you can't call people niggers anymore. Or wogs'. Not that this stopped Prince Charles from being a fan who invited him to the 1981 Royal Wedding.

Sources include: Spike Milligan: the biography by Humphrey Carpenter (2003).


Anonymous said...

Fair point - but I'm sure 95% of south-east Londoners born in 1918 held those same views. My old grandad (1919-1994) would talk fondly of "black people knowing their place".

I'd imagine Spike's evident mental confusion in later years may have stopped him from mellowing those views.

. said...

Yes you're right and I'm sure most comedians of his generation also had similar prejudices. I wouldn't want to write off Spike Milligan's comic achievements - equally though I wouldn't want to beatify him. In some of his later work I think he crossed the line from being a comedian who may have held some racist views to being, at times, a racist comedian, i.e. that racism was the main content of the 'comedy'. I know some would argue that something like Curry'n'Chips (which to be fair he appeared in but didn't write) was a satire on racism but if so it was pretty clumsy and offensive - not only by present day standards, but by the standards of the time. It was withdrawn after one series because of complaints about it being racist.

Anonymous said...

Spike was an anti-racist. The TV programme Curry and Chips was written by Johnny Speight and was meant to satirize racism perhaps somewhat clumsily. But his agent would have got him that job.

It does not represent his particular brand of humour as he did not write it.

Spike is better represented by The Goon Show which he wrote, other TV shows including; A Show Called Fred,Son of Fred, The World of Beachcomber,The Q series, The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, his writing and poetry, as well as the film The Bed Sitting Room.

He described himself as a liberal and was a campaigner for conservation of historic buildings.