Australia's 'above-ground cemetery' finally forgives Spike and puts on its own Goon show

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The Independent Online

Given Spike Milligan's brand of humour, it seems appropriate that his parents should have chosen to retire to a place called Woy Woy. Indeed, the late comic often poked fun at the sleepy Australian town, calling it "the world's only above-ground cemetery".

Milligan's links with Woy Woy put it on the map in a manner not entirely appreciated by the local people. While some hailed him as an adopted son, others were sniffy about their town being made into an international laughing-stock.

But since his death last year, the divisions have given way to a warm nostalgic glow - not to mention a desire to cash in on the sole celebrity associated with the nondescript fishing village 55 miles north of Sydney. The result is Spikefest, a week-long comedy festival to be staged in Woy Woy in October, which organisers hope will become an annual event and tourist attraction.

Until now, the most exciting thing to happen in Woy Woy - which boasts a Rotary Club, an elderly population and a single set of traffic lights - was the midsummer oyster festival. Asked to list Woy Woy's sights and attractions, Chris Holstein, chairman of the Spikefest organising committee, rolled his eyes.

Mr Holstein, a local councillor, said: "We get a lot of people stopping in the town and saying they didn't realise the place actually existed. They thought that Spike made Woy Woy up."

Milligan's parents, Leo and Florence, emigrated to Australia in 1951, the year The Goon Show began its phenomenally successful run on BBC radio. They settled in Woy Woy and were followed by his younger brother, Des, a leading light on the festival committee.

Milligan was a frequent visitor to Australia, touring theatres and sometimes staying for months in his parents' modest bungalow. A passionate environmentalist, he added his voice to local campaigns. He wrote several books, including Adolf Hitler - My Part in His Downfall, in his father's tiny study.

While Milligan was honoured in London yesterday by his fellow comedian, Eric Sykes, who unveiled a blue plaque at the Bayswater offices of his long-time agent, Norma Farnes, no such recognition has been forthcoming in Woy Woy.

That omission is not surprising, given that the place was the butt of so many Milligan jokes. He once mused: "Woy. Woy. It's Aboriginal. Means 'deep water'. But which Woy means 'deep' and which Woy means 'water'?"

He teased the town's inhabitants, declaring: "There are just three signs on the railway station platform. 'Woy Woy', 'Woy Woy' and 'Woy Woy'. It's a special service for drunks."

Woy Woy appears to have forgiven him. The Glades Motor Inn has added a Spike Milligan International Wing.

The town library has a Spike Milligan Room where all his works are to be collected. For now, it is rather sparse.

The festival will feature performances by local comedians, comedy writing workshops and a parade in which participants walk backwards. A community radio station will air six hours of The Goon Show tapes. "Our first objective is to be funny," Mr Holstein said solemnly.

Spikefest will also reflect the lifelong depression from which Milligan suffered; the parade will raise funds for a local mental health unit. Mr Holstein said: "After Spike died, we felt Woy Woy should acknowledge him in some way. There were a few individuals who said Spike did nothing but badmouth the place. But most people are proud that their town received acknowledgement from a world-class comedian."

Des Milligan, an artist and cartoonist, designed the festival logo. He shares his brother's sense of humour, quoting comic poetry over lunch. "We're on the same wavelength," said Mr Milligan, 77, who uses his late parents' home as a weekend retreat.

The house has old photographs of Spike on the wall: meeting Prince Charles, his most famous fan, as well as the Queen and Queen Mother. Mr Milligan said he missed his brother, but was glad they had lived far apart. "There was a constant angst in his house because he had elements of megalomania," he said.

"Things had to be done his way, or he went into a manic depressive state and locked himself in his bedroom. If you asked him not to do something, he would deliberately do it ... If he hadn't died, I might have strangled him myself."

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