Writers: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Director: Paul Hart
Ian Hislop’s fondness for fifties’ radio comedy shines through his new show, SPIKE. Written with Private Eye writer and cartoonist Nick Newman, SPIKE lovingly recreates that world: the set is both a BBC studio and a sort of giant radio. Each of the two halves is prefaced with a turn by Janet (Margaret Cabourn-Smith), a fictional sound effects artist who with great gusto demonstrates how you might suggest walking through rustling leaves (old audio tape) or using a guillotine (a sharp blow with a cleaver through a cabbage).
The basic story is about the rise of The Goon Show, despite harrumphing from various high-ups at the BBC who find it vulgar, but can’t dispute the growing audience numbers. Younger actors Jeremy Lloyd and Patrick Warner, who can’t have known the original show, contribute lively impersonations of Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers respectively. Theirs are the jollier parts and convey the sense of the fun of rehearsals and recorded performances. Secombe’s memorable singing is heard in short bursts from Lloyd and we get a glimpse of tall, attractive Sellers as womaniser in short comic scenes with various ladies.
Spike Milligan himself is a more complex character to play, as the show touches on darker territory. Short bursts of warfare (black and white film projected above the actors) demonstrate the devastating effects fighting in WW2 had on Spike’s precarious mental health, and in the course of the show we see his breakdown and hospitalisation. Robert Wilfort offers a convincing physical portrait of Spike Milligan, chronically late with scripts and awkwardly barking out jokes when he is evidently haunted by inner demons. Hislop and Newman’s script works hard to keep the tone light, so the critical scene of Spike’s breakdown is played as comedy. An overwrought Spike bursts unannounced into Seller’s house one night, physically threatening him. The joke is his chosen weapon – a potato peeler.
Additionally various broadly drawn minor characters represent the established authorities against whom Spike fights. Twice we get a panel of lugubrious critics, languorously deciding The Goon Show works because it stands within a greater comic tradition, name-checking everyone from Aristophanes to Beckett. But there is rather too much doubling in the show. The same applies to repeated comic scenes between the stuffy BBC executive and his headscarfed wife and turns from the brylcreemed BBC announcer and plus the ever-smiling producer brought it to keep the Goons in line.
There’s some nice choreography in the show – in particular the musical interludes and the scenes of Spike manically typing to music. But the show hits the inevitable problem that The Goon Show was comedy written for radio. Nonetheless,there is still lots of fun to be had for Goon aficionados.
Runs until 12 November 2022