Sunday 20 December 2009

Sunday night is.... Spike Milligan on Harley Street and a Cracker

I did impeticos thy gratillity; for Malvolio's nose
is no whipstock: my lady has a white hand, and the
Myrmidons are no bottle-ale houses.

Excellent! why, this is the best fooling, when all
is done. Now, a song.

Christmas Cracker Question: What must auctioneers know?

(scroll down if desperate to find out...)

Forays into Spike Milligan country are dangerous and should only be undertaken using proper breathing equipment. The air is rare in those wild crags. Modern liberal attitudes are likely to perish in the freezing cold that immediately seizes them as soon as they enter the zone.

But Miligan's zone is not to be confused with that of people like Chubby Brown or others not likely to appear on television screens. The difference is simply that Milligan is a natural absurdist: in the world he inhabits everything is off-kilter, manic and fierce: the less likely something in reality the more likely it is to be the case with him. He was, famously, a depressive. He saved himself by ransacking the great trunk of the forbidden and throwing whatever he found there all over the place. He had no real discipline and was likely to explode at any moment. In fact he hardly knew the difference between a good joke and a bad one. It was the fury with which he threw himself into both that won him his uneasy, edge-of-hysterical laughs. In this instance it includes a, now politically-sensitive, dwarf. John Bluthal, a regular side-kick, is the other main actor.

Milligan plundered race and sex. He loved those burlesque women with vast breasts. Were they sex-objects? Of course they were, but then everything was an object to him. His audiences never felt comfortable, not even then : today's audiences would be in acute discomfort all the time. I went with the family to see him in his one-man-show, The Bed Sitting Room, which was as much improvisation as script. It was the mid-'60s. Things were generally exploding anyway.

I now think of Spike as more spirit than man. An imp, a boggart, a demon, a spectre, a poltergeist, a hobbledehoy. And yet a human being, who is all those things at once.

I find almost all contemporary radio and TV comedy unbearable: unbearably smug, horribly uninventive. Their very crudeness is safe. We know for certain no one will be offended by it. I wait for the cosy references, the proper attitudes and the whacking down of the same old improper attitudes, time after time after time, and think comedy lost something very important when the universities took it over. It has become far too knowing; far too knowing-better. There are great exceptions: Merton, Izzard, Noble, and one or two others. They don't need sit coms, they don't even need panel games (the equivalent of the class clown being returned to class). Just let them loose in those frozen wastes where the spirit is still creating chaos. Corruption out of corruption.

...I am indeed not
her fool, but her corrupter of words.

Christmas Cracker Answer: Lots.


Mark Granier said...

I was going to give my commentating on your blog a rest (sick of the sound of my virtual voice), but I want to pass this on, in memory of my friend Anthony Glavin, who died three years ago. The Millennium Spire in Dublin is often referred to as The Spike. When the Irish Times asked readers to suggest a fitting name Anthony came up with what I think is the best ever. His letter was all of three words: Madam, 'The Milligan'.

George S said...

You are always welcome, Mark, so please don't think of not speaking when you feel like it. If you're sick of the sound of your own, just imagine me. But I overcome my nausea because the blog is simply too interesting for me not to carry on. Much the same with the poems, of course.

The Milligans were Irish though Spike was born in India to the splendidly named Captain Leo Alphonso Milligan who then happened to be serving in the British Army. A nice Milliganesque start.

Will said...

"Where, then, will [Stewart Lee] go after the current show completes its long run? He has one vague, but slowly growing, plan to go right out on a limb by touring his version of Michael McIntyre's current stand-up show in its entirety. "It would be verbatim, word-for-word, gag by gag like some weird recreation," he says, cracking up at the very thought. Why on earth would he want to do that? "Oh, just to see if I could inject any paranoia and menace or even personality into it, if I could turn the blandness of it into the thoughts of someone on the very edge of madness."

Oh -- and watch and listen to this

Stewart Lee - Political Correctness gone mad

Will said...

