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.
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.
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.
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?’.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 https://centrepoint.org.uk
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.