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on 11 January 2004
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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on 22 October 2004
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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on 8 June 2008
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. If Milligan really was a blackshirt or helped kill his second wife as suggested you would expect more than a mere couple of lines while trying to imply that the comic's first mental breakdown did not actually happen is mere folly.

There are two underlying themes throughout the book - Milligan's depressions and his racist tendencies (such as they were). The former is described in rudimentary fashion so that you seemingly get a simple list of the highs and the lows while the latter gets an airing every twenty pages or so - including a quote about his time in India in the opening chapter which the author seems to think is enough to have the comic banged to rights. But the quote is from a BBC Radio Four documentary on The Raj in which Milligan speaks fondly about the people and the place and the quote is taken so far out of context that it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

A flawed biography in many respects, but the chapters on The Goons are excellent, leaving one to conclude that the author would have been better off sticking to them alone.
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on 20 September 2003
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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on 24 March 2009
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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on 29 September 2007
We probably all know that Spike was in the "tortured comic genius" mold, which is bound to make for a good read. This book is certainly that. I personally do not have any doubt that Carpenter handled the material fairly, as well as expertly, and that he had access to enough material to present a pretty full picture. Carpenter makes the occasional value judgement, but so does any biographer, and having read some of his other stuff I think his judgements are spot on. The result won't endear Carpenter to those who want Milligan to be judged on his comic brilliance rather than his life. I enjoyed this book and felt it tells you all you need to know about Milligan the man.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 August 2012
Biographies are too easy, and too difficult to make spectacular. This is a well written, if uninspired look at a totally inspired, difficult person. Spike Milligan's gift to us was of course the gift of laughter, the gift of outside the box irrational connections and deeply demented characters. Wonderful for us, but torture for him. Always insecure, always bitter, his life was a rollercoaster of the manic depressive. He cranked out five dozen books in addition to all the radio and tv stuff, but he would lock himself away for days on end when in the depressive part of the neverending cycle. More than anything, the biography of Spike Milligan details that torture. The incredible heights were as bad as the miserable lows for him, obsessed as he had to be with writing and creating. This biography could have been much funnier, but Spike has seen to it that we have a full shelf to admire his words. Instead, we see the man, the hypocrite, the devoted family man who had affairs continuously, the deeply religious blasphemer, the ZPG fanatic who fathered (at least) five children, who belittled and insulted his closest friends, family and allies - clearly out of control. That we benefited is not unusual from such mad/genius. To read it in this depth is much more so.
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on 8 November 2015
Recently had to re-buy after my original copy was put in the charity shop pile by accident as I prepared to move house. This is a well written account
of the life and times of one of my heroes, the comedy legend that is Spike. Must be a good read I re-bought it....
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on 20 January 2017
A good book, which gives a good insight into the man behind (and in front of) the Goons, three novels, various stories and countless poetry books. It certainly gets into the life of Terence Milligan Esq.
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on 6 August 2015
My husband loved it.
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