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Spike by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
13th September 2022 - 17th September 2022
Karl Sydow, Trademark Films and Anthology Theatre present the Watermill Theatre Production of
By Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
“I’m not acting crazy. I’m the genuine article.”
It’s the booming fifties, and Britain is in the clutches of Goon mania as men, women and children across the country scramble to get their ear to a wireless for another instalment of The Goon Show. While Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers get down to the serious business of becoming overnight celebrities, fellow Goon and chief writer Spike finds himself pushing the boundaries of comedy, and testing the patience of the BBC.
Will Spike’s dogged obsession with finding the funny elevate The Goons to soaring new heights, or will the whole thing come crashing down with the stroke of a potato peeler?
SPIKE is an absurdly funny new play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (The Wipers Times, Trial By Laughter, A Bunch of Amateurs) that delves into the inner workings of one of our most unique and brilliantly irreverent comedy minds.
Post-Show Q&A with Ian Hislop and Nick Newman – Tuesday 13th September – Free to ticket holders.
Extracts from The Goons used with the kind permission of Spike Milligan Productions.
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours 10 minutes (including interval)
Showtime! with John Phillpott
WRITER Ian Hislop cleverly loads his character’s gun who then obligingly takes pot shots at the intended target.
Fiendishly clever, Major Bloodnok. In fact, I can almost hear Harry Secombe’s stentorian tones making that observation over the airwaves back in the 1950s. But is it Milligan railing against the BBC… or is he really being sub-contracted by satirist Ian Hislop?
Set in austerity post-war Britain, Hislop and fellow writer Nick Newman have done glorious justice to the legendary radio show that proved to be just the tonic for the slowly recovering country.
The Goon Show. It was a success right from the word go, an entire nation shutting down each evening when it went on air. As each episode unfolded, it became increasingly anarchic and irreverent, a trend that might so easily have proved to be the show’s downfall.
And it didn’t take long before the usual suspects started to complain. Interestingly, nothing has changed in today’s society, where the urge to silence the non-conformist voice is still very much present.
Once, it was the Establishment Right that sought to stifle all dissent. Now, ironically - as we are depressingly reminded on a daily basis - it is the Establishment Left.
So back then, the BBC predictably tried to find a way to tame the radio renegades who shamelessly poked fun at every form of authority and officially approved thought.
How to control this Frankenstein and its wayward leading light Spike Milligan, which has become so alarmingly popular with the masses?
Ah yes, that’s it, we’ll micro-manage The Goons. There must be no more straying from the script, no more ad libs or improvisation. In other words, castrate the whole thing and eventually it will crawl away and disappear from sight.
Robert Wilfort does a fine job as the troubled soul of a man whose innate free spirit has been scarred by the trauma of war service. And Jeremy Lloyd’s blisteringly accurate impersonation of Harry Secombe is utterly remarkable. He not so much plays the character but inhabits it.
Likewise Patrick Warner’s take on Peter Sellers, whose owlish presence and murderous wit will prove to form the template for the countless comedians who come after him.
Being an unreconstructed small boy at heart, some of my favourite interludes are supplied by Janet (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) who draws from a seemingly bottomless well of sound effects using everyday items, most of the noises silly beyond belief.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have created a magnificent tribute to their comic heroes, their affection and reverence for these most irreverent of characters coming through loud and clear.
A question and answer session followed the first night’s performance and it’s probably fair to say that the ever-entertaining Hislop probably upstaged his own show.
Many members of the audience will have attended solely to see the man they regard as a major celebrity and television personality, with Spike Milligan arguably taking second billing.
Nevertheless, as most of us know, the immortal Spike will always be the real star who, being a former artillery man, skilfully fires Hislop’s carefully loaded guns for him.
TERENCE Alan “Spike” Milligan has been dead for more than 20 years.
For many of the generation, who like him had lived and fought through the Second World War, he was the bright, shining light of BBC radio’s Home Service; the madcap, crazy co-creator, principal writer and performer of The Goon Show.
Throughout the 1950s Milligan, together with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and initially, Michael Bentine, had millions of listeners convulsed with laughter as they followed the surreal weekly antics of the likes of Eccles, Bluebottle, Colonel Bloodnok, Minnie Bannister, Neddy Seagoon, Henry Crun and Moriarty.
The Goon Show was to radio what Monty Python’s Flying Circus was much later to television and it is acknowledged that without the former, it is likely there would never have been the latter.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s new play Spike delivers a potted history of The Goon Show. Laughter, there is a-plenty, liberally sprinkled with familiar Goon Show gags and catchphrases, some of the famous one-liners from Milligan (a wholly convincing Robert Wilfort), Secombe’s frequent blowing of raspberries (though sadly Jeremy Lloyd’s are not as good as the real thing) and in Patrick Warner, Sellers’ ease for mimicry and the seduction of women.
There are applause-worthy masterclasses in sound effects, too, from Janet (Margaret Cabourn-Smith), because apart from the puns and the skewed logic of The Goon Show, mainly at the insistence of Milligan, the programme also broke new ground in noises off.
But there is a darker side to Spike and through flashbacks it shows a glimpse of just what kind of madness put the madcap into Milligan.
