architecture, Folly

Spike Milligan: ‘Follies of the Wise’

As the festive season approached in 1970, families would have pored over the special edition of the Radio Times to see what treats the three television channels could offer. If on New Year’s Eve had they walked across the room to warm up the set, and twiddled the knob to find BBC One, they would have seen a programme called Follies of the Wise presented by Spike Milligan. The writer, actor and comedian toured Britain looking at follies: ‘strange monuments to our ancestors and their passions’. It must have reached a good audience, broadcast at 6.45pm and sandwiched between Nationwide and The Andy Williams Show.

Spike Milligan by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 30 September 1969 NPG x165643 ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

The programme starts with Milligan on the roof of St Peter & St Paul in Ormskirk, Lancashire. Legend has it that two sisters were unable to decide whether the church should have a tower or a spire, so eventually they built both – it is complete nonsense as the tower and spire were built a century apart, but Milligan liked the tale and composed a limerick which he recited from the rooftop:

A lady in Lancs said a spire
Is what every church must require
But her sis with a glower
Said ‘A church needs a tower’
So they built one with both … and it’s dire.

Ormskirk church with both tower and spire.

Milligan then enjoys creating a glorious gallimaufry of characters, real and imagined, to tell the story of folly building, or ‘littering great lumps around the countryside for us to contemplate’, as he calls it. The programme budget must have been generous, as in England Milligan filmed follies as far apart as Somerset and Yorkshire. In Wales he acted out the history of Paxton’s Tower, and in Scotland he visited the monument on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, McCaig’s Tower in Oban and the Pineapple at Dunmore.

The Pineapple at Dunmore in Stirlingshire.

At Dunmore a Scotsman (Milligan in the style of Fyfe Robertson) interviews the Earl of Dunmore (Milligan) and asks the question in the minds of all who see the structure: ‘why a pineapple?’. After a pause the earl splutters… ‘well, why not?’.

Jack the Treacle Eater at Barwick Park in Somerset.

In Somerset, Milligan became Jack the Treacle Eater, the mythical messenger who climbs down from atop his monument to fortify himself with treacle before running great distances to carry news. Milligan is seen scampering up and down the rocky base to the little turret having gorged on a mug of treacle.

Sir Thomas Tresham’s triangular tower at Rushton in Northamptonshire.

At the Triangular Tower in Northamptonshire Milligan becomes the ghost of Sir Thomas Tresham, and at Dunstan Pillar in Lincolnshire and West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire he plays a troubled Sir Francis Dashwood on the psychiatrist’s couch. In Yorkshire he appears at the top of Wainhouse Tower as the eponymous builder of the huge chimney. And many more follies are visited with the creation of many more characters – the Flâneuse lost count when she reached 36 costume changes.

Wainhouse Tower, Halifax.

As one TV critic commented at the time (probably quoting a BBC press-release), ‘Spike’s explanation of why they were built may sometimes be more entertaining than plausible’. Actually, he doesn’t take too many liberties with the truth until he reaches Old John tower in Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.

Old John in Bradgate Park (see also top image).

Here his imagination runs riot, and in the character of a colourful local he tells a gullible American tourist (also Milligan) that the tower is used for ‘fish squirting’, ‘knee-crushing’ and ‘owl riveting’ and also as a ‘nun refinery’. The reviewer for the Leicester Daily Mercury thought the programme ‘delightful’ even though an ‘odd explanation’ was given of the history of the Leicestershire landmark. This is something of an understatement, and in fact a look at the original shooting script reveals that Milligan ad libbed this wacky description.

Bringing things right up-to-date Milligan featured Centre Point, the new 34 storey tower on London’s New Oxford Street. Milligan felt it was a folly as it had cost a fortune, but had stood vacant for some years after completion. The developer was insistent that it should be let to a single tenant, and he could afford for it to sit empty until he achieved this goal. Campaigners thought it would be better used to provide temporary accommodation for London’s homeless: Centrepoint, the charity which supports homeless young people, was named after this cause célèbre. 

Milligan (left) as a ‘Hippie’ in a publicity shot sent out by the BBC and featured in the Leicester Mercury in December 1970.

Milligan ended the broadcast outside the building dressed as what the BBC called a ‘Hippie’ and singing The Tombs they are a-changing – an adaptation of Bob Dylan’s hit with lyrics about the follies he has visited.

Centre Point. No longer offices, the tower has been converted to create 82 apartments.

Follies of the Wise was repeated in 1971 and 1972 before disappearing into the BBC archives. The Folly Flâneuse was lucky enough to see the very grainy (hence no stills featured here), and very zany, film.

Follies of the Wise was written by Sandy Brown and Martin Pawley after an original idea by R.G.Payne, and was directed by Jim Franklin. The Costume Designer, Barbara Lane, is to be commended for providing Milligan with outfits for his many characters.

The Folly Flâneuse has made a donation to Centrepoint in recognition of the help she received with this post

A fellow folly fan remembers racing off to visit Jack the Treacle Eater in Somerset after seeing it in Milligan’s broadcast. Does anyone else remember watching? Please scroll down to the comments box to share any thoughts. Thank you for reading.




