THE GREAT McGONAGALL (1974)
In 1974 director Joseph McGrath reunited Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers in the enjoyably crazy THE GREAT MCGONAGALL. Scripted by McGrath and Milligan, it’s a loose (in more ways than one) biopic about one of the world’s worst poets, the real life Scottish writer William Topaz McGonagall, as infamous to rhyme as Ed Wood is to cinema - which means he may have the last laugh as both men achieved an odd genuine fame eclipsing many of their better contemporaries.
An opening crawl gives a brief background of this eccentric as ‘the greatest bad verse writer of his age”. He lived during the reign of Queen Victoria and as he put it: ‘decided at the age of forty-seven to resign my position as a handloom weaver and give myself completely to the muse’. None are more terrifying to the arts than the untalented who give full force to their delusion of possessing a divine gift – and this makes him ideal source material for the gloriously demented Milligan mind, who drew eccentric parallels between himself and the Scotsman.
McGonagall was regularly condemned during his twenty-five year creative output for his inability to scan or to use any metaphors in a poetic sense. Here’s a sample from his notorious ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ (available online):
‘The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.’
Milligan and McGrath take his banality of expression and admirably crackpot self-belief and concoct an indulgent and nutty vehicle for themselves and their friends, but one whose consistent through-line of Goonish surreal humour makes it more amiable fun than the previous year’s GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN. That’s not to say it’s in any way a polished, coherent piece. It was shot somewhat chaotically in just three weeks (including one week of hard to credit rehearsal) mainly at London’s famous Wilton’s Music Hall in what seems an attempt to maintain a Victoriana setting without many costly period-dressed external scenes. It was also a deliberate choice as Milligan was keen to aid the restoration of the venue, and knew that the location fee from the production would help. This means the plot unfolds mostly as a staged theatre production, an unusual device (and to be fair one used by esteemed director Joe Wright in his recent film of ANNA KARENINA) and allows even more zany stylistic gags – at one point McGonagall ‘forgets’ a line and calls off for a prompt, relayed back by Valentine Dyall in a tin-bath.
If you’re a fan of Spike’s ‘Q’ series like myself, you might enjoy some of the recurring motifs in this film. John Bluthal pops up in numerous roles including a blackfaced John Bull in a bizarre musical number spoofing the British imperialist racism of the time (minstrel make-up was a recurring taste-fee shock tactic in the show). Spike performs in his familiar lunatic expressionist style, complete with copious raspberries and that fiercely declaimed delivery. The stage rep company feel is further enhanced by the aforementioned Dyall using his distinguished forebidding ‘Man in Black’ tones as various parts, as well as Victor Spinetti. Julia Foster does her best to cope as McGonagall’s long-suffering wife.
It’s crafty of the marketing team to claim a co-starring credit for Peter Sellers in the film as he only pops up three times. He gives a Queen Victoria cameo twice of fairly restrained madness, channelling a ‘Hinge and Bracket’ falsetto and a naughty glint in the eye when relating to Prince Albert, wickedly portrayed as a kilted Hitler to mock his Germanic ancestry - another familiar figure to ‘Q’ fans. After Albert brazenly snogs another man in full view of his wife, he asks why she dresses in black. She savours the reply: “You’ll see Albert. All in good time”.
Sellers appears right at the beginning of the film actually as himself in an in-jokey prologue where he begins to work on Spike in the studio make-up chair in modern dress with Milligan helplessly bound and gagged. This is one of a number of odd fourth-wall (illusion) breaking sequences - reminiscent of the police seizing the film at the end of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL that same year. Another one which takes the viewer by surprise is the leaving in of an outtake which gives an insight into Spike the actor: he suddenly pauses, unsure of whether he should be copying a line of Spinetti’s about his appointment with the Queen. It’s slightly startling coming in mid-scene when we’re so used to such curios being left to the end of a film; doubly so as it isn’t the normal indulgence of ‘corpsing’ (the actor laughing), but a moment of genuine off-guard confusion of Spike’s. It’s interesting as well to hear McGrath off-camera establishing order and Spike having enough performer’s self-awareness amidst the insanity to ask: “I’d like to do the take over again because I was over the top. It’s all over the top...”
We then get a fake intermission with a few quick shots of the cast and crew at lunch if you haven’t had the suspension of disbelief broken enough.
The hit-or-miss gags in the film aren’t just surreal meta-jokes. Fittingly for a music hall, there are some that must have been around when it was being built, such as the old ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ faithful, with McGonagall adding “Enjoying the show. Doc?” There are also some deliberate anachronisms on display, such as a heckler shouting “Get your hair cut, you hippie!” when McGonagall is in the dock and a burst of a very modern gratuitous female nude gyrating in his jail cell. This was to appease the producer David Grant who’d made his money in porn.
Overall, THE GREAT MCGONAGALL is something of an undisciplined home-movie. McGrath had observed in a later interview that Spike could be temperamental during the shooting, a different person depending on what day you worked with him (which must have echoed his experience with Sellers on CASINO ROYALE). Don’t go looking for a traditional narrative, but if you’re a Spike Milligan fan in the mood for his anarchic Goon-style humour on screen it’s worth seeing…