Spike Milligan was an anti-semite as well of course.

And a racist piece of filth (not just anti-Semitic but a racist piece of filth -- a CUnT in othger werDs).

You should get over your generational love of such a cunT gEorgE. Love stewart Lee.

George S said...

To answer you would take longer than a piece of comment, Will, but I take what you say very seriously and will think about it.

As concerns Milligan himself:

1. Point me to the specifics of Milligan's anti-Semitism and racism; (would you equate him with, say, Bernard Manning?)
2. Point me to anything in Milligan that isn't anti-something, something that isn't immediately absurd;
3. Point me to Milligan's own time and show me cultural attitudes that would not be subject to some of the same strictures.

As concerns anti-Semitism and racism as personal characteristics, the major case cited is nearly always Eliot, but H.G.Wells and Shaw would also do. The question with Eliot is, however, probably the most clear cut. Yet Eliot is undoubtedly a great poet, to my mind the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century.

Why? Partly because anti-Semitism is not core to his poetry: it isn't the driving force. His best translator into Hungarian was the excellent Jewish poet, István Vas. I wouldn't trust Eliot with a gun, but I can't argue against The Waste Land as a great poem. There's a difference.

Re:Stewart Lee, I simply haven't seen enough of him to judge. I did see and like (and wrote on the blog in favour of) Jerry Springer: The Opera, which itself raised the truly difficult and interesting question: what was it that made it funny?

I'll take time to think about that. It wouldn't have been the 'blasphemy' alone - blasphemy can be funny or not when all kinds of other things come into play. And yet blasphemy was undoubtedly one of the factors that positioned the piece at the edge I was recommending in this Milligan post. It was the frisson. But it's what you do when you get to that edge that matters. I suspect Springer was absurd, and it was the very extent and daring of its absurdity that made it funny for me.

Laughter is a curious phenomenon and a fair amount has been written about it. Baudelaire has a good essay and, as I remember, Schopenhauer says something. As, of course, does Freud.

There is a moment in the Harley Street sketch above, towards the end, when Milligan leaves the surgery in a parody of melodramatic gestures. He himself on the edge of giggling. As he reaches the door he simply whips a picture off the wall. The picture was not in the sketch before. We don't even notice its existence. He puts it under his arm and walks off with it.

That is a stroke of genius - it has nothing to do with anything, but it is absorbed into the gesture of leaving. It looks quite unpremeditated. Anti-Semitism and racism have nothing to with that. It is Milligan's mini-Waste Land.

The waiting room Milligan passes through is peopled by absurd objects. The narrative of the whole sketch is on the edge of falling apart. This is the land: this is the waste. It is cruel, but so is everything.

This is not a defence of Milligan the man, of Milligan's bad jokes (as I said, he couldn't tell the difference), of the times, or indeed of anything. It is curiosity about laughter. I can't laugh in conformity. It spooks me. I can't laugh for good, right reasons. The reasons remain good and right and, maybe simply because they are good and right, they are not funny. I can't do laughter in a good cause.

On the other hand there is a class of proper, brilliant satire. So life, as ever, is complicated.

But I am running on already. More another time, maybe as a post.

Mark Granier said...

Oh dear, I feel the need to say something here (so much for keeping schtum).

I plead ignorance as far as Spike's racism is concerned; I haven't come across any example that stands out enough for me to remember, and I have no tolerance at all for racist scumbags (or cunts if you prefer) of any stripe.

It was Howard Jacobson, funnily enough, who attempted to demonstrate that racist humour (a la Chubby whatshisface etc.) should be not merely tolerated but embraced. As I understand it, his thesis was that nothing should be too sacred to be clowned with. He did a TV series along these lines about a decade ago, a possibly brave but rather foolhardy attempt to slay a few sacred cows. It didn't get good reviews, as I recall, and I don't think it was ever rerun. I greatly admire Jacobson as being one of those rare freethinkers, someone who usually possesses great clarity of mind and whose writing is articulate (and occasionally beautiful) enough to match it.

