Prince Charles’s early years did not, by all accounts, constitute the happiest or most carefree of childhoods, and his time at Gordonstoun School in Scotland is known to have been particularly tough.
It’s no wonder then, that the young Prince Charles found his escape in comedy; specifically, the comedy of the BBC’s The Goon Show – a wildly surreal series of half-hour radio plays created and written by Spike Milligan, and performed with a wide array of fantastical voices by Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers.
The Goons made 250 episodes from 1950 to 1960 – featuring titles such as “The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (of Bexhill-on-Sea)”, “The Phantom Head Shaver (of Brighton)” and “Through the Sound Barrier in an Airing Cupboard” – and became so popular that they released a number of hit spin-off singles; the most prominent of these was “The Ying Tong Song”.
Charles wasn’t the only notable figure to find solace in the Goons’ avant-garde humour. John Lennon was a self-professed fan, describing their comedy as “the only proof that the world was insane.” Monty Python, too, have acknowledged their debt to Milligan and The Goon Show on a number of occasions.
So it was perhaps as a result of his love of The Goon Show that Prince Charles joined the Footlights dramatic society while at Cambridge University, and began developing his own stable of not-quite-so beloved comedy characters – including that of a put-upon angler struggling to land a giant fish.
During his second year at Cambridge, Charles followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Armed Forces, first by requesting (and receiving) Royal Air Force training, then by embarking on a career in the Navy which began with a six-week course at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth (which just so happens to be where Queen Elizabeth II first met and fell in love with Prince Philip).
While undergoing Royal Air Force training in 1971, Prince Charles took it upon himself to record a film featuring his note-perfect impression of The Goon Show character Bluebottle – a young Boy Scout with a very high-pitched voice. It was an impression which Prime Minister Theresa May has described as “particularly on point” during a speech she made in parliament on the event of the Prince’s 70th birthday. This was not, however, Charles’ only tribute to the Goons; he was also known to be keen on performing his own version of The Ying Tong Song at various public events.
Through Charles’s admiration of The Goon Show, he developed a strange friendship with Spike Milligan – one that was characterised by an eccentric yet highly affectionate correspondence. The 1972 recording of The Last Goon Show of All opened with the reading of a congratulatory telegram that Prince Charles had sent from a Royal Navy ship on which he was stationed. On another occasion, Milligan sent Charles a letter asking for help in saving Wilton’s Music Hall – written with a distinctly non-protocol and absurdist sense of mischief.
They were even close to the extent of dining together at Charles’s Highgrove residence, an occasion which Milligan later recalled with typical insouciance: “At one point, William and Harry came down in their pyjamas and [Charles] said, ‘Look Spike, would you sing the Ying Tong Song to them?’, and I had to sing this f***ing song. I felt such a fool, but then we had a lovely supper.” The night ended in an appropriately bizarre fashion, with Milligan escaping his wife’s snoring by sleeping on top of a lush rug on the floor of Prince Charles’s toilet.
The most public – and uproarious – evidence of their offbeat fan/idol friendship came during the British Comedy Awards of 1994, where Spike Milligan was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Ben Elton and Jonathan Ross.
Milligan took to the stage, clearly determined to puncture the self-importance of the awards ceremony. As Jonathan Ross cued up a message from a celebrity fan – struggling to keep a straight face over Spike’s anarchic interjections – he produced a letter from Prince Charles, which began adoringly: “As someone who grew up to the sounds of The Goon Show on the steam-driven wireless. I must confess that I have been a life-long fan of the participants in the show, and particularly of Spike Milligan-”
“The little grovelling bastard,” said Milligan, cutting in. The room erupted into riotous laughter at this unexpected snub to authority, ceremony and the establishment – with four words, Spike Milligan had perfectly distilled everything that his comedy stood for.
Later – perhaps feeling somewhat guilty – Milligan faxed the Prince, tongue firmly in cheek as he wrote “I suppose a knighthood is out of the question now?” Surprisingly, it was not. Although Milligan, an Irish citizen, stubbornly refused to swear the oath of allegiance necessary to acquire a British passport – thereby making a knighthood out of the question anyway – Prince Charles dutifully arranged for his hero to receive a foreigner’s Honorary Knighthood at the age of 82.
Prince Charles’ relationship with Milligan and his comedy has continued long after the performer’s death in 2002. In 1998 Charles became patron of The Goon Show Preservation Society – a position he holds to this day.