On the 100th anniversary of the BBC there was perhaps no better show to watch than the brilliant Spike, written by Ian Hislop & Nick Newman and directed by Paul Hart. Spike is a piece of genius comedy writing, perfectly performed and as timeless as the original.
Stepping us back into the early life of Terence Alan Milligan, Spike to everyone who knew him, we are given an insight into Milligan’s army life in WW2, the shellshock he suffered while storming Monte Cassino and his subsequent battles with depression and PTSD. Perhaps one of the best examples of the adage “there is a very fine line between genius and insanity”, Milligan is best remembered for his writing and performing on the Goon Show and it is around this that the show centres.
Set in the recording studios of BBC radio, the evening is ‘narrated’ by BBC Radio soundscape technician Janet (Margaret Cabourn-Smith), who interjects the story with hilarious glimpses of the ingenious and sometimes crazy ways sound effects were produced in the early 1950’s. Janet, and BBC announcer Peter Dukes, are wonderful with their BBC RP which in itself is almost as iconic of the 40’s & 50’s radio as the shows themselves.
The pace is relentless; it’s like sitting in a comedy washing machine on a hot wash and just as you feel you’re done it goes into the spin cycle. Robert Wilfort as Milligan is amazing; his capture of Spike’s manic approach to everything, his constant seeking for approval and his personal criticism doesn’t just ‘peel back the layers of the onion’, it cuts it in two, laying bare the whole cross section of Milligan’s psyche. Fellow Goons, Jeremey Lloyd as Harry Seacombe and Patrick Warner as Peter Sellers are worthy of holding centre stage themselves, just as the originals could do, but when mashed up into ‘The Goons’ they become so much bigger than the sum of their parts. At times the madcap and madness is almost too much to cope with, each vying to be as funny as the others, seamless complimenting yet always competing. Producer(s) James Mack tries his absolute best to channel their energy (having long given up on trying to control it), ever mindful of having to answer to the BBC Execs who still hold the hierarchical attitude of rank & place left over from the war. It was, in fact, Milligan’s experience of how officers dealt with his PTSD (even accusing him of cowardice and feigning injury) that left him with a deep seated resentment of authority. Robert Mountford, as the Director for Light Entertainment is the perfect epitome of such ...... Bollocks (I will replace this when I know what to write).
Milligan’s long suffering wife June (Ellie Morris) does, as is so often the case, provide the unconditional love for our flawed genius, constantly trying to understand her husbands demons, trying so very hard to find a way she can help and protecting him from the world outside and himself inside.
The set (designed by Katie Lias), whilst at first appearing to be a simple cross section of the recording studio, is brilliantly designed to be able to seamlessly shift from the war torn battlefields of WW2, the local pub, psychiatric hospitals and the tortured mind of Spike. Lighting designer Rory Beaton producers an example of excellence that any budding lighting engineers should study.
Writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have created a show which transcends a simple homage to Spike Milligan; this is not just a look back to one of the country’s, if not the world’s, greatest comedians, but lays at our feet a view of the foundations for comedy as we know it today. This list of those who felt influenced by Milligan is staggering and those who they have then gone on to inspire is equally as impressive – his impact has exponentially affected the comedy world and I feel that, in their own way, Hislop and Newman, by bringing Spike back to the fore, can be seen as just as influential too.