William Topaz McGonagall (Spike Milligan) was a Scottish weaver in Victorian Britain who decided to give up his profession to serve the muse of poetry. He became renowned as the worst poet of all time, but his ambition was never dampened and he continued to write regardless, convinced of his worth. One night, as he sat reading a newspaper in the Theatre Royal, Dundee, Queen Victoria (Peter Sellers) and Prince Albert (Julian Chagrin) were in attendance, and McGonagall prevented her majesty being assassinated. From then on, he devoted his work to her, but was only met with ridicule until the day he died.
If you're looking to learn something about the world's worst poet, then this film, written by Milligan and the director Joe McGrath, is not really the point to start. Taking place almost entirely in a theatre, it resembles a kind of amateur night that staggers haphazardly from one scene to the next, and the grotty, murky look of the film does nothing to dispel that impression. Obviously low budget, it's like a bizarre vanity project for Milligan, and includes many of the obsessions that would appear on his Q television series, such as Scotsmen in kilts, Adolf Hitler, custard pies in the face and false noses. Is it funny? It's certainly strange.
The film opens with Milligan tied to his chair in front of his dressing room mirror, being ludicrously made up by co-star Peter Sellers. From this you can guess this will be no ordinary biography, and more a showcase for its star's particular brand of nonsense humour. Then we see the rest of the cast being made up, and a group of extras being ushered into the auditorium of the theatre to serve as the audience. Sellers is more of a guest star, turning up at the beginning and disappearing for about an hour; in the meantime we see episodes from McGonagall's life and how he attained his legendary status - his actual poetry is used, although not so much that you get a sense of what made him so unique, as Milligan's delivery is unclear.
What seems to have attracted Milligan to the man was the opportunity to dress up as a Scotsman and play the misunderstood eccentric. Nobody appreciates the poet, not even his wife (Julia Foster) who lovingly tolerates him without providing support, and being unemployed he is unable to pay his debts. For this reason he is sent to prison - for a comedy it positively wallows in the misery of its main character's life - and the film crowbars in yet another irrelevant gag, where McGonagall is biffed by a boxing glove after hearing sweet singing from the next cell, with the result that he hallucinates a naked, dancing dolly bird. If you don't find absurdities like this amusing, you're not going to get on with this film.
Word about McGonagall's inept, would be literature gets around, and he is humoured by the establishment who are really laughing at him behind his back. He is given a forged invitation to meet his beloved Queen Victoria at Balmoral, and trudges his way there on foot; when he gets there he has a fine time being entertained by royalty (Prince Albert looks and acts like Adolf Hitler, of course), and Milligan and Sellers certainly enjoy themselves, but it's all a dream, and back to harsh reality for our hero, who sinks even lower. Utterly self-indulgent, The Great McGonagall will leave most people cold, in fact the person who would appreciate it most is no longer around to enjoy it, but a few laughs do emerge for those with the patience for its weird line in jokes. At any point it threatens to fall apart, and in one scene it does, where Milligan forgets his lines and McGrath intervenes - and this was scripted!