The last of the Goons He is comic genius, angry old man and manic depressive. David Lister meets them all : profile

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The Independent Online
LAST week the Prince of Wales was called "a little grovelling bastard" on television, and ITV received only four complaints. Perhaps only Spike Milligan could have got away with it. A national institution, even if Margaret Thatcher's Nationality A ct means that he is no longer British. A genius of comedy, acknowledged as godfather to Monty Python, even though he can't get a script accepted these days.

Milligan is 76. The last Goon Show, a series founded mainly on his inspiration, was recorded for BBC radio 34 years ago. At the British Comedy Awards last Sunday he may not have been the only member of the audience to think "about bloody time'' when he received his lifetime achievement award, but he was, inevitably, the only one to say it out loud. Then, when Jonathan Ross tried to read a tribute from Prince Charles, the Goons' most famous admirer, he was twice interrupted by Milligan's insults, which,most of those present decided, were affectionate.

Milligan's humour was always like that: anarchic and sometimes manic but also tender enough to stay just the right side of the good-taste barrier. When his fellow Goon, Peter Sellers, survived his first heart attack in the Sixties, Spike sent him a telegram: "Swine, Bloodnok. Had you insured."

Now, Sellers is dead and, of the other Goons, Harry Secombe has turned to musicals and Songs of Praise, and Michael Bentine has given up comedy sketches for talks on spiritualism and psychic phenomena. Only Milligan keeps the flame of Goonery alight. He is rewriting the classics: the latest, which has just arrived in the bookshops, is Wuthering Heights According to Spike Milligan. The humour is variable. Heathcliff appears as a Pakistani shopkeeper. "You are a very tall man,'' he said. "There's a reason,'' I said. "I'm on a horse.''

This was the sort of stuff that had the teenage Prince Charles in hysterics. "What's the weather like today, Min?" "I'll go and look out of the window, Henry.'' "Well, what's it like, Min?'' "I don't know, Henry. I can't see through the snow.''

Last week showed that Milligan can be more alternative than any alternative comedian. But he has given up trying to get scripts on television, he says. "I wrote for two years to the BBC controller, Alan Yentob - that name's got to be an anagram hasn't it- just asking him to repeat my series Q. All the Monty Python team acknowledged it as an influence. In the end he did repeat it but I had to go cap in hand, a begging job. No one has asked me to write any new stuff."

He lives in a beautiful and isolated house a few miles outside Rye in Sussex. It seems a characteristic touch that the house should be in a road called Dumb Woman Lane. When the phone rings, he answers as "your friendly district visiting rapist", a briefreminder that the Goons' humour might not always sit comfortably in the 1990s.

Perhaps for the first time, he has found serenity in his personal life. He lives with his third wife, Shelagh, 28 years his junior. They met when she went to work for him as a temporary typist and have been married for 11 years. He shuffles around in carpet slippers, stoking the fire in his Victorian stove, boasting that he does not know how to use the video machine or much other technology subsequent to the telephone. He can chat contentedly about his children and grandchildren and, in particular, about his new relationship with James, an illegitimate son from an affair during the 1970s. (They never met during the first 16 years of James's life but Milligan insists that he does not feel guilt "because I've never done any wrong - I've always supported him, sent him to school.") He has had a triple heart by-pass operation ("I couldn't afford more than a triple") but he now keeps to a daily fitness routine: a two-mile walk, a 30-length swim, and sit-ups, press-ups, and curls with bar bells.

Only once during our afternoon together did his good humour snap. I asked him what he thought of comedy on television today. "There isn't any," he said brusquely, and changed the subject.

MILLIGAN is not just one of Britain's most celebrated comedians; he is also probably our most famous manic depressive. He has had a dozen or so spells in mental hospitals. When I went to see him, he was on the phone to his psychiatrist, not on his own behalf but on behalf of what he thought was a fellow-sufferer - he said he had recognised symptoms in a girl who had been to one of his book-signings.

"I'm all right. I'm on lithium now,'' he said. "I started taking it a couple of years ago. It's a relief not to have to go into these mental homes any more. It all started in the War when a barrage of mortar bombs fell on us. I threw myself on the groundand something must have happened. I was unconscious for a couple of minutes. When I came to I was trembling and stammering. Whatever bravery I had, I had run out of. They said they would have to downgrade me. From that day I suffered mental illness.''

The depressions came regularly and when they did he would become obsessive about old wrongs done to him. He spent the first 14 years of his life in India, where his father was a regimental sergeant major, and he recalled a boy who had bullied him at his Roman Catholic school there. "When I went into the depression I felt I wanted to kill him. I was a merciless avenger. I would chop his balls off and sew them into his mouth and ask him to sing `Ave Maria'.'' His face flushed just recalling his anger.

The illness wrecked his first marriage, to June Marlow. They wed in 1952 and had three children, while the Goons were at their peak and he was writing scripts for £12.50 a week. "I was impossible to June, an ogre. I would go into black moods and not speak to her for months on end." She left him for another man, who did not want the children. Milligan got custody. He married again in 1962 to Patricia Ridgeway. She died of breast cancer in 1977. They had one daughter.

He may be a calmer man now. But he can still get angry and passionate. His commitment to environmental rights seems to know no limits. He would not have a photograph taken for this interview because "they always take so many snaps, and each reel of film has silver on - it's a waste of the Earth's resources". Though a devout Catholic, he calls the Pope an "environmental ignoramus" because of his attitude to birth control. His other big passion is for animal rights, and it caused a cooling of his long friendship with Prince Charles. "I told him I disapproved of hunting. He said: `What can I do? All my friends are there.' I said: `None of my friends are there.' " His love of animals, he says, began in India. "I saw how badly they were treated."

The Nationality Act, too, makes him angry. Milligan was told by a passport official that, because his father was born in Ireland before 1900, he was no longer a British citizen. He was stateless. Milligan fumes at the memory then bursts into giggles at what happened next. "I rang up the Irish embassy and spoke to a deputy secretary. He said: `Oh yes, I've seen you on television.' I asked if I could become Irish. `Bejasus yes,' he said, `we're terrible short of people.' "

Then the impish smile disappears. "Why should I stand in a room and swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen when I've just spent five years dodging bullets defending her. It made me ill, that bastard Hitler and his lot. They stole a lot of my life.''

A CONVERSATION with Milligan is like that: the sudden mood switches from sadness to merriment to anger. Before I go, he says that I remind him of a friend who died in the war. He spends some time finding a poem he wrote about him and then reads it to me.Then he switches the conversation to his next project, Black Beauty According to Spike Milligan. In the Milligan version, the adored mare turns nasty, "kicks people in the balls and tramples on their skulls".

These waves of hate directed at the human race surely represent more than the cliche about the sad private face of the clown, or the comedian's unrequited desire (see Tony Hancock) to be greater than his comedy. Where they spring from is a mystery - but from deeper roots, perhaps, than a mortar bomb. Speculation is in any case redundant. We should celebrate instead the creative side of Milligan's agonised personality, which revolutionised the things that made us laugh and gave Britain, for a time, the leading edge in radio and television comedy. Out of Milligan's mind (and, when they were not played by Sellers, his mouth) came Major Bloodnok, Bluebottle, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Eccles, Count Moriarty, characters embedded in plots that abandoned the humdrum habitat of radio shows - domestic and office life, husbands and wives, bosses and cleaning ladies - and roamed weekly through history and across the world.

The achievements of an easier man would have been recognised sooner. When recognition did come the tears kept welling in Milligan's eyes. About bloody time indeed.