Terence Alan Milligan, known as 'Spike' (1918-2002) dedicated his life to making people laugh, through his performances on radio and television, through his poems and memoirs, and often just by being himself: in a BBC poll in 1999 he was voted "the funniest person of the last 1,000 years." Spike had a colourful life: he was born in Poona, India, the son of an Irish Captain in the Royal Artillery. His father enjoyed doing impersonations at army camp concerts so perhaps Spike got his gift for performance from him. In 1929 Spike's father was posted to Rangoon in Burma, but then this Far East childhood came to an end when the family moved back to London. England must have been a shock for the teenage Spike after the warmth and comparative luxury of their life abroad. On leaving college in Lewisham Spike had already decided to become an entertainer and he learned to play the ukulele, guitar and trumpet. The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted this ambition, though Spike did organise music and comedy shows for his fellow troops. He also saw active service and was wounded in Italy. Back in England Spike struggled to earn a living as a musician. However, his big break came when he decided to try scriptwriting for radio. Spike, together with three friends who wrote and acted - Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine - persuaded the BBC to produce a wacky new radio show with them as the stars. First called The Crazy Gang and finally The Goons, the show's combination of weird and wonderful characters and absurd dialogue was a big success, running for nine years. Spike wrote all the Goon shows, sometimes with help, but often on his own. This pace exhausted him and after suffering a severe nervous breakdown, he decided to end the show in 1960. Spike struggled with depression all his life and this took its toll on him and his family: Spike blamed the stress of working on The Goons for the breakdown of his first marriage. Spike often turned to writing poetry to help him through these difficult times. After The Goons Spike remained very busy, writing his war memoirs, plays, his own television series and acting on stage and in films. He married again twice and had five children in all. He became famous as a TV chat show guest, though his interviewers were nervous as they were never sure what he was going to say or do next! Spike was always unpredictable and rebellious but these qualities were what made his writing so funny. His comic brilliance was recognised with an honorary knighthood in 2000. Spike Milligan died in 2002 at the age of 83: a joker to the last he had the words "I told you I was ill" (written in Irish) carved on his headstone.
As well as writing serious poems when he was ill, Spike also revelled in funny poems. He was influenced by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, two famous English poets of the past who also loved extravagant wordplay and nonsensical stories. Here are two of Spike's best-known nonsense rhymes, delivered in his distinctive piping voice. Spike was famous for "corpsing", that is getting the giggles when you're performing, and he almost does it half way through 'Land of the Bumbly Boo' - but hearing his own merriment only makes the poem funnier. 'On the Ning Nang Nong' was voted the UK's favourite comic poem in 1998. Here you can listen to Spike read it with music specially composed for the poem to complement the bonging cows and clanging mice!
You can get it, free of charge, here.