Norma was Spike’s agent, manager and friend for over thirty five years and as she explains in the introduction Spike had a comprehensive filing system based on numbered box files for work based items and lettered box files for personal things. Box 18 – IDEAS was a sort of dumping ground for things not finished or just ideas that would possibly be expanded later, every now and then he would go through it and pick out bits that he felt he could work on, sometimes they would go back in Box 18 untouched or partly modified others would make it through to completion, and some would just get discarded as unworkable. The problem with this book is that by definition anything in Box 18 was something that Spike didn’t regard as finished and frankly a large chunk of it shows why although there are definitely some gems hidden in here amongst the bits that really don’t work.
For those people reading this who aren’t familiar with the comic genius and deeply troubled man that was Spike Milligan he was born in 1918 and fought in Africa and then through Italy during WWII and was badly shell shocked during the conflict which would lead to frequent bouts of depression and more serious mental illness throughout the rest of his life. Despite this he was the leading light of 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s comedy in the UK as a founder and main script writer for the Goon Show and then his TV series Q which started in 1969. In fact in interviews included on the DVD’s of Q the Monty Python team recall seeing the first episodes and thinking that this was exactly what they had been planning, yet again Spike had got there first, The Pythons subsequently amended their format so that they didn’t appear to be copying Spike. He also wrote over eighty books including seven hilarious volumes of war diaries. Because of this pretty well everything that Spike thought should appear had done by the time of his death in 2002. I first came across his work whilst at primary school which a book of children’s poetry called a Dustbin of Milligan, I still have this rather battered due to being read almost to destruction paperback and have loved his writing ever since, still being able to quote the poems fifty years later.
The photo above is of the Goons, Peter Sellars, Harry Secombe and Spike during what Norma believes is a rehearsal although clearly from the ages of the actors it was towards the end of their appearances together and one of the gems in this book is a script for a Goon show in Spike’s handwriting. You can see his mind at work with the crossings out and alterations, The Goons would be regarded as surreal even now, back in the 1950’s there was nothing like them anywhere but the pressure of not only appearing but also writing most of the material led to Spike having the fist of his manic depressive attacks which saw him frequently in mental hospitals from then onwards.
The final quarter of the book reproduces some of Spike’s letters and again you wonder why some were chosen although the spat with Harrods over a unpaid bill is somewhat amusing. This section, along with the first part which has pages of his diaries is also clearly not something that came from Box 18 in fact probably only about half of what is in the book could logically have come from the IDEAS box, the rest is abstracted from other files although a couple of diary pages are rather poignant as Spike is obviously going through a difficult time again
All in all this book is interesting for a Spike Milligan fan but there is so much more of his to explore for a newcomer to his work, definitely read the war diaries, or his numerous books of poetry but this is not the place to start. I must have over twenty of his books purchased over the years along with the DVD re-issue of the five series of Q and would recommend all of them ahead of this amalgamation of bits which has been sitting on my shelves for several years before I finally opened it this week, I think I need to pick up the diaries again to remind myself of what Spike’s writing properly finished to his own satisfaction could really be like.