cast of spike

Margaret Cabourn-Smith's Janet splits the encores in Spike


Malvern Theatres


Terrence Alan “Spike” Milligan was an enigma, a comic genius, a man of whom Bernard Miles once said: “he is so different he can't always communicate with his own species”.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play Spike takes a small section of his life and his battle with the BBC to keep The Goon Show on air . . . and his longer battle against his own demons.

Milligan, who died from kidney failure in 2002, suffered bi-polar disorder and his life was punctuated by severe mental breakdowns, some long lasting, including at least one during the run of The Goon Show, with Eric Sykes drafted in to help on scripts and Dick Emery brought in to bulk out voices.

The Goon Show, though, was an extension of Milligan. It was comedy anarchy, surreal with an alternative logic, convention not even in the same galaxy, all punctuated by lots of explosions, the louder the better.

It was a world of Neddie Seagoon, Major Dennis Bloodnok, Eccles, who always got deaded, Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister, Moriarty and on an on with Harry Secombe as Ned and Peter Sellers and Milligan as everyone else.

It was a world not everyone wanted to visit though. Robert Mountford plays the moustachioed, ex-officer BBC executive who just can’t understand The Goon Show and would love to dump it, but the ratings and its soaring popularity, which baffles him as much as the show, mean it goes on.

He could never understand either why his wife Mildred liked the show, Mildred being played by Ellie Morris who also fits in as Spike’s mum and his long suffering wife June. To her credit you need the programme to know its all her.

spike and exec

Robert Mountford as the BBC head of comedy looks on as Robert Wilfort's Spike tries to crank up the explosions

Mind you with 26 named characters, plus assorted other bodies, and just 10 cast, doubling up is the name of the game. While Ellie Morris covers wives, James Mack has the dual role of producer, first as Denis Main-Wilson then, after Denis left to produce Hancock, he transforms into Peter Eton, who helped transition the Goons from random sketches to half hour episodes. Still random sketches perhaps, but now within a structure and with a purpose until the obligatory explosion.

His main headache, and a constant one, was getting scripts from Spike on time – which was never – or at least in time for a run through before recording – which was the best he could hope for.

The writing of scripts was a constant battle for Spike, taxing even his fertile brain. Robert Wilfort plays him with manic delight. Spike was not good with authority or orders and it shows with confrontation preferred to compromise when it came to the BBC, leaving it to the producer to calm the waters.

Jeremy Lloyd gives us the always smiling, always laughing Secombe, a calming influence who found most problems were solved or at least lessened with brandy.

Patrick Warner had the more difficult role of Sellers, the man of a thousand voices. The pair had a close, if at times uneasy relationship, Sellers unhappy his ideas were often ignored.

Like Milligan, Sellers had that air of comic genius which was to flourish in films but he too had his demons, his superstitions which instilled in him real fear, and his obsession with who he had been in past lives, people who Milligan bemoaned were always famous and never ordinary. 

An influence on Milligan was the war, The Goons started in 1951 when rationing was still in force and memories still raw. All three Goons and both producers had seen service. Gunner Milligan first in North Africa then at Monte Casino where he was wounded and was diagnosed with shell shock, the seeds of his life of mental turmoil sown. The war might be over, but flashbacks didn’t help his often fragile sanity.

The Goon Show and its explosions and bizarre plots demanded a whole battery of special effects which is where Janet comes in, played by Margaret Cabourn-Smith, who actually, in 1950’s jolly hockey sticks style, provides a fascinating and informative demonstration of special effects at the start of each act with simple items such as rattling handbags filled with nuts and bolts, hot water bottles and even an umbrella for a departing flock of birds.

She is also one of the pompous and pretentious critics, along with James Mack and Robert Mountford, wheeled out from time to time to discuss The Goon Show in terms to guarantee a spot in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

goons complete

With Janet (left) in the background Spike, Denis Main-Wilson (James Mack), Harry Secombe (Jeremy Lloyd) and Peter Sellers (Patrick Warner) prepare for a run through.

There are laughs a plenty, many remarkably silly and demonstrating not only Milligan’s lightning fast wit but also his familiarity with the absurd, such as his response when asked at a party if June (his wife) was here, “No, it’s November.”, or when the BBC exec states: “I am not an idiot you know” and Milligan’s response: “No I didn’t know”.

Katie Lias’s set is simple with a video screen above and a simple window with various curtains drawn back and forth with what appear to be bed sheets with information, such as the Goon's local, The Grafton Arms, scrawled on them in much the same style as Milligan’s Private Eye cartoons. Rory Beaton’s lighting highlights drama, gives us wartime scenes and sets the mood while Tom Marshall’s sound is, well Janet sorts it out, so it works pretty good.

Amid all the laughter, and there is plenty of it, there is an underlying sadness though. Milligan was poet, actor, comic, playwright and novelist – Puckoon being one of the great comic novels - but he was also a tortured soul and we see hints of that in this clever and fast moving play.

His career moved on. I caught the later Goons and reruns and I saw him in Oblomov, a serious play which he turned into improv and a different show every night, and who can forget The World of Beachcomber when amid the silly sketches each week Sir Michael Redgrave would walk out on our screens to the lectern on a deserted stage to read a section of the list of Huntingdonshire Cabmen.

His influence through The Goons and beyond inspired the likes of Monty Python and opened a door to a whole generation of comedy and comedians, he was a contributor and great supporter of Private Eye, some of his cartoons are reproduced in the programme, and also a great friend of the then Prince and now King Charles III.

Spike is a joyous celebration of just a small part of Spike’s talent, tempered by the terrors he faced, in an informative and affectionate night of entertainment. Directed by Paul Hart Spike will be turning up with last minute scripts to 17-09-22.

Roger Clarke


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