I think Jacobson fell in love with a beautiful IDEA (that nothing should be immune to levity), and this idea held sway over its rather tricky practical application. Because, quite simply, the kind of racism espoused by Chubby/Bernard Manning, etc. (whether cowled in euphemism or in-your-face) is not, actually, funny. I say 'real' racism to distinguish this from those comedians/writers/etc. who are imaginative enough to parody racism or xzenophobia, to expose its absurdities, OUR absurdities, sometimes affectionately, sometimes brutally (compare Milton Beryl with Lenny Bruce). On the other hand, real racism is never about parody; it is not only giving voice to those primitive dark-age fears, but actually wallowing in them, effectively saying 'Look, I'm a pig in my/our element; come on in, the shit is heavenly!' Even at its most 'innocent' or innocuous (those tedious Irishman, Scotsman, Englishman permutations) it is ultimately either boring or ugly.

Casual racism and/or xenophobia is, still, so intrinsic to everyday human discourse that of course it is going to be part of many a comedian's repertoire. I suspect (though I'd have to check this) that Spike's racism was, as George says, part of his mini-Waste Land; far from being at 'the core' of his humour (or world view), it was more a reflection of cultural mores, a little seasoning of Alf Garnett.

A more sinister example of a comedian pulling the racist card is Tommy Tiernan's recent little rant. During a live Hot Press interview, on stage at The Electric Picnic in front of an audience, he suddenly came out with the following [I quote]:
“But these Jews, these f**kin’ Jew c**ts came up to me. F**kin’ Christ-killing b**t**ds! F**kin’ six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**kin’ problem! F**kin’ two at a time, they would have gone! Hold hands, get in there! Leave us your teeth and your glasses!”
I left those asterisks in place because they were in the article I lifted this from, in the Irish Times. What amazed me is that very few people seem to have voiced any objection, and those that did so got ridiculed as being sad cases with no sense of humour (a very grave offense in this country: both the Irish Times and Hot Press journalists stoutly defended Tiernan). And the man himself defends his outburst thus:
“It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful. It’s not about being careful ... and mannered. It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing is being taken seriously."

Tiernan is very popular. He may be either remarkably stupid or simply cunning enough to understand how much he can get away with, because if you look twice (though once is enough) that last sentence is remarkably revealing, though not, alas, to the mouthpieces of the I times or Hot Press.

George S said...

There's a p[erfect rejoinder to Tommy Tiernan, Mark. The Irish Times should run it. It would go like this:

“But these Irish, these f**kin’ Irish c**ts came up to me. F**kin’ Christ-licking b**t**ds! F**kin potato famine!’ one million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**kin’ problem! F**kin’ two at a time, they would have gone! Hold hands, get in there! Leave us your skeletons and your peelings!”

Isn't that how it would go? Why not try it? I am sure only sad cases would complain. For maximum effect this should be published in The Guardian for a full equivalent.

So it's difficult. I too would love to be with Jacobson, but, like you, I see practical difficulties (as demonstrated here).

There was an Indian comic on radio this morning, I mean one that does stand up in Delhi, where families and taboos are stronger than here. He put it nicely. He said, there were quite firm lines one shouldn't step over in India, and that the trick was to step over a little then immediately to step back, and to keep repeating this procedure.

George S said...

Will, I have watched the YouTube clip of Stewart Lee on Political Correctness. He is undoubtedly right, and I agree with everything he says. He demonstrates very well why Richard Littlejohn is very wrong. He does this to a roomful of people who agree with him.

I am glad Stewart Lee exists, and I am glad he is saying what he is saying. I am also glad there is a roomful of people who agree with him, just as I agree with him, but somehow that misses the point for me. Nodding and saying: Yes, Stewart, you are right, doesn't make me laugh.

Strangely, I don't find being right funny.

