Don't be fooled: Spike was not a jolly japester

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The Independent Online

There is something curiously reductive about the way the British mark the passing of someone deemed to be a national treasure. Even personal favourites, such as Spike Milligan, quickly begin to seem less interesting, a snugger fit within the establishment, than they had actually been while they were still alive.

So Milligan, a true hero of comedy, has been commemorated as if he were some kind of cosy, crowd-pleasing japester. Compilations of his wit and wisdom have appeared in the press. One-liners – always a bit hit or miss – have been reverently recalled. The Sun has produced a hilarious kids' poem poster, featuring such favourites as: "My sister Laura's bigger than me/ And lifts me up quite easily/ I can't lift her, I've tried and tried;/ She must have something heavy inside."

Fortunately, the obituaries have provided reminders of the nastier, more interesting side to Milligan's character. This was a national treasure who described his fellow Goon Michael Bentine as "a sourpuss... who was never funny after he left", who once tried to attack Peter Sellers with a knife, who was a relentless fundamentalist about smoking, punctuality and much else, who didn't like women in power "because they make all the wrong bloody decisions", who recalled the Mother Superior of his school with the words: "I wish nothing better for her than to have been raped and murdered by a crazed terrorist."

Some way from the twinkly old cove who would be interviewed at regular intervals by Parky, reducing his host to adoring tears of mirth, the true Milligan would say: "Most people bore me to death. I have no time for stupid people." To the many whom he decided were boring or stupid (and I speak with authority here, having published him briefly during the late 1970s), he could be as grand and curmudgeonly as the most nightmarishly egocentric celebrity.

It is not enough, it seems, for Spike Milligan to have often been brilliantly funny and original. He is now portrayed as the initiator of some great comic tradition. He is the "great grandaddy", according to Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard's "godfather of alternative comedy". John Cleese has pronounced that he is "the great god of us all".

There are problems with this thesis. The first is that anyone who finds The Goons funny tends to lack a sense of humour. People who like to talk about Eccles and Bluebottle, who warble the "Ying Tong Song", talk in silly voices and cross their eyes like that sweet, unfunny man Harry Secombe, seem somehow to be going through the motions, to be imitating comedy, like someone reciting in a foreign language he does not truly understand.

If Milligan really was the god or godfather of surreal modern humour, he has much to answer for. Take a look at the self-consciously "mad" routines of Harry Hill. Tune in to the breathtakingly embarrassing Shooting Stars, which has been rendered watchable only by the lugubrious presence of Will Self, wearing the rueful expression of a talented writer who has said "yes" to TV once too often.

The weakness of the zany school of comedy is that its practitioners are too sane. The craziness is an ironic pose, a career move. The most fertile traditions of modern British humour have either been observational and character-based, from Tony Hancock to Steve Coogan or Paul Whitehouse, or satirical, from Beyond the Fringe to Chris Morris's paedophilia Brass Eye special.

Come to think of it, if any contemporary comic writer or performer can be said to be working the same edgy, dangerous territory as Spike Milligan, it is the one who has been rarely mentioned among those influenced by him and, indeed, was being widely demonised in the media some months back. Perhaps, one day, Chris Morris will be a national treasure, too.