Sketches of Another Three Great British Comic Talents – Spike Milligan, Dick Emery and Terry Thomas

Spike Milligan is, in my opinion, a genuine comic genius. He wrote the Goons, one of the great classics of British comedy. I have wondered if the pressures of writing it contributed to his nervous breakdown. The contracts at the time were for 25 episode series, and I got the impression that he was one of the writers, whose mind was blank right at the start of the week and only got their inspiration almost at the very last minute, when the show was due to go on air. As well as the Goons, he wrote his war memoirs, which are really funny despite the horrific nature of the subject. Milligan was left shell-shocked from the war after his gun emplacement was hit by an Italian shell. The Goons were a radio show and according to the cast, bitterly hated by the Beeb management. They believed it was due to the fact that they had served in the War, and they hadn’t. They also had their suspicions about some of the servicemen’s slang Milligan put into the show. Hence, when it first aired the Corporation insisted on calling it The Junior Crazy Gang. The Goons also briefly appeared on the box as The Telegoons. And after that there were the Q series. John Cleese has said that he admired Milligan and his silliness, and he influenced Monty Python, which amazed me when I first heard it, as the Pythons seemed to be aimed at the university level or come from that academic level with some of its material. Milligan also wrote children’s poetry, was an accomplished musician and he was also an environmental campaigner in the 1950s. For the sketch I selected a picture that showed him as I remember him – in middle age, but still bright, energetic and radiating his comic craziness. So, you got this picture of him in a vest wearing a very ragged hat.

I think Dick Emery is probably mostly forgotten today, but for a long time he was one of the country’s foremost comic actors. In the 1970s he had his own Saturday night comedy show, in which he played a range of bizarre characters. This included a Anglican vicar, a moronic young lad, with the late Roy Kinnear playing his father, a middle-aged woman desperate for younger men, a flamboyant gay man, and another young woman, whose conversations with men ended with her saying, ‘Oh, you are awful, but I do like you!’, followed by a shove with the hand which sent the unfortunate male flying. The comedy’s obviously very dated now, especially the gay character, who is stereotypically camp and dressed in colourful, effeminate clothes. While it grates on contemporary sensibilities, I really don’t think it was meant spitefully. It was just part of the general stereotype and attitude towards gays in the 1970s following the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968. He also appeared in a number of British comedy films, some undoubtedly best forgotten. He also appeared in a number of other British comedies, including Michael Bentine’s Square World. Bentine described one incident in the show’s career in his one-man show, From the Ridiculous to the Paranormal in the 1990s, in the show reported that China had declared war on the UK. The show’s cast sailed up and down the Thames in a junk, with Emery dressed ‘as Fu Manchu’, firing rubber rocks at parliament. This was before the Troubles and real terrorism. Eventually a police launch sailed towards them to investigate. One of the cops on board hailed them, and asked ‘Do any of you gentlemen speak English?’ Outside his screen appearances, he was also patron of the Airfix Club, run in one of the war comics in the 1970s, for all the boys and no doubt some girls who like sticking plastic models of WW II airplanes and tanks together. I’ve tried to show as the toothy vicar.

And Terry Thomas is British comedy’s greatest and most notorious cad, appearing in films from The School for Scoundrels with Ian Carmichael to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, with Tony Hancock and Eric Sykes playing his put-upon servant. I heard a while ago that the characters Dick Dastardly, the villainous air ace, and his dog, Muttley, in the Hanna Barbara cartoon were based on Terry Thomas and Sykes in the above flick. He’s still remembered by today by the younger generation. I’m sure I’ve seen his fizzog gracing the sign for a nightclub in Bristol.


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12 Responses to “Sketches of Another Three Great British Comic Talents – Spike Milligan, Dick Emery and Terry Thomas”

  1. trev Says:

    I remember all of them very well. Dick Emery was very popular in his hey day, they showed a film with him in on Talking Pictures TV channel a while ago. I saw Terry Thomas recently guest starring in an old episode of The Persuaders from about 1971. Spike not seen or heard of for years. I remember the Q series and I read his book as a teenager ‘Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall’, both funny and sad. Good sketches again.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Trev. Spike passed away a little while ago. If you remember he had loads of celebrities talking about how they admired him in the tribute programme.

