Spike Milligan's Q television comedy sketch series ran sporadically between 1969 and 1980/1982. Madcap, surreal and often defying the conventions of television of the time, it is often compared to the style of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974) - including by the Pythons themselves who admit that the first series influenced how Monty Python developed. In fact they deliberately hired Q5's director Ian MacNaughton1 to direct their show.
Q was written by Spike Milligan with Neil Shand. The series began with seven episodes of Q5 in early 1969, six months before Monty Python2. It was not until 1975 that the BBC were willing to commission a second series, Q6, followed by Q7 in 1977 complete with Jubilee theme, Q8 - nicknamed 'Kuwait' - in 1978. Q9 followed in 1980, though this proved less popular with audiences and viewing figures were considered disappointing.
Spike hoped to follow this up with Q10 however the BBC feared Spike was becoming increasingly self-indulgent. The BBC not only rejected that title but appointed new writers to work with Spike to inject some new ideas into the series. Spike tried to persuade the BBC to approve the title Cute Hen to no avail; the series was broadcast as There's a Lot of It About in 1982. As it was not entirely conceived by Spike and has a different title and tone, this is not usually considered to be part of Q.
Terence 'Spike' Milligan is a Britishish/Irishish3 musician, actor and author, including but not only for children, as well as campaigner. He was born in India in 1918 to parents born in Ireland when it was still part of Britain and during the Second World War enlisted in the Royal Artillery. During the war he survived an explosion which left him shell shocked and manic-depressive; this and the pressure he put himself under writing The Goon Show was responsible for the several mental breakdowns he endured throughout the rest of his life. He dedicated much of his life to campaigning for mental illness awareness, as well as the ethical treatment of animals and against domestic violence.
He is best known for writing the ground-breaking radio series The Goon Show (1951-60), performing alongside Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. His war autobiography series beginning with Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall is also profoundly moving. Spike Milligan is also the author of the funniest joke in the world4.
Spike frequently tried to break into television comedy, although almost all of his early attempts to do so no longer exist5. Previous television series included a trilogy of ITV comedy sketch series in 1956 co-starring Peter Sellers and directed by Richard Lester6; six episodes of The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, closely followed by five episodes of A Show Called Fred and eight episodes of Son of Fred. He made a television special entitled The Gladys Half-Hour during a trip to Australia, where he met John Bluthal, with whom he would later collaborate on Q. His first colour television series was BBC 2's The World of Beachcomber (1968).
Those creating a British television series in the 1950s to 1980s were given free rein to do so, free from interference from layers of managers. This enabled much greater creativity than is allowed today, however Spike gained a reputation of taking advantage of this and betraying the trust given him. He appeared in what at the time was considered the most offensive sitcom ever, Curry & Chips (1969); the Independent Television Authority ordered its cancellation. Another sitcom he wrote, The Melting Pot (1975), was considered unbroadcastable by the BBC. Both featured Spike wearing so-called brownface7 make-up and playing characters from Pakistan.
It was with this reputation that the BBC were reluctant to commission Spike to make more Q, limiting the number of episodes and there was a frequent delay of years between series. Spike was uncontrollable, determined to mock and defy authority, particularly the BBC. Spike, if instructed to tone down the sexism or stereotyping, would typically react by doing the exact opposite. This did not endear him to the upper levels of the BBC, even though he was popular with the public. Spike for his part felt himself to be overlooked and unfairly treated by the BBC. He was particularly frustrated that the BBC did not commission more episodes, that Q was not repeated, promoted internationally and that episodes had been wiped.
Isle of Wight born actress Julia Breck8 frequently played the role of a young, glamourous, semi-dressed big-breasted woman. The Jewish Polish-born actor John Bluthal moved to Australia as a child in 1938 and relocated to Britain in 1960. He had minor roles in numerous films and television series but is perhaps best known as Frank Pickle in sitcom The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007). Jazz Pianist Alan Clare also appears in numerous episodes, both as a musician providing a musical interlude between sketches, and in the sketches themselves. A running joke would have him reading his lines from the script in an expressionless voice, with the other actors pointing the line out to him.