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25 thoughts on “Spike Milligan: ‘Follies of the Wise’”

  1. Gand says:

    Presumably that programme and subsequent repeats created a spike in the interest in follies.

    1. Rosemary Hill says:

      HO HO HO!

      1. Editor says:

        Indeed! We all need some Festive Fun 🎄 🥧 🦌 🤶

    2. Editor says:

      Good morning Gand and apologies for the late response – I have only just spotted that my reply to you was not published so I am starting again. Keep the puns coming in 2024.

  2. Chris Beevers says:

    What a fun and fascinating festive offering from the Folly Flaneuse. Really enjoyed it. Thank you for all the postings throughout the year, and for sharing your impeccable research and expertise in such an engaging way. Merry Christmas!

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Chris. Very pleased to hear that you enjoyed this post – the research was great fun, including a trip to the BBC Written Archives centre where the original script was filed in between Blue Peter and Jackanory. A nostalgia trip! Merry Christmas to you too.

      1. Jocelyn Hattersley says:

        I really enjoyed this post, and I would love to see the BBC program. I suspect there is no way of doing that, but please send congratulations to everyone involved in researching it and going to the BBC to find it in the archives between Jackanory and Blue Peter!
        I am an avid watcher of Talking pictures TV and have alerted them also to that program, they are very busy researching all sorts of wonderful old programs and series and did mention that sometimes it’s very difficult to get hold of programs due to copyright and other restrictions.

        Thank you for the continuing enjoyment of these weekly Folly Flaneuse. I look forward every Saturday morning to seeing the new one I would love to do a Tour of Folly’s wouldn’t that be amazing !
        Jocelyn Hattersley

        1. Editor says:

          Good afternoon Jocelyn. My whole life is a tour of follies it seems and it is always great to hear from readers who enjoy my weekly ramblings. I was very privileged to see the programme, but sadly for various reasons it is unlikely to make it onto a TV screen. Thank you for your kind comments.

  3. David Winpenny says:

    I remember the programme well, and I still quote ‘So they built it with both – and it’s dire’ at any opportunity. Its amazing what sticks after half a century!

    Happy Christmas to you, and a folly-filled New Year!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello David and I apologise for not replying sooner. I seem to have had a glitch which stopped some of my responses being sent – so a belated thanks for your comment and I am delighted that you remember the programme. The limerick has stuck in my mind too. Best wishes for the festive season.

      1. David Winpenny says:

        Ah, the folies of electronic communication. Letters used to be something more reliable!

        Happy Christmas to all Follyists!

  4. Colin says:

    Thanks for this lovely Christmas Treat. Wishing You and your family a wonderful festive-time. And we look forward to a fascinating Folly New Year in 2024!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Colin. I am hard at work on posts for 2024 so stay tuned. All best wishes to you too.

  5. John D says:

    Lucky you getting to see the film! It could do with a re-airing, grainy or not. This film was my introduction to follies, but I seem to have forgotten everything except the pineapple; thank you for a lovely and enlightening post. I was interested to see the film was written by messrs Brown and Pawley, both active in architecture; Sandy Brown was an accomplished jazz clarinetist who ran an acoustics consultancy, and Martin Pawley was a prominent architecture critic & editor during the early part of my own time in practice…. Good to discover they had a lighter side.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning John. It is great to learn more about Brown and Pawley – thanks for sharing this extra information. I wonder what they made of Spike wandering off-script at Old John? I was privileged to see the film, and I do hope it can reach a wider audience at some stage.


    Just to let you know I have sent your website to a friend in NY.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Nicholas, that is appreciated.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Alan. I found that sound clip and assumed that no film survived, so it was a great delight to be told the recording was in the archives, albeit in a very grainy form. It would be wonderful if the BBC could put it on iPlayer one day.

  7. Julia Abel Smith says:

    Why not indeed? Everyone should have a Pineapple folly!
    Thank you for sharing the clip Alan.

    Very happy Christmas FF

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia. I have ‘a pineapple folly’ at the top of my Christmas list!

  8. ann Petherick says:

    Never mind iPlayer & YouTube – it should be on mainstream tv !
    Thank you for delighting us with the fruits of your research throughout 2023 & we look forward to more in 2024.
    Best wishes for Christmas

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Ann, and all best wishes for the festive season to you and yours.

  9. Iain Gray says:

    The Folly Flaneuse is today’s “Follies of the Wise” and Gill and I are just as likely to jump in the car and speed off to Yeovil to meet Jack as we did in 1970. The Folly Flaneuse has been one of our greatest delights ever since she first graced our screens. More more more please,, o gracious lady. And happy Christmas to all folly lovers everywhere.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Iain (and Gill) and thanks for the kind words. I certainly have more lined up for 2024 and, as ever, suggestions and ideas are most welcome. Thank you for first introducing me to this Spike Milligan broadcast – I had a great time investigating its history.

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