Fi and Jane throw the blankets off their knees and hit the dancefloor with DJ Annie Mac.
By all accounts, Archive On 4 – broadcast at the same time on a Saturday night as Britain’s Got Talent – is a classy programme which takes bits of old audio on a particular theme and builds an interesting and intelligent discussion around them.
Why, then, BBC news media editor Amol Rajan chose to announce this week’s edition in the breathless manner of David Walliams reviewing a semi-clad sword swallower, is a question the corporation will likely be asking itself for some time. “On Saturday, for the first time ever, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech will be read in full on UK radio,” Rajan gushed in a tweet which – whatever his intentions – promoted this piece of populism as a pleasure to be savoured as opposed to an incitement to racial hatred to be summarily dismissed [ . . . ]
Like Powell, Farage et al have presented immigrants as a drain on resources, pushing hard-working indigenous Brits out of jobs, schools and the health services as opposed to a net value to the country’s economy. They have conjured up an image of Armageddon so vivid that just before the EU referendum in places like rural Cumbria – where space is plentiful and immigration limited – residents would talk in horror about an anticipated flood of new people from countries like Romania and Bulgaria.
It’s Spike Milligan’s 100th birthday on Monday. He won’t be around in person, but it’s an excuse to celebrate again how he departed with such a great punchline. Inscribed in Irish on his headstone is “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (I told you I was ill).
Milligan’s influence was and is inestimable. He blueprinted the crazy world of Monty Python, with John Cleese calling him “the Great God to all of us”. Dubbing him “the Godfather of alternative comedy”, Eddie Izzard said: “From his unchained mind came forth ideas that had no boundaries.” The Beatles could recite his sketches by heart.
Born in Raj India to an army captain in 1918, young Spike was a bad fit in a buttoned-down Imperial world and he absorbed his dad’s Irishness with glee as a licence to poke fun. At 21, he found himself fighting in the British army he’d despised since childhood. His war experiences in North Africa brought him in touch with future Goon Harry Secombe, and provided comic fuel for his 1970s bestsellers including Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall and Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall.
He “wandered around” London as a jazz musician after the war, rekindling his friendship with Secombe, and making a new funnyman friend, Peter Sellers. Sellers and Secombe began getting occasional sketch slots with the BBC and Spike started writing for the pair. A hesitant BBC gave The Goon Show a tentative airing in 1951, and comedy would never be the same again.
Wireless audiences had heard surreal shows before – with no visuals to rein in the imagination, the medium is a place where anything can go – but Milligan took it to far-out places that no-one had ever before visited. By dint of his genius, the bulk of the writing fell on Spike, who became enslaved and broken by the demands of turning out 26 radio shows a year for nine increasingly turbulent years.
Perhaps his best-loved radio character was Eccles, a loveable innocent, who asked nothing more from life than for marshmallow clouds wafting across blue skies and everyone to be filled with peace, love and understanding. Think Forrest Gump, only funny. One collaborator ventured that Eccles was Spike’s id, that nook of the personality that houses our most basic instincts. He suggested that Milligan’s id just wanted to be left alone, playing happily in his world of make believe. But the real world of deadlines, money, fame and family kept rudely intruding and Spike couldn’t handle it.
He finally snapped in 1960, calling a halt to a phenomenon that had spread to hit stage shows and chart records. But there had been many snaps before that, and his volatility, unreliability and wild mood swings had caused huge strains with Sellers, Secombe and their BBC paymasters. The Goons fans only became aware of Spike’s behind-the-scenes tantrums when he had a breakdown in the middle of a stage show, yelling “you hate me, don’t you?” at the audience before storming off. Show over.
But when The Goon Show itself was finally over, Spike found that instead of freeing himself from his demons, he’d simply given them more headspace to mess with. “I was out of work,” he said. “My marriage ended because I’d had a terrible nervous breakdown – two, three, four, five nervous breakdowns, one after other. The Goon Show did it. That’s why they were so good.”
Good as they were, the BBC considered him toxic. The 1960s was a difficult decade where he found himself scraping around for work, both because of his reputation as difficult to work with, and because he was difficult to slot into any existing format.
In 1969, he began a comeback with the revolutionary TV show Q5 which blazed a path for Monty Python’s Flying Circus which aired shortly after. John Cleese said: “Shows prepare the way for other shows, and sometimes shows that make genuine breakthroughs are missed. Spike Milligan’s Q5 was missed. When we first saw Q5 we were very depressed because we thought it was what we wanted to do and Milligan was doing it brilliantly. But nobody really noticed Q5.”
By Johnny Foreigner
Here in the colonies, Bridget St John remains one of the more under-appreciated artists in the British Folk genre. Her voice is not as sweet as Sandy Denny’s, nor possessing the huskiness of latter-day Marianne Faithful, but combines a small scoop of each with a delicious melted Nico topping.
In England during the 1970s, she worked with Kevin Ayers, John Martyn and Mike Oldfield. Her first album, Ask Me No Questions was released in 1969, and during the early seventies, she shared Folk charts and BBC radio time with Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens and Fairport Convention.
Born in Surrey, England, she lived periodically in London, Aix-en-Provence, France, eventually landing in Greenwich Village, New York, only to decide to take the next 20 years off from performing.
This small concert made for French television in 1970 is quite wonderful. Listen, and appreciate Bridget’s je ne sais quoi.