Arts: Filming Spike Milligan’s Puckoon Essay, Research Paper
‘It’s fantastical, magical stuff’ ‘I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there at the time.” As Richard Attenborough recalls Spike Milligan’s famous quote, he roars with laughter, rocking back in his chair. Milligan died in February this year and the throwaway joke has now become the great absurdist’s cinematic epitaph, scrawled in bold Celtic copperplate across the opening titles of the film version of his first novel, Puckoon, published in 1964. By now, Attenborough is almost in tears, but let’s not mention weeping. Not yet anyway. Speaking just before the premiere of Puckoon at the Galway film fleadh earlier this month, he is pink-faced, effusive and exuberantly white-bearded, reeling off lines from writer-director Terence Ryan’s adaptation of Milligan’s satirical tale of the fictitious village of Puckoon which, one day during the partitioning of the country in 1924, is arbitrarily split between Northern and southern Ireland. “When I first read it, I was laughing so much I was close to getting arrested – or peeing myself,” Attenborough says. “I always loved Spike and what he did for British comedy. He moved it into another realm with the Goons. I knew them all, especially Peter Sellers, but Spike was the true original, the central genius. I couldn’t wait to get involved in the movie.” As the film’s omnipresent writer-narrator, Attenborough cajoles and commands characters played by Sean Hughes (hapless Dan Madigan), Elliot Gould (village doctor), and an array of veteran Irish actors, along with Milligan’s daughter Jane as Madigan’s ferocious wife. Milligan claimed that his debut novel nearly drove him mad. Yet, despite the disjointed narrative, unashamed Paddywhackery and a structure in the style of a Joycean pastiche, Puckoon became a publishing phenomenon, never out of print and selling more than 6m copies. Attenborough, normally associated with grandiose epics, hasn’t acted for four years and is still smarting after the failure of his last directorial outing, Grey Owl. One gets the impression that the disarmingly passionate actor-director has had enough of mega-buck blockbusters. Puckoon was filmed in Ireland on a budget that wouldn’t cover the catering costs on a typical Attenborough movie. It’s certainly a long way from A Bridge Too Far. Has he stopped chasing Oscars? Attenborough leans forward and slams the table so hard the teacups rattle. “Before we begin, I never fucking cried at the Oscars – that’s myth,” he says, referring to his emotional speech when accepting eight Academy awards for Gandhi in 1982. “In fact, I don’t really like the Oscars; it’s a commercial promotional event. It helps immeasurably to sell films, but it’s hardly the Nobel prize.” It is all getting a little bizarre, even Milliganesque, when Attenborough sits back and laughs. The last of the old-school English film impresarios and chairman of innumerable arts organisations is relaxing into Galway’s unpretentious atmosphere. The setting could not be more appropriate for the unveiling of a film inspired by Milligan, the troubled comedian who carried an Irish passport and whose coffin was draped in the Irish flag. “Spike’s humour was all about irreverence, and I like that,” says Attenborough. “I know I’m regarded as an establishment figure, but I was crucified by the establishment for Oh! What a Lovely War, Gandhi and Cry Freedom. So I relate to Spike. Irreverence is an essential part of our culture. I admire that enormously.” Attenborough is 80 next year and does admit to having trouble remembering names, but remains “consumed by the movies. I don’t take up many acting jobs these days, but this was irresistible. I liked the fact it was being made in Ireland and there was no big-budget hoopla involved. It was very invigorating and refreshing for me. And there were some old pals involved.” The old pals are Gould, a lifelong Milligan fan who appeared briefly in Attenborough’s overstuffed, star-studded A Bridge Too Far, and Milo O’Shea, Attenborough’s co-star in the 1970 film of Joe Orton’s play Loot. All of them, says Attenborough, did Puckoon out of “an overwhelming adoration of Spike. Money was the least consideration. I’d have done it for a pint of Guinness. In fact, I think I did.” With this, he gets up and starts pacing the room, hands clasped behind his back, as if delivering a final briefing before the next escape attempt. “I’m beginning to think that we must get back to making movies like Puckoon, which are essentially indigenous, rather than trying to take on Hollywood at its own game. Look what happened to FilmFour. We keep making the same mistake, trying to invade America by sailing halfway across the Atlantic. You just sink without a trace.” Puckoon itself was partly filmed in Hollywood – Hollywood, Belfast, that is, the working-village folk-museum doubling as Milligan’s divided town, where beer is cheaper in the northern half of the pub and corpses have to have newly issued passports to cross the customs post erected across the newly partitioned graveyard. The ultimate irony is that Puckoon is the first ever co-production between Northern and southern Ireland. “It’s fantastical, magical, mad stuff ,” says Attenborough, “but, deep down, Spike was dealing with the division of a people for political ends.” Ten years ago, when Spike was 73, director Terence Ryan recorded the author’s reading of the novel. Milligan was well aware that the recording was being made in case he died before the film was financed. It was partially true. By the time production began, a decade later, Milligan was in poor health. “He was meant to be in the film but was too ill,” says Attenborough. “He never made it to the set but would call and say, ‘Get a bloody move on – I’ve not long to go.’” Yet Milligan saw the finished film before he died, with his daughter Jane by his side. He laughed all the way through. “Spike’s humour is a very fragile thing on screen,” says Attenborough. “You’ve got be careful not to damage the wonderful madness. But now that he’s gone, as he would say, ‘What are we gonna do now?’ ” · Puckoon is released in the UK in October.