What's the Q for?
on march 31th, 1969 something mysterious, bizarre and rather wonderful happend: the BBC aired the very first episode of Q5, a sketch show (well, sort of) co-written and starring Spike Milligna, the well known typing-error. Spike and his co-stars returned for a second series, called Q6in 1975, three years later followed Q7. Q8 was broadcast in 1979, followed by Q9 in 1980. The final series was not called Q10 but There's a lot of it about and saw the light of day in 1982. The shows were written by Spike Milligan and journalist turned screenwriter Neil Shand. The last series also had contributions from David Renwick, Andrew Marshall and John Antrobus.
A Q show consists of several bizarre ideas that take comedy into very weird territory. Sketches include a group of patriotic Welshmen, trying to save their country by eating it, the Eurovision Joke Contest, the electric banana, Star Trek on a licence fee mission, the Irish Atom bomb, the Unemploymethon, an interview with the Queen's Chicken, the Jehova burglars, a trunk containing the first world war, the smallest police station in the world, Owl suicides, Rocket funerals and the annual Grandmother Hurling Contest. Spike also made black and white silent films, complete with piano accompaniment and inserted captions.
All these madcap ideas followed one another in a constant surreal stream. Some skits were often abandoned halfway through, the cast immediately launching into another one or just milling about the set, muttering and gesturing and making silly noises. Other sketches made outrageous leaps from one subject or location to another and often stopped with no apparent conclusion. In this case, the cast simply adressed the audience, muttering What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? Spike himself called the show free form comedy. Indeed, Q seemed like a genuine representation of a fragmented mind. And of course, as a piece of art from someone with a outstanding comic vision.
The sketches were performed in a completely unique visual style, that had never been done before. The sets were often half constructed, performers wore bizarre make-up and costumes that still bore the BBC prop department tags and spoke in silly voices. The show was full of scattered props, characters in blackface, signs, tailor's dummies, boxing gloves, flying creamcakes, ping pong ball eyes, ragged clothing, portable doors and scotsmen with five legs. Herr Hitler also made several appearances (well...it was actually Herr Milligan in disguise.) If Ken Russel had ever directed a sketch show, it certainly would have looked as peculiar and beautiful and visually rich as Q.
The show was so far ahead it's time, that not everybody loved it. A lot of viewers just scratched their heads in total bewilderment, some people were even offended by some of Spike's ideas. Milligan's relationship with the BBC executives was not easy: he always wanted to direct the shows himself, but the executives thought that he needed a strong hand on the tiller. Spike felt that the BBC treated his show with cold attitude and that the boys from Monty Python's Flying Circus were prefered. Long after the Q series had ended, Spike maintained that, given the opportunity, he would have produced more episodes.
Sadly most of Q5 is now wiped. More sadly the series is nearly forgotten because the BBC has never repeated all the shows. so today, most people think that Monty Python had invented this special form of comedy. well, here it was the great Michael Palin told Guardian unlimited about this: Terry Jones and I adored the Q shows, which preceded Python. They were filled with surrealism and invention, and Spike took huge risks. He was the first writer to play with the conventions of television - having all his characters wear their costume name tags on screen, and captions to show the take-home pay of each actor as they appeared. It was glorious stuff. He played with the medium - sending up presenters or leaving gaps in the programme - just as he had in the Goon Show. And Terry Gilliam said that, Spike didn't stop with radio and film...no, he took on the task of deconstructing television comedy as well. Unfortunately, the BBC, in it's wisdom, destroyed the tapes of his shows to make more storage space in their vaults and Python waltzed away with the credit for changing the face of television comedy. But, the truth is that it was Spike Milligan who got there first. Thanks Mssrs. Palin and Gilliam. With the Goon Show Spike had influenced a whole generation, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore amongst them. And the Q series - as important as the Goon Show - opened the door to bizarre visual comedy and again influenced younger comic generations like Reeves & Mortimer.
In 1986 a 90-min Best of Q-Video was released by the BBC. The VHS featured large chunks of Q6, is now long deleted on goes for silly money on ebay. The currently available Best of Spike Milligan-DVD ist actually a re-release of the Comedy Greats: Spike Milligan VHS. A complete DVD set of Q ist not available yet, but most of the shows are on Youtube and you can get them on bootleg discs.