Spike Milligan once joked: "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens". Yesterday, inevitably, he was – succumbing to kidney failure at the age of 83 at his home in Rye, East Sussex.
He was the last of the Goons to die and the one who could claim greatest credit for lighting that beacon of inspired idiocy. He had been, as comics and fans queued up to repeat, a monument of British comedy, though he was often at pains to point out that he owed that status to non-British talents.
His greatest influences, he claimed, were Groucho Marx and a genetically inherited tradition of lateral thinking: "I'm Irish and the Irish think sideways. When The Goon Show was first broadcast in 1951 that was still something of a novelty – 50 years on it had become a stock-in-trade for a whole group of free-associating surrealists – from Monty Python to Paul Merton.
The BBC insisted that the first series of The Goon Show go out under the laboriously explanatory title Those Crazy Folk, the Goons – and for Milligan the adjective was always uncomfortably close to the truth. He struggled with mental illness all his life, originally brought on by his experiences in the Second World War, but then exacerbated by the intense creative strain that the success of the Goons imposed on him. He remained a paradoxical figure, misanthropic but also charitable, surly but also tender, a gleeful melancholic.
He was born in 1918 in India, the son of a regimental sergeant major, but it was in 1931 in England where he discovered a taste for performance after winning a singing competition. At the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Artillery and was later wounded at the battle of Monte Cassino. That event resulted in his first breakdown.
The psychiatric intervention of his army commanding officer was brusque, to say the least. Milligan wrote later: "The noise of the guns will boost your morale, the bloody fool said. It didn't, the noise drove me mad." He was eventually court-martialled for "unreliable behaviour" and sent to a rehabilitation unit, where he formed a jazz band and played at concert parties.
After demobilisation, Harry Secombe – a war-time friend – introduced him to two ex-RAF entertainers, Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers and the Goons were born.
He never quite achieved was a broadcasting triumph to match his success on radio and in literature. On those occasions when he did appear, though, the talent for puckish mutiny was undiminished. "Back from the dead, for one night only" he muttered when the BBC celebrated his 80th birthday with a gathering of old friends and devotees in 1988. "Do you find yourself looking back at your childhood?" Terry Wogan asked him later. "No, it hurts my neck" replied Milligan tersely. Guilty of "unreliable behaviour", but reliably brilliant.Reuse content