'I shall remember the flowers and the laughter: that's not such a bad legacy'

NORMA Farnes sits with a cup of tea in her conservatory overlooking the Esk Valley which today is dressed in all its golden, autumnal glory.

The tranquillity of this sheltered enclave deep in the North York Moors is far removed from her life in London, where she spent the bulk of her career working for one of the most revered comic writers of the 20th-century.

For 36 years, Norma was Spike Milligan's PA, during which time she became his close friend, travelled the world with him and witnessed the ups and downs of the mercurial genius behind The Goon Show.

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Since Spike's death from kidney failure in 2002, Farnes has written affectionately about the man who Eddie Izzard once called "our first comic philosopher". In her latest book, Memories of Milligan, she gathered an array of personal memories from his friends and fellow performers and comedians, that captures another side to his madcap public persona.

Some, like Eric Sykes, who had written with Spike since the 1950s, and George Martin, his best man, had known him for decades, while others such as Barry Humphries, Stephen Fry and Michael Palin had worked only briefly alongside him. Farnes says Spike was particularly fond of Joanna Lumley with whom he shared a passion for animal welfare. "He thought Joanna was a true human being. He used to send her telegrams saying, 'Will you marry me?' Which I loved, because they had such good times together."

Lumley was also the one person who told Norma a story about Spike she hadn't heard before.

"At the end of the interviews, I asked everyone if they had a favourite story even though I'd heard of them all before and Joanna said even though she'd known him for so long she couldn't think of anything. But just as she got to the door of my office, she stopped and said she remembered going for lunch with a journalist about 20 years ago who had interviewed Spike the day before. He told Joanna that he'd asked Spike what would be his death-bed wish? And he'd replied, 'A full moon and Joanna Lumley'. Now I'd never heard that story before and as she left my office she said, 'Yes, I suppose it is a nice compliment, I think I'll have it tattooed on my heart'."

As someone who suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, Spike was prone to bouts of depression and possessed a cruel streak that even his friends weren't immune from. But Norma found that many of those she spoke to didn't dwell on the darker side of his personality.

"I interviewed Alan Bell, who had produced and directed some of the Q series, and I knew there'd been trouble on that. He said 'Yes, we had our ups and downs,' but what he really remembered was doing a late night film shoot by a river and after they finished Spike saying, 'Let's go skinny dipping'. So the whole crew went skinny dipping, the police turned up and one of the officers turned round to Spike and said, 'Oh, it's you.' People didn't really remember the mood swings and depressions, they just remembered the laughter," she says. But not everyone eulogised about Spike and Norma didn't shy away from his critics.

"I chose Jonathan Miller because he directed Spike in Alice in Wonderland and I knew he didn't like him. I wrote to everybody and he rang me the next day and said, 'You do know that I didn't like Spike Milligan, don't you?' I said 'well I didn't half the time' and he laughed, and although he didn't like him he said he felt his work was as important as The Pickwick Papers."

Norma first met Spike in 1966 after responding to a newspaper advertisement asking for a PA to a showbiz personality.

"I remember he had a tiny room at the back of this beautiful Edwardian building. It was January and it was very cold and all the windows were open and he was feeding the birds. The first thing I said was, 'My God, it's freezing in here' and he pointed to the radiator and said 'Yes, I don't like the Americans'.

"I thought he was a loony and I was about to tell him it was the Romans who invented it, but then he said, 'You've got legs just like Olive Oil. I wonder who would want to make love to an elastic band?' I thought, 'You cheeky sod' and I replied, 'Another elastic band.' And he said, 'Right, you'll do for me,' and that was the end of the interview. The job was only supposed to be for a few months and here I am 40 years later talking about him to the Yorkshire Post."

Despite his anarchic attitude, he was, Norma insists, a stickler for punctuality. "He was a pro and if he was supposed to be somewhere at 8 o'clock he would be there. That's not the Spike Milligan persona, but that's how he was, he was very disciplined. I remember on one occasion we were in a studio and I warned them not to keep him waiting, but because they had him in the studio they assumed he wouldn't go. I was with him in his dressing room and this boy came along and said, 'Five minutes Mr Milligan.'

But five minutes became 10 minutes and then Spike said, 'Right, the show's running them rather than them running the show, I'm off.' And the young boy said, 'You can't do that' and he said, 'You bloody watch me,' and off he went."

There were times when he could test the patience of a saint. "I think Michael Palin was right when he said Spike didn't know how to pretend to be nice. He didn't have that final layer of skin that the rest of us have, where you want to tell someone where they can go but you don't. His one saving grace was his compassion and I think people saw that. He could be as strong as 10 wild horses but he was also very vulnerable and people could see that vulnerability."

He cared about the planet and he was, she says, a true friend. "Whether it was helping animals or saving the rain forest Spike wanted to help, and in my personal life he was always there when I needed him and he never let me down."

Towards the end of his life, his body started to fail, but he lost none of his irreverent humour. "Spike's life was music and I think, possibly, he was at his happiest when he was playing his trumpet. Everyday in the office when he was writing he'd have classical music on in the morning and jazz in the afternoon.

"When he went into hospital one of the nurses asked him what his favourite piece of music was and he said, 'Right now, the f****** funeral march', and that was about a month before he died."

Today, Spike is hailed as a comic writing genius who brought laughter into millions of people's homes and this, ultimately, will be his legacy. "I interviewed the director Dick Lester and afterwards he asked me what I remembered most about Spike and without hesitation I said, 'The flowers and the laughter,' and I realised I was as bad as everybody else. I didn't remember the phone going through the window or anything like that, it was the flowers and the laughter – and that's not a bad legacy."

Memories of Milligan, by Norma Farnes, published by Fourth Estate, priced 20 is available to buy through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. P&P is 2.75.