Big Name Hunting

Big Name Hunting the new book from Arnie Wilson

Click here to buy it at TSL Books

During my days as a showbiz reporter in Fleet Street, I would meet or telephone – sometimes briefly, but others repeatedly, perhaps once a month, more than 200 celebrities – a whole chorus line of famous actors, some of whom were my childhood heroes; a handful of former prime ministers and cabinet ministers, newscasters and presenters galore, famous pop singers, cricketers, footballers and commentators, even an American president and other prominent US politicians. Some newscasters became colleagues and even friends. There was royalty too – chats (usually random encounters, I must admit) with Prince Charles, the Duke of Edinburgh, Countess Mountbatten, ex King Constantine of Greece, Lord Snowdon, and Princess Caroline – and stars of stage and screen, as well as illustrious film directors, authors and other writers, explorers, climbers, moguls (film, TV and otherwise), a whole gaggle of comedians, a handful of astronauts, musicians by the score, motor racing champions, and other sportsmen, glamour-girls (including three Miss Worlds), and even some hardened criminals…Here’s my favourite chapter from Big Name Hunting. It’s a tragic, but extraordinarily moving interview with Spike Milligan.

Chapter 5
Paddy Milligan

Spike Milligan was on the phone from his home in Hertfordshire, and I could hardly believe my ears. He was pouring out his grief over the loss of his beautiful wife, the singer Patricia Ridgeway, at the cruelly early age of 43. And I didn’t have a pen in my hand. Indeed, at first, as the sun sank towards the horizon, turning the lawn into a rich yellowy green hue almost reminiscent of the kind of sunset more familiar in a far-eastern paddy field, it seemed almost indecent even to think about taking notes. But in the end my journalist genes got the better of me. Not daring to break the spell by asking Spike to hang on while I found a pen – or alerting him to the fact that I was thinking of quoting him – I surreptitiously reached for a box of my daughter Lara’s crayons. The first one my fingers closed around was a green one that seemed to echo the hues of the grass under the evening sun. I reached for some scrap paper and turned on the light. I felt it likely that if Spike kept talking it would soon be too dark to take notes, particularly scrawled in wax on inferior paper. And my shorthand was virtually non-existent.
What followed was perhaps the most poignant half hour in what would eventually be almost 40 years of writing about celebrities. Half an hour in which the privilege of being privy to the intimate thoughts of a household name would translate into an interview that actually had some real content, rather than the sometimes rather gratuitous and even vacuous posturings of interviewee and interviewer designed purely to fill some space in a gossip column. A tragic event – the early death of such a generous and glamorous spirit, who had become a personal friend – had for once produced a story no one could fail to be moved by. Few ‘celebrity’ stories these days seem to fulfil such criteria.
‘I was madly in love with Paddy,’ Spike was saying. I have no doubt he genuinely was but, unbeknown to me or anyone at the time, he had fathered a ‘love child’ during an affair while Paddy’s health was already in decline. She had previously told me she’d had cancer five years earlier, when she was only 38.
Spike told me he had written a song for her. She would sing it, while he played the piano. ‘The title is ironic now,’ he said. ‘It was called This Goodbye. There are lots of tapes of Paddy singing. I can’t bring myself to listen to them just now. But I shall enjoy them again, later.’
As Spike unburdened his tortured heart, I scribbled away, still feeling guilty – almost as if he could actually see me in the sitting room of my cottage among the raspberry fields and farmhouses in a corner of the picture-postcard village of Smarden in Kent.
It was only two days since Patricia, or Paddy as she was known to most people, had finally given up her long battle with cancer. So why was Spike pouring his heart out to me? It was the result of a terrible dilemma that many writers will have experienced. If someone in the public eye dies – someone you’ve known for many years and built up a genuine friendship with – it’s unrealistic not to write (nice things, if possible) about them straight away. Short of including this kind of material in an obituary, no newspaper is going to wait for anecdotes until after a ‘suitable period’ of time has elapsed. And it so happened that I had known Paddy for years – long before I had become close to Spike. Paddy and her daughter Jane had been guests in the very cottage where I was now listening to Spike’s anguished outpourings. Jane had learnt the flute using the instrument that I played myself and had lent her. Paddy and Jane had looked after our red setter, Jemma, while we were on holiday. This was a real friendship – not just a casual showbiz relationship. I had met Paddy through David Whiting, whose mother Muriel, Lady Dowding (wife of Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding of Battle of Britain fame), had founded Beauty Without Cruelty, an organisation dedicated to eliminating animal suffering in the cosmetics industry and banning the use of fur coats. Whiting, Lord Dowding’s step-son, had been a key figure in a documentary I made about animal cruelty for Southern Television.
Paddy, the most warm-hearted and delightful woman you could wish to meet, had bravely ventured onto the ice floes off Newfoundland to try to publicise the annual slaughter of Canadian seals. I wrote about this for the Evening Standard Londoner’s Diary, and Paddy and I became friends as a result. Soon I was receiving Christmas cards from ‘Spike, Paddy and family’, although I could see that they were written by Paddy. (Later, Spike used to sign the latest copies of his books for me, so I got to know the difference in their hand-writing.)
