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'Spike was the most wonderful, kind dad you could wish for'

By Maureen Coleman

As she prepares to appear in new play Tinseltown at Newtownabbey's Theatre at the Mill, the legendary comedian's daughter Jane Milligan discusses her unconventional childhood.

As the daughter of a comedy genius and a musical theatre actor, it's not surprising that Jane Milligan ended up on the stage. According to her mother Paddy Ridgeway, second wife of the iconic Spike Milligan, the young Jane could sing before she could talk.

But Paddy's death from cancer when Jane was just 12 years of age shattered her confidence and left her feeling too vulnerable to apply to drama school when the time came to choose a career.

"She would have been a real guide into my education had she lived, but I was without that guidance so my life took a different path," she explains, as we meet for a chat at Cooke Presbyterian Church Hall in Belfast, where the 48-year-old actress is in rehearsals for a new play, Tinseltown.

"I was at a time in my life when I really needed a mum. I remember when I was about 16 or 17, looking at a prospectus for drama school, but being concerned that I was at a point in my development when it would have been too difficult to go.

"In the 1980s, drama schools like to rebuild you, start you all over again and I was far too vulnerable to be rebuilt by people I didn't know."

Having a famous father also influenced her decision not to apply to drama school.

"I think people have preconceived ideas about the children of famous people," she says. "I have been affected by that at times in my life, just people having their own made up ideas about me. And at the time, I was still grieving for my mum and didn't have a lot of confidence in the first place."

But anyone making assumptions about Jane enjoying a celebrity lifestyle growing up couldn't have been more wrong.

"My dad was such an unstarry man," she says. "He wasn't actually a great one for having people round."

But what about the legendary tales of late night poetry sessions at the Milligan home, attended by Prince Charles, or sing-songs with Dusty Springfield?

"Well, yes, he did have a select group of lovely friends round, that's true, but he wasn't a great party man," she says.

"Prince Charles did come to our house. I met him a few times, he's a lovely man. And Dusty was there, too, but I think that might have been before my time.

"In fact, I have a lovely letter from Dusty that she wrote to my mum. But for the most part, Spike wasn't really that sociable."

What he was though, she says, was a wonderful, loving father, who was very much "hands-on" during her upbringing. Even during his darkest moments, when he succumbed to regular bouts of depression which saw him take to his bed, he never closed the door on his children.

Jane was the youngest of four when her mum lost her battle with cancer. Milligan's eldest three, Laura, Sean and Sile, had been born to his first wife, June Marlow, whom he divorced in 1960. The comedian, actor and writer was given full custody of the three children, who were aged nine, six and four at the time.

A few years later he fell in love with and married Jane's mum Paddy (Patricia) after meeting her on the set of a Second World War comedy, Invasion Quartet. Then Jane came along. Paddy's death hit The Goons' creator hard. Jane has previously said of that time, "It was like a nuclear bomb exploded in our family".

But, despite his black moods and regular retreats into depression, he still managed to provide his children with a safe, loving environment.

Spike was wonderful," she says. "He had always had an office in London, it's still there, but when Paddy died he told me that he would start working from home.

"The office was only 10 miles from our house, but he felt I needed a parent at home. Sometimes, when he went on tour, he would take me with him.

"He was a very hands-on father. We had a wonderful relationship, just wonderful, that's all I can say.

"He was the most loving father and I love him and miss him terribly, but I am very lucky in that I can pull a book off a shelf or look him up on YouTube. There is a wealth of material there at my fingertips.

"I loved him so much and I feel very privileged to have that bank of material on hand to go to when I feel like I'm missing him.

"Of course, it's not quite the same as being able to sit in his company, having a cup of tea with him. Nothing can beat that."

Milligan's manic depression has been well-documented down the years, but Jane says his illness was reported inaccurately much of the time.

"Basically, he was depressed on and off throughout my whole life, but never once did he shut the door to me or any of his children," she says. "It was going on in my house so I was aware of it, of course, but I wasn't afraid and he never shut me out."

Even when Milligan revealed to his daughter than he had fathered two other children following two separate affairs, Jane's adoration didn't falter.

In 1976, a son, James, was born, the result of a fling with Margaret Maughan. Around the same time, a daughter, Romany, was born to a Canadian journalist called Roberta Watt. Despite the unorthodox set-up of the family, Jane says she was happy to meet both her siblings.

"I know both of them," she says, matter-of-factly. "James was born after me, not in our family home, and then Romany. James came and saw me when I was in Mamma Mia! in the West End."

Having decided not to follow the drama school route in her teens, Jane opted instead to get a job in theatre, selling tickets. The front of house manager at the theatre where she worked told her that a young, up and coming producer, Cameron Mackintosh, was looking for a runner (Mackintosh has since produced some of the biggest shows in the West End, including Les Miserables, Cats and Phantom of the Opera). Jane went along for the interview, got the job and worked as a runner for a year, before progressing to dresser, stage manager and, finally, sound engineer.

