Obituary: Spike Mullins
Wednesday 27 April 1994
SPIKE MULLINS had a glorious sense of the ridiculous. Although he wrote sketches and sitcoms for most of Britain's top comedians, his speciality was the one-liner. A Mullins gag ('My great-grandfather was killed at Custer's Last Stand. He didn't take any part in the fighting - he was camping nearby and went over to complain about the noise') was a model of comic precision, and woe betide any rash performer who paraphrased Mullins's material. Producers, too, had to be wary of him; while working on a British- made series destined for US television, he handed a sheet of gags to his American producer, who growled 'Damn it, this is in longhand. Can't you type?' Mullins loftily replied, 'No, that is something I have in common with Dickens and Shakespeare - I don't suppose you've heard of them.' Anticipating the sack, he left the office and the show.
I first met Mullins at BBC Television Centre, where we had come to discuss a new series called The Frost Report. Knowing he lived in Slough, I asked him if his journey to White City had been a tedious one. 'Fifty-five minutes on the train,' he replied dourly. 'Long time without a woman.' I once bumped into him at Thames and asked if he was working there. 'Yes,' he answered in those gloomy tones that had made me dub him the Despond of Slough. 'I'm doing a show starring Jim Davidson - but I've told my Mum it stars Heinrich Himmler.'
Spike Mullins was born in 1915 to a snobbish, hard-drinking mother and a fiery Irish stevedore father. In his autobiography he found them 'so ill-matched that I sometimes wonder if they got married for a bet'. The Mullinses lived opposite a south London film studio, and the infant Spike was frequently used in silent movies. While still in his teens, he signed on as galley boy on a cargo ship, his duties including stoking fires, preparing breakfast, washing cooking utensils, peeling vegetables and polishing brightwork. When he complained that he was getting about tuppence an hour, the ship's cook said, 'Well, don't tell the owners, because it's a bloody sight more than you're worth and they might want some of it back when we dock.'
Mullins tired of the sea after four years, and was working as a stevedore in September 1939, when Neville Chamberlain 'put into practice his hundred-per-cent way of lousing up a Sunday morning'. Ater his release from the RAF in 1945, ex-Leading Aircraftman Mullins earned his living washing dishes at a hotel, selling programmes at a theatre and waiting on tables at an all-night cafe. He also made a brief attempt at comedy writing; he sent some material to the radio comic Vic Oliver, who liked it and agreed to part with half a guinea a gag, but only if the audience laughed. Mullins sent gags to other comedians, but without success. After marrying, he gave up his dreams of a writing career and spent the next 16 years supporting his growing family by working as a general labourer, a barman, a shop assistant, a house painter, a steel erector, a farm bailiff, a porter in a block of flats, a changehand at a factory and a deckhand on a dredger.
In 1963 he read that Max Bygraves was looking for writers, and his wife persuaded him to make one last try. They sat up till two, Spike scribbling and Mary typing. Three days later he received an enthusiastic letter from Bygraves, accompanied by a cheque, and Slough's Late Developer was finally off and running.
The Frost Report (1966) introduced him to Ronnie Corbett, and one of the highlights of The Two Ronnies (1971) was the spot in which Corbett sat in a large chair and, after a surrealistic Mullins preamble, told a joke. Those preambles were studded with such well-honed non- sequiturs as 'I actually found this joke in an old Reader's Digest in between an article called 'Having Fun with a Hernia' and a story about a woman who brought up a family of four with one hand while waiting for Directory Enquiries.'
In 1973 Angela Bond, a BBC producer with a talent for discovering talent, booked Mullins to appear on her radio series After 7, and his lugubrious pieces of autobiography delighted listeners. He also appeared on Radio 4's Quote . . . Unquote, in which, after incorrectly identifying a series of quotations, he complained, 'The producer must have sold me the wrong set of answers.'
The Harry Secombe Show (1978) won Mullins and his co-writers Barry Cryer and Peter Vincent the Pye Colour Television Award. That same year, after urgings from his wife, Corbett, Secombe and Angela Bond, he used his After 7 scripts as the basis for Me, To Name But A Few, an autobiography that was fascinating and compelling. Small wonder; Spike had had that kind of life.
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