      • trev Says:

        I think the tribute show must have been a repeat, Spike died in 2002, 20 years ago! Time certainly does fly. Do you remember he had put on his grave stone “I told you I was ill”.

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    Spike had reason to be wary of the Beeb. Early on, he discovered that the Beeb was paying him less than Sellers and Secombe, even tho he was performing AND writing most of the scripts. The difference was that Sellers and Secombe had agents to negotiate their wages, while Spike relied on the Beeb’s good faith! The very early Goons featured a fourth man, Michael Bentine, who quit or was dropped but later had his own TV show. Sometimes referred to unkindly as “the Pete Best of the Goon Show!” There’s a story about Spike and Sellers in the early days when they had to make a living touring the music halls. Sellers was an impressionist (Winston Churchill was part of his repertoire) and Spike played the trumpet. At one particularly rowdy Northern venue, Spike’s trumpet-playing was booed and heckled and Spike left the stage in tears. Sellers promised to get revenge. When his turn came, he walked onstage in his underpants, carrying a wind-up gramophone and a pile of records he had found backstage. As the audience watched expectantly, Sellers set up the gramophone, wound it up, and said, “I’d like to play you a wonderful record,” put the record on, and sat down while it played. When it finished, Sellers said, “I’d like to play you another wonderful record” and repeated the procedure, and repeated it until the end of his spot, whereupon he collected up the records, picked up the gramophone, and left the stage, satisfied that he had made fools of his audience! By the way, Terry-Thomas had a hyphen.

    • trev Says:

      Bentine was a fascinating character, a psychic and a student of the Paranormal. I’ve got copies of his books, ‘The Door Marked Summer’ and ‘Doors of The Mind’. He also served in British Intelligence (MI9 I think) attached to Bomber Command during WW2.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Brian. I hadn’t heard those stories before, and it does explain Milligan’s hostility to the Beeb.

      • trev Says:

        Rumour has it that there was some anymosity between the beeb and Bentine, because they didn’t like his delving into things paranormal, and they wiped his appearances in the early Goon shows, effectively writing him out of the story, and any subsequent BBC documentary about the Goons doesn’t even mention Michael Bentine’s contribution/involvement. That’s what I heard anyway, from someone on the fringes of showbiz.

      • beastrabban Says:

        That could well be true. There was an official report into the presentation of the paranormal in the media, and this said that it should only be permitted as an investigation or entertainment, but never as truth. I can’t remember when it was published or any other details, except that it was naturally a cause of real anger among many spiritualists in the 90s.

  3. Mark Pattie Says:

    I think Spike Milligan is more familiar to my generation as the chap who wrote that nonsense poem which I half-remember from primary school (2000ish). “On the ning nang nong, where the mice go bong…” or something. I presume Dick Emery was gay- but probably “closeted” as homosexuality was illegal for most of his lifetime. His Anglican vicar character kind of reminds me of Frank Williams’ vicar in Dad’s Army, but nothing *like* that other gay Anglican icon and quiz legend, Rev Richard Coles, though!

    • beastrabban Says:

      I can remember that there was various stories/speculation about his sexuality after his death, just like there is with nearly all the celebrities. I think I just quickly skipped passed them when they appeared in the papers. I’m not trying to sound sanctimonious about it, but the stories weren’t interesting – all that I was interested in was the man as a great comic performer.

      • Mark Pattie Says:

        I believe Frank was himself devoutly Anglican (a member of the General Synod no less!) so the vicar character suited him perfectly. I suppose that’s an early victory for accurate representation, given these days everybody is screeching for it. As for Richard Coles, is there any spaces for the Beeb to give him his own quiz show?

      • beastrabban Says:

        Totally agree with you about Richard Coles having his own quiz show. He’s a brilliant broadcaster and I’ve no doubt a very good clergyman. They asked him once if his flock knew that he’d been a pop star in the Communards. He said that some of them had some kind of idea, but that generally they thought he’d either been a Communist or lived in a commune.

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