Peter Jones is best known as the voice of the Book in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio and television series. He played authority figures in early episodes, albeit ones who frequently wore stockings, suspenders and corsets. This role was later replaced with Robert Dorning. David Lodge was a stalwart of British film and television, appearing in almost everything, including Carry On Laughing, and had been in the Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) alongside Spike. His appearances are normally followed by a mention that he was in British war film classic The Cockleshell Heroes (1955). Rita Webb frequently played frumpy and harridan housewife characters.
It is notable that many of Q's actors frequently appeared in films starring Peter Sellers or directed by Dick Lester as they shared Spike's social circle.
A Q By Any Other Name
Many people want to know why we call this show "Q7". Well, so do we. Why not write in and tell us why you think we call this show "Q7"?
- Spike Milligan, introducing Episode Three of Q7
Spike Milligan never said why he named his first show Q5, however there are two theories as to where he may have been inspired. One is that it was named after ship RMS Queen Elizabeth II, or QE2 for short, the luxury ocean-going cruise liner between 1967 and 2008. When she was under construction she was known as Q49.
Another often quoted theory is that the name came from a broadcast quality scale used by the BBC. Q1 was perfect quality with various levels of less than perfect quality until 'Q5' meant severe degradation to picture or sound and 'Q6' meant complete loss of vision and/or sound, or according to some reports finishing at 'Q9' for complete loss of picture and sound. Whether this scale actually existed and was used by the BBC has been disputed.
What are we Going to do Now? Recurring Themes
Spike wanted to move away from the tradition of comedy sketches always ending with a punch line. Instead his scenes end in a variety of different ways. Spike may suddenly start to change costume and walk to a different set to begin a new scene. An announcer's voice might suddenly broadcast, Come in sketch, your time is up! Or the characters might suddenly stop, stand up facing the camera and chant in unison, What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? while taking a step towards the camera between each question.
As a faux pas in British television was to appear before the camera with the wardrobe tag still on the costume, throughout the Q series the cast always deliberately wore all wardrobe tags, placed in prominent positions on every item of clothing, including underwear. Drag would feature in most episodes. Characters would also frequently wear hats much larger than their heads as well as oversized, fake noses or blatantly fake stick-on beards, eyebrows and moustaches, with Spike often wearing a fake beard the same colour of his own beard. When not in costume, Spike would often wear a 'Friends of the Earth' t-shirt to raise awareness of a cause he strongly believed in.
Spike would frequently adlib or break the fourth wall and address the audience by commenting on the quality of the scripts. For example if a line went wrong it would be followed by comments about needing to fire the script typist or if a line didn't get a laugh he would tell the joke again. A prop door would frequently be wheeled into the middle of a scene, be knocked on and opened and then wheeled away. Another recurring feature would be the 'BBC Economy Set', which would be basic blank walls without props or set dressing other than the sign 'BBC Economy Set'.
John Bluthal would frequently impersonate popular television personalities of the time, such as Huw Wheldon or Hughie Green. Recurring sketches include various daft sporting events, couples in bizarre, surreal suburban surroundings, doctors' offices and the Idiot Scouts Troop. Nostalgia for the Second World War would also be prevalent, with particular delights the sketch in which the government brings back air raids in order to make the country happier and one following the first Traffic Wardens ashore on D-Day and their efforts to defeat the enemy by issuing parking tickets to the tanks of the Third Reich.
Q for Quagmire Quandary
Although Spike claimed that the show was Suitable for all ages, particularly Stone, Bronze and Iron! it is not appropriate for children. Episodes also contain language that is now considered offensive, both sexist and racist. Yet to what extent should a programme be judged by the values of fifty years later? If an episode contains one offensive word, does that mean all the other words in that episode are automatically offensive also and the episode itself is now entirely unacceptable?
