I consider myself fortunate to have seen some great stand-ups, from Steve Martin to Spike Milligan, one of the highlights of 1989. Milligan’s map-cap humour was a huge influence on comedy from Monty Python onwards, and he even features in Life of Brian. But unlike fellow Goon Peter Sellers, Milligan never quite transitioned to the big screen, and those wondering why should be directed to 1974’s The Great McGonagall.
William Topaz McGonagall was a Scottish poet well known for his insufferable toadying to the British royal family in the form of Queen Victoria, and his lamentably awful poems, still recognised today as some of the world’s worst Milligan wrote a number of books which riffed on the McGonagall legend, and given the chance to create a feature, it’s no surprise that Milligan went for straight for a biopic about McGonagall. Set largely in Dundee and Edinburgh in the Victorian era, with no exterior shots, the action is largely confined to a stage, where key scenes from McGonagall’s life are acted out in front of a baying, vegetable-throwing audience. Sellers plays Queen Victoria, while there’s a cast of notable Milligan associates, from Victor Spinetti to Valentine Dyall. McGonagall was an eccentric figure, and with Milligan having already tested out plenty of material on the subject in his books and radio work, what could go wrong?
Almost everything goes wrong; this is the third time I’ve seen this film, on VHS, DVD and now streaming, and no matter what format is used, it still looks like boiled sh*t. I’ve rarely seen such a badly shot film, with faces unclear, and much of the action little more than shadows in the murk. That’s less of a problem once you penetrate the murk and realise it was better less unseen. Milligan’s view of the world was a complex one, but many of the gags here are very much racist by today’s standards, and watching two white men, one in blackface, shouting the n____ word at each other is dispiriting for those seeking to laud Milligan’s genius. There are some funny moments buried in the mess, but otherwise, McGrath’s film panders to the worst impulses of 70’s cinema; speeded up film, custard pies in the face, and gratuitous female nudity added at the behest of a porn producer who bought the resulting shambles as a tax write off.
McGonagall’s life might still make an interesting phantasmagoria, but there’s not much of a case to be made for the telling provided by Milligan here. Milligan went on to find a huge audience with his inspired script for The Two Ronnies and their serial The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, and he’s still remembered as one of the great gag-masters. But The Great McGonagall is for completists only, a confused, self-indulgent collection of extremely variable jokes, assembled in a slapdash and desultory manner.