Watermill Theatre, Newbury – until 5 March 2022
If – like Prince Charles – you grew up with the Goons in the background (“Ying Tong! Bluebottle! He’s fallen in da water!” etc) this will ring bells. So will passing references to more staid shows which it eclipsed, like “Variety Bandbox”, “Ray’s a Laugh”, and the radio-ventriloquism of Educating Archie.
If, like me, you actually started work in radio twenty years after all that, you will still melt with nostalgia at Katie Lias’ artful set of old tape spools and microphones, and at Margaret Cabourn-Smith’s proudly deadpan demonstration of how to do radio sound effects with a tableful of junk. But no need for any of this: all you need is an appreciation of the vital forces of comedy and its eternal war with respectable statis.
For Spike Milligan, our hero, was a force of disruptive fun, joy and disrespect compared to whom our calculatedly Insta-friendly “edgy” moderns are toddlers. He had been on the WW2 front line: the explosions at the end of every sketch (often connected with the stomach of Harry Secombe as Major Seagoon) are dramatically reflected, in Paul Hart’s deft direction, by sudden trench flashbacks. And, later, by eruptions of Spike’s PTSD. As a brief funny “The Critics” scene puts it at one point with arch intellectualism, the show is “shellshock on radio”. We also glancingly learn that the first producer Dennis Main Wilson had been among the first on the Normandy Beaches, and his successor Peter Eton was at Dunkirk.
So in a pleasing way, it is a kind of sequel the last play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, The Wipers Times, about the unofficial rude newspaper by soldiers in the trenches. Spike Milligan, who not only performed but wrote these Goons Shows for about half what his more famous co-stars Sellers and Secombe were paid, drew much of his comedy not, as the parody critics croon, from Ionesco and the Modernists but from the more solid and more awful absurdism of war itself. There are parodies of the officer-class, evocations of senseless chaos, lavatory humour, and hilarity at pomposity whether of BBC executives ( corporately portrayed with fine stiffness by Robert Mountford) or of public coverage- “Richard Dinglebury on the Gold Microphone of State”.
Comedy was for Spike, bipolar and difficult and clever, both an outlet and a terrifying chore: here are sequences of desperate, tap-dance rhythm typing as his home life and marriage got ever more strained, his sense of inferiority and victimhood rose, and his mind wandered, to the extent of once in his dressing-gown deciding to kill Peter Sellers for making it all so difficult. “Do not disturbed. Disturbed enough already” said the sign on Spike’s door, and once, sadly, he says that in the army at least you could be funny for fun – no pressure.
John Dagliesh, looking very like a mid-period Jonathan Miller, is superb as Spike, inhabiting both the miseries and the fun with sly, audience-aware glances and drop-dead gags; George Kemp is fine as the chilly oddball Sellers; but the relationship which warms the play is between Dagliesh’s Spike and Jeremy Lloyd’s Harry Secombe, the Welsh crooner-comic with the infuriating giggle ever who is shown as the closest friend, properly caring about Spike both in the pub (the backdrops are Spike-style doodles) and in the nervous crisis of the second act which put him in hospital.
I can’t say it’s a perfect play in form, though undoubtedly is a perfect post-pandemic pickup lark with which to spend two hours. But what raised it for me is those moments of warmth, a sense of tribute and of the rarely acknowledged fact that even great clowns and great stars need a bit of loving friendship. As it happens, I was at the same table, as Midweek host, on the now-famed occasion when a much younger Hislop had to interview the older Spike, and spilt his water so that his notes and questions dissolved.
And I remember not only Ian’s brief horror but the slow, spreading smile of mischief on the great comedian’s face at this disaster. Some comics would have taken the chance to rot up their young interviewer, but he didn’t. The warmth of the man was as real as his eccentricity and depressions, and he behaved like a proper and kindly gent. So I liked this tribute to him, very much.
box office watermill.org.uk to 5 march
‘Even great clowns & great stars need a bit of loving friendship’: @lib_thinks warms to #SPIKE, Ian Hislop & Nick Newman’s tribute to Spike Milligan & the Goons. Starring @JohnDagleish at @WatermillTh til 5 Mar. ★★★★ #theatrereviews #newwriting #GoonShow