Above everything else this is a play about the battles in Spike Milligan’s life. His battle against authority during the Second World War (in which he suffered shell shock at Monte Casino), his constant battle with the BBC hierarchy, who failed miserably to understand the concept of the Goons – some thought it was pronounced the Go ons – his battle to write the scripts and the battle within his own mind, which eventually led to a mental breakdown.
Towards the end of his life half-Irish Milligan even did battle with the church to be allowed the chosen epitaph on his gravestone. He was refused the words “I told you I was ill” but in the end they were inscribed in Gaelic.
Spike Milligan was much more than the surrealist, anarchic and absurd humour of The Goon Show. He was comic genius, tortured soul, poet, playwright, musician, songwriter, novelist and yes, the undoubted Godfather of alternative comedy.
Spike celebrates all of this. It’s fun and it’s sometimes silly - and it brings cheer at a time when we need it most.
The new play by Private Eye colleagues Ian Hislop and Nick Newman charts the early days of comedian Spike Milligan, during the time he starred and wrote countless episodes of the hugely influential BBC radio comedy, The Goon Show.
Milligan curated the manic silliness, which was further amplified by fellow Goons, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers - very often in spite of the perplexed BBC top brass. That was to the delight of listeners around the country, still recovering from the Second World War, as Milligan was himself.
The play blasts from the comparatively cosy brown BBC radio theatre to the bangs and chaos of the front line, and in the midst, shows Spike's failure to resist a gag even in the face of such horror.
This was perhaps a coping mechanism which he used until his death in 2002.
The play touches upon Milligan's mental health issues, his breakdown following a disastrous gig in Coventry for instance. However, it does not linger on them as I suspect Newman and Hislop wanted to keep things light and director Paul Hart wanted to maintain the breezy momentum.
Instead it revels in the absurdity and silliness of the Goon Show scripts and that is no bad thing. Robert Wilfort is an imposing presence as Spike and although he does not share a resemblance, he captures the comedian's cheekiness and emotional vulnerability.
The support from Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd as Sellers and Secombe respectively is flighty and fun, but more focus on their camaraderie and chemistry would have been welcome.
The introductions by the Foley artist, Janet (played by Margaret Cabourn-Smith) as she demonstrated how various sounds are created proved to be a charming reminder of the joy of radio.
The ingenious staging kept you in the moment and sufficiently recreated the period. The jokes are frequent and funny enough to avoid the 'tears of a clown, troubled genius' clichés.
If you are a Milligan obsessive (they do exist), you may be yearning the unpredictable, subversive, anarchic side of his comedy persona. But if you have scant or no knowledge of the man himself, you couldn't ask for a more fun and touching tribute to a unique comedy mind.
Julie Bellerby for Fairy Powered Productions
Spike by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop is a fast moving review of the life of Spike Milligan who’s vision of comedy was ground breaking and the base for many in the industry.
The play shows glimpses of his traumatic life, as a soldier in the second world war and his mental illness, and how the pressure of writing the Goon Show took its toll.
The Goon Show is still what he’s best known for during the 50’s and 60’s. This play mainly concentrates on this show using actual scripts Spike had written.
Spike is played by Robert Wilfort, who gave a good performance depicting this complex man who lived on the edge of life. Robert has appeared on our TV screens in many productions which includes Bridgerton, Citizen Khan, Gavin and Stacey and Ashes to Ashes.
Harry Secombe, played by Jeremy Lloyd was, for me, the strongest performer of the night, his portrayal of Harry gave the best believable character of the three.
Peter Sellers, played by Patrick Warner gave a good performance showing Peter’s personality well. Patrick has previously performed in ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ which has amazing timing with comedy, and can only help to increase his talents in this portrayal of Peter.
The three actors should work on interaction with each other to show a stronger connection of timing. This would greatly enhance the ‘believability’ of characters in the performance.
The biggest laughs of the evening went to ‘Janet’ played by Margaret Cabourn-Smith as the sound effect technician for the radio shows. She has a couple of scenes showing what props she used and to what effect, which was cleverly written.
The stage is set as the BBC radio recording studio, designed by Katie Lias was innovative, transforming easily to depict different scenes by the simple use of curtains and lighting. The lighting designed by Rory Beaton was very good and helped enormously to change the feel of the set. The flow of props is amazing, the constant movement was designed by Shelby Williams which seamlessly kept the show flowing and enhanced the depiction of the life of Spike Milligan.
As the first performance at Malvern Theatre there was a question and answer session after the play with Ian Hislop and Nick Newman with more antidotes’ about Spike. Both writers had met Spike in their earlier life as reporters and when working for the Private Eye Magazine.
A show worth seeing, but you do need to be aware of the Goon Show and the style of Comedy it had. It did leave you with a sense of wanting more. Time flew by, I was amazed when the final curtain closed
The View From The Stalls
The 1950's proved to be a bit of a renaissance in comedy at the BBC after suffering from the austerity of the immediate post-war years and the demise of the popular ITMA series following the death of Tommy Handley. It was a time when various writing partnerships came to the fore - Galton & Simpson, Muir & Norden - as well as writers such as Eric Sykes and, the subject of this show, Terence Alan "Spike" Milligan, India-born but of Irish descent.
