Stars pay tribute to Spike in film version of Milligan's 'Puckoon'

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The Independent Culture

He spent four agonising years writing it and claimed he was nearly driven mad in the process. And in the last decade of his life, it became his overriding ambition to translate it to the big screen.

Now, after years of funding crises, script rewrites and casting changes, the curtain is finally rising on a movie version of the book Spike Milligan once vowed would be his "first and last novel".

Puckoon, the legendary ex-Goon's satire on the partitioning of Ireland, will be released in cinemas worldwide this summer. The outlandish story focuses on a sleepy village that is literally divided in two after inept officials draw an arbitrary line through a map of the country in their haste to reach a pub before closing time.

Widely regarded as a comic genius, Milligan, who received an honorary knighthood last year from the Prince of Wales, was buried on Friday following his death aged 83.

The film has attracted an all-star cast of character actors. Elliott Gould plays Dr Goldstein, while Richard Attenborough appears as "the author", the omnipresent being whose timely interjections guide the actions of the protagonists.

Irish comic Sean Hughes takes the central role of hapless layabout Madigan, a character whose name in the book is, tellingly, Milligan. And in a cheeky conceit, Spike's real-life daughter, Jane, appears briefly as his wife.

The eclectic cast also includes comedian Griff Rhys Jones, former Coronation Street star Charlie Lawson and screen veterans Milo O'Shea, Freddie Jones and David Kelly.

One whose absence will be all-too apparent, however, is the writer himself. Both Spike and the film's producers were determined that he should appear, but despite repeatedly adapting scripts and juggling schedules to accommodate his poor health he was never quite well enough to oblige.

Director Terence Ryan explained: "We were desperately keen to get Spike into the film, and over the years we spent loads of time working with him on the screenplay." Originally, he was going to play the narrator, the role now taken by Lord Attenborough.

"We did, in fact, shoot some footage of him in costume 10 years ago," said Mr Ryan. "The plan was to morph his face onto various objects and settings, so he would have turned up like the Cheshire Cat.

"We spent two days filming scenes with him in character at Shepperton, but I remember joking with him at the time, 'when we actually get the money to make the rest of this, you might not still be around'. He replied, 'that's a fair point'."

The process of securing funding to complete the movie proved a tortuous one. "It was delayed for years because no one would finance it. No one understood the humour."

In the end, the bulk of the £3.5m budget came from a German company, MBP, with a history of shrewd movie investments. Its recent successes include Last Orders, the acclaimed adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize- winning novel, starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins.

When the green light was finally given, Mr Ryan decided to re-cast Spike in the cameo role of Mr Madigan senior, the lead character's curmudgeonly father. But by this stage, it was 1999 and the comedian's health had seriously deteriorated.

"We held his scene right to the very last minute, but in the end it was clear it would never be possible."