By the time Paddy died, she had shared with me some of the hilarious anecdotes that inevitably permeated life with Spike, both before and after their marriage. It was these stories – quirky, delightful and above all harmless – that I wanted to mention to Spike so that I could prepare him for their publication, very conscious of the fact that they would appear in print in a Sunday newspaper when he would barely have had time to begin to register the full trauma of his wife’s death. But at least Spike understood that news was news, and waited for no man nor woman. But although – and because – I felt close to Spike by then, how could I possibly pick up the phone and confront him with such material, touching though it undoubtedly was, at such an awful time?
But I had plucked up the courage to do so, and had all ‘my’ material, passed on to me by Paddy, ready to read to him. And yet I worried that some of what Paddy had told me – however amusing and innocuous – might also be a touch too personal, and could easily prompt Milligan to tears. Like stories from their courtship – if you can call Spike’s crazy one-man mission to marry her a courtship: after meeting her on a film set at Elstree, he insisted on dinner, and told her even before they’d finished the first course: ‘Miss Ridgeway, one year from tonight we’ll be married.’
He had followed this up with endless phone calls.
‘I’m lying in the middle of the road and I could be run over at any moment,’ had been one opening gambit.
‘I’ve just tried to throw myself under a bus. And if you don’t marry me, I’ll do it again.’ Paddy had smiled and replied, in her beautiful singer’s voice: ‘Spike, if you’re lying in the middle of the road, how is it that you’ve managed to get to a phone?’ (There were, of course, no mobile phones back then.) After a brief pause, Spike had said: ‘Well I’m near the side of the road, and I just managed to get my arm into a phone box.’
Spike wouldn’t take no for an answer, but Paddy told him to go away for six months, saying that if he still felt the same after not seeing her for all that time, she would think about it.
‘The next six months were crazy,’ Paddy had told me. ‘He never stopped ringing me and writing letters. He kept saying he couldn’t wait. But I made him. He used to ring up and say if I didn’t marry him he’d go to bed with Hilda from Cheam. Finally, six months to the day, he turned up on my doorstep at dawn, white-faced, and asked for my answer. Well – you know what it was.’
Before I had a chance to remind Spike about those early days, and to see whether he was happy with my writing about them, he had started his torrent of anguish. I was completely unprepared for such an emotional outburst. What he said to me on the phone that February evening in 1978 soon eclipsed the material I initially had in mind to write about.
Spike focused on his daughter Jane, then 11, and the only one of his children he had with Paddy. The night after Paddy’s death, Jane had hosted a dinner for all the family in her mother’s favourite restaurant. One seat was left empty.
‘We drank a toast’ said Spike. ‘To Mummy.
‘Jane is being magnificent. That’s because she’s bloody brave. Like her Mum. After Paddy died, I said to the family: Right. Let’s not mope around. Let’s go out and have some dinner. Jane was so close to my wife that I let her choose where to go. She knew where Paddy liked to eat. I let her choose the food too.’
Jane had had no idea her mother was dying until almost the last moment. ‘Some people thought I should tell her sooner,’ said Spike. ‘But I think my timing was perfect. Jane didn’t know until the evening it happened. I never want to have to do anything like that again. It was appalling. Jane rushed into her mother’s bedroom and kept crying out: I love you Mummy, I love you. And Paddy said: I love you too darling. They were about the last words she spoke. Jane went to bed that night cuddling the teddy bear that Paddy had as a little girl.’
Even Paddy herself didn’t know she was dying until five days before it happened. ‘Our doctor was marvellous, and kept it from her,’ said Spike. ‘She never suspected it was as bad as it was.’
Indeed, just days before she died, Paddy herself had told me: ‘I’m not going to lose this battle, don’t worry.’ Tragically, she did, but what a fight.
‘I knew she was dying,’ Spike told me in that dramatic phone conversation. ‘I could see it. She was gradually getting worse. But I told her she was going to recover. Then she asked someone outside the family whether she was dying. Apparently this person let it slip that she was. I went bonkers when I heard about it. Paddy seemed to lose a lot of hope. Five days later she was dead.
‘She had refused painkillers because she believed passionately that anything which had been tested on animals was bad,’ said Spike. ‘She was very strongly against experiments on animals. She was so bloody brave: in such pain, I couldn’t bear to watch. I kept breaking down in her room, so eventually I couldn’t be with her when she was in pain, because seeing me cry only made things worse for her. In the end I lied to her. I put painkillers in her food without telling her.
‘Paddy will be buried near our home, so we’ll be able to visit her there. I like to think of her going back to the earth, and not being cremated. I planted a cherry tree outside her room, and I’d hoped she might last at least until spring. I hoped she might live to see the blossom.’
My phone conversation with Spike was billed as ‘the year’s most moving interview’ in the Sunday People. It goes without saying, I hope, that he was not paid a penny for it. Yet soon after it was published, Spike was accused of ‘selling his wife’s story while she was still warm in the grave’. I found it hard to believe that anyone could be so insensitive as to jump to such a conclusion.
Almost ten years later Spike and I eventually fell out badly over another interview (a saga in which I have always felt almost as misjudged by him as he was by the man who thought he had been paid for the interview about Paddy). Until then Spike was almost always good company and generous in his dealings with me.
After we fell out, we never spoke again – or at least when we did, he wasn’t aware that it was me on the phone. But that’s another story.