When Phantom of the Opera opened, she was working as the number two sound engineer at just 19 years of age. She was then promoted to number one and was still only 21 when she left the show.

"I was always a musician, I always sung, so I went for a job in sound because it was similar to music," she says. "Dad came and saw the shows I was working in and loved them."

After leaving Phantom, Jane got a job as sound engineer for a new show, Return To The Forbidden Planet. When the leading lady fell ill, Jane was asked to step in and jumped at the chance.

"So that was my bizarre journey into theatre," she laughs. "And I've been acting ever since, for 23 years. I guess it's fair to say, given my background, that I was born to do this."

Around 20 years ago, Jane, who lives in London with her partner, Wendy, found herself starring opposite a northern Irish man, Paul Boyd, in a musical called In The Midnight Hour. The pair became friends and kept in touch over the years.

Paul, who has written up to 25 shows, produced a stage show of Puckoon, based on Spike Milligan's first novel, and the Big Telly Theatre Company production toured Ireland several times.

In 2012, the pair teamed up again in a Lyric Theatre production of Hansel and Gretel, with Jane playing the role of the witch.

This year, they are working together again in Paul's new show, Tinseltown, which will run at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey from December 1 to December 13. It's a fantasy comedy musical, starring a mainly local cast, but with Jane, once again, playing a witch.

"She's actually the sister of the witch I played in Hansel and Gretel," she says. "She's probably based on me. I was scheduled to do another show this Christmas, but then Paul said he'd write me into his new musical and so I agreed to do Tinseltown.

"Paul's a very clever man, very understated, and because he's a big fan of my dad's, there are aspects of Spike's humour woven through this show. He has a very highly developed sense of humour and my dad would have loved him."

Jane's paternal grandfather, Captain Leo Alfonso Milligan, was born in Sligo, but moved with his family to London, then India, where Spike was born.

Spike held an Irish passport and, when he died in February 2002, his coffin was draped in the Irish tricolour. After much to-ing and fro-ing over his headstone, the epitaph "I told you I was ill" was inscribed in Irish, reminding mourners of Milligan's sharp wit.

Jane says: "Spike was very proud of his Irish heritage, very very proud. He died an Irishman, died with the flag on his coffin. He sent off for a British passport, but they asked for all these forms to be filled in.

"He pointed out that he'd fought in the war for them and written The Goons, so he went and rang the Irish passport people instead. They were delighted to have him so he died an Irishman.

"He loved coming to Ireland and I do as well. I love Belfast, I have to admit, it feels a little bit like coming home. It's the people who make it, I love the craic, but it's the people who make the craic, of course."

Does she consider herself Irish?

"Well I have a very Irish surname," she says. "I mean, it's not Smith, or Jones, or Brown. So every time I say my name, or see it written down, I'm reminded of that.

"My middle name is Finnuola. When I was born, my dad wanted me to be called Siobhan, but mum insisted on a nice, simple name, no shenanigans! But dad got his own way with my middle name.

"I was in Sligo last week and I saw a teashop with my name above the door. I'd never seen it before. I just thought my name was spelt wrong, but that's how it's spelt on my passport. Mind you, dad might have just made it up."

Jane was in Sligo to talk about organising a comedy festival in her father's name, to be held next year in April, coinciding with his birthday.

It's only the second time she has visited Sligo; the first being 10 years ago when she was shooting the film I Told You I Was Ill.

Twelve years on from his death, Spike Milligan still plays a huge role in his daughter's life. She lights up when she talks about him and says she still feels his presence around her.

"I suppose I don't understand life without my dad in it in some form," she says. "It's just part of my DNA, the way I look at life.

"I've definitely been influenced by him. I'd like to think I've inherited his compassion, his musicality and his sense of humour, but mostly his compassion. He had a very compassionate take on life.

"In fact, we all could all do with sharing his unique take on life."

  • Tinseltown runs at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, from December 1-13. To book tickets tel: 028 9034 0202, or visit theatreatthemill.com

Tinseltown is a real gift for Christmas

Tinseltown is a fantasy adventure with a Christmas theme, written and directed by Paul Boyd.

Starring Jane Milligan, Rhiannon Chesterman, Conleth Kane, Christopher Finn, Nuala McKeever and Richard Croxford, it tells of a top-secret community established centuries ago by Santa Claus, where everything that is needed for Christmas is designed and made.

The adventure begins when a child from the real world uncovers a secret pathway and stumbles into the heart of this secret village; unwittingly awakening an opportunity for a dark force to bring the Christmas celebrations grinding to a halt once and for all.

The show is being choreographed by Sarah Johnston, while the musical director is Matthew Reeve, who also worked on the recent Cabaret show at The Mac.

Tinseltown is suitable for adults and slightly older children. Jane plays the evil witch Foofaleena in the musical, whose sole ambition is to cancel Christmas.

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