Auction reveals the secret life of Spike Milligan

Personal effects to be sold at auction give an intimate insight into the comedian's life. Jerome Taylor reports

It sounds like one of the jokey stories he would tell in a poem or novel. When a wrecking ball sliced a nearby Victorian block of flats in two, Spike Milligan spotted a grand piano left in a disused apartment. Approaching the foreman of the building site, he bribed him with a fiver to hand over the instrument.

"The money did the trick. The piano was lowered to the floor in a net, another £10 to have it transported to me home – and voila! I had a grand piano." But a mere work of humorous fiction this was not – it actually happened. And that very 1883 Broadwood Grand, having been established in the Milligans' home, was played every morning by none other than Paul McCartney, a neighbour in Rye in East Sussex, who would let himself in to wake up his friends by playing the piano.

The musical instrument is one of an array of personal effects which are being sold by Milligan's third wife, Shelagh, who is moving into a smaller home which does not have the space to hold the myriad of items that her late husband collected.

So Milligan, who wrote the lines "With hand signals/ Or polite cough/ He bid twenty-five million/ For a Vincent Van Gogh/ For that sort of money/ I'd chop my ear off" in the five-line poem "Auction Stations", is himself going under the hammer.

In the first major auction of his personal effects since his death from liver failure in February 2002, a previously unseen collection of personal books and notes (including a handwritten copy of the above poem) will go on sale, alongside furniture, paintings, manuscripts, photographs and recordings that belonged to the comedian, at Bonhams on 25 November.

"I just don't have the space in my new house to put everything," said Shelagh. "The alternative is that I carry on paying these huge storage bills and everything just sits there rotting away. But I can't pretend I'm going to find it easy. When we were cataloguing various items for the sale, I went to the store and it felt as if our whole life was laid out in front of me."

Items expected to fetch the highest prices at the wider celebrity-themed auction include the yellow Reliant van from the BBC's popular television series Only Fools and Horses and a tasselled waistcoat once worn by Elvis Presley. But it is Milligan's personal artefacts that are causing the greatest excitement among collectors because of the astonishingly personal portrait they paint of the comedian's life.

As well as the piano, other lots reveal just how close the comedian was to all the members of the Beatles, who were fans of The Goon Show, Milligan's radio show that revolutionised British comedy in the post-war era. Beatles-related memorabilia include a banner with the words "Peace" and "Love" given as a Christmas present by George Harrison and a book on trauma therapy signed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Other lots allude to the more anarchic side of Milligan that characterised much of his comedy in a career spanning more than five decades. A prolific note-writer, Milligan loved to leave chaotic and amusing missives – a note on his grave in East Sussex, for instance, reads "Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite", Gaelic for "I told you I was ill".

A collection of scribblings aimed at guests who visited his home are expected to fetch up to £150. One note left for taxi-drivers reads: "Driver please don't knock – I'll be out at the appointed time"; another for smokers reads: "No smoking. We are trying to give up lung cancer" and a typically self-deprecating note that was often left on his front door as a warning to guests simply reads "Sorry for being me – I don't know how to be anyone else".

Stephanie Connell, a specialist in entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams, said she expected the auction would be popular despite the current economic circumstances because many of the lots are relatively inexpensive. "With entertainment memorabilia you will always have a fan base who are willing to buy items and they'll come up with the money regardless of the financial conditions," she said. "Most of the lots are also not going for an especially large amount of money. This sale offers a unique opportunity for fans of Spike Milligan to obtain a personal memento from a sadly missed legend of British comedy."

But although he was regarded as one of the greatest British comedians of the 20th century, Milligan was also prone to bouts of severe depression. In an interview with Bonhams Magazine, Shelagh recalled how one of the world's funniest men would often "retreat into his room and stick this postcard on the door saying 'Fuck off'".

She recalled: "There were times when I was wounded by things he would say to me, things he did. But on the whole I gave as good as I got."

Lyrical lots: Milligan memorabilia under the hammer

TOW PATH

"In Manchester Square/ Where there's nowhere to park/ If you do then along comes A Warden or Nark/ And they tow your car/ To Rochdale pound/ Three times a day/ If you leave it around.

"No more Manchester/ Then for me/ If they want me again/ I'd have to be/ Dead as a door nail/ Strapped to a bike/ Then they can tow me/ Wherever they like!"

(Inspired after being towed away three times in a day in Manchester)

Mountain

"I'm going to eat a mountain/ It shouldn't take long they say/ I'll slowly eat that mountain/ Bit by bit every day"

The poet of Dumbwoman's Lane

(written by Paul McCartney to Spike Milligan)

"The voice of the poet of Dumbwoman's Lane/ Can be heard across the vallies of sugar-burned cane/ And nostrils that sleep through the wildest of nights/ Will be twitching to gain aromatic insights.

"The wife of the farmer of Poppinghole Lane/ Can be seen from the cab of the Robertsbridge train/ And passengers' comments will frequently turn/ To the wages the wife of a farmer can earn.

"The poet of Dumbwoman's Lane sallies forth/ He is hoping for no one to see."

Extract of a speech to Chelsea Arts Club, May 1982

"My lords, ladies and gentlemen, and that swine the chef. I am here a) because of an invitation and b) hunger. The invitation came from a Miss Coil, whose grandfather invented it... I asked her why I was to be honoured as after-dinner speaker – she said 'well we'd run out'. I said 'of speakers?' She said 'no – money'. I said 'I understand as I've heard that people are being paid £3 to come here and £5 to eat the dinner'."

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk