“What are we going to do now?”: Notes on Spike Milligan’s “Q” series

By on April 28, 2017

WHO?!? No, not Spike Jones. That was the bandleader who did a peppy version of “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” Aside from possibly brief appearances arguing over parking with Peter Sellers in Terry Southern’s gloriously mad The Magic Christian, being an ancient man in a terrible wig married to Raquel Welch in The Four Musketeers, and popping up in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, Spike Milligan isn’t too well known to most Americans.

He’s a quick reference in a documentary, a John Cleese anecdote that makes you wonder if he has anything to do with Spike Jones other than appropriating the nickname in the ’40s. This appalling lack of awareness must end!

Often described as some sort of “Godfather of British Comedy,” his scrappy bastard children included the aforementioned Cleese’s Monty Python gang, Peter Cook and Beyond the Fringe, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

AMERICAN: “Who?”
ME: “Just find “The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer,” ok?”

He excelled at wordplay, reversals, unexpected twists, and confusing catchphrases. Surely that catches you up? No?

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Born in India, comedy one-off Terance Alan “Spike” Milligan (1918-2002) received the bulk of his education courtesy of World War II and was marinated by the mental illness that marked a career that the word “mercurial” doesn’t seem to do justice to.

Grappling publicly with bipolar disorder that landed him in the hospital periodically, he still managed an incredibly prolific writing career to the end of his life while breaking a substantial pile of conventions along the way. Writing comedy was always going to be his ticket to Showbiz Heaven, what with the world already having much better jazz trumpet players.

Simultaneously he could be a vicious misanthrope who hated people AND a charitable protector of the Earth who adored children.

Spike bounced back and forth across the ping-pong table of mood swings with only one constant in his life: Hitler jokes.

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WWII was the crucible that somehow created his comedy, a reaction to the madness both literal and metaphorical. After catching a mortar shell too close to his eardrums, a stuttering young Spike was removed from the front and ended up plying his trumpet and proto-comedy trade entertaining the troops. Here he found camaraderie, escape, music: showbiz.

Bit by the bug, after being de-mobbed he tried to make it as a musician and gag-writer in postwar Britain. The pickings were slim, but his goofy way with a fractured line soon endeared him to a collection of radio actors and variety performers who gathered around the Grafton Arms pub.

Chief among these was an impossibly spoiled, pudgy pre-Hollywood whirlwind of impressions and talent that seemed to be the only man who ever was his match: Peter Sellers.

Together with Harry Secombe and the soon-shitcanned Michael Bentine, the foursome (then trio) cut a swathe of silly across BBC radio for almost a decade in The Goon Show.”

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Spike and Sellers

The possibilities of sound were throttled, exploited, mutated: an array of idiots made real solely by mouth noises. Records were sampled decades before the word was invented. A blizzard of sound effects were flung in all directions, some landing in the auditory canals of the guys that became Monty Python.

Listening now, the influence is obvious. The disdain for all forms of authority, the delight in abandoning a setup and simply whisking the audience elsewhere. The engine room for this sputtering comedy machine was Spike: he wrote most of the scripts and to hear him tell it, it cost him his first marriage and his sanity.

The pressure of cranking out so many scripts, to top himself every time out made him want to end it all. He was hospitalized on several occasions, but soldiered through.

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Because there was a new front on his perpetual war: the BBC itself. For the rest of his life Spike railed against the bureaucracy of the BBC, despite the seemingly endless chances they seemed to give him. It provided a reliable, faceless enemy he attacked wherever he could: in interviews, letters, and in what would be his major contribution to television — the “Q” series.

Despite earlier attempts at translating “Goon Show” comedy to TV like Richard Lester’s “A Show Called Fred” and “Son of Fred,” things didn’t come together until the broadcast in 1969 of the mysteriously-named “Q5.”

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NEWSREADER:“And now we leave the guru, a man of many religious convictions. Three of which are pending.”

Perhaps his anger at the BBC wasn’t entirely misplaced: “Q5″ was right at the tail end of their merciless tape-recycling regime that claimed a big chunk of “Doctor Who” among other cult casualties.

Three episodes are missing as a result: two B&W 16mm kinescopes and one color videotape are all that exist of that first series.

So maybe the BBC needed to be taken down a peg, and taken down a peg they were. The conventions of television were dismantled systematically: actors wore costumes with visible costume department tags on them.

Their take-home pay was helpfully superimposed on the screen, a practice I wish would make a comeback as it would be quite helpful, really.

ANNOUNCER: “You’re watching BBC-TV, the station with a complete change of underwear.”

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The “Q” series was obsessed with the format of television itself: station IDs, intros, credits, pieces to camera, film inserts. The rhythms of the BBC were used, abused, and disrupted. Sketches would peter out without punchlines, melting into something else entirely.

Occasionally the actors would shuffle off, all robotically repeating: “What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?”

Police, judges, and politicians are portrayed as perverts and crooks. Priests and prophets are simply lunatics. Grandmothers are hurled off cliffs. Doctors wear Hitler mustaches.

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BBC newsreaders were mercilessly parodied with the help of Peter Cook’s gang of posh satire urchins at Private Eye, Richard Ingrams and John Wells. Anyone behind a desk is Kafka cabaret.

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Peter Cook on Q9

Does this sound vaguely familiar? Terry Jones thought so too, ringing John Cleese to say Spike had gotten there first.

TERRY JONES: “I remember watching those shows and thinking — my God, he’s tearing up the form of comedy! We were writing things for ‘The Frost Report’ and things like that, and I suddenly thought… we’re writing clichés. We’re writing three minute sketches with beginnings, middles, and ends. Or we’re writing sort of thirty second blackout… and there’s Milligan taking things that start of with sort of an African hut where they’re doing ‘Mrs. Dale’s Diary’ and suddenly the Highlanders with pipes come marching through and they all go off in different directions.”

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Recognizing kindred spirits, they quickly employed the services of “Q5″ director and producer Ian MacNaughton for a show improbably called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Surely if he worked with Spike Milligan the well-known typing error, he would get Python!

Despite their always giving him a name-check, Spike would alternate between benevolence and annoyance with his comedy children, contributing a memorable cameo in The Life of Brian as an ignored man calling for prayer in the crowd of followers quibbling about shoes vs. gourds.

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“Spike Milligan turns up to do a part. He over-plays thoroughly and becomes very testy when asked to wait for the clouds to pass for a retake. Mind you, I rather feel for anyone who arrives to help out and is asked to do a role which involves saying ‘Les us pray’ before being trampled by three hundred Tunisian extras.”

“Dine with Eric, Elaine [Carew], Tania and Spike Milligan and his lady Shelagh. They hold hands lovingly. Eric is nodding off towards the end of the meal. Spike relaxes quite quickly and becomes genial, slightly nostalgic and almost expansive. Notice that his eyes have a great expressive sadness in them. He could be a very moving tragic actor.”

“Some nice silly ideas come up — such as a trick bow tie which stays still whilst the entire body revolves — and Spike is genuinely touched when I remember sketches and ideas from ‘Q5′ and his other shows. He too is generous in his appreciation — in particular he compliments me on my pet-shop owner. Spike says he tends to identify with the fall guy or feed man in a sketch.”

~ Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years

The film benefits from this happy coincidence, even if Spike got bored and wandered off before the scene was completed. He just happened to be vacationing in Tunisia at the time, where he once fought Nazis and presumably was in search of research and mood-setting for his best-selling war memoirs that began with “Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall.”

With a title like that, no wonder it was a best-selling series.