What I find funny is not good sense but craziness. Or, better still, a flirtation with craziness.

I must be a total lost cause. A real bastard. Sorry about that.

J.Marles said...

"What I find funny is not good sense but craziness. Or, better still, a flirtation with craziness."

Yes, you're right, George. Milligan was just naturally, anarchically, irresistibly funny.

I remember comedy in the the late 80s. I really disliked Thatcher and I enjoyed seeing her sent up (e.g. by "Spitting Image") but it got a bit tedious all the second-rate versions of Ben Elton coming on stage and doing their lazy "That Maggie Thatcher - what a fascist!" routines to instant applause from a like-minded audience. Then Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer appeared out of nowhere and were just naturally, anarchically funny. I remember some serious, politically engaged comedy critic at the "New Musical Express" getting very upset because he couldn't comprehend why Vic and Bob's nonsense was getting laughs. What was the theory behind it? Where was the agenda? Milligan was the same.

I don't think Milligan was selling any political view, unlike Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson. There was nothing you had to buy into. There again, I don't really like stand-up comedy all that much, even the Stewart Lee variety. I can't quite put my finger on it but I find there's always something slightly unhealthy about the collusion between the comedian and the audience.

Mark Granier said...

Good rejoinder George. I really should have thought twice before muddying your comment stream with that shite.

Will said...

"I must be a total lost cause. A real bastard. Sorry about that."

No. You just find milligan funny. That is enuff.

And I haven't called for the banning of cunTs or the killing of comedy 'genius' cunTs who I find unfunny -- i have just expressed the idea that cunTs that are unfunny (and racist and anti-semitic cunTs) should be considered as such.

Now that's funny that anyone can read shite and come to conclusions that aren't justified.

And shit.

Will said...


Society in 2009 has become a sick, brutalised fucked up cunT's paradise. A sick capitalist system has brought to the fore all sorts of phenomena. This scenario is repeated in most British towns. London is merely tyhe stabbing capital -- that which happens there will happen elsewhere given time. Londinium is the technological frontier. We will all be knifing each other in the artery shortly and that gang warfare, violence and women are treated like meat in so-called songs that glorify all of that shit.

Modern capitalism is a cesspit of cunTisHness. To do a critique of the surface like many liberal CUnTs do is useless.

"An eye witness, who did not want to be named, told how he had cradled the victim as “the life drained out of him” after he suffered a wound.

He said: “We went out to get a Chinese at about 6.30pm and there was no sign of any commotion. Then as we came back a few minutes later we saw the kid lying on the floor with a crowd of young boys standing around him.

“I pulled up and got out of the car. When I went over there was another guy trying to stem the flow of blood. The wound was either in his neck or chest.

“I was speaking to the ambulance while holding his head and trying to talk to him, trying to keep him awake.

“My daughter ran in to get a blanket to keep him warm. His eyes were flickering and I could see the life draining from the poor kid. There was so much blood, I have never seen anything like it in my life.

“When the ambulance pulled up he was still alive and they worked on him for about 20 minutes but he died on the pavement.”

“Officers from Tower Hamlets arrested a 15-year-old boy at his home address in the borough in connection with the murder and he remains in custody at an east London police station.”

Spaniel said...

Not entirely sure what Will is trying to say. Is Spike Milligan responsible for knife crime in Tower Hamlets? In any case, Milligan came from the generation that fought Hitler: really fought him, in person, so to speak. A generation that, perhaps, could not believe it had won the fight and had survived. That is what informs Spike's comedy, gives it its edge, makes it uncomfortable sometimes. He doesn't give a shit: more to the point, he had earned the right not to give a shit. Moreover, his imagination was in the same class as Lewis Caroll or Edward Lear. They were lumbered with the restraints of their own time too, yet we still read them. It is hard to think of any contemporary humourist who packs Spike's combination of imagination and indignation, not forgetting that he actually paved the way for a shift in social attitudes in this country, opening up the territory for the Beatles, Pythons, etc. That's a long way from the sunlit pastures we currently occupy, where what passes for 'edginess' is Russell Brand crowing his sexual triumph on radio. Not saying Spike was perfect, or that he is likely to be to all tastes (especially given that he operates so close to the workings of the subconscious) but with all due respect, 'Will' . . . who are you calling a cunT?

