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by on 9 November 2022

Goon, But Not Forgotten


by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Karl Sydow, Trademark Films, PW Productions and Anthology at Richmond Theatre until 12th November then tour continues until 26th November

Review by Louis Mazzini

To describe the whirligig imagination of the genius that was Terence Alan Milligan is no easy task, and to distil it into two hours would seem all but impossible.  Overcoming the challenges, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have conjured up a hugely entertaining and at times suitably surreal play with music.  Taking its title from Milligan’s self-elected nickname, Spike is centred on his masterwork, The Goons, the BBC radio comedy series which ran for around 10 years and for which Milligan was (virtually) the sole writer, producing over 200 scripts with titles like The Dreaded Batter-Pudding Hurler (of Bexhill-on-Sea), The House of Teeth and The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal.  As well as Milligan’s battles with mental health and with the BBC for more money and proper recognition from ‘Auntie’– the latter feels a little overdone here – Spike includes glimpses of Milligan’s war years and his first marriage, both of which have the potential for rather deeper exploration. 

As well as writing The Goons, Milligan starred, alongside Peter Sellers and also Harry Secombe, who had served with Milligan in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War.  Spike covers the golden years of The Goons, after the departure of Michael Bentine, the fourth member of the team in the first two series.  Robert Wilfort is a Tati-esque Milligan, and the stylish Sellers is played by Patrick Warner, while Jeremy Lloyd almost steals Spike with his superb impersonation of Secombe. 

But The Goons wasn’t just about comic lines and situations.  Milligan’s scripts were peppered with what one critic described as “some of the most extraordinary sounds ever heard”.  Channelling Joyce Grenfell (of course, though other characterful women were around in the 1950s!) Margaret Cabourn-Smith is hilarious as the unsung technician required to bring to life the bizarre effects conceived by Milligan.  And James Mack is superb as the producers of many of the most memorable episodes of The Goons – Dennis Main Wilson and Peter Eton – and Robert Mountford captures the pomposity and creative ignorance traditionally associated with BBC executives. 

In Spike, as in The Goons, the role of women is largely secondary, and though Tesni Kujore and Ellie Morris have little to do they do it well.  Hislop and Newman’s script is peppered with jokes and the last line is one of Milligan’s finest: in his long and varied career he wrote thousands of lines – if not hundreds of thousands – but this one was improvised in 1994 at the British Comedy Awards where Ian Hislop was among the audience.

Spike is a loving portrait of an incredibly influential programme and it provides a flavour of the scrambled mind behind it.  That said, and despite a concluding roster of some of the comedians who assert the influence on their work of The Goons, the show will be enjoyed most by an older audience. 


Louis Mazzini, November 2022

Photography by Pamela Raith

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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