Spike, a new comedy by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman and featuring Robert Wilfort as Spike Milligan, Patrick Warner as Peter Sellers and Jeremy Lloyd as Harry Secombe plays Cardiff’s New Theatre this week.
The play is set in 1950s post-war Britain, when out of the gloom and over the airwaves comes Goon mania as men, women and children across the country scramble to get their ear to a wireless for another instalment of The Goon Show. While Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers get down to the serious business of becoming overnight celebrities, fellow Goon and chief writer Spike Milligan finds himself pushing the boundaries of comedy while testing the patience of the BBC.
While recalling the trials and triumphs of what would become ground breaking and classic comedy, the play also gives an insight into the creativity of Spike Milligan and the relationship he had with his fellow Goons, Sellers and Secombe.
In part one of a two-part interview, Actor Jeremy Lloyd has the task of recreating Swansea-born comedian, actor, singer, television presenter and Seagoon Harry Secombe for this stage presentation and talks all things Goons with Andy Howells.
I’m very excited about Spike coming to Cardiff’s New Theatre as I’m a bit of a classic comedy fan, not only loving The Goons but also the individual careers of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. How did you get involved with the project?
I’d worked with the writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman before. I’d done a previous show of theirs called Trial by Laughter which was a show about libel, what can and can’t be said and how you get material made. This is also what Spike is about, getting The Goon Show made, So, I think they suggested me to the director, Paul Hart whom I met via Zoom.
I also love comedy but for my sins The Goons were a little before my time. They were a bit of a pub quiz question. I could have told you individually who Spike, Peter and Harry were, but I wouldn’t have told you that they made-up The Goons at some point, which seems ridiculous now having done the show for nearly six months. I’m 32, so I remembered Harry from religious TV programmes such as Highway and Songs of Praise, then Peter from The Pink Panther and numerous comedy movies and Spike, I guess, more for his poetry and cartoons. So, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about them as a trio.
I’m guessing you really had to do your research.
Well as I’m playing Harry, I predominantly focussed on him. I knew Harry from Mr Bumble in the film, Oliver! That was something I’d seen him in when he wasn’t quite as old as when he was in Highway. I’ve relied a lot on interviews The Goons did with Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan. They are still performing, even in the interviews, you can still see them at work. We also listened to lots of episodes of The Goon Show.
When we started the project back in January, we did it at a beautiful theatre called The Watermill in Newbury, where most of the actors end up living on site. We were able to share a big house and it feels very bohemian talking about it, but we were able to sit down after dinner and play clips of The Goon Show, then go away and share our findings with each other. It was a lovely way of learning about them as a crash course.
Can you tell me a bit about Spike?
I believe the original title for Spike which Ian and Nick could confirm was Milligan’s War. The concept was the idea that Spike always needed something to fight against, be it Hitler, the BBC, Peter Sellers or the constraints of marriage…
Even Harry Secombe’s singing?
(Laughs) Exactly! Had the BBC being like “Yes, right do whatever you want to do, we love everything” he probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s the fact that the BBC said, “You can’t do that,” which made him fight even more. The show looks at several different factors that influenced Spike’s writing process, his battle with the BBC and getting stuff put on.
It’s a very sympathetic look at Harry. Saying that, I can’t find a bad word said about Harry Secombe anywhere. In all the research I’ve done, he just comes across as the nicest man ever. I got a lovely message from one of his children, Katy who simply said, “He lit up every room he went into and was the centre of attention everywhere he went, but in such a lovely, loving way.” Harry plays a sort of linchpin role in keeping The Goons together as both Spike and Peter spar a little bit.
Do you get to recreate any of The Goon Show scripts at all?
Yes, we do. We’ve been given permission by the Milligan estate to use bits of The Goon Show. Several of the scenes are set in a rehearsal room or a recording studio where they are thrashing out jokes and sound effects. That’s what’s quite fun visually, seeing how all the sound effects are made. We have an amazing actress called Margaret Cabourn-Smith who plays Janet, one of the sound technicians and her job is literally to make every sound in the show, it’s quite a skill!
Without giving too much away, we look at an episode called 1985 which was a huge poke at the BBC and the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 – a huge success for the drama department.
- Spike plays Cardiff’s New Theatre from Tuesday – Saturday 22-26 November. For ticket availability visit the New Theatre’s website.
- Visit Entertainment South Wales tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Jeremy Lloyd.