He was the shellshocked genius who channelled his anarchic brilliance into The Goon Show. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman explain why they’ve written a play about Spike Milligan – while comedians remember a legend

The tortured lives of comedians form a biographical genre all of their own; there’s always an audience for the tears of a clown. No wonder Nick Newman and Ian Hislop chose Spike Milligan as the subject of their new play. Milligan, who died 20 years ago next month, is the troubled comedy genius to end them all. Shellshocked in the second world war, repeatedly admitted to hospital for mental ill health, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, and increasingly embittered as his career failed to deliver on early promise – the Spike Milligan sad-clown drama writes itself.

“But we didn’t want to do that,” says Newman. “We wanted to ask: how did he come to create these brilliant things?” Their play – a cheerful act of ancestor-worship by by Private Eye’s editor and its eminent cartoonist – is about the first three years (1951-54) of The Goon Show, as its chief writer Milligan battles the BBC to get his vision on air. “It’s: will he survive the fallout from the war?,” says Newman, “and will he crack radio?” And, “spoiler alert!,” chimes in Hislop. “Milligan wins! We just wanted to have a play where he wins.”

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