I was still a teenager in 1974, but I was already something of a veteran at managing the tours of a mixed up, jumbled up, shook up assortment of musicians. The Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, Little Feat, Graham Central Station, Chuck Berry (I can’t tell that story until he leaves this vale of tears); folkies like Steeleye Span and Amity, and well… Spike Milligan.
If anyone ever asks me about the trials of handling drug enhanced rock stars in the 1970s, I’m duty bound to answer that nobody gave me as many ‘issues’ as when I was attempting to ensure that Spike Milligan was not only fit and able, but also awake enough, to join Jeremy Taylor for their unusual tour of universities and colleges in 1974/5.
Now I am going to write about the trickiness of working with Spike’s awkwardness, but if you stick with me, we’ll end on a high note, and crikey, I learned a lot about life during that year, so I’m glad I was there.
It’s widely known now, that Spike suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his life, and suffered many nervous breakdowns. We didn’t know that in 1974. We just knew he could be ‘difficult’. This manifested itself in so many different ways, and impacted upon those around him, whether they were family, friends, or professional colleagues.
The mid 1970s were not a good era for Spike Milligan and he resented that. He had been vilified for taking part in the most god-awful television ‘comedy’ show that you could ever imagine (Curry and Chips) in which he ‘blacked up’ to play a Pakistani. It was supposed to highlight the stupidity of racism, but served merely to give idiots more ammunition. It was pulled by ITV after six shows.
I do remember talking to Spike about this in more general terms. He abhorred cruelty and discrimination, but he was from a different generation and could not see the offence he could cause. He really did think that ‘foreign’ people would be in on the joke.
Indeed, in 1975, he blacked up again, for a series on the BBC. Six episodes were made – the BBC dropped it after one show.
For the period in which I was involved in Spike’s life, he was generally very downbeat. Bipolar covers a wide range of symptoms, and whilst some can undergo equal amounts of euphoria and darkness, Spike appeared to spend much of his time in morbidity. Day to day, it manifested itself by convincing him that he had to sleep, no matter where he was, or the time of day. When you are embarking on a nationwide tour of universities and colleges, this is not an ideal state. I felt awful waking him up from his escape of the waking nightmare of gloom, but as with so many artists, our old friend Doctor Footlights would ‘kick in’ and he would appear – I was going to say ‘on stage’, but in many venues, these weren’t stages but screened off areas of common rooms, small halls, or uni folk clubs. This was not, on the whole, a big tour. I can recall one night, in West London, where the audience, in a furiously brightly lit room, must have amounted to thirty or forty in number. This was not ‘The Golden Age of Spike’.
We used to chat. Fifty-five year old Milligan, and nineteen year old me; I knew nothing of the world and it felt like he knew everything.
Until he loosened up. Then it would all come out. Repeatedly and with fervour. The only really ‘bad’ thing I will write about Spike is that he really did believe in his own genius. If something didn’t work, or if a show didn’t get picked up by a broadcaster, or if a joke didn’t get a laugh (many didn’t at this time), it was everybody else’s fault, never his.
In these years, he was catatonically furious with the BBC for not supporting (as he saw it), and not re-commissioning at his will, the ‘Q’ TV series. You can find examples on YouTube. It was hit and miss; mostly ‘miss’. It had canned laughter, and suffered from Spike’s habit of finding himself hysterically funny, and thus had a substantial cringe factor as he struggled to get through a sketch due to his inability to suppress his giggling at his own cleverness. Yet, and yet. It has been said by cleverer people than me that this was a symptom of the illness, a desire to be loved, and a mask for crippling insecurity.
There were amusing aspects to Spike’s illness, for him, and for the rest of us. He developed, on this tour, an obsession with the set up of the audience’s seats.
Quite sensibly, the college social secretaries usually had their room organised with a small area for the two performers, and a series of semi circle chair arrangements in the ‘theatre style’.
Spike would turn up, sometimes rather too close to the start of the gig for comfort (he was never late) and with some audience members already seated, he would stand amongst them, telling me how to rearrange the chairs. So to mollify him, I would make some minor adjustment, and then move it back to how it was, once he had gone back to the ‘dressing room’ (often a caretaker’s storage area, or if we were a lucky, a tutor’s office). The audience thought it was part of his act; it wasn’t and he got cross if they laughed.
Although the tour was very low key, and I’m sure hardly made any profit, the idea was to record one of the bigger shows, and put it out on an album, with the expectation that it would be a money-spinner (oddly the reverse scenario is the case for acts today).
I have no idea if it sold sufficiently to generate income for Jeremy and Spike, but I don’t remember it bothering Led Zeppelin, ABBA or Queen at the top of the charts. These days, it is still possible to find a copy, either through e-Bay or niche ‘folkie’ music stores.
Spike’s act was a combination of stories, poetry, astonishingly good trumpet playing, duets with Jeremy Taylor, and limericks – one of which I still recall to this day:
“A young man who went out to dinner
Came back looking leaner and thinner
No need to be baffled
The dinner was raffled
And somebody else was the winner”
Boom-tish! It wasn’t all gloom on the tour.
I wrote up there, that we’d end on a cheery note. Spike gave me a tricky time on that tour. He was difficult and hard to understand. He was being followed, at every step, by the black dog.
About a month later, he wrote to me at home. It was one of the kindest and most humble letters anyone could ever expect to receive. I thought he hadn’t really paid much attention to me, and the work I put in. I was wrong. For several years, he wrote to me from time to time, as I headed off in new directions, and his letters were warm, amusing, and thoughtful.
He was alright, was Spike.