Spike Milligan: the biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Ups and downs of the Goons' sad fool
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The Independent Culture

The sad clown may be a showbiz cliché but, like a lot of Light Ent legends, there does seem to be some truth in it. Shakespeare's wisest fools all suffered from melancholia, and many of the funniest comics have laboured under a heavy sense of Weltschmerz. Spike Milligan was almost as famous for his manic depression as his manic humour, and Humphrey Carpenter's chatty yet perceptive biography charts the fascinating ebb and flow between the poles of his personality.

Great comics are outsiders, prophets without honour, and Milligan's oblique perspective was that of a cultural refugee. Born in 1918, in colonial India, into an Anglo-Irish forces family, he had an idyllic childhood that ended abruptly in 1933 when the Milligans sailed back to Britain. His parents had to forsake their beloved sideline as part-time variety entertainers, and Spike had to swap servants and sunshine for dead-end jobs amid the suburban smog of south London. "I sort of got lost and turned in on myself," he said, but as a comic incubation it was perfect. In a way he remained a child, with a child's unfettered imagination, and much the same surreal innocence as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.

His teenage salvation was playing the trumpet with local bands, and maybe he would have become a celebrated jazz musician if Hitler hadn't intervened. Spike's war was the best and worst of times. In the Army, he discovered a flair for clowning, and the horrible absurdity of warfare added fearless irreverence to his childlike wit. Yet it also gave him shell-shock, which never really left him. By 1945, his comic (and depressive) apprenticeship was complete.

Then came the Goons, which Carpenter reckons as Milligan's finest hour, though he meticulously acknowledges all the collaborators who made Spike's magnum opus sing. After that came Q, his shambolic (and sporadically brilliant) TV series, which inspired Monty Python and a new comedy that broke free from punchline-shackled jokes. Q was arguably more influential than the Goons, but certainly less successful. The main reason was the medium. Spike's monsoon stream of consciousness could only really flow on radio, where, as he said, "the pictures are better".

Ironically, the man remembered as one of Britain's greatest comedians was most prolific as an author, from war memoirs to nonsense verse. In the end, the printed page gave him a far freer reign than that tyrannical king-maker, television. This is merely one of many paradoxes that makes Milligan's life so intriguing. How did such a devoted dad, who won custody of his children after his first marriage failed, father two illegitimate children and never meet them until the tabloids came calling? How could this father of six urge Tony Blair to stem overpopulation by banning new babies for five years?

From dodgy racial jokes to extramarital affairs, Carpenter soberly charts Spike's indiscretions without salaciousness or sycophancy. The contradictory individual that emerges is the eternal mixture of kindness and cruelty, but with the volume turned up full blast. Spike may have denied his savage depression was the flipside of his strange genius, but it really is impossible to imagine one without the other.