Documentary opens up Spike Milligan’s ‘treasure trove’ of scripts and footage

A musical and a children’s play written by Spike Milligan are among unmade scripts within a vast archive to which film-makers have been given unprecedented access for a forthcoming documentary on the comic genius.

Seb Barfield, the producer-director of Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive, was astonished to find entire shows, sketches and poems among hundreds of papers and reels of footage.

The former Goon, who died in 2002 aged 83, leaving behind his famous gravestone epitaph – “I told you I was ill” – was loved for his anarchic and absurd humour, inspiring generations of comedians.

But there was nothing anarchic about his archive, which he kept neatly organised. His family have now made it available to film-makers for the feature-length documentary, which is broadcast by Sky Arts on 7 December.

Barfield said: “There is so much material, it was a struggle to decide what to leave out. I grew up on the Goons and it was overwhelming to read scripts and watch footage for the first time. The archive isn’t just scripts, and film rolls. There’s his old clothes, his piano, his awards, books, paintings. It feels as if he’s in the next room … During filming, one of the crew would notice something that Spike had written and we’d have to stop for five minutes because we’d all be laughing so much.”

Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor and co-author of an acclaimed play about Milligan, features in the documentary, describing the archive as “a treasure trove”.

Milligan’s grandson, Hastie Harrower, also appears in the documentary, saying that most people might have a photo album or two of a grandparent: “I’ve literally got rooms full of audio, visual and written stuff – and it’s mad.”

The unmade scripts include a 1950s television adaptation for children of Paul Gallico’s classic story, The Snow Goose. It had been stored in a folder with letters revealing Milligan’s failed attempts to excite the BBC.

Barfield said that, although Milligan released a concert version with music by Ed Welch in 1976, the television play’s rejection pained him: “It was very close to his heart as his first wife, June, gave him the book in 1953.”

The archive has Milligan’s copy of the book in which he had scribbled a note in 1976, expressing regret that the marriage had not survived as he had become mentally ill. Severely shellshocked in the second world war, he had suffered a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder.

Barfield said The Snow Goose was among rejected projects in the archive. “He was constantly pitching ideas and he did get knocked back. We have an unheard clip of him in the documentary complaining about the many rejections he gets from the BBC. He says he doesn’t fit because ‘if I’m not from Oxford University … I can’t seem to be accepted by them’.”

Although Milligan was the creative force behind the BBC’s cult 1950s show which also starred Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, he was a comic ahead of his time.

His daughter, Jane, told the Guardian that after the Goons he became frustrated over rejection by humourless BBC executives: “His favourite word was ‘idiots’ … He had very high standards, which actually got him a bit of a reputation … when, in fact … he was a perfectionist.”

The archive’s unmade projects include a Nativity musical titled: Joseph, I’m Having a Baby, with songs about the Three Wise Men. Describing it as “very funny”, Jane Milligan hopes it will be among projects that will be performed one day.

Barfield said: “Some of the finds were unbelievable. The BBC wiped much of influential 1969 Q5 TV series that inspired Monty Python – but among the film rolls we discovered are sketches from a lost episode. Dick Fiddy from the BFI called them the ‘holy grail’ of missing footage. There’s also a hilarious 1958 special that Spike made for Australian TV called The Gladys Half-Hour – it is a masterpiece that is decades ahead of its time and has never been seen in the UK. Spike also wrote music, and there are demos that he recorded for his friend George Martin, the Beatles producer: childlike and haunting, they reveal his introspective side.”

Jane Milligan said of the recordings: “We’ve probably got a few years’ worth of listening to do.”

Joking that her father was an “absolute archivist on the quiet” in saving all this material, she added: “We are blessed to have this incredibly magical archive.”

Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive is released on 7 December, 9pm, on Sky Arts