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NEWSREADER: “And now in my new role as consenting male announcer — the very real and very disturbing problem of smoking pot. When you buy a packet of pot, you are on the threshold of a new hallucinatory experience. Just look at this film…”

After a cold open, the world of “Q” arrives courtesy of jaunty piano melody punctuated by groans of “Oh dear.” This “Q5″ piano tune was also produced by George Martin for Parlaphone as Martin’s recording relationship with Spike stretched further back than the Beatles, but with overdubs and re-speeding in full effect his rendition was more of a music hall version of the Residents with raspberries on the side.

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Co-writing with Neil Shand helped ease the burden and provided a sounding board for the flood of ideas, but without equals to perform with ala “Monty Python,” Spike had to draw from the BBC and brought in some friends and jazz musicians to create a repertory company of doughy guys, character actors, and the spectacularly Russ Meyeresque Julia Breck.

John Bluthal, a comedy pro known mainly to Americans as Frank Pickle in “The Vicar of Dibley,” and also recently popped up in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! as a wizened old Communist still doing the sort of characters he played for Milligan almost fifty years before. And man, he does ‘em great.

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With a vast roster of bureaucrats, buffoons, ethnic stereotypes, and hilarious impersonations of TV presenters I’m not even aware of, John Bluthal was a man born to wear a tight-fitting wig and introduce surreal TV parodies.

He brings cast-iron dignity to even the dumbest stuff, and must be an incredibly patient and tolerant man to return for almost every episode until “There’s a Lot of it About,” “Q10″ in all but name.

Benny Hill stooges like Bob Todd also provided amiable second bananas for Spike to bounce off of, although I’m partial to the fastidiously precise Peter Jones who voiced “The Book” in Douglas Adams’ ticket to fame and fortune, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy.

NEWSREADER: “There now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour party.”
LABOUR SPOKESMAN: “HEEEEEEEEELP!”
NEWSREADER: “And now on behalf of the Conservative party…”
CONSERVATIVE SPOKESMAN: “Oh dear, oh dear.”

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Not all of it works, not by a long shot. Ideas peter out. Amidst all the innovative stuff, the corniest old gags are flung at you over and over again. Anti-comedy forty years before that was a thing.

Quality control? Editing? I doubt it. Who is going to tell Milligan he’s gone too far? Spike seems to laugh more at his own jokes than anyone else, although towards the end of the run there seemed to be a bit of a forced jolliness to the proceedings.

For long stretches the show becomes more “interesting” than “funny.” Why would anyone want to watch comedy that isn’t funny? Well, it’s not like that stops most comedy from being made.

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Spike remained interesting. There’s always some bit of unexpected business, some strange road bump in a cliche that breaks everything and leaves you confused. His train of thought must have been incredible and intimidating to behold in full flight before the inevitable pile-up.

JUDGE: “Has he a record?”
LAWYER: “Yes, m’lud.”
JUDGE: “Is it Lulu?”

“Is it Lulu?”: Hospitals and doctors occur with regularity — having once suffered through the dystopian nightmare euphemistically known as “pre-existing conditions,” it’s hard not to feel jealous of free government healthcare despite Spike’s frequent poking fun at the NHS.

I’d settle for that even if the free doctors had suspiciously thick German accents and wore Iron Crosses around the office. Probably.

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There’s that word people use now: “problematic.” Yes, the later “Q” series got a bit grotty in the ’70s.

By the time the series returned in 1975 for “Q6,” Spike was more of his time than ahead of it. Pakistani Daleks, blackface, hideous Jewish caricatures. A cash register is called a “Jewish piano” and playing it summons a flock of Liberace.

This sort of thing is probably why the BBC resisted repeats and releasing anything but highlights collections until only recently when they licensed it out for a small DVD release just as the medium goes through its death throes.

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“This was a decent, respectable sketch until you came along.” — someone else can write a piece wagging their finger at a dead guy for making some dubious sketches and bad Arab sheik vignettes. Clearly we’re all so enlightened in 2017 about Muslims so those hypothetical lectures would carry endless moral authority.

