This morning I realised that one of my comedy heroes, Spike Milligan, would have been a hundred years old today. There was nothing else for it but to write my own tribute to the man who, from beyond the grave, gave me permission to ‘Never lose the silly side of myself’.
This is a direct quote from my second novel, I HATE THAT YOU BLOODY LEFT ME, and was written into the blurb for the book after I had been reading a lot of things about, and written by, Spike. The line was a doff of the hat to my comedy hero, whose genius helped me when I was down. The reason was that while working on this book, I was undergoing a period of doubt about my comedy writing ability – a crisis of confidence, if you will. I had previously unleashed my first novel, THE NEW MRS D, upon the world and had stumbled ill-advisedly into reading a few of my poorer reviews. One particular Goodreads reviewer, who simply wrote, ‘zzzzz’ stuck in my mind for far longer than it should have done. I did manage to stamp out this demon once and for all in a unique and funny way, by reading it aloud in a series of videos on the Mean Reviews for the Compulsive Readers website. You can see one of them here:
While I was in the throes of the inability to let my comedy mojo loose, I was able to reason with myself that comedy is a subjective thing. Reading some of the impassive responses to Spike’s hysterical letters only served to confirm this further. What an individual finds funny can depend on a lot of things, including our background, personality and sometimes even our ability to laugh at ourselves. There are those who will nod their heads in acknowledgment while giggling hysterically at an anecdote, and those who will frown and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ My biggest critic is my beloved husband, someone with an entirely different sense of humour to mine, who has been known to tell people, ‘My wife writes comedy. Apparently, she’s very funny.’
And so it was that I turned to Spike Milligan in my hour of need, who has always been a favourite of mine. To quote Michael Palin in the Radio Times this week, ‘The Goon Show made me aware that it was all right to laugh myself silly.’ This is exactly what reading some of his work over again gave to me at the time – Spike made it okay to be silly, and right at that point in my life, I needed permission to be. I read PUCKOON, where in what I feel is a stroke of genius, he would have conversations between himself and the characters, such as:
‘Author? Author? Did you write these legs?’
‘Well I don’t like dem. I don’t like dem at all. I could ha’ writted better legs meself.’
I bought MAN OF LETTERS and howled at some of the many correspondences he was legendary for having had with famous celebrities and businesses over the years. The one here was sent to the Marketing Director of Tetley Teabags.
Whilst being one of the funniest, most original talents on earth, it is widely reported that Spike was also dogged by uncertainty. He had mental breakdowns and was in a constant battle with his inner demons. I have been lucky to have not fallen prey to the extremes of depression, but the uncertainty, I get. I really get it. To quote Laurence Marks in his 2011 article for The Telegraph on the difficulty in writing comedy:
‘On the very first day of our lives as professional comedy writers, my partner Maurice Gran came to work, had a cup of tea, looked at his watch, and said to me, “It’s half past nine. I suppose we’d better go upstairs and make 15 million people laugh.’
That is pressure.
For a long while I’ve had a theory that the world of publishing shies away from comedy fiction novels like mine, with no romance element, when they aren’t written by already successful comedians and actors. It’s largely unchartered territory area, as far as I can see, (and please do feel free to correct me with some examples in the comments because I’d love to find some). But I think that may have a little to do with the subjectivity of humour. Publishers already know when an actor and/or comedian has been successful in appealing to a wider audience and, as such, they can be sure of a good return on a comedy novel from them. It leaves the relatively unknown comedy writers out of the running and you can find yourself stuck in a rut of uncertainty, unless you seek out inspiration from the masters. It lets you know that staying true to yourself can get you there, as others have done. You can find the confidence to keep your originality through observing the work of those that have, or had it in spades.
‘Dare to never lose the silly side of yourself.’
Even though the book is now over six years old, I still get appreciative emails from readers about THE NEW MRS D, many of whom might be surprised to learn that I suffered from extreme bouts of self-doubt whilst working on the comedy element of my second novel. I had a majority of readers begging me for another book, and a minority of people leaving reviews that questioned my ability to write a book at all. Guess which ones shouted the loudest to me?
Spike Milligan’s brilliance genuinely drove me on. He was a genius who could make anything funny, while calling out those that ‘Didn’t get it’. The note scrawled on top of the entirely professional response letter from K Pringle at Tetley (below) sums everything up. In the pursuit of attempting to cheer the world up, you win some, you really, really lose others.
As the dear, wonderful and sadly missed Spike advised us, ‘The best cure for sea sickness is to sit under a tree.’ With his inimitable spirit in mind, I’m off to cure my combined addiction to – and fear of – comedy writing by never attempting to work on another book or blog again, just in case one person doesn’t get the joke. Until later this afternoon.
Thank you Spike, and Happy Birthday. I’d have loved to have read your reply to that telegram from the Queen. X