Spike Milligan's conflicts with the BBC to become new play

Sunday 31st October 2021, 11:58am by Ian Wolf

Q. Spike Milligan. Copyright: BBC

A new play about Spike Milligan and his relationship with the BBC is being written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman.

In an interview with The Observer, Hislop revealed that the play, entitled Spike, will debut next year, marking the 20th anniversary of Milligan's death at the age of 83.

The production will start at the Watermill Theatre in Bagnor, Newbury, which also staged the debut of Hislop and Newman's The Wipers Times, which told the story of a group of soldiers publishing a satirical newspaper to the troops fighting the First World War.

The new play draws heavily upon recently released correspondence between Milligan and the BBC during the 1950s, when the actor and writer was working on celebrated surreal comedy series The Goon Show. Hislop comments: "Spike's letters to the BBC are incredibly funny. He complained about everything."

The letters not only reveal conflict between the two parties, but also that Milligan was paid much less than his co-stars (Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, and - in its early years - Michael Bentine), despite that fact he was both writer and performer.

Newman adds: "The BBC replies are also very funny because of the inept way that they deal with his talent. Some of the replies are just so pompous. It took the management there a long while to cotton on that Spike was the really gifted one. At first they thought Secombe was the main star, because he could sing as well. Others had the same opinion about Bentine, because he had gone to Eton, which is obviously very important in creating radio comedy."

The Goon Show. Image shows from L to R: Neddie Seagoon (Harry Secombe), Professor Osric Pureheart (Michael Bentine), Count Jim Moriarty (Spike Milligan), Bluebottle (Peter Sellers). Copyright: BBC

The rows between Milligan and the BBC resulted in "about 35 managers" not wanting The Goon Show to be broadcast. Among the conflicts was a 1953 special episode lampooning the coronation of Elizabeth II, which BBC bosses said was "disrespectful".

Hislop says in the interview: "The BBC said the character of the Duchess was obviously supposed to be the Queen, and Sellers did an impersonation of Winston Churchill. There was a Richard Dimbleby character as well. But then of course the show became very popular with the establishment". In fact, The Goon Show went on to count Prince Charles as amongst its famous fans.

Another incident revealed in the letters was when Milligan parodied the BBC's then landmark adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. Milligan wrote a spoof entitled 1985, in which Britain is in the totalitarian rule of the BBC - the Big Brother Corporation - and sees Goon Show character Seagoon being tortured in Room 101 by being forced to listen to BBC programmes such as Mrs Dale's Diary and Life With The Lyons. Labelling it "a rather forgotten episode of The Goons", Hislop says that the episode "made fun of the BBC in a very similar way to the television satire W1A."

Regard the play, Hislop added: "It's a celebration of Spike's genius, so we've concentrated on the golden period, when everything he did seemed to work. There's been a lot of concentration on the melancholy end of his career, so we wanted to remind people that he was incredibly funny."

As reported by BCG in September, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are also working on a new screenplay together. The currently un-titled project focuses on an Italian opera house during World War II.

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