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Spike and Eric

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Eric Sykes first met Spike Milligan briefly at the Grafton Arms, where everybody in entertainment met, seemingly.

However, it wasn’t until 1951 that they met properly, when Sykes was recovering from an operation to solve a rather nasty ear infection that affected his hearing for the rest of his life.

Confined to a hospital bed, he was idly twiddling the dial on his radio when he stumbled upon something rather marvellous.

I was about to put the earphones aside and join the fairies when a burst of bright music vibrated through them. It heralded a comedy show, fast, furious, but above all, funny – really, really funny. I wasn’t well enough to laugh, but my insides enjoyed it. I listened eagerly to the closing credits, and a cut-glass, wine-soaked voice announced, ‘That was Crazy People, script by Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens.’

(from If I Don’t Write It Nobody Else Will, by Eric Sykes, published by Fourth Estate, 2005)

Sykes wrote to the pair full of praise for their work and confident that “the country was in for an uplifting winter’s listening”. (Crazy People ran through the summer of 1951, but we’ll forgive Eric a minor date slip.)

A few days later, recovering from the operation, he awoke to find two faces peering round the ward door at him – Spike and Larry had popped in to see him after receiving his letter.

Spike, trying to speak softly, was hauled to his feet by Matron, and bustled down the corridor and into the street. […] Two days later my curiosity was assuaged when I received a letter from Spike and Larry apologising for gatecrashing but they had wanted to thank me personally for my praise, especially coming from me. I felt like the trainer of an athlete who’s just won gold.

(from If I Don’t Write It Nobody Else Will, by Eric Sykes, published by Fourth Estate, 2005)

Sykes’ impression of Milligan was of “a man with comic ideas exploding from his mind like an inexhaustible Roman candle”. This echoes Harry Secombe’s description of Spike as throwing off ideas “like sparks from a Catherine Wheel”.

A few short years later and the pair began sharing an office above a greengrocer in Shepherds Bush, London. Before long, they teamed up with up-and-coming writing duo Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to form Associated London Scripts (ALS), a writers’ collective designed to ensure a fairer fee for their work by pooling their resources and giving them more combined clout when negotiating with producers.

This naturally drew Milligan and Sykes together as writers. Larry Stephens, Spike’s previous collaborator, had moved on to other things, primarily working with his close friend Tony Hancock, although he later joined ALS and resumed co-writing duties on the Goon Show.

In his copious index in his Goonography, Roger Wilmut cites Sykes and Milligan as co-writers for much of the fifth series. However, the credits in the Radio Times alternate between each one. Sykes, for example, is credited as the sole writer of ‘The Last Tram (from Clapham)’, while Milligan has the solo credit for ‘The Booted Gorilla (Found?)’.

Eric Sykes was an ideal writing partner for Milligan as he was able to root each episode in a substantive plot, from which both he and Spike could apply Goon humour and logic to great effect. Sykes also had a talent for being able to mimic other performers’ styles, blending his ideas in seamlessly.

However, these two great comic egos were arguably never going to last long together. To stretch the fireworks metaphor, sparks were bound to fly.

The duo’s collaboration was “harmonious” for the first few weeks, according to Sykes, but a disagreement over an apparently trivial matter led to a violent outburst from Milligan who threw a paperweight at his partner. It missed, and went straight through the window and plummeted five floors down to the pavement below.

It was possibly a manifestation of Milligan’s mental state, as he was struggling with depression through much of the 1950s according to multiple sources (including Milligan himself), and Sykes was sympathetic. It meant, though, that they began alternating who wrote each script, rather than co-writing. This would explain the alternating credits in the Radio Times, although these seem to have started somewhat earlier than Sykes’ account suggests.

In short, while Sykes and Milligan were firm friends and business partners, working on scripts together was a step too far – as much due to the debilitating effects of Milligan’s depression on him and those close to him as anything else.

All that said, this fleeting collaboration did give us some of the best Goon Show scripts of its 10-series run. ‘Lurgi Strikes Britain’, ‘Under Two Floorboards’, and ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Five’ are particular gems in my view.

To prove how long-lasting their friendship was, here is Milligan upstaging Sykes to present him with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Comedy Awards in 1992.

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