I first met Spike Milligan on the fifth floor of a building above a fruit shop. It was where he and a group of comedy writers had formed a unique co-operative, and the day looms large in my memory, for this meeting was an event that helped change my life. I’d been in London only a few months, but already my wife and I were nervously aware of the gamble we’d taken, arriving there with our two small children but no return fare, and no contacts with anyone in the world of television.
A friend introduced us. His parents had moved to Woy-Woy in Australia, and it seemed to create a bond. In about five minutes Spike and I became friends. “You’ll need an agent,” he said, and took me to meet 23 year old Beryl Vertue, who ran the office and acted as agent to all the comedy writers who belonged to this group. Among them were some who became close friends, including Ray Galton and Alan Simpson who wrote Steptoe and Son.
By the end of that afternoon Beryl had become my agent. I was the lone drama writer among her stable of comedy writers, and she was, without a doubt the best agent I’ve ever had. She represented me for the next fifteen years, until she became a successful film and TV producer. Today the same Beryl Vertue, still my close friend, is the head of a production company that produces Sherlock and a long list of major television shows.
I saw a lot of Spike over the next few years. My wife typed his scripts for him, those brilliantly funny scripts that pioneered a whole new world of comedy. The agency, Associated London Scripts or ALS as it became known, moved to more prestigious offices, first in Kensington High Street, then bought a four story building near Notting Hill where I had an office. Spike’s office, as part owner of the building was on the luxurious first floor, mine was on the third. Whenever he’d come back from a visit to his parents in Woy-Woy he’d come up to inform me he had a couple of decent bottles of Aussie red downstairs that were awaiting my presence.
Spike could be erratic and moody when he was having trouble with scripts, and would lock himself in that office until the depression was over.
Before the days of e-mail he wrote short notes or sent telegrams instead of using the telephone. Whenever his children took long showers and used up all the hot water, he sent a telegram of complaint to his wife who was downstairs.
He could never resist the local funeral parlour, where he would go in, lie on the counter if there was no-one there, and shout “SHOP”.
He could also enjoy embarrassing people: I once made the mistake of telling him I was going to see a play he wrote, in which he was playing the leading role. In the middle of a scene he suddenly broke off, walked to the front of the stage and announced: “There is an Australian in the fourth row. Kindly stand up and be identified. Tell us what you think of English people?”
I had to stand up, because I knew he’d keep on with it until I did. “What do you think of English people?” he repeated, looking gleeful at embarrassing me.
Luckily I thought of something to say. “Well, I came for two years, and I’ve stayed twenty. So I must like it here.”
“You’re practically one of us,” he said, and went on with the play.
It was typical Spike. I remember him with affection for the way he helped me when I was a stranger first in London. And for his genius, because I believe he was one. The Goon Show was unique. With it he changed comedy forever.