The Great McGonagall: Spike Milligan’s Lost Masterpiece - Part One

by Matthew Coniam and Richard Larcombe

mcgon7On Monday 24th June, 2002, the London Evening Standard reported on the memorial service held that day in London in honour of a humourist and writer often cited as the most important British comedian of the twentieth century, Spike Milligan.

By an interesting coincidence, a few pages later in the same edition a much smaller piece reported on another ceremony held the same day in Dundee. Here, a walkway had been unveiled in memory of a nineteenth-century Scottish writer often cited as the worst poet of all time, William McGonagall.

Nobody would have been more delighted than Milligan himself by this symbolic joining in death of his name with that of the ill-fated Scottish weaver turned “poet and tragedian”. For McGonagall’s life and verse had long been an obsession of Milligan’s, finding frequent (and frequently irrelevant) expression in his published works, as well as taking centre stage in two full-length novels and one remarkable film. This is the story of that film.

With a body of work as generally undiscussed, misrepresented and rarely seen as Milligan’s, it may seem perverse to label The Great McGonagall (1974) as his “lost masterpiece”. After all, what is the Q series if not a masterpiece and (thanks to BBC neglect) to all intents and purposes lost? McGonagall, however, is buried treasure even by Milligan standards: little seen, both on release and subsequently, it is usually subject to critical derision when not ignored altogether. Financed by producers who envisaged it largely as a tax-dodge it received only a token release, and until we contacted them, even two of its principal stars, John Bluthal and Victor Spinetti, had never seen it.

Most contemporary reviews were negative. When it is mentioned today, it tends to be as a footnote in studies of Peter Sellers, who contributes a cameo appearance as Queen Victoria. Often it is cited as yet another disastrous Sellers project from the era of Where Does It Hurt? and The Ghost in the Noonday Sun, or worse: as a failed off-shoot of the Goons. Certainly, Sellers’s prominence in the credits (and in the film’s minimal promotion) can be seen as a deliberate, perhaps backfiring, attempt to lure audiences to the film. (Bluthal “just couldn’t believe how much Spike was in awe of Peter.”)

This has resulted in most reviewers writing about Sellers’s few minutes of screen-time and little else. Variety’s scribe goes so far as to claim that Sellers’s scenes (”as a randy monarch”) are “chopped up and distributed haphazardly throughout the pic in a vain attempt to keep interest from flagging.” (In fact, he appears in two distinct, unchopped up sequences.) This is wrong, and lazy, and has helped obscure for over twenty-five years the fact that The Great McGonagall is one of the strangest, most genuinely unique and fascinating British films ever made.

Though a representative (if extreme) example of Milligan’s mature comic style (made shortly before Q6 and distinguished from The Goon Show by its more uncompromising sense of iconoclastic absurdism) the film is at the same time distinct from his surrounding.

mcgon3At this point it may be useful to digress briefly and confirm exactly what we mean when we talk of Milligan’s mature style, since even this fundamental matter has, surprisingly, received virtually no serious critical analysis. We all know how the Goons revolutionised British comedy with their healthily irreverent childishness, absurd sound effects and funny noises, but how often are we told that Milligan progressed from this template, producing comedy through the sixties and seventies that was deeper, denser, further refined, cleverer, stranger, more intense, better and significantly different?

In a revealing (mid-eighties) interview (for the television programme Famous Last Words), Milligan claimed that he had to reign-in his comic imagination to suit the specific market he was catering to and that “when I really write comedy nobody understands it, it’s like Finnegan’s Wake.”

Re-listening to the Goons it is clear that what seemed daringly anarchic at the time is in fact Milligan at one-tenth force, and riddled with retained radio comedy conventions. All would gradually be dispensed with in the years that followed, and in his subsequent work in theatre (notably Son of Oblomov), television (notably the sublime Q6, 7 and 8) and this one film we see the natural evolution of a comic style defined above all else by its restlessness and inability to adhere statically to formalised conventions. (Even, that is, when those conventions were formalised by Milligan himself, and about as far from both formality and conventionality as can be imagined.) Compare any episode of Q8 with The Goon Show (or for that matter with Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and you will instantly concede Milligan’s point about the sheer idiosyncratic depth of his comic imagination. But if what you’re after is the full Finnegan’s Wake, you really need The Great McGonagall; the only “pure” example of Milligan cinema in existence. He is properly dominant and at liberty, neither pocketed into cameos and guest spots nor straitjacketed by the demands of conventional narrative and characterisation as in, for example, Postman’s Knock (1961), a bona-fide star vehicle with nothing to offer Milligan devotees whatsoever. Goon Show fans may be able to extract a smile or two from Down Among The Z-Men (1952), but Q-lovers in search of bizarre visual ideas, wild mangling of everyday English, characters in blackface, tailor’s dummies, boxing gloves, cornflake-box crowns and people dressed as Hitler have only one option.

