Britain's Comedic Treasure, Spike Milligan
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the beauty of physical comedy lies in its silly, simple laughs.
By Anthea Gerrie
Resplendent in Viking drag, down to blond pigtails, Valkyrie helmet and a seductive slash of lipstick, Spike Milligan stands deadpan throughout the first two verses sung in one of his most-remembered TV comedy sketches. The “Fresh Fruit Song,” an absurd little vaudeville-style ditty, is a punch line in itself, the very opposite of the Wagner chorus we’ve been led to expect. Milligan certainly looks the part of the diva ready to espouse Valhalla, but when Britain’s most surreal performer does eventually join in, it’s to blow raspberries in harmony with “musicians” who, on closer inspection, are playing a frying pan, a teapot and a feather duster.
The comedian does little except make rude noises and lend a knowing smile …
Dressed in outrageous wigs and accompanied by bizarre props, Milligan’s presence is everything. His bravura rendered audiences helpless with laughter from the moment he emerged on the British entertainment scene, and it’s why he’s being honored in a poignant tribute that aired on the BBC on Wednesday, December 10, Spike Milligan: Love, Light and Peace , featuring his own home-movie footage and contributions from those who worked with him.
Spike Milligan meant most to the radio generation as the co-founder of The Goon Show , an utterly surreal 1950s precursor to Monty Python , which remains a favorite of Prince Charles’. “It was kind of low culture, and there hadn’t been much of that during the war,” says Colin Anderson , comedy producer and former BBC Radio executive, explaining how the Goons provided comic relief for a country still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. To modern ears, Anderson says it sounds like a radio show that would be on “very late at night, for students and stoners. But people would tune in during dinnertime with their families.” Milligan, a writer and poet, penned most of its 200 groundbreaking episodes before the dawn of telivision killed off the show in the ’60s.
By middle age, faced with the challenge of entertaining television viewers, Milligan would strike an absurd pose while deadpanning — not easy for a man who found made-up words and discomfiting sounds funnier than actions and easier to come up with than visual sketches. Nevertheless, his Q series, which debuted in 1969 months before Monty Python emerged on the scene, lasted for several seasons and was where the “Fresh Fruit Song” sketch first aired in 1977.
The song itself was not one of his many originals — Milligan was miming to a 1933 recording by Jack Hodges, which he would have heard in his early days as a jazz vocalist and trumpeter. The idea of a fruit seller exaggerating his merchandise in the most literal of ways clearly stayed with him, and influenced the writing he did in his spare time in barracks during wartime service, working on surreal songs and poems of his own.
A lifelong sufferer of bipolar disorder, Milligan was almost as famous for his 10 nervous breakdowns, documented openly on television, as well as in his poetry, songs and plays.
Milligan died in 2002 at the age of 83, the godfather of absurdist British comedy. The comedian does little in this famous sketch except make rude noises and lend a knowing smile — but it’s more than enough to make you understand why comedians and audiences still revere him.