by Art Chantry ( email@example.com)
it was john lennon who first turned me on to spike milligan. no joke. it was around 1973 and i was killing another really dull evening sitting around the pacific lutheran university library a few blocks from my home. i spent a lot of hours in their magazine section trying to find the rest of the world. at the time, i was working as a garbage man and drinking way too much with the few nefarious delinquent pals i still had. so, this time spent in the PLU library was the only contact i had with reality outside of my own tiny miserable existence.
i happened to trip across a book review somewhere about a book titled, “the goon show scripts” (st.martin’s press, 1972) – a fabled and weird radio show that broadcast exclusively on the british BBC radio 1 network from 1954 to 1956. this little review was waxing on poetically and forcefully about how important this radio program was to the entire universe of british humor and wit. it tried to explain how everything since that show was an extension of the absurdity and dry bland insanity presented therein – from the film career of peter sellers to the dented attitude of british rock music (beatles, kinks, bonzo dog band, et. al.) to the humor of peter cook and dudley moore. in fact, this little book review went on to explain to the reader that the entirely of ‘monty python’s flying circus’ would not have existed if it weren’t for ‘The Goons.’ and this review was written by none other than john lennon. so, i took it very seriously.
i immediately went out and bought the book and that began a life-long love affair with spike milligan, the dented genius behind the goon show. reading those radios scripts – almost exclusively penned by spike – opened up a window on a sense of humor three sheets beyond the MAD magazine world that i loved. the absolutely stupid characters and the hilariously funny/absurd riffs on british history and culture they spun confused me and reduced me to tears. the cast of the radio (all the voices and characters created) were created by spike and his two cohorts – harry secombe (who also possessed a beautiful singing voice they exploited) and a rather rotund young peter sellers (for real. this was a decade before he became a motion picture star). but, it was spike that set the tone and wrote the words (and created the careers of the other two). it was sort of a ‘south park’ of early british radio. spike milligan defined and then popularized a native-born form of absurd and snarky humor that before him had been undefined in english history (outside of, perhaps, the magazine called, “Punch.”)
“the goon show scripts” was also peppered with doodles and sketches by spike that were scribbled in the margins of his original typescripts. spike was a guy who sketched as he thought. he began to actually envision what these characters he created actually looked like. then he would sketch them into the absurd and ridiculous scenarios he fantasied. he also loved to draw his own words. i hesitate to call it calligraphy or typography. they were ‘words’ that he drew. the lettering he created doing this became a sort of signature of his visual style. i’ve never encountered any of his later published work that isn’t ‘festooned’ with his lousy but eccentric lettering and seriously damaged drawings.
this little book cover i show you here is something i found in the goodwill yesterday. it’s one of spike’s later novels titled “Puckoon” (british penguin, 1963.) for some reason none of his books are allowed to be distributed in the USA. just as well. we wouldn’t buy them. we wouldn’t GET them. we’re not british.
typical of all his books, spike designed his own cover. this ‘style’ of spike milligan has been one of the biggest influences of my entire life in my own design work. this guy was ‘sorta punk’ decades before punk. his work was a smorgasbord of garbage and inside jokes that so seduced me that i can’t do a single project to this day that doesn’t refer back to his wit. i mean, think of my poster work. then look at this cover. see what i’m saying? spike’s thinking is all over my stuff. i think i may owe my entire career to this dude.
in the back pages of this little paperback is an advert for another book by spike written some time before ‘puckoon’. it’s an autobiographical work of his time spent in british army during WW2 titled, ‘adolf hitler – my part in his downfall.’ it reproduces a little excerpt that so nicely sums up spike milligan’s uniquely ridiculous and so-very-british sense of humor:
“At Victoria Station the R.T.O. gave me a travel warrant, a white feather and a picture of Adolf Hitler marked “This is Your Enemy”. I searched every compartment but he wasn’t on the train…”