One Question Quiz
Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch: disproportionately popular in New Zealand
Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch: disproportionately popular in New Zealand

BooksOctober 31, 2023

Knickers, knickers, knickers! 50 years with Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch

Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch: disproportionately popular in New Zealand
Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch: disproportionately popular in New Zealand

Accidental Badjellyologist Gemma Gracewood celebrates half a century of silliness in the company of a world-famous-in-New Zealand work of nonsense.

At certain points in your growing-up, something comes along – a song, a story, a joke, a television sketch – that sparks a new wire in your brain and sets your sense of humour on its path. “Influences,” we call them. But it’s more than that: it’s life-changing creative permission. 

The stop-motion scare of Large Marge in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The witty wordplay in The Phantom Tollbooth. The breakfast machine in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Turkeys in gumboots on Country Calendar and farting corgis in The BFG. The glorious mayhem of constantly falling asleep on the job (“Wake up, Jeff!”) – or waking up to find yourself wearing The Wrong Trousers. Friends in disguise, like a tiger buddy nobody else can see, or (spoiler alert) loveable furry spaghetti-armed Grover at the end of the fourth-wall-breaking book.

For many New Zealand families like mine, one of the undeniable permission-givers was Spike Milligan, with a story he made up at the end of his children’s beds, then published in 1973 in his own handwriting, mistakes and all. With Badjelly the Witch came the possibility of the existence of a place called Bare-Bottom Land. A worm that sports a swimsuit and an eagle that wears pyjamas. A tree that grows big enough for them all to fit inside. The sheer naughtiness of shouting “Stinky poo! Stinky poo! Knickers, knickers, knickers!”

One of Spike Milligan’s illustrations, courtesy of Penguin NZ

A lifelong gratitude for this silliness meant that, four years and a whole pandemic ago, I accidentally became a “Badjellyologist”, writing a complete history of how and why Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch became world famous in Aotearoa and practically nowhere else. 

What was supposed to be a quick essay about the tale’s unusual popularity down under instead took a year and many long and hilarious phone calls as I uncovered illuminating tidbits about an out-loud story that became an illustrated book, then a beloved recording, and, eventually, New Zealand’s most-requested radio play, most-licensed theatrical production and constant bookshop bestseller.

And, as I write, Penguin NZ has just published yet another edition, in pumpkin-bright orange and Dulboot-hair purple, just in time for Badjelly’s Hallowe’en half-century.

The Badjelly Chronicles, my mini-opus-magnum about Milligan’s accidental classic and its eternal antipodean afterlife, was published in five parts in March 2020 on the wonderful local children’s books website, The Sapling. In what was either terrible or perfectly marvellous timing, chapter one went up on the Sunday of the week that New Zealand first went into lockdown, with the final chapter going live on the first day of Alert Level 4. It was getting very dark and night-time, indeed. 

What I wouldn’t have given to be quarantined with Tim and Rose and their fisherman father and trombone-playing, bread-baking Mum, Pom Pom the piano-playing dog, Fluffybum the cat and Lucy the Cow, while the horridable virus did its worst. But at least we had the story itself to get us through. 

I barely remember much more than sobbing on the steps of my then-three-year-old son’s terrific preschool as I gathered his things, having been instructed by our doctor to go home, stay home, while trying to figure out how to get my husband and stepson on the next plane out of New York and into Tāmaki Makaurau before the borders closed. In the weeks that followed, we were all so panicked, weirded out and tightly focused on the daily 1pm press conference that I suspect my story might have passed even the most ardent Badjelly fans by. 

So this is a shameless plea, on the 50th birthday of the wickedest witch in all the world, to pick up where we left off and learn about how a little-known children’s book – about two ordinary siblings, a quest for a lost cow, and the freaky friends they make along the way – became a huge hit on our side of the world thanks to dedicated children’s broadcasters and bookshop owners. 

My five-parter is also a tale about Spike, the brilliant, kind, bipolar, often depressed, ice-cream-loving, Hitler-hating comedy mastermind behind it. And about his children, who loved him even though they had to share him, and who now have the keys to his legacy. “Dad would entertain us with his magical, fantastical and very funny bedtime stories,” sisters Jane and Silé write in the foreword to the new edition. “They were thrilling, edge-of-your-seat stories… We could get involved in the story telling if we wanted to, or simply lie there, hanging on his every golden word.” 

“My piece of gold”: that’s how broadcaster Dick Weir, of Sunday Morning ZB radio fame (and later co-host of RNZ National’s Sunday “Ears” show), described Spike’s tale, which Milligan made into a musical version with composer Ed Welch providing a brilliant balance between the bright Tim-and-Rose theme, and the terrifyingly thunderous Badjelly refrain. Fun fact: Welch, of Thomas the Tank Engine theme-tune glory, did the tin lion’s “roar roar, squeak squeak” bit on the recording because Milligan couldn’t reach that high. (This is after young Ed got the job in the first place because he nicked Spike’s address from his boss’s desk and wrote himself a bold letter of introduction.)

Ed Welch and Spike Milligan during the recording of Badjelly the Witch in 1974. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s funny though – and a bit odd – that generations of us feel so connected to a story involving such fruitily English motifs as household cows and apple-tree-policemen, when we have our own excellent literary witches right here: in the cherry tree, in Mahuika’s fiery fingernails, in Juniper’s spunky nerdery. 

But here’s the secret power of Badjelly the Witch: the recording has long been a stealthy way for our broadcasters and publishers to deliver more local literature and music to New Zealand children’s ears and eyes. The familiar story, played every other week, would keep kids tuned in and then Weir would follow it up with Patricia Grace or Lynley Dodd readings he’d produced. Before they knew it, they had local icons of their own.

It’s been the same story for the 95bFM Kids’ Show, which still runs from 7am to 9am on Sundays. A decade or so ago the hosts had to start keeping track of Badjelly spins, lest it take up 23 minutes of every show. A quick snoop through the 2023 playlists reveals they’ve played Badjelly six times this year already (and probably seven by the time you read this). 

A Badjelly air-play diary kept by former 95bFM Kids’ Show host Finn McCahon-Jones.

Badjelly performs the same role for alt-kids and their families: come for Mudwiggle, Binklebonk, Dinglemouse and Jim the beautiful Eagle who was “nearly as strong as God”; stay for songs by Levity Beet, Anika Moa, Little LIPS, Moe and Friends, Captain Festus McBoyle and all the hits from Kiri & Lou. 

Which is only right, since so many of our best comedians, musicians and artists list Badjelly among their inspirations. Her broomstick still flies high across Aotearoa skies, inspiring ever more local creativity: Auckland-based animation house Mukpuddy are beavering away at a long-planned, 13-part, 2D series based on her royal badness. 

Meanwhile over in London, where the story remains an obscure curiosity, the Milligan family continue to discover ever more hidden treasures in their dad’s archives. A recent UK documentary reveals many unpublished children’s stories and unmade musicals, including a Christmas treat titled “Joseph, I’m Having a Baby”. One ticket please!

So, happy 50th birthday Badjelly. From one menopausal witch to another, thanks for giving me permission to scream. May you live unhappily ever after, until the next time

The special 5oth anniversary hardback edition of Badjelly the Witch by Spike Milligan ($28, Penguin NZ) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Alannah O’Sullivan’s adaptation is being performed by New Plymouth Repertory Society until November 4 – tickets here.

Keep going!