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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SPIKE MILLIGAN (article first published : 2002-03-12)

Today I feel sad at the news, but so lucky to have counted as a friend this master of anarchic humour. At the age of eighty three, he has finally made his exit.

I toured South Africa with Spike the first time he came here. Working on stage with him was the best therapy I have ever experienced in my life. But it wasn't just the laughter with which he paralysed those on stage with him and his audiences alike. It was the reckless and relentless energy with which he dissected humankind, laying bare hypocrisy, pomposity, cruelty, clichés, posturing, and all other silliness he saw in the world.

When I first met him Spike was like a six foot leprechaun in denim cap, shirt and jeans. He was 60 years old, fit and athletic, hyperactive on stage, apparently unstructured, impulsive, chaotic, whimsical, tangential, irreverent. Thirty-odd concerts countrywide, just Spike and Lionel Martin (pianist) and me. No two performances were ever the same. I was never, ever bored, even for a millisecond.

Swaddled in a convincing illusion of chaos and anarchy, he nightly dealt up a frothy dessert of satire, lampoon, and apparent madness which led audiences along the direct route to the absurdities he perceived in violence, war, sex, politics, pride and prejudice.

This consummate clown was a much more serious man than his performances let on. Among his life's passions were archeology and palaeontology, Rugby, Jazz, Trees, Whales, the environment, South African white wines, and Fish. Prof. Phillip Tobias, after seeing the show at RAU, invited Spike the archeologist to come and look for prehistoric remains at Sterkfontein, where the two of them spent a happy morning carefully dusting rocks with small paintbrushes. Spike was very knowledgeable, and this expedition was one of his happiest memories of South Africa.

He was often described as irascible, moody, melancholic and manic. Yet even during bouts of depression, by his own account, he would lock himself in his room at home, and send his wife telegrams to let her know what he wanted for supper.

Incredibly, Spike played his last Rugby match at the age of 78! A charity match in which he played in his customary position on the wing, and confessed to stepping into touch whenever he saw the opposing wing preparing to tackle him. That is how he told it to us when we visited him a year ago at his home near Rye, close to the English Channel. His daily outlook was across meadow after meadow filled with sheep, and, just visible, the Mill like building which is the recording studio of Paul McCartney. Paul and the remaining Beatles loved him, and sometimes even dropped by unannounced to bring him a gift or greetings.

On our last visit Dawn and I found him less frenetic than before, but just as lateral in his thinking and his humour, with the same intense blue-eyed gaze, and razor sharp repartee we had come to know in South Africa. We went with Spike and his wife Shelagh to the local pub for lunch, where he regularly wore one or other of his collection of national rugby jerseys. He told us that the only one he did not have in his wardrobe was a Springbok Jersey. We swapped memories of his South African tours, of mutual friends, and the already apparent decline of South African Rugby.

On our return home we got him a Springbok jersey from SAB, the sponsors, and sent it to him last year in care of visiting British comic Rainer Hersch.

Spike loved to play jazz trumpet. He was a familiar figure at Ronnie Scott's in Soho. He also spent much money and time fighting people who wanted to cut down very old trees, heightening awareness of the plight of the whale, and raising funds for battered women, and babies.

He was a frequent visitor to Londolozi, and loved the peace and quiet din of the African bush at night. He did not eat meat, and enjoyed Nederburg Riesling, even on stage, and especially chilled in a big red fire bucket full of ice. He used to tell each audience that Mrs. Vorster had sent him the wine.

Then there was the night the promoter brought an accountant backstage to get Spike to sign some tax forms, at which point he fled backstage, ran up a 60 foot steel ladder into the pitch dark grid above the stage, and refused to come down. I finally cajoled him to descend, and do the show, on the promise of a meal at Nelsons Eye where a Welsh rugby fanatic was the chef! They talked till 2.30. The accountant was not invited.

Anecdotes about touring with Spike will fill chapters of a book one day soon. We kept in touch and corresponded each Christmas, via a postal address which surely popped out of a Goon Show script: Spike and Shelagh's house is in Dumbwoman's Lane! We send Shelagh our fondest love and sympathy at this time of her loss. Small consolation, but Spike is mourned and celebrated in the memories of his followers across the world.

I shall always treasure the "good times" we shared (Spike's favourite toast was "Good Times"). Thank you for the good times, Spike. You will not be forgotten. You made other people happy, and that is a rare form of generosity. As a result, you were much loved, and despite your own personal torment, earned your peace. Hamba Kahle, Spike.

DES LINDBERG (www.desdawn.co.za)




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