The idea for the film came from its director Joe McGrath, one of the most significant creative figures in post-war British comedy, whose work as writer, producer and director encompasses Not Only But Also, The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (1968), bits of the notorious Casino Royale (1967), Sellers’s best film The Magic Christian (1969), the sweet Dudley Moore vehicle Thirty Is A Dangerous Age, Cynthia (1968) and Morecambe and Wise’s peculiar swansong Night Train To Murder (1985).

Like Milligan and Sellers, McGrath was (and is) a huge fan of McGonagall, whose contrived rhymes and inability to adhere to even the simplest conventions of rhythm and scansion lends his work a comic effect so pronounced that it is easy to forget that the poet’s intentions were always deadly serious. The three would regularly meet at the Dorchester on McGonagall’s birthday for a celebration incorporating grandiose recitations of his work, and McGrath recalls that, while Milligan would doggedly continue to a poem’s conclusion, Sellers would invariably surrender to hysterical laughter part-way through (a telling example of the important differences between the two men).

McGonagall was not just a figure of fun to Milligan. However hilarious he found his ‘poetic gems’ there can be no doubt that Milligan was as much fascinated and moved by the story of the poet’s life as he was amused by what John Bluthal termed his “terrible, crap, twelfthgrade poetry”. McGrath has confirmed that the film’s interpretation of this rather pathetic historical figure is in large measure a Milligan self-portrait, and more broadly that the latter’s obsession with McGonagall is a reflection of a deep and sincere empathy with an eccentric creative talent who pursued his personal vision in the face of both apathy and antipathy.

mcgon81McGonagall was an extraordinary individual who, struck by the muse at the age of 52, abruptly gave up his job to devote himself to an art at which he had not the vaguest talent but with which he persevered in the face of insult, mockery and even parody. His public recitations of his works invariably ended with his being pelted with rotten eggs, and often he would secure a spot on theatre bills by paying the owner. (He was also notorious for his performances from Shakespearean tragedies, including a celebrated Macbeth, recreated in the film with Milligan’s customary self-defeating refusal to stick to the point.)

His decision to persevere, and to interpret this constant rejection as jealousy or ignorance rather than an honest verdict on verse that was clearly inept, is almost impossible to understand. And it is these pretensions that continually undermine the essential tragedy of his story. There is both sadness and pomposity, for instance, in the manner in which he courted the approval of the aristocracy and other writers. Broadsheet versions of some of his poems proclaim him Patronised by Her Majesty and Lord Wolseley of Cairo, HRH the Duke of Cambridge, the Right Hon W E Gladstone and General Graham; also the nobilty and gentry etc, before going on to reproduce form replies to unsolicited poems as if they were official praise from their intended recipients. One is headed Copy Of Letter From The Right Hon W E Gladstone and reads simply: ‘Mr Gladstone desires me to acknowledge with thanks the receipt of the two poems which you kindly sent him. Your obedient servant, George Spence Littleton.’ In perhaps his most celebrated gesture of self-delusion he journeyed by foot to Balmoral to read his works to the Queen, only to be turned away at the gates.

Yet despite the steep difference in their levels of acclaim and neglect (and talent, of course) it is not hard to see parallels between the two men in their sense of themselves, and their single-mindedness in the face of disinterest and misunderstanding. Despite his high critical reputation and generally favourable standing with the public, Milligan tended always to emphasise the disappointments and frustrations of his career; for instance in his failure to achieve true international recognition and his perceived ill-treatment by the BBC. It seems clear that he saw in McGonagall a fellow-sufferer, condemned to his personal and uncompromising form of creative expression, a man ahead of his time, and, most of all, a supreme individual.

It was his first attempt in over twenty years as a professional writer to tell a true story other than his own. In previous work, a slender and ultimately disposable plot would be used as context for a range of obsessions, diversions and whims, always subservient to his almost obsessive need to stray from the narrative path and pursue peculiar tangents, often at dominating length. In his West End success Son of Oblomov he had found success by radically departing from the original script and thus asserting the ultimate irrelevance of plot. Here, however, he has a definite story to tell, and which he wants to tell, and the resultant conflict between his narrative and comic instincts is central to the effect of the film.

This is an extract from an article which appeared in Kettering 1, before the film’s DVD release

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