Oh wait. Better to just shake your head and wait till the next bit. I suppose you could also take the step of promising never to go back in time and make a racially insensitive 1970s sketch series.

At least he was keen on the environment, huh? Just not so much most of the humans in it.

MAN 1: “This was a decent, respectable sketch until you came along.”
MAN 2: “What are you insinuating, you equity ponce?”
MAN 1: “I think you’re an infiltrator from ITV – you’re one of Sir Lew Grade’s destroy-a-BBC-sketch-a-day men, aren’t you?”

Chalk it up to surrealism, say he “hated everybody equally,” burble on endlessly about “political correctness,” at the end of the day Spike found that shit funny. He genuinely cracked up at big noses. Or did on camera, anyway.

Those haunted eyes surrounded by the purple-black splotches that I’ve seen accompany more than one person with crippling depression say it all. So I guess I’m not really up for being incredibly judgmental.

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There’s so much pain mixed in with the compulsive jokes and manic deconstruction, not many TV comedy careers have PTSD and actual Nazis involved.

Ultimately, Michael Palin was right about those eyes.

SPIKE: “Listen, constable — I died in the last war for people like you.”

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FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION:

In the Psychiatrist’s Chair with Anthony Clare — there’s a radio episode interviewing Spike that really highlights a lot of the points people make about him in facile short pieces like this from effete city-slickers who never faced mortar fire. Well worth seeking out, as is the subsequent collaboration “Depression and How to Survive It” from both authors.

The Q Series DVDs – Released in two volumes in late 2016 and early 2017, it’s time to finally retire those copies snuck out of the BBC archives and passed around for the past twenty years.

The Q Annual and Get in the Q Annual – Long out of print but not too difficult to find online, packed with ridiculous stills with Spiked cartoon bubbles along with an assortment of sketches. Void where prohibited.

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Norma Farnes’ Spike: An Intimate Memoir – chronicles the ups and downs and makes you glad you didn’t have to sort out Spike’s schedule. More about the man than the comedy, but certainly helps elucidate a lot of the comedy.

Humphrey Carpenter’s Spike Milligan – a broad biography that wallows in the muck a bit but is filled with priceless archival excerpts and anecdotes.

The Great McGonagall – Basically Q: The Movie. A seriously strange rendition of the life of one of the world’s most awful poets, entirely filmed in and around a rotting old theater. This film has a singular, utterly peculiar atmosphere, Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria playing the organ, and a nice big slice of John Bluthal.

Milligan’s War: The Selected War Memoirs of Spike Milligan – a nice collection of grit, tall tales, and wartime weirdness. This volume will do, otherwise snag the lot for the full-on endless Adolf experience.

The Goon Show: 1985 – My favorite episode, a ridiculous pastiche of Orwell and the BBC found on Volume 31 or all over the internet. Eccles: “It’s good to be aliiiiive, in nineteen eighty-fiiiive!” Suddenly those Firesign Theatre references make sense.

Puckoon – One of Spike’s most popular novels, a delightful slice of silly. Avoid the movie, even if Elliot Gould is in it for no apparent reason. Now you want to watch it even more, don’t you?

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About Andre Perkowski

Andre Perkowski​ is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and collage artist known for his three hour adaptation of the 1964 William S. Burroughs cut-up novel "Nova Express." His underground features weave together found footage, digital, Super-8, and 16mm shards into shambling pop culture Frankensteins. His no-budget Dadaist kung fu epic "A Belly Full of Anger" features the voices of Bob Odenkirk, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and Phil Proctor. His current project is a documentary entitled "Virtual Boys" on the rise, fall, and rise again of consumer virtual reality. You can find further evidence of his arcane research into The Firesign Theatre, Edward D. Wood, Jr., The Residents, Orson Welles, Batman, Brian Wilson, and other subjects at his Terminal Pictures Youtube page: youtube.com/terminalpictures