Terry Gilliam chats with Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan statue unveiled in north London
The life-size bronze by John Somerville shows the comedian sitting on a bench in his former home of Finchley
No one, disappointingly, was dressed in a German helmet, battle dress, hobnailed boots and tutu at the unveiling of a new statue for one of Britain's most influential, funniest and unhinged comedians – Spike Milligan.
"That really would have made my day," said Michael Parkinson, recalling the bizarre outfit Milligan once wore when they met on a TV set.
There were plenty more stories as friends and admirers gathered in north London for a statue that has taken 10 years to be made. The life-size bronze, by the artist John Somerville, shows Milligan sitting on a bench and turning to speak to whomever might be there.
"It should have a little mechanism in it that you sit down and it farts," said the film director Terry Gilliam. He said he was hugely influenced by Milligan. "One of the reasons I came to England was I heard this thing on the radio called The Goon Show. I'd never heard anything like it. I thought: 'I want to go wherever that's coming from.'"
There was lots of affection for Milligan at the unveiling, but also an acknowledgement that he could be a difficult man. "You didn't know who you were going to be meeting, simple as that," said Gilliam.
Parkinson said Milligan was a boyhood hero of his. "He is responsible for my love of comedians, basically. He made me laugh more than anybody else as a kid growing up."
He interviewed Milligan several times. "He was the only man, when booked for a show, there'd be a sense of trepidation because you'd never know a) if he'd turn up, and b) what he would say."
Parkinson said there wasn't a single comedian at this year's Edinburgh festival fringe who would not have been influenced by Milligan.
He recalled recording a show for LBC once when an assistant came in to say there was a man downstairs calling himself Mr Spike Milligna and that he was a well-known typing error. Milligan was in his dressing gown and had turned up because he had heard the show and decided it was so bad be needed to liven it up. "He was indispensable, sometimes impossible and always glorious."
Other guests at the ceremony included Maureen Lipman, Roy Hudd, Denis Norden, Jeffrey Holland and Neil Pearson. The statue is in the gardens of Stephens House in Finchley, the north London suburb where Milligan lived for 19 years.
He was president of the Finchley Society. After his death in 2002, the society decided to honour a man who threw himself with some gusto into local affairs. "He didn't just say 'use my name'. He actually came to committee meetings," said the society's chairman, David Smith. "And he took it very seriously. He wasn't a Goon all of the time."
The statue has cost £60,000 and taken a long time to make happen. Barbara Warren, chair of the statue fund committee, first had the idea. It had, she said, been a long journey with financial disasters and refused grant requests.
Milligan joins a list of statue-honoured comedians that includes Eric Morecambe, Norman Wisdom and Laurel and Hardy.
At 16 years old, starstruck and vulnerable, I was lucky enough to find in the great Goon a hero worthy of worship – so I’m thrilled that we are finally unveiling a statue of him
Most teenagers are besotted with rebellious rock stars or cinematic love gods. But I was obsessed by a much more exotic, rare, enigmatic and entertaining species: the Milligan. At 16, I was madly in love with Spike. I knew all his poetry and books and songs by heart.
When I received news that he was touring Australia with a one-man show, I ran away from school and hitchhiked around the country after him, from Adelaide to Melbourne to Canberra. Hitchhiking, of course, means relying on the kindness of passing psychopaths, but I was willing to risk death just to be near the man I worshipped.
I bombarded the unsuspecting Goon with poems and songs written just for him - I even inflicted upon him my truly terrible first novel. (I was very busy at the time, I seem to remember, exhausting the literary possibilities of the labia.)
Instead of suggesting I put down my pen, Spike took me seriously and encouraged me to keep writing. He was the first grownup I’d ever met who wasn’t condescending. At that tender age, all a writer craves is reassurance that you’re not a member of the Illiterati, but I’d been sending snippets of my writing to publishers for over a year and had received a whole forest’s worth of patronising and pompous rejection letters from men who’d been at university so long they had ivy growing up their legs. They had all graduated in Advanced Pretension, especially to an aspiring female author in her teens. Spike was their antithesis.
Compassionate, passionate, profound and poetic, he was also exceedingly generous. Not just with praise, but also with practicalities. Having run away from Sylvania Maximum Security High School, I had absolutely no money. I was busking on street corners with a girlfriend for a living. Spike used to feed and water us and talk to us about life and literature, and even put us up in the odd hotel occasionally. It was like having a sugar daddy, but without the sex: a saccharine daddy. His manager, however, furious at the cost of another hotel room on the bill, brought round his undies and socks one night and demanded we wash them for him in the sink. But that was as dirty as it ever got on tour with the gentlemanly Spike Milligan.
As I watch the pathetic parade into court of famous men from the 1970s, courtesy of Operation Yewtree, it makes me respect my hero even more. Spike had two enamoured, spellbound 16-year-old girls in his grasp. Our devotion and naivety made us totally vulnerable. I remember the other men on his tour tended to look at us in the same way you might eye a fillet steak after a 10-day fast.
Spike could have used his celebrity power and emotional hold over us to his own advantage, and this tale would have ended very differently. Instead, we became such firm friends that he unofficially adopted us, drawing up the document on the back of a restaurant napkin. I have it still – my favourite memento of my favourite man. And when the black dog dragged him into the kennel, we sang him madrigals, lullabies and Celtic ballads ... until he got really depressed. No, until he picked up his ukulele.
It’s always perplexed me that the man who did so much to shape contemporary comedy – John Cleese, Maureen Lipman, Terry Gilliam, Barry Humphries, Joanna Lumley, Michael Palin and Denis Norden are all patrons of a memorial fund – has never had a plaque or some other lasting tribute to celebrate the joy he brought this nation. So it’s touching and thrilling that we are finally unveiling a statue today in London, near his Finchley home.
Considering how many male celebrities have recently been toppled from their elevated social positions, it seems even more deserved. For a man who liked to knock the pretentious off their pedestals, how deliciously appropriate that Spike finally ends up on one.