Legendary British sketch comic and writer Spike Milligan celebrates his birthday today.
Or, he would, if he weren’t dead.
Death was a recurring theme in the work of the man who sagely observed: “All men are cremated equal.”
He was famously buried in St Thomas’s Church, Winchelsea, in 2002, under a tombstone bearing the Gaelic inscription: “Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite” (“I told you I was ill”).
“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” he said.
Milligan was born in Ahmednagar, India, on 16 April 1918, the son of a British Army captain, and grew up in Pune and Rangoon, Burma, before relocating to south London to attend secondary school.
“My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic,” he recalled.
As a young man, he developed a love for jazz and joined the Young Communist League to oppose Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.
He served with the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery in the Second World War, seeing action in North Africa and Italy and suffering a mortar wound and shell shock at the Battle of Monte Cassino. He would later record his experiences in the memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971).
Like many of Britain’s post-war entertainers, Milligan got his break entertaining the troops and subsequently joined forces with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine for BBC Home Service radio comedy The Goon Show (1951-60).
The Goons’ whacky antics proved a huge hit, and Milligan transferred his highly eccentric talents to television, writing and starring in the sketch shows The Idiot Weekly, A Show Called Fred and The World of Beachcomber at the height of the Swinging Sixties, often directed by Richard Lester – the man behind The Beatles’ screen outings.
Milligan appeared in films like Postman’s Knock (1962), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) – but largely failed to translate his skills to the big screen to the same degree as his fellow ex-Goon, Sellers.
He remained a tireless producer of comedy throughout his life, a prolific actor, cartoonist and writer of nonsense verse in the tradition of Edward Lear. He wrote multiple children’s books, further memoirs and the novel Puckoon (1963).
One of Spike’s last great moments was also one of his funniest: his infamous takedown of Prince Charles in 1994.
Presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Comedy Awards, Milligan listened uninterested while host Jonathan Ross read out a glowing message of congratulations from the Prince of Wales.
“Grovelling bastard,” the recipient muttered.
Hailed as “the Godfather of Alternative Comedy” by Eddie Izzard, and “absolutely immortal” by Stephen Fry, Spike Milligan’s unique perspective and flair for an absurdist line is there for all to see in the selection of his best quips and one-liners below – the first of which is particularly apt for our current age.
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, which is just long enough to be president of the United States.”
“Money couldn’t buy friends, but you got a better class of enemy.”
“I have the body of an 18-year-old. I keep it in the fridge.”
“I’m a hero with coward’s legs.”
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.”
“The best cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”
“I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.”
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light, but the electricity board said he would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.”
“How long was I in the army? Five foot eleven.”
“I turned and rubbed my hands with glee. I always keep a tin of glee handy.”
“I can speak Esperanto like a native.”
“Is there anything worn under the kilt? No, it’s all in perfect working order.”
He hears a human voice coming from an elephant....Spike: Hello? Voice: Hello? Spike: Where are you? Voice: Inside the elephant. Spike: How did you get in there?Voice: I know the right people
Milligan is also credited with writing the world’s funniest joke, as established by a study carried out at the University of Hertfordshire by Professor Richard Wiseman in 2001.
Taken from an early Goons episode of 1951, the gag centred around a man telephoning for help after discovering a body. It plays out as follows:
Michael Bentine: “I just came in and found him lying on the carpet there.”
Peter Sellers: “Oh, is he dead?”
Bentine: “I think so.”
Sellers: “Hadn’t you better make sure?”
Bentine: “All right. Just a minute.”
Sound of two gun shots.
Bentine: “He’s dead.”