Ms Baroque said...

Many good comments well made here. (Yeah, I really wondered what the news items had to do with it! AWFUL story; but anything to do with Spike Milligan? Hm.)

Will, I must be missing something; you allude to a higher plane of thinking but you seem to think it's possible to conduct a meaningful argument by calling people names. George does you a great honour of thoughtfully and carefully articulating his points, but you seem to think that flinging the C word around the place and calling people "liberals" (me-owwww!) does the same job.

I think J Marles has got it in one: Spike wasn't selling anything. You didn't have to buy into anything to have a laugh. And George is completely right about the laziness, orthodoxy and uninventiveness of modern humour. That ugly starfucking "aren't we clever" smugness of so much contemporary comedy - which really DOES have no regard for other people's feelings, and bullies us all into laughing at it - was totally un-thought-of by Spike and indeed the Goons. They were laughing at life itself. Sure Spike was risky, he made some tasteless jokes. (So did the Pythons.) (But not as tasteless and Jonathan Ross.) (And they got paid less.) But those old guys never did anything half as tasteless and REALLY offensive as the stunt Ross & Brand pulled last year, which if you objected to it you were supposed to be some Mail-reading prude. Totally different ball game.

Another comment - which I may be gazumping, as there is someone else I hope will leave a comment here, but it relates to a previous issue discussed with George. And in fact I now see the other person has left the comment. So I'll carry on.

George, you remember I laughed at a thing David Wheatley said, about Anthony Hecht's poetry being like an overstuffed damask sofa with the price tag left on? And you said something to the effect that if he left the price tag on maybe it was to remember the steep cost. Or that he'd earned the right to the tag, by paying the price. Or something. Well, you were right. I still think David's quip was amusing because it captured something in the poetry - but you were more deeply right. The point I'm gazumping - or now reiterating - is that Milligan, and Secombe along with him, knew the cost too. That in 1946 they simply couldn't believe they were still alive. That feeling of amazement at life itself - the celebration of the mere condition of being alive, a real joie de vivre - tinged with anger, sure, and with its underlying tug of knowledge of the cost - is the essence of their humour.

I just don't think it's for anyone our sort of age or younger - who has been handed a given set of orthodoxies by which it is now proper to judge other people just as much as anyone else ever used to judge them according to a different set - to set about judging them retrospectively, with all our hard-won knowledge of having grown up watching TV and so on.

There is much, much more to be said about humour, and political aspects of it. But labelling people to make a point is lazy, and doing it to make a laugh is old-school in the worst way. It doesn't get anyone anywhere; it's just a signpost, and it points at the person who made the sign.

I loved the clip, George; thanks. And Mark, I love your story about Anthony. You keep talking about him and he keeps sounding like a really great person to have known.

And by the way, here's one I prepared earlier... I strongly recommend watching the film.

Ms Baroque said...

And by the way, as to that cute word generational implying that it's an oldies thing... my kids adore Milligan. They respect him. And my aged aunt, now 82, dear God, mists over if you so much as mention him; she respects him too, for all the above and for his battle with depression.

You can't forget people are PEOPLE. You can't just label them a cleverly-typographised cunT and act as if all they're less worthy of consideration than anyone else. And I'm sure everyone of us shares certain aspects of our generations. Isn't it what generations do?

George S said...

Back late and sleepy, but thanks for the comments. Will is a clever guy and OK, I reckon he was just pissed when he was on about the stabbings. I wasn't going to mention it.

Such things happen.

J.Marles said...