His most famous collaboration was, of course, with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers in BBC Radio's The Goon Show. He was inventive and ground-breaking is his approach to comedy. The BBC, however, has a history of issues with entertainers who break the rules (more recently, Kenny Everett who had a continuing love-hate relationship with the corporation) and so it was with Milligan who produced comedy which mocked the BBC and which was not understood by it either, even though vast audiences loved it.
In addition, the BBC considered Secombe and Sellers to be the show's talent, the ones who could be relied upon, whilst Milligan, as the writer and true creative element who repeatedly did not get his scripts in on time, was seen as something of a loose cannon.
The events which took place throughout various series of the show are the basis of this story, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, another long-standing writing partnership which most recently brought The Wipers Times to the Malvern stage. Through the auspices of the satirical publication Private Eye, they are linked to Milligan who regularly provided content for it. The Milligan/Secombe/Sellers Goons are played by Robert Wilfort, Jeremy Lloyd and Patrick Warner who all portray their very individual characteristics with ease. During the first half, the man in charge of comedy at the BBC is Denis Main-Wilson who later moved on from radio to produce many TV comedies, including Till Death Us Do Part. Come part two, a new person is in charge, Peter Eton (both are played by James Mack) who came in from BBC Drama and who decided to change things by requiring, for example, proper rehearsals but luckily rejected a proposal to introduce ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews into the show . In hindsight, it may not have been the best of moves to tamper with the likes of the temperamental Spike, already suffering from the anxiety of writing so many scripts whilst being paid substantially less that the other two and the script, via flashbacks to his army career, to some extent show why he is how he is.
Part of radio shows (then as now) is the use of sound effects - increasingly bizarre in the case of the Goons - especially once tape had been introduced, replacing 78RPM records. At various points in the show, we see these being used courtesy of the special effects engineer (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) who manages to convince us that what is fake sounds true to life… Well, a little anyway!
To be fair, the show is likely to attract an audience who are probably already familiar with either the Goons or Spike Milligan, as there were many references which are only really understandable to that audience. Why would anyone consider bringing a ventriloquist act into a radio show? Well bizarrely that was really a thing, with Educating Archie being very popular. But there are plenty of good one-liners too such as when, at a party, Milligan is asked if June (his wife) is coming. "No, it's mid-winter" comes the witty reply (think about it!). And, in Private Eye, he wrote "Inside the house, the blinds were drawn but the furniture was real". Beautifully-crafted one-liners and it's easy to understand why he would have struggled to keep up the pace of writing new ones.
The man may have been a somewhat tortured and misunderstood individual and the show goes a long way to explain and demonstrate his creative prowess.
Euan Rose - Malvern Observer
THE FACT a new play is on tour as opposed to a barrage of musical repeats, re-workings and jukebox honey pots is something to be celebrated in itself. Indeed a double celebration as this one looks like it aims to pay homage to an icon of the youth of those of us in our ‘elder statesman’ years, one Terrance Alan Milligan aka ‘Spike.’
Spike was the writer and intellect behind the ‘Goon Show’, which is acknowledged as the most groundbreaking radio show ever to grace the BBC Light Programme airways. This was back in 1951 and went on an outrageous romp for nine years.
I was a little too young to get the nuances but old enough to sing the ‘Ying-Tong song’.
Without doubt, Milligan was a genius and like many other of that ilk was borderline psychotic. He suffered from bipolar disorder and was subject to serious bouts of depression leading to several nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts. Despite all this he went on to marry three times, father six children and live until his early 80s.
Personally I found the title ‘Spike’ to be somewhat misleading as writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have chosen to limit the scale of their play to the Goon years and to make it more of a battle between Milligan and the BBC than a documentary on his life.
I also found Robert Wilfort somewhat unconvincing as Milligan – he lacked Spike’s charisma and his much loved command of black comedy – being more woeful than playful. In his defence, he has to battle with the shallowness of the text, which is too often joined up sound bites not punchy dialogue.
Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd fare slightly better as Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe but again have little help going in the way of character development from the script.
What is left are three caricatures – which is a shame, as there is a great play to be written about these three tormented sound and screen idols but unfortunately for me, this isn’t it!
Director Paul Hart makes the most of moving the action at a frantic pace around the double decker set from designer Katie Lias.
There are two hilarious set piece sketches from Margaret Cabourn-Smith as Janet and her sound effects table, which open both acts. These cleverly display how the gadgets making the effects become more sophisticated alongside the maturity of the ‘Goon Shows’ themselves. From coconut shells to electronic sounds and from adlibbed mayhem to scripted structured mayhem.
My shout out is to Robert Mountford as the nameless BBC executive who captures everything we love to hate about narrow-minded businessmen in pinstriped suits delving in the stuff of artistic souls.
Finally we get to the walkdown where we are treated to a glorious singsong with the whole company pitching in with everything from washboards to penny whistles. Oh for more of this in the show itself – putting aside the lack of character substance there is a wealth of madcap Goon tunes that would have been a joyous addition.
If you are under 75 years of age, don’t waste your money.