The loon Goon gone wrong

A new play dramatises the exuberant madness of Spike Milligan's life and work

Spike Milligan's headstone reads, "I told you I was ill." It is trademark Milligan: deadpan, subversive, hilarious. But a new play by Roy Smiles makes it clear that the temperamental Goon was genuinely ill for much of his life, suffering from clinical depression.
Ying Tong charts one particular incident when Spike tried to escape from a mental hospital in the mid-1950s to write "the
Goon Show to end all
Goon Shows". The playwright has sought to pay witness to the extraordinary imagination and terrible cost of Milligan's genius, as he conjures "Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, his ex-wife, Irish leprechauns, morris dancers - this enormous range of crazy and wonderful characters".

Spike Milligan's headstone reads, "I told you I was ill." It is trademark Milligan: deadpan, subversive, hilarious. But a new play by Roy Smiles makes it clear that the temperamental Goon was genuinely ill for much of his life, suffering from clinical depression. Ying Tong charts one particular incident when Spike tried to escape from a mental hospital in the mid-1950s to write "the Goon Show to end all Goon Shows". The playwright has sought to pay witness to the extraordinary imagination and terrible cost of Milligan's genius, as he conjures "Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, his ex-wife, Irish leprechauns, morris dancers - this enormous range of crazy and wonderful characters".

"It is a comedy," stresses Michael Kingsbury, Ying Tong's director, having outlined the underlying poignancy of the plot. One suspects, though, that the play, like the man, will be a mass of unresolved tensions: at once comedic and genuinely moving. The director considers that comedy acted as both Milligan's disease and its cure, "a self-healing process for Spike". As such, Ying Tong is a journey into and through Milligan's unique consciousness, an under- taking that seems to have already reaped dividends for the artistic team behind this production. "Roy frightened the life out of me the other night," recalls Kingsbury. "At 3am, I heard a noise. I thought there was a burglar in the house, but it turned out to be Roy, re-writing a Goons sketch."

Clearly, Milligan's own creative intensity is not lost on the writing/directing team. Smiles, in particular, feels that he has inhabited the Goons' world his whole life: "I've always been obsessed by them. Bought all the books. Had all the scripts. My aunties used to do impressions of them around the house." This upbringing was invaluable in approximating the "richness, absurdity, madness and joy of the [Goons'] language", when writing Ying Tong. The challenge of this piece, he says, was to catch the flavour of The Goon Show without actually reproducing original Goons material. So, has that process been successful? "That's not for me to say," says the writer, "but the people at West Yorkshire Playhouse seem to think so."

Fans of mid-20th century comedy will be delighted to know that Ying Tong is the first in a proposed trilogy about dead comics, which will include Tony Hancock and a play about Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce. Kingsbury says he is intrigued by the prospect of working on a Hancock project with Smiles - "if we're still talking to each other at the end of this one".

The director also gives an assurance that those who are unfamiliar with The Goon Show will be able to enjoy the play along with ardent Goon-ers. "People will connect with Spike's journey - we've all felt like that." And does the comedy hold up to 21st-century inspection? "It is timeless. If you like The Fast Show, if you like Monty Python, if you like Little Britain, you'll like the humour in this play."

'Ying Tong', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700; www.wyp.org.uk) 22 October to 20 November

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    '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
    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