"And George is completely right about the laziness, orthodoxy and uninventiveness of modern humour. That ugly starfucking 'aren't we clever' smugness of so much contemporary comedy - which really DOES have no regard for other people's feelings, and bullies us all into laughing at it - was totally un-thought-of by Spike and indeed the Goons."

Agreed. Things probably went wrong when "Comedy is the new rock 'n' roll" became the buzz phrase. Unfortunately a few comedians began to take it literally and we've ended up with the same dreary "bad boy" clichés and predictable jerkishness that were already stale in "rawk" by 1970. Brand is the prime example of this.

Anonymous said...

Better very late than never.

Spike is one of my heroes, but to deny that he was anti-Semitic is quite incorrect. Graham Stark, best known as the 'Thet is not my dok' guy fromn The Pink Panther Strikes Again, told a story in his memoirs where he and Spike went to some party. Milligan was clearly out of his comfort zone, and Stark asked why. "The place is full of Jews," was the response. "Oh for God's sake, Spike, grow up," Stark snapped, clearly angry. This makes it plain that Spike was not joking. Peter Sellers noted ona couple of occasions that he felt Spike was never able to be completely open around him, presumably (Sellers thought) because of Sellers' Jewish heritage. I have no reason to doubt this story, though to my mind quoting Sellers as an authority on behavioural faults is kind of like getting Josef Mengele's opinion on medical ethics.

And any denial of anti-Semitism has to explain why Spike was *always* trying to get cheap laughs off Jewish stereotypes in the Q shows. One sketch has Spike declaring: "The Jewish piano!" and ringing up a cash register. Another sketch from the final Q series in 1982 has Spike in a huge fake Jewish nose playing the piano. That's the joke. All of it. There is the anarchic freedom of comedy without rules, and then there's just being offensive. Spike also commented that when he lived in India he inhabited the mindset of the Raj...the patronising qausi-contempt for the natives. But then again, this is also the man who directly inspired Ebony And Ivory's laudable message of racial harmony. Bit of a pity the song itself is mawkish slush.

And I do wish people would stop holding up Ben Elton as some sort of yardstick of how to hold views. Elton has proved again and again over the years how much of a hypocrite he is on politics and class, spouting left-wing rants while fawning over royalty and fascist reptiles like Tony Blair.
He rode the angry leftie train until it got him famous, then he immediately sold out and joined the ranks of the people he made cash out of lampooning.

George S said...

Anonymous - Just received your comment. I hope it has not been sitting in cyber-limbo for well over a year. I didn't know that story. I am - somewhat unwillingly - unsurprised. Unwilling because I wouldn't want to give in to paranoia, unsurprised because history gives cause for paranoia. What a strange thing anti-Semitism is! That Milligan should viscerally feel repulsed by, or fearful of, a roomful of other human beings. That is what scares me. Wasn't the big nose piano joke something to do with Jimmy Durante? I didn't find anything in that.

The till is different, but let me lighten it a little. There is no doubt that Milligan used stereotypes, but then everyone did then. Stereotypes were not thought to be as offensive as they are now. There are stereotypes of Indian doctors, of Irishmen (and remember Spike's Irish background), of mean Scots, of inscrutable Japanese,of Nazi Germans, of mad scientists, and of course of women, to name just a few. Add to that cuckolded husbands, gay men, lesbian women, in fact just about anyone really. Nor was that an overwhelmingly normalising force. Spike himself was mad as a hatter and hardly normal. His TV persona was a channel for madness but not for hatred.

There are, I think, two aspects of stereotype. In one regard sterotypes are simply carriers of received ideas that people laugh at - I think that is inevitable and potentially emblematic of tolerance, providing the stereotype can laugh back. And to be fair there were many stereotype Englishmen on Spike too.

In another regard stereotypes can be taken as offence. I am uneasy about offence. I want to draw a distinction between laughter and mockery and incitement to hatred. We have been rubbing away at that line for a long time now with the natural result that one bleeds into the other. I suspect we get more trouble from this blurring and bleeding than we did from stereotype itself.