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Spike Milligan: The Biography

3.7 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (2003)
  • ASIN: B005TTG45M
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
May I first declare that I did enjoy this book and my enthusiasm for Spike Milligan remained undimmed at the end of it. However at times I felt this was despite the best efforts of serial biographer Humphrey Carpenter. It's apparent something bugged him while he was working on this. In the early few chapters he is grasping at Spike-like humour and invention in the text, but soon this gives way to carping at Milligan's very existence. It is well understand that Spike was a difficult man and we would need to rely on a biography rather than Spike's volumous autobiographical writing to get close to this, but there is a sense that Carpenter has gone too far the other way and given far too much space and credence to Spike's detractors and serially attempts to discredit Spike's own version of events without actually getting to the bottom of his motivation. While I am grateful to him for evoking Spike's life in this more multi-dimensional way, I do hope that he revisits it for the paperback issue and edits some of the more sloppy passages. The footnote on page 217 is a good example of these unjustified slights.
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By A Customer on 22 Oct. 2004
Format: Paperback
This bio started well enough, but then I though that it faded. After the first few chapters, after the war lets say, the book turns into a presentation of facts, dates & times, reviews and quotes. Another thing that bothered me, is that the biographer kept quoting from Beehan's biography of Mr. Milligan. From this, I got the impression that I should have read Beehan's biography! The author apparently only met with two people involved in Spike's life for this book. The rest of his research seems to come for the archives (newspapers, memos in the BBC, etc).
Also, the author does not seem to like or have any sympathy for Spike Milligan at all. Everything that Spike has said is treated as rubbish unless there is some other evidence to back it up.
All in all, this book made me interested in Spike Milligan but I would have rather read one of Spike's own books.
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Format: Paperback
Humphrey Carpenter wants to be Albert Goldman but instead comes across as a lazy iconoclast who seems to have little time for his subject matter. The trouble is that he is a big fan of The Goons and as a result the ten years that Milligan spent with The Goons takes up a sizeable chunk of the book while the rest of his life is rushed as if it if were some kind of inconvenience.

There's very little on Milligan's life growing up in India as the author freely admits that such parts of a biography bore him and even less on his war years - which is kind of understandable considering the number of war books published by Milligan himself - except that later in the book the author goes into greater detail about the early lives of Harry Seacombe and Peter Sellers, freely contradicting himself.

The post-Goon years are dealt with at haste and the closing chapters are poorly written and mostly made up with quotes from other sources. Confusingly, there's a six page interview with Spike's illegitimate son and his mother which reveals very little, having already been covered in the previous pages. By contrast, the deaths and their affects on Milligan of his second wife Pat from cancer and his fellow goons barely get a mention. His wife's death is dealt with in a single paragraph while Peter Seller's passing gets a brief mention. Seacombe meanwhile is worthy only of a single line while Michael Bentine's death is considered a mere after thought.

And then there's the "sensationalist" parts, probably designed to sell the book. But unfortunately the author only ever hints at these, relying on Chinese Whispers to spread gossip.
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Format: Hardcover
Humphrey Carpenter is a very good biographer indeed and I have enjoyed his biographies of Benjamin Britten, Denis Potter and others. I was surprised that he decided to choose Spike Milligan as a subject and a bit worried when he started the book with a sort of mock Goon show script. However the book settled down into a thorough and readable account of the life of this very strange man. Carpenter’s distaste for his subject grows as the biography progresses and by the end he clearly can’t stand the man. The reader is likely to feel the same as however much we may admire Milligan’s talent, as an individual he was very flawed indeed. To his credit Carpenter ducks none of the awkward facts about his subject’s life and he paints a candid (but not sensationalist) picture of Spike’s dis-functionality. Less good (I think) is his attempt to unravel Milligan’s talent. Spike was a one-off and quite why he developed as he did as an artist is maybe just too difficult to explain. At the end of the book I retained my admiration for much of Spike Milligan’s work. All in all a must have!!
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Format: Hardcover
An odd mixture, this. Humphrey Carpenter is quite enlightening about several parts of Spike Milligan that we either did not know about or would rather not. He is surely spot-on in showing how Spike's unique free-from approach to comedy writing emerged out of his earlier career in jazz and why jazz musicians (Carpenter is one himself) get the joke better than most. The man's nastier side - his rudeness, his near total lack of empathy for others and his casual racism - are all documented fairly well. Where Carpenter falls short is on bringing out the way the humour of the age Milligan dominated was born out of the War - it is touched on but not really elaborated - and the reason why the Goon Show was the highlight of his career: because, more by luck than judgment, the right group of performers was set around him. He doesn't really get to the bottom of Milligan's depression either. Spike was, all the same, the comedy genius of the 20th century and this is not quite the definitive biography.
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