Tooting Broadway on a freezing Monday afternoon. Huddled over his Coke and battered paperback, Roy Smiles greets me seated in one of those stainless steel and plastic coffee bars that serve steamed cappuccinos and American style muffins. Smiles is definitely unsure of his new-found fame. There is a broody unrest, a post-hangover disquiet that masks a prolific writer and lover of humour. "I'm just finalising finding the producer for my next project -- a play about Tony Hancock". I suggest why can't Smiles play Hancock himself. "They want a star" Smiles muses. Obviously, his time immersing himself in Hancock's personality has rubbed off -- or perhaps all great comic writers/performers are in some way tortured, weighed down by the cynicism which we find so adorably funny.
Suddenly, Smiles emerges from his thoughts and we talk about the project which is about to hit the West End : "It's a tribute to Spike Milligan." Smiles tells me of the history of Ying Tong - A Walk With the Goons, which previews from 10 February at the New Ambassadors Theatre. "I had to add that bit after the dash because my friends said that some people might think it's a show from China !". I didn't want to show my age by admitting I treasure a 78 rpm of the Goons song Ying Tong (the 'B' side has Milligan singing 'I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas') so I knew exactly what the show title meant.
"The play was originally done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2004 -- it had great reviews and now Michael Codron is putting it on". I say what a coup to have such a production house behind him, and Smiles naughtily admits "it's all down to getting drunk with Maureen Lipman on a rainy evening in Warsaw ." With those eyes that betray the memory of too many vodkas, Smiles tells of this strange time in his life. "I had a small part in Roman Polanski's The Pianist . We were filming in Poland and one boring evening Maureen and I decided to get drunk together. I told her about my idea for a play and she introduced me to Codron, and it all went on from there."
So what is Ying Tong really about? "I have in mind its part of a trilogy of plays I'm writing about the comic greats. My first was Lennie Bruce meeting Groucho Marx, and now the Hancock play, but my break has come with Ying Tong." The plot sounds too intriguing to give away, but there are many surprises and a few shocks in store. "I have certainly not done a character assassination of Milligan or the Goons, it's a laugh a minute -- Milligan's daughter has seen the play and loves it, as does Harry Secombe's daughter -- she's been very positive too."
"The play is about Spike Milligan -- we are never sure whether the narrative that unfolds is a scripted radio comedy Goon Show or if it's all happening in his mind -- he suffered from so many mental problems. That's the intriguing part -- the part that keeps the audience guessing." Smiles explains "all the favourite characters are there -- it's set in 1960 after Milligan has co-written the tenth series and he wants out -- he sets out to destroy all the characters one by one -- Bluebottle, Bloodlock, Grippike-Thynne, Henry Crum, Minnie Banister, Eccles, they're all there -- and the story just shows the clash of egos -- so much comic talent in one radio show."
Smiles tells me he has studied the biography and background of Milligan closely. "His time in India and back after the war in Catford and Lewisham -- you know Milligan was accused of stealing cigarettes from the tobacco factory where he was working -- and he admitted it -- he was stealing to sell them on to raise money for a trumpet -- that's how desperate things were." Smiles berates what he calls the "Oxbridge set who made Milligan feel like an outsider -- even outside the fringe."
Smiles himself feels a similar rage towards a "class structure that's still so rigid and dutiful." I ask if he too feels an outsider. "Yes, I do -- this is the sixteenth play I've written -- it's the third comedy and the rest have been highly political -- very dark and political. This is a dark comedy -- a sort of comic-tragedy so to speak -- but I've been trying for years to get recognized." All that is set to change, now that Smiles has a West End producer, a looming opening night and a publishing deal with Oberon Books.
What about his own background? "I was brought up in West London -- a QPR supporter through and through. It was tough as a youngster though. My parents were Geordies -- real Geordies from south of the Tyne, Gateshead -- and they didn't want their son talking with a London accent, so whenever I went back in the house I had to revert to speaking Geordie." I suggest that this must have led to a schizophrenic attitude to his own identity. "It was just like the QPR motto -- 'Some You Lose, Some You Draw'."
Where does Ying Tong fit into this politicized attitude to writing? "The play is an evocation of the hilarious parts of the Goon Shows, but it has that darkness to it -- don't forget these were all talents that emerged from the war -- from ENSA -- and their war was a salvation as well as a curse. For the first time ordinary people had the freedom to express themselves -- the army allowed Milligan's talents to escape the confines of his troubled mind -- war showed him his destiny."
Ying Tong is directed by Michael Kingsbury, who recently directed the stage version of Round the Horn. Kingsbury's experience with another iconic fifties/sixties radio show has made him the perfect choice for a dark and intriguing homage to the Goon Show stars. With a cast of unknowns who capture the spirit of the Goons, the play is set to be a thought-provoking though ultimately entertaining evening.
Smiles tells me about his nine-year-old son who, on seeing the play in West Yorkshire, was completely bowled over by the silliness of the humour, that anarchic madness that epitomized the Goons and led inextricably to the Oxbridge Monty Python. "That's important" Smiles stresses, "this is a play which you can take your kids to -- it's for all the family -- it will introduce those great talents -- those great comic inventions to a new audience, who will appreciate it on any level they choose." Ying Tong will certainly attract all those of my generation who will wallow in nostalgic pleasure. It will attract those who want to see an intelligent and poignant play about the mental deterioration of a great talent. It will attract the young and young at heart who will see how advanced, how uniquely British our post-war humour had become. Ying Tong will, if Smiles's unassuming dignity and passion are anything to go by, be a great hit. Anyway, don't just listen to me, ask Maureen Lipman -- if she's got over that hangover yet that is.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005