british comedy

How Spike Milligan’s Q Paved the Way for Monty Python

John Bluthal, Julia Breck, and Spike Milligan on Q6. Photo: Don Smith/Getty Images

The year is 1969. You turn on the BBC and you see a normal-looking news presenter begin his program, announce his name, and also announce exactly how much money he makes for doing the show. Or perhaps you tune in a little later and see a pre-taped piece in which a man sits behind a piano in the middle of a field, which then explodes. Or perhaps you’ve tuned in at a different point, and you’re watching a sketch with several performers in costume who have all elected to leave on the BBC Wardrobe Department tag. You might assume that you’ve stumbled into an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s British, it’s zany, it’s 1969. You would also be wrong.

On March 24, six months before the premiere of Python, the first episode of Q5 written and performed by comedian Spike Milligan aired on the BBC. John Cleese, who was in the early stages of putting together Flying Circus with the other Pythons, was enjoying an evening in and happened to catch the show. “I was dismayed: It was brilliant,” he says in his memoir So Anyway… “I rang [fellow Python] Terry Jones. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’ve just seen it, too.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘I thought that’s what we were going to do.’ ‘So did I,’ he replied.”

If you’ve heard the name Spike Milligan before, it was no doubt in conjunction with his more well-known radio show The Goon Show, which also starred Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. The show’s fans are many and include the Beatles, the Pythons, and HRH Prince of Wales, who is listed as a patron of The Goon Show Appreciation Society. Its influence on comedy both in England and abroad cannot be overstated: It introduced a level of anarchy and silliness that merged beautifully with the insubordination of the British satire boom of the early ’60s with Beyond the Fringe.

Besides its popularity, the other most oft-mentioned factoid about The Goon Show is the fact that nearly all of the 250 episodes were written by Milligan — sometimes with a co-writer, sometimes not. The pressures of writing and performing that much material weighed on him, and by the third series, he suffered a mental breakdown and became convinced that he had to kill Peter Sellers. When he walked through a plate glass window in Sellers’s apartment brandishing a potato knife, he was arrested, sedated for weeks, and spent months recuperating. Though this was the first break to disrupt his comedy career, he would battle with bipolar disorder and severe mental breakdowns the rest of his life.

In spite of this, the Goons became a prominent fixture in the history of British comedy. As Sellers’s film career began to take off, The Goon Show ended. Several attempts were made to translate their humor to television, so it only made sense that in 1969 the BBC would get back into the Spike Milligan business with Q.

The first season of Q, known as Q5, moves fast. It goes from sketch to sketch without pausing to take a breath and is a strange mix of ideas. Some sketches you can see coming from a mile away, while others are so brilliant and unlike anything that was done before or since. With this series, Milligan was not only being silly, he was skewering life in the U.K. at the end of the ’60s and, more importantly, the conventions of television. With the BBC being a government and public-funded operation founded on the basis of education, it took a while before the institution was allowed to make fun of itself. Spike was among the first to do so.

Despite its differences from the majority of other shows at the time, Q5 suffers from one sad affliction that many other programs from the early days of television faced: deletion. In order to save a few cents, the BBC wiped the master tapes that several of these episodes were recorded to in order to reuse the tape. Rescued from various sources, only three of the original seven episodes still exist, with two of these only in black-and-white.

For those that have watched Flying Circus, it is impossible to see these early episodes from the first season of Q and not be instantly struck by the similarities. The first surviving episode begins with Milligan dressed as a priest of some kind who says with a slow, back-of-the-throat drawl, “Good evening. I was watching the television this evening, and I thought, ‘There’s nothing like a good laugh.’” Then, from off-screen, a hand thrusts a pie into his face and explodes. Big laugh from the audience.

Before Q, this would have been it: Priest gets pied; roll the theme song. Instead, a voice off-camera says “Take two!” The priest, his face still a mess of splattered cream and crust, says his line again and is hit with a second pie. This continues again and again, the man’s voice growing shaky with emotion until he finally walks off the set grumbling to himself. Now the theme song can roll.

Just as with Python, on Q anyone in Britain with any kind of authority was told exactly how Milligan felt about them. Compare Graham Chapman’s Colonel character to Milligan’s version of the respected Lord Louis Mountbatten (the last Viceroy of India), who announces that “Q7 is very clever … therefore, I can’t understand it.” Compare the Pythons’ “Silly Walks” sketch, a satire of the glut of ministries and departments in the British government, to Milligan’s “Beat the Doc” sketch, in which patients of the National Health Service have to give enough information to the doctor for him to diagnose them in under sixty seconds. (When his patient is unsuccessful, he asks, “Can you afford to come back next week?”) Or think of any particularly silly Python piece and then give this one about a competition to throw grandmothers off a cliff a look.

Q did many things differently from other shows, but one of its key elements was its obsession with television. The conventions of TV, which at that point were relatively new, were constantly being examined, whether it was station IDs, the news, or even the opening credits. Milligan constantly railed against the BBC, biting the hand that fed him, at every opportunity. In one of the surviving episodes from the first series, as each of the actors are listed, right alongside their credit is also listed their take-home pay for their work on that episode.

Of course, when you decide to fight your employer, there can be consequences. Whereas Monty Python’s Flying Circus produced four seasons over the span of six years for the BBC, Q5 went out on 1969. Q6 wasn’t commissioned until 1975 (the year after Python ended, as it happens). Q7 was two years after that, Q8 in 1978, and Q9 in 1980.

After seeing Q5, Terry Jones and Michael Palin waited for the director credit to appear onscreen, found Ian MacNaughton’s name, and hired him to direct the majority of Flying Circus’s 45 episodes. Over and over again throughout the years, each of the Pythons have acknowledged Q’s influence on their show and how it opened the doors for them to push their work even further. Writing in The Guardian following Milligan’s death in 2002, Michael Palin remembered him as “rather a god-like figure,” who went out to dinner with them following several transmissions of the Python show. Milligan would also acknowledge the connection as well over the years, sometimes seeming a little irritated by the generation that came after him. Towards the end of his life he would say, “They copied every style that we did in that. Mind you, they had six wonderful performers; I didn’t. I only had me.”

In 1978, Milligan was vacationing in Tunisia, revisiting WWII battlefields, probably to research his series of war memoirs that began in 1971 with Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. Coincidentally, Monty Python was there as well, filming Life of Brian, so they asked if he would appear in the film. In his scene, a group of men and women are chasing down Brian, thinking him to be the Messiah. As the chase ensues, Brian leaves behind a gourd and a sandal, and the (literal) followers immediately create different sects of this very new faith: those who use the gourd as their symbol, and those who use the sandal. As they diverge and walk in opposing directions, Milligan’s character lifts his head to the heavens and cries, “Let us pray!” He attempts to lead them in prayer, but when he realizes that everyone has walked off, he shrugs and ambles away.

Just like this scene, Milligan was there first, doing things differently, but ultimately the crowds followed what the Pythons left behind, and Milligan wandered off to do his own thing.

How Spike Milligan’s Q Paved the Way for Monty Python