When Spike Milligan died the panel of Question Time were asked about his sense of humour. Surprisingly none of them considered it funny, which is either a comment on changing tastes or my failing to outgrow childhood memories. This book is full of those memories, The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour, Frankie Howard, Round The Horne, Steptoe and Son, all of which were created by writers working for Associated London Scripts (ALS). They included Milligan, Eric Sykes, Galton and Simpson, Johnny Speight and some A N Others such as John Junkin and Barry Took. In turn they influenced subsequent generations and a whole range of spinoffs. The list of ALS programmes covers 38 pages representing a dozen years of radio and television output.
They were an odd bunch with an odd sense of humour but in the austerity years and early fifties, in the days before foreign holidays and mass television, such humour was a relief from rationing and other hardships. No one ever knew what to expect from Spike Milligan. Spike Milligan often didn't know what to expect from Spike Milligan. He was unpredictable. On one occasion he worked in his office stark naked and when he slipped from genius to madman he attacked Peter Sellers. He later recalled, "I wanted love and they gave me pills". Milligan in a nutshell, Spike in a nutcase. Hardly surprising for a rootless child who was sent to a convent school for girls by his over protective mother!. Whether this identity crisis, his war injuries, or the innate psychological imbalances caused by bipolar disorder were responsible for his unpredictability, Milligan was a great comedy writer who helped reshape the genre.
Like Milligan, Eric Sykes suffered from a lack of warmth and family kindness in his early years. As a result he created a fantasy world in his head, eventually becoming a compulsive writer, even when his sight was so bad he could no longer read his own scripts. Although by the 1970's Sykes could barely hear and scarcely see he could still put together the essential ingredients of a good comedy, " an engaging situation and a believable set of characters, with plenty of action and perfect timing". No wonder his autobiography was called, "If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will"
The book covers the careers of Galton and Simpson, both of whom were too young to serve in the Second World War and too unwell for National Service, which led to them meeting when they were patients in a sanatorium. Their personal experiences and process of self education (there was nothing much else to do in a sanatorium but read) produced the joys and miseries of Hancock and Steptoe. Unlike Milligan and Sykes they were "week day" writers who went home at night and had weekends off. They were the masters of the British sitcom.
Johnny Speight gets a chapter to excuse his comedic Alf Garnett as the use of irony without reference to his juvenile use of language as a representation of working class means of communication. Forty years later the words have changed but the immaturity remains as an integral part of British comedy although even current practitioners such as Frank Skinner appear to have had enough.
Perhaps the most unexpected success arising from ALS was that of Beryl Vertue. Hired as a secretary she worked as an agent, despite trying to price herself out of the job she really didn't want by asking for £10 a week in 1955. Vertue eventually hit on the idea of selling show formats abroad, making inroads into America with versions of Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son. In 1968 she and several others effected a merger with the Robert Stigwood Organisation. Milligan and Sykes felt betrayed and stayed in the original office. Vertue eventually started her own company, Hartswood Films, whose output is regularly seen on television. Just as ALS was originally a family, Vertue has made Hartswood a family with both her daughters involved in the company.
There's so much fun and laughter, as well as pathos and tragedy, revealed in this book that the panel of Question Time must have spent too much time doing other things instead of relaxing and indulging in a little escapism from time to time during their youth. While many of the fun makers have gone, their legacy lives on, especially that of Spike Milligan whom Eddie Izzard regards as the godfather of alternative comedy. His black humour never deserted him. Told of Harry Seacombe's death he said he was glad because he didn't want him to sing at his funeral. A recording of Seacombe singing was played at Milligan's memorial service while his gravestone bears the legend in Irish, "I told you I was ill". Says it all really.