THE HECKLER, issue 8, February 1992
Recollections of Rawlinson End
Words: Simon Kingsley Pallant Photos: Andy Foster
SInce seeIng Stanshall as Uncle Hubert swallowing whole worms In 'SIr Henry at Rawlinson End' many have wondered what on earth would possess anyone to do such a thing. An intervIew wIth the founder member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band meant we could ask hIm. SImon KIngsley-Pallant jumped on the bus to Muswell Hill to talk to one of the greatest comic minