Over ten days, I’m highlighting one TV show per day that has influenced my artistic and personal life. Today, it’s the turn of my comic God, the colossus that is Spike Milligan, and his cosmos-shattering comedy platform, Q.
Spike Milligan was a genius. An utter arsehole of a human, an inveterate racist, a terrible husband…. but a brilliant comic genius ahead of his time in so many ways it beggars the imagination. And when he turned to television, he was just as far ahead of his peers– and, as importantly for a young boy, my parent’s understanding– as he was on radio and the stage. There was, quite simply, nothing on TV half as anarchic, as stream-of-consciousness, as utterly bugfuck insane, as Q. There probably never will be. It was the visual manifestation of Milligan’s mental maelstrom, and I was beyond entranced: I was addicted.
I grew up in a house where comedy had very strict rules: jokes had a beginning, middle, and end –in that order. Unless my father was drinking with family friends, or at work, bigotry and racism were clearly enunciated and serious: to be believed, not undermined. Sex, politics, and religion were respected, and mocked as gently as a but-we’re-all-pals-really wink would permit. Morecambe and Wise. The Two Ronnies. The Goodies. These were comedy. Maybe some Dick Emery, if we they were feeling edgy. Milligan’s torrent of stream-of-consciousness insanity, of the sort that would make Robin Williams look like a particularly eager pupil, was not the done thing.
And that, of course, was part of the reason I loved it. Never mind beginning, middle end, in that order– half the sketches didn’t even have all three. They regularly didn’t have at least two. Fourth walls were broken and used to stab the flailing corpse of the fifth. Credits were for the weak. It was chaos, and the comedic explosions often came from knowing exactly what expectations Milligan was destroying as from the material itself. Nothing has ever felt more anarchic, more precariously balanced, more completely unbalanced. You didn’t watch Q. You clung on and hoped to make it to the end.
It hasn’t aged well– we’ve become used to what was, at the time, revolutionary, and those aspects of Milligan’s psyche that belong to an earlier age are best left there. But it affected my sense of what TV, and storytelling, and comedy should aim to do for a very long time. It was a joyous, riotous, ignoring of every convention that could be found. It was the purest expression of complete creative freedom I have ever seen on screen, and for that alone, it should be remembered.