“I do all the writing and Nick just licks the envelopes,” Ian Hislop quips when I ask about his working relationship with lifetime friend and writing partner Nick Newman.
Their joint career stretches back to their school days, survived Oxford University, the offices of Private Eye, Spitting Image and now the theatre – their latest foray SPIKE opening at Oxford Playhouse later this month.
Hugely fond of each other, with a mutual appreciation of the absurd, the two are a joy to interview and as funny as any of their comedic counterparts.
And yet despite their numerous accolades and enormous cultural achievements from TV’s Have I Got News For You which Ian has starred in since 1990, to Nick’s prolific career as a cartoonist, taking on Spike Milligan and doing him justice was a huge deal for the duo.
“while Milligan’s mental health issues were part of who he was, this was about him being incredibly funny, rather than the tears of A clown.”
“Yes, it was a risk and of course a pressure, we could have missed it up,” Hislop says in a rare moment of seriousness, “but when Spike Milligan’s daughter Jane said SPIKE was the best depiction of her father she’d ever seen, we relaxed.”
Having already brought three successful plays to the stage – The Wipers Times, Trial By Laughter and A Bunch of Amateurs – Ian and Nick had form, but doing justice to such an iconic comedy great was still a challenge.
“It was very daunting but we were given access to an astonishing tranche of correspondence and memos between Spike Milligan and the BBC which demonstrated their continuous battle about The Goon Show (the 1950s comic radio show starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers), giving us a backbone for the story,” Nick tells me.
Peter Sellers’ late letters were all about how The Goon Show was the best time of their lives
“What was also evident was how much Spike enjoyed a fight, whether it was with his officers in the army, or the management of the BBC, and as writers ourselves we understood the frustration of getting your work on TV, as well as the BBC’s challenges of giving his work some structure,” Nick explains.
“Not that SPIKE is an exercise in BBC bashing because the BBC did provide The Goon Show with a platform to these young Turks fresh out of the army, because even if they didn’t like some of the content they couldn’t deny the brilliance of the comedy,” he adds.
“So we wanted SPIKE to be a feelgood play, because while Milligan’s mental health issues were part of who he was, this was about him being incredibly funny, rather than the tears of a clown.”
Opening at Oxford Playhouse on September 27-October 1, coming back to Oxford is always nostalgic for them both.
Indeed, the last time Ian Hislop was on stage at the Oxford Playhouse, over 40 years ago, he was on roller skates in King Lear. “I was the Duke of Kent and had to skate around my mate as I said ‘Come not between the dragon and his wrath,” he says collapsing with laughter at the memory. “We obviously received a rapturous reception,” he adds.
One can only imagine the shenanigans a carefree but ambitious young Hislop got up to during his years at Magdalen College and in revue troupe The Etceteras, but it certainly set the scene for his future career, which included setting up the satirical student newspaper Passing Wind with Nick.
But while reminiscing about their favourite pubs The Kings Armpit and The Turf where they always ordered the fish dish Corpus Crispy, they admit that they are proud of SPIKE‘s glowing reviews, “especially as so many of Milligan’s family are still alive,” Hislop points out.
“The irony is that when The Goon Show first came out our parents thought it was anarchic and silly and we had to explain it to them. Now it’s the other way around,” Nick says.
“But Peter Sellers‘ late letters were all about how The Goon Show was the best time of their lives and wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back, so we know they felt the same.”
SPIKE runs at Oxford Playhouse from September 27-October 1. Book at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/spike