Saturday, 12 March 2011

AFED #70: The Great McGonagall (UK, 1974); Dir. Joseph McGrath

Although The Goon Show represented something of a watershed for post-war comedy, it's probably not unfair to describe Spike Milligan's output thereafter as variable. By all accounts his Q sketch series contained flashes of genius (and was shamelessly ripped off by the Monty Python team) but there was also the infamous Johnny Speight-penned sitcom Curry and Chips, in which Milligan blacked up to play an Indian immigrant working in a factory.

Unlike his pal Peter Sellers, Milligan was more of a comedy writer than actor, but the pressure to be consistently funny and solicit the approval of one's peers must be hugely exacting. Small wonder Spike suffered several nervous breakdowns and struggled with depression. Perhaps that's also why he was drawn to the tragi-comic figure of William Topaz McGonagall, the nineteenth century Scottish poet and actor whom he depicted in a 1974 film.


McGonagall, an aspiring laureate whose hopelessly mediocre, yet seemingly earnest, verse became the stuff of legend, had long been a favourite of the Goons and alternately been depicted by both Sellers and Milligan in the radio show. Indeed it was originally Sellers who was mooted to play McGonagall, but it's hard to imagine the chameleonic Sellers attaining the same pathos and personal input that Milligan achieves.

The story by Milligan and director Joseph McGrath tells McGonagall's story as a kind of music hall melodrama; charting his poetic 'career' from quitting his profession as weaver through to his death. Milligan stars as the eponymous bard, Julia Foster as his wife, Sellers in drag as Queen Victoria and a troupe of actors (including Valentine Dyall and Victor Spinetti) undertaking multiple roles.

The comedy is broad and adopting the scattergun approach that Milligan had made his trademark. There's some anachronistic contemporary references (e.g. "Queen Victoria, the Mark Phillips of her day") but it also makes extensive use of McGonagall's own poetry, the guilelessness of which suggests either a man with a wry sense of humour or one bizarrely deluded.

Milligan opts for the latter and there's actually something quite moving in McGonagall's plight when he travels to see the Queen at Balmoral, only to discover his invitation was a trick. We are however treated to a fantasy sequence in which the poet regales her majesty and the pair waltz to the accompaniment of a band of 'Alberts' all sporting Hitler moustaches.

The film was shot entirely at the historic Wilton's Music Hall (a place I mentioned in relation to A Little of What You Fancy in AFED #26) and so absorbed was Milligan by the role that he actually slept in its rat-infested environs during the production.

If you're like me then you'll most likely come away unimpressed from a first viewing; Milligan's accent can be difficult to understand and the revue-style humour feels a little dated. But it's both a more poignant and subversive film than initial impressions may have you believe.

In one remarkable scene halfway through the dramatic illusion is well and truly broken when Milligan seemingly forgets his line and has to have it explained to him by the director before the story can resume. It's entirely deliberate and part of the script, but so convincing is Milligan that many, including fan of the film Jonathan Coe (according to McGrath in his commentary for the dvd) weren't sure what to make of it.

Sadly The Great McGonagall was all but buried on its original release. It was produced and financed by the self-styled 'King of Sexploitation' David Grant, who (having insisted on some totally pointless nudity in a couple of scenes) wrote the film off as tax loss. This surely hurt Milligan, who clearly put a lot more in than most have appreciated, and would never get such a big screen opportunity again.

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