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The mind of Spike Milligian – and the dysjunction between fantasy and reality

2022 January 29
by Paul Vallely

There are interesting parallels

between laughter and lying.

Both subvert the truth and are

infectious. So how does one

liberate and the other stultify?


The last time I saw Spike Milligan was in a taxi at 2am somewhere in the middle of Birmingham. We had been for a meal in a curry house which ended so late because every time a waiter came to the table Milligan invited them to join us. It had begun when the comedian asked the first member of staff his name and discovered it was Patrick. The restaurant was run by a family from Goa, the one part of the sub-continent where, thanks to Portuguese colonialism, you stood a good chance of meeting Indians who were Catholics. Since Milligan too was a Catholic who had been born in India the opportunity was too good to miss. We ended up with five waiters sitting at the table. Service, as a consequence, was very slow.

After the meal he gave me a lift to my hotel. As I reached the front door a trumpet appear from the taxi window and played a spectacularly ear-shattering fanfare. Then came Spike’s head. “Announcing the arrival of that celebrated journalist Paul Vallely, Esquire,” he bawled into the quiet night air. After a wild cackle of laughter the cab roared off leaving me to face the consequences of the music as the hotel staff opened the door.

Milligan was always like that. On another occasion I was with him at a local radio station. The programme on-air was being piped through the building so staff could keep in touch as they rushed from office to studio. It was even in the lift. Spike, however, got it into his head that this was muzak and therefore an intolerable invasion of his personal space. In the lift Milligan stood directly in front of the station manager, and placing his mouth only an inch or so from the hapless manager’s began to sing, can belto as Harry Secombe used to put it, directly into the poor man’s face. “See how you like it,” Spike said, without further explanation, as we left the lift.

There was a disjunction between reality and fantasy in Spike Milligan’s head. It was what made him a comic genius. The borderlines between truth and fiction, satire and surrealism, blurred in his head, producing the most unlikely juxtapositions – and not always to his advantage as I found when I discovered him in tears after one performance where the audience had laughed at “the serious bit” he tried to do on the seal fur trade in the middle of his otherwise absurdist act. The more he railed that this wasn’t funny, the more they had laughed.

Recalling Milligan at his death this week made me think again about Stephen Byers. For there are interesting parallels between laughter and lying; deception is there in both, or at least a wilful process of jumbling what is true with what is not.

Religion can be very po-faced about this. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No, as the Bible has it. And some secular philosophers have taken just as hard a line.  Kant in his Metaphysics of Morals said lying is “the greatest violation of a human being’s duty to himself.” The principle of truthfulness must be upheld whatever is at stake.

Traditional moral theology has been less rigid. We are only obliged to tell the truth when the person we’re addressing has the right to the knowledge. Thus if a newspaper asks about your sex life, you can lie with moral impunity, unless it touches on a matter of the common good as it arguably did with President ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton.

But what about Stephen Byers? [ a cabinet minister who had to apologise to parliament after being accused of lying in a tv interview]. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt – and presume that his dissembling when interviewed on television by Jonathan Dimbleby was not for the low motive of saving his own skin but was inspired by the desire to protect the best interests of his troubled department, of his party, of the Government, or even, and this is stretching the point, the travelling public – could his lies ever be justified? Moral theology offers all manner of caveats to excuse lies for a greater good. But none of them seem to apply to a decision to lie to the general public about a matter of common interest. And though telling the truth in the House of Commons after lying on tv may be a political mitigation it is not a moral one.

The bigger problem, as the ethicist Sissela Bok, points out in her seminal Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, is that lying – even when it is done in the name of some greater good, like national security – spreads like a disease and threatens to infect the trust and integrity which are the very foundations of all social exchange. Yet the legal, moral and social sanctions society has traditionally employed against deception –  perjury, libel, sin, guilt, shame and embarrassment – today seem increasingly to have less purchase. In a world where the stress on individualism, on competition, on achieving material success generates intense pressure to cut corners we are, it seems, becoming desensitised to lying.

What both Spike Milligan and Stephen Byers have done this week is draw our attention to the way the accepted order of things can be subverted by being cavalier with the truth. Only with Milligan the result was liberating, exposing our mechanisms of deception and mocking them, while with Byers it was another nail in the coffin of our society’s moral stultification.


written in 2 March 2002 for the Faith & Reason column of The Independent

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