A friend of mine was once a curator at Mendips – John Lennon’s old house now owned by the National Trust and done up in 50s period styling.
It drove him absolutely mad because, when giving tours every day, there was a CD of The Goons playing on a loop. For six months.
And now for my own shameful confession. I never really found The Goons, or Milligan, especially funny. It’s fashionable to refer to Spike as the first alternative comedian but his humour always seemed to have its basis in straightforward music-hall stuff to me.
The first 20 minutes of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler My Part in his Downfall threatened to confirm my worst fears, with a monologue from Sholto Morgan as Spike and some barrack-room banter providing an outlet for Milligan’s rapid-fire punnery. Pretty unfunny punnery by my book.
But, whether it’s the cast settling in or, more likely, me adjusting to the format it improves. Milligan’s wartime memoirs are told through a music-hall revue, weaving songs, dance routines, anecdotes and monologue in and out of real-life events.
It paints a vivid picture of a WWII life of boredom, jazz, insolence, camaraderie and sex punctuated by brief moments of terror.
The five-man cast play multiple roles, with only Morgan playing one part, and form a small group of unlikely chums sharing a love of music.
I think it’s the musical numbers where My Part in his Downfall excels, with lovely period music combining with the comic numbers by Milligan to impressive effect. It’s by turns rather touching and beautiful and then riotous and affirming.
The sheer range of talents on display by the near-perfect cast are also worthy of note: all sing, dance and play numerous instruments, and play them well.
A little spot of audience interaction and some inspired ad-libbing add to the general sense of mayhem, which seems appropriate given Milligan’s impression of the second world war as ‘a strange kind of chaos’.
Morgan didn’t remind me of Milligan at all, but I thought he was superb in the lead role. It didn’t seem to matter that, to me, he didn’t really look or sound anything like Spike.
In a way the play is, in many ways, an old-fashioned wartime revue. It’s great fun, it’s cleverly and skillfully brought to life and it made me want to reassess Milligan and his work. Go see.