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Spike Milligna, the well-known typing error

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Episode 10 of the first series was broadcast on 2 August 1951 on the Home Service, the show having been shifted from Mondays to Thursdays. The Radio Times listing is here.

Terence Alan Milligan was born in Ahmednagar near Pune, India, on 16 April 1918. His father, Leo, was a soldier in the British Army posted to India (it must have been a big parcel). In 1933 Leo was pensioned off, and the family – with mother Florence and little brother Desmond – moved back to Britain. The contrast between his Indian childhood and the new home in a drab, grey London (Catford, to be specific) must have been startling, and Milligan referred several times to how badly it affected him.

Terry, as he was known at the time, loved music – and jazz in particular. While working at a cigarette factory in the mid-1930s, he began pinching cigarettes and selling them himself to raise money to buy a trumpet. He was caught, and even hauled before a magistrate.

Milligan told Alfred Draper in The Story of the Goons:

“More than anything else in the world I wanted a trumpet… [I thought] they’re paying me a miserable wage, so I’ll take a Robin Hood attitude and rob the rich to pay the poor. Meaning me.”

Leo Milligan appealed on his son’s behalf that “he was only trying to improve his life” – and so Spike escaped with a “ticking off”, as Draper puts it. (He still got the trumpet.)

Milligan was called up to serve in the British Army in 1940, and joined the 19th Battery of the Royal Artillery as a gunner. He saw action in North Africa (Algeria and Tunisia) and Italy, where he was injured by mortar fire.

“I’m too young to go,” I screamed as Military Policemen dragged me from my pram clutching a dummy. At Victoria Station the [officer] gave me a travel warrant, a white feather and a picture of Hitler marked ‘This is your enemy’. I searched every compartment but he wasn’t on the train.

(from Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, published 1971)

His war experiences deserve far more than a paragraph: multiple books, in fact. I highly recommend Milligan’s war memoirs – Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, Rommel? Gunner Who?, Monty: His Part in My Victory, and Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall. They are a fascinating combination of gags, memories, beautiful descriptions of the landscape, and heart-breaking insights into the horrors of the front line of the Second World War. There are seven memoirs in total, documenting his life after the war with Combined Services Entertainment, where he briefly shared a bill with one Harry Secombe.

While Spike’s memoirs were written in the 1970s, 30 years after the events he is recording, it is clear that the humour he shared with many of his fellow soldiers played a key role in shaping the humour of the Goons in later years. His conversations with close friend Gunner Harry Edgington in particular could have been lifted from a Goon Show script. We’ll look into Spike’s memoirs in a bit more depth in a later blog.

It was while in North Africa that the now infamous first meeting between Spike and Harry Secombe took place. Here’s Secombe’s recollection:

I happened to be sitting in an eight-hundredweight wireless truck in a gully below a steep cliff which led up to the plateau where the guns were intended to come into action. Meanwhile, up above us the big guns with their rubber tyres and huge barrels had been manhandled into position… The gun was duly fired, but, owing to the fact that we had been given the wrong specifications, the gun-pit was too shallow to accommodate the recoil of the barrel. Consequently it bounced out of its pit and careered backwards over the cliff under which our wireless truck was positioned. The noise was quite terrifying and my first reaction was that if the enemy had now taken to firing entire guns at us and not just shells, it was about time we packed in the whole business… Suddenly the canvas flap of the truck was swept aside and a dim face appeared in the light of our paraffin lamp. “Anybody seen a gun?” inquired the intruder. “What colour?” we replied.

(taken from Harry Secombe’s autobiography Arias and Raspberries, published 1990)

Anybody seen a gun?

It wasn’t until Spike was recovering in a field hospital in Italy that he properly met Secombe and they joined the growing group of people commissioned to entertain their fellow troops waiting for demobilisation.

The image (left) shows Spike's regiment, the 56th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, practising with six-inch guns at Hastings in Sussex in 1940. (Sourced from the Imperial War Museum website and used under non-commercial licence.)

Image of Spike sourced from IMDB.

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