David Young, former Chair of Bipolar UK, pays tribute to Spike Milligan

I first met Spike Milligan in about 1987 when he was in his late 60s. I had joined the Manic Depression Fellowship (as Bipolar UK was called then) the previous year and had many discussions about how to boost our membership.

My first position in the Fellowship was as press officer and having made the suggestion that a well-known Patron would be a major attribute to the Fellowship I suggested Spike Milligan. The immediate reply was that he had already been approached and had turned the Fellowship down, but I said let's have another go.

Appointing a Patron

I duly wrote to Spike and he replied that he was retired and couldn't actively do anything for the Fellowship but that he would be happy to lend his name to the cause and invited me to meet him at the BBC at Bush House in London.

We met and got on well together and he offered to do whatever he could. We ran small adverts in the national press saying 'Spike Milligan invites you to become a member of the Manic Depression Fellowship'. As a result of this we were inundated by enquiries and the membership base grew exponentially.

Tackling the stigma

Back in the 80s there was still a strong stigma against ‘coming out’ as a manic-depressive, so having Spike on board was brilliant and was able to generate publicity with the press when Spike was interviewed and also we had an invite to go on Gloria Hunniford's morning show.

Following that we got know each other a lot better and I was invited to his house near Rye in East Sussex and we had long discussions about other ways in which he could help. These are too numerous to mention but he did attend a number of functions.

Averting disaster!

I’d also suggested that we have a poetry reading of Spike’s unpublished poetry at the Commonwealth Institute in London. This was nearly a disaster as the agency issuing tickets and collecting the money went bust a week before the performance but luckily we were able to salvage the situation.

Nearly 1000 people attended the event and we managed to raise money which was greatly needed at the time because our income was almost non existent (from memory about £6000 a year). Once again our membership increased.

Above and beyond

Despite Spike originally saying that he could only lend his name to the Fellowship he did in fact work tirelessly to help the charity and went well beyond the call of duty.

We recognised how helpful he had been so we decided that it would be a great idea to nominate him for an Honorary award and submitted an application to the Cabinet office which resulted in Spike being awarded the CBE.

CBE confusion

Even the CBE was a particular farce because we knew that he was going to be awarded it on a particular date and issued a press release embargoed for after the time of the announcement. However, when Spike’s name was not appearing the press made a big thing of it.

News had leaked out before the weekend that the former goon who was 70 at the time was a comedy favourite of the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) and was to appear on the list. The Manic Depression fellowship was blamed for issuing a press release congratulating him. However this had been embargoed and the embargo had been ignored! 

The Times then reported that confusion surrounding the apparent snub of Spike Milligan in the previous weekend's Queen’s Birthday Honours was resolved with the confirmation of one of Britain's best loved comedians as an honorary CBE.

This is an extract from ‘The Times’ on 16 June 1992: ‘When appointed CBE, the comedian Spike Milligan said: I can’t see the sense in it really. It makes me a Commander of the British Empire. They might as well make me a Commander of Milton Keynes - at least that exists.’

A one-off award ceremony was arranged for Spike.

A surprise knighthood!

When Spike was 82 he made an inappropriate comment (well documented) about the Prince of Wales at a comedy awards ceremony which I shall not repeat here. Spike later contacted the Prince of Wales and said, ‘I suppose a knighthood is out of the question now.’

However this did subsequently occur and it was a big surprise to Spike. The knighthood for services to entertainment was honorary because he adopted his father's Irish nationality.

Spike had previously refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the Queen. Apparently the Prince of Wales pointed out that even he had to take the oath and Spike replied: ‘Yes, but it's your mother isn't it? You don't get board and lodging at Buckingham Palace if you don't swear the oath.’

A loyal Patron

Despite the condition hitting him hard at times Spike remained a loyal and helpful Patron and it is interesting to note in biographies I have read that no mention is ever made of what he did for the MDF.

Although his KBE was awarded for services to entertainment it was his services to our charity that earnt him the recognition he deserved.

'Like having one less skin'

Whilst Spike could be a bit moody at times (I recall he upset me over something and he phoned and wished me peace and tranquillity), he was very kind. Of the condition he would say that it’s, 'like having one less skin'.

He also used to say imagine seeing somebody walking down the other side of the street with an arm missing. He said you can see that and understand that, but if one imagines that that feeling is happening inside one’s brain then perhaps the condition can be understood better.

He also used to say – ‘Remember David, it only happens all the time’ and that has remained with me.

A Poem by Spike Milligan

The Mirror Running (published by Michael Joseph, 1987)

This evening in the twilight’s gloom

A butterfly flew in my room

Oh what beauty, oh what grace

Who needs visitors from out of space

Last updated: 10 August 2023