Before 1967, Britain's sex and nudity censorship laws for film and television were the toughest in Western Europe. After these restrictions were relaxed the reaction was out of all proportion. British films embraced the sex comedy genre which lasted 1967-1979, most successful of which was the Confessions series (1974-7) which was surprisingly incredibly popular. Similarly on television throughout the 1970s comedy sketches involving buxom young women in states of undress suddenly dominated, typified by The Benny Hill Show. Following the trend shown in other comedy sketch shows of the time, women in Q therefore generally fall into one of three categories:
- Older, unattractive wife or housewife.
- Young, attractive big-breasted woman, often particularly sexually active10.
- The Queen, played by professional Queen Elizabeth II impersonator Jeannette Charles11
One reason that the series is not better known today is the amount of what is at best frequent racial stereotyping crossing into full-blown racism the series casually contains. These fall into four distinct areas. Firstly the Irish are frequently portrayed as being backwards and daft, with scenes set in Ireland frequently shown in black and white to emphasise that the Irish are old-fashioned. There are also comments in most episodes which stereotype Jews as being money-obsessed, with a till frequently called a 'Jewish Piano'. Many of these comments are said in front of his long-term Jewish friends and collaborators John Bluthal and Rita Webb, which might suggest this perhaps is inadvisable stereotyping rather than genuine anti-Semitism. Most serious of all are the snide comments and racist language concerning British Pakistanis as well as Arabs which cannot be excused. The series also contains instances of actors in blackface, typically in order to portray Winston Churchill or the Pope followed by a comment that the new make-up girl is too enthusiastic. Spike is unlikely to have taken the perception of racism or anti-Semitism seriously and would claim he was 'only joking' at any criticism levelled against him.
Yet it should be noted that the British are also frequently stereotyped. One lengthy sketch is devoted to a wildlife documentary showing Spike as David Attenborough investigating the 'Cock-a-knee' people of London.
Spike Milligan published a collection of his Q scripts in a book titled The Q Annual even though it does not follow the annual format. This included scripts from Q5 to Q9, including some from the missing episodes. As well as scripts the book includes a number of black and white photographs of the cast in costume, including the obligatory shot of Peter Jones in corset and suspenders.
Comparison with Monty Python and other Comedies
The series is often compared with Monty Python, including by the Pythons themselves.
In fact in Spike Milligan: I Told You I Was Ill – A Live Tribute Terry Jones and Michael Palin appear. Terry acknowledges the similarities between Q and Monty Python and the debt that the latter owed to Spike. He also compared how inadvertently similar one of Spike's Q5 sketches involved a woman receiving a delivery of royal horse manure was to a later Monty Python sketch in which a couple receive a delivery of manure as part of their book club membership.
One key difference is that Monty Python's Flying Circus was always far more polished than Q, without Spike's adlibs or veering off topic. Also Monty Python is much more of an ensemble rather than having Spike central to every sketch. Not to forget that Python benefitted from Terry Gilliam's animation.
There were also similarities with other comedy sketch shows, such as The Two Ronnies12. Halftime was marked with a musical number, often performed by pianists Ed Welch or Alan Clare, with Spike occasionally either singing or playing his trumpet. The series would also often open and close with joke news items.
Q is a landmark in the comedy sketch show genre, paving the way for later series such as Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Fast Show. Yet it has dated far more than Monty Python and Spike's determination to push the boundaries of comedy has meant that it is no longer considered acceptable today. Sometimes boundaries are there for a reason.
Spike disappointingly often crosses a line that he did not need to, negating his achievements. For example, had the infamous 'Pakistani Dalek' sketch been simply about a housewife married to a Dalek, it would be remembered fondly as a classic comedy moment. Yet by having the Dalek from Pakistan wearing an unconvincing turban rather than a bowler hat as well as uttering stereotypical comments about curry at the end, the sketch is unacceptable for the 21st Century. Frustratingly it appears that the most inventive Q episodes were from the first series, yet just under half of those episodes survive.