Spike Milligan was the true father of modern satire, says Ian Hislop

The death of satire has been announced several times, prompted by events like the rise of Donald Trump and Dominic Cummings’ antics at Barnard Castle. But now Ian Hislop wants to talk about its birth.

It all happened earlier than you think, Hislop argues in a new play written with his Private Eye colleague Nick Newman. Together they aim to restore the late Spike Milligan’s reputation as the forefather of modern satire, and not just a madcap comic and poet of nonsense rhymes.

“Everyone always dates the satire boom from the 1960s, when it was suddenly on television,” says Hislop. “But Spike Milligan believed, with good reason, that his own work on the radio had got there earlier.”

The core of good British satire, argues the Private Eye editor and veteran team captain on Have I Got News For You, is a happy marriage between silliness and attacks on those in power. These two strands met in Milligan first, Hislop says.

“The idea that modern British satire was invented in 1963 or 64 is ridiculous, since there was great stuff around in the 50s.” Satirical television shows such as David Frost’s That Was the Week That Was and Not Only… But Also, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, owed a huge debt to Milligan, Hislop believes. “And when Monty Python came along, Spike felt it was unfair that it was all regarded as so new. He felt he had done all these bizarre jokes and the self-referential stuff, rule-breaking stuff first.”

Hislop says he remains hopeful about satire’s power to regenerate, regardless of new concerns about offending the public. “You have to be optimistic if you are a satirist and so I think it will just reinvent itself. Comics will just have to go on saying what they want to say and then defending it. And people will always have a right to disagree with them.

“Those who say that comedy is biased usually just mean they don’t agree with it. Satire often gets accused of being ‘lefty ranting’, but then you’re not going to get a comedian just saying how well the government has done with the vaccines.”

Newman, a cartoonist, agrees that satire resurfaces in new places, such as Michael Spicer’s popular Room Next Door sketches on Twitter.

In the new play, Spike, Hislop and Newman draw heavily on recently released correspondence between the BBC and Milligan, who, as the chief writer for the Goons, was the creative force behind the cult 1950s radio show, which also starred Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine.

“Spike’s letters to the BBC are incredibly funny,” Hislop says. “He complained about everything.” The two-way communication amounts to a protracted battle between Milligan and a broadcasting institution that repeatedly misunderstood him.

“The BBC replies are also very funny because of the inept way that they deal with his talent,” Newman adds. “Some of the replies are just so pompous. It took the management there a long while to cotton on that Spike was the really gifted one. At first they thought Secombe was the main star, because he could sing as well. Others had the same opinion about Bentine, because he had gone to Eton, which is obviously very important in creating radio comedy.”

The writers have also discovered that Milligan was paid less than both Sellers and Secombe, in spite of his joint role as writer and performer.

“We found it fascinating that the BBC were happy to pay Spike so much less. Nick and I can say that, as embittered writers. But that in no way coloured our approach!” Hislop says.

The new play, its creators admit, is a testament to the common habit of undervaluing writers. It also chronicles a period when the Goons faced severe criticism from within the BBC.

“In response, Milligan wrote a script called 1985 which came after a landmark radio drama production of George Orwell’s 1984, of which the BBC were extremely proud,” Hislop says. “Spike’s was about the Big Brother Corporation and ended in Room 101 of what was clearly Broadcasting House. It made fun of the BBC in a very similar way to the television satire WIA, and went out as a rather forgotten episode of the Goons.”

Although The Goon Show, which was broadcast between 1951 and 1960, is now hailed as one of the nation’s favourite comedies – and one which can count Prince Charles as a devoted fan – at the time its scripts were judged anarchic and anti-establishment. When the show was also criticised for being too noisy, Milligan suggested standing further away from the radio.

“There were about 35 BBC managers who did not want the Goons to continue going out. Spike was upbraided in 1953 about a special they did lampooning the coronation, which they said was disrespectful. The BBC said the character of the Duchess was obviously supposed to be the Queen, and Sellers did an impersonation of Winston Churchill. There was a Richard Dimbleby character as well. But then of course the show became very popular with the establishment,” says Hislop.

The world premiere of Hislop and Newman’s play will open the new 2022 season at the Watermill Theatre in Berkshire, home of the pair’s previous stage work, which includes The Wipers Times, a play about the first world war newspaper put out from the trenches by British troops.

Spike’s opening night will come 20 years after Milligan’s death at 83, although Hislop and Newman began writing the play when the BBC wanted to mark the centenary of his birth in 2019. “It’s a celebration of Spike’s genius, so we’ve concentrated on the golden period, when everything he did seemed to work,” says Hislop. “There’s been a lot of concentration on the melancholy end of his career, so we wanted to remind people that he was incredibly funny.”