Serendipity

It all started with a Second World War TV docu-drama in which a gaggle of soldiers (mostly female, I noted, dressed in the kind of uniform that would today almost certainly be sold by Ann Summers) pushed wooden ships and tanks around a map of Europe using what looked like croupiers rakes, when a sudden memory of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time flashed across my mind:add a soundtrack of silly voices and dozens of mini-explosions and you were there in all the sense and purpose of war.

Thoughts of Bentine, of course, brought me onto the great Milligan.  The two of them (together with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe) co-created the seminal radio comedy The Goon Show, but sadly quarrelled in the 1950’s reportedly after Michael Bentine attempted to have Spike removed from the show due to his ‘erratic behaviour’.  Neither, it would appear, was able to forgive and according to Spike, they did not speak again until the day before Bentine’s death by which time, I fear, it was too late for either of them to rebuild burned bridges.  The genius Milligan continued to write and star in The Goon Show until some years later when, as it was concertedly trying to kill him, he moved into TV and books, where he did ok, all things considered.

My own connection to Mr Milligan is via a gossamer thread which, not unusually for me, also suspends the indomitable Crispin Underfelt.  We were writing a radio series together at the time and, young, green and fearless as we were, we wrote to Spike to ask if he would read what we had written.  Amazingly, he replied immediately saying that he would be happy to read a script and he would comment and advise where he could.  Overjoyed we parcelled up the single episode that he requested and, with a prayer to the Gods, sent it on its way.  Alas, when the MS arrived back a few days later, clearly unread, it was accompanied by a letter from Norma Farnes (Spike’s minder, agent, manager and later, biographer) stating that Spike did not read or comment on the work of other writers, end of.  We were upset at the time by the terseness of the response, but later came to realise that Spike was having one of his difficult times mentally and Ms Farnes was doing what she always did: keeping the lid on.

It was during one such ‘difficult time’ that Spike famously threw a heavy paperweight at his then co-writer, Eric Sykes, which missed its target, smashed through the office window and crashed down onto the thankfully empty pavement five stories below.  Sykes had been drafted in to help a then ailing Milligan with Goon Show scripts for series 5 and 6 and was, in fact, the sole writer on many episodes.  (Sykes commented that he always felt that with Spike, madness was only ever an arm’s length away.)  The paperweight incident was precipitated by a disagreement over a single word – neither of them could remember which – but anybody who has ever co-written anything with anyone will understand the tension only too well*.  

Unlike the poor, benighted Messrs Bentine and Milligan, Mr Sykes (as he sometimes allowed me to call him) did occasionally have the pleasure of my company.  Our first meeting was at the back door of my father-in-law’s pub, which was directly across the road from the theatre and a regular haunt of those performing there – largely long after what was then a legally enforced ‘closing time’.  When the pub was closed at night, the back yard was tar-black, unlit, and all-in-all not the place to be, so I opened the door with some trepidation in response to the insistent knocking, to be faced by a tall man in a black homburg hat and full-length black, astrakhan-collared coat.  All I could see was the glowing tip of a cigar, the size and intensity of a fallen sun.  ‘Is Bri’sy in?’ said the voice which I immediately recognised as not being that of Hattie Jacques, in a tone not unlike a five year-old asking a friend’s mum if he could come out to play.  I ushered him in.  Brian (my father-in-law) and Eric were golf pals, playing along with Jimmy Edwards who, my father-in-law swore, had a small trolley attached to his golf bag in which he carried around a fully-stocked array of his peri-round liquid ‘fortifications’.  Eric Sykes was the antithesis of erratic: always Sykes, always amusing and always at the very epicentre of any group of which he was part, despite being almost completely deaf.  I suppose that genius always has its price…

…And then I awoke mid-reminiscence, to find myself mid-Newsnight instead, with Kirsty Wark presenting stories from Ukraine and allowing me to witness for myself the kind of monstrous harm and destruction that can be released by one unhinged man, and I couldn’t help but wonder when the croupiers rakes might come out again…

*I don’t think, incidentally, that Mr Underfelt and I actually ever ‘fell out’ over a script.  We often had different ideas, which we were prepared to argue in favour of, but ultimately we always reached a settlement with which we were both happy, nary an angry word passed between us.  Mad ideas man and embittered old hack in perfect accord…

A couple of weeks ago I lamented that, other than John Junkin, I had no names to ‘drop’, when I suddenly remembered Eric.  It doesn’t matter that nobody who remains within their first half century of life will remember either of them.  I do…

N.B. I cannot recommend highly enough, for people of a certain age, Eric Sykes’ Autobiography ‘If I Don’t Write it, Somebody Else Will’ – even though he doesn’t mention Brian – and Norma Farnes’ (who, incidentally, was also Sykes’ manager) record of her thirty year relationship with Spike, ‘An Intimate Memoir’.  Although neither of them mention me…

John Junkin – a short recollection…

junkin

Right, so I was clearing some old files from my computer when I came across an old correspondence file and in it some letters that formed my half of a ‘conversation’ with John Junkin. If you don’t know the name, you must look him up (more of which to come below)…

In 1998 my great friend and then writing partner, Chris, came to me with an idea he had for a stage show based on an LP record he had of songs from the radio show ‘Hello Cheeky!’ We devised a working model for the show and began to write the script. Now, for those of you who do not know ‘Hello Cheeky!’, it was a radio comedy written and performed by, amongst others, John Junkin, Barry Cryer and Tim Brooke-Taylor. The songs were daft, even at the time they were written, but given the passage of time they had become little gems of nonsense (my own favourite, I recall, was ‘Tickling Mrs Adcock With A Lettuce’) and the premise of the show relied on multi-role playing, on-stage costume changes and basic chaos. It was a fun show and I liked it. Now, and here’s the point, so did Mr Junkin.

Let me tell you about John Junkin. John Junkin was a gifted actor and writer. He wrote and appeared in a number of radio comedies; he appeared in countless films – including ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ with the Beatles – on TV he worked with Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman – for three years he co-wrote the Morecambe & Wise TV shows for goodness sake! In later years he became an accomplished straight actor and he even had his own show on ITV. He had difficult times in his private and professional life, but to me, he remained a big deal. And he agreed to travel half the length of the country to spend some time with us and work on the script. He did this for no other reason than he believed in the show and he wanted it to go ahead. Unfortunately, for reasons I do not want to go into here, it became clear that the show would not be able to go ahead and the project petered out. This is not my point.

John Junkin later went on to find new fame as Ernie Johnson in Eastenders (2001-2), but when we met, a couple of years earlier, he had told me that he could not even find a publisher for his autobiography. This is a man who had worked with The Beatles and Marty Feldman; who had helped to re-shape radio comedy; who had written for Morecambe and Wise godammit! We kept in touch sporadically over the next two or three years and whilst enjoying his newly found soap-opera fame he asked me to update the stage play and send it to him. I did, of course. He did this because he remembered his very short time with us and thought that he still might be able to ‘do something’ with the show. This, also, is not my point.

John Junkin died on 7th March 2006. The show never got made. Now, here is my point. The John Junkin that I met was kind and funny. He was incredibly generous with his time. Chris and I were then ‘nobodies’ (a lofty position that I at least, still maintain), but he gave us time because he liked us, he liked the idea and he liked the script. Today I looked him up on Wikipedia. It lists his films, his TV and his radio work (it doesn’t even mention Morecambe & Wise). There are no eulogies. It is short and it is largely without praise and it left me wanting to tell this very short story because I can’t do anything about his Wikipedia page, but I really hope that somebody can…

NB I found this obituary from the Guardian. It tells a bit more of his story… https://www.theguardian.com/media/2006/mar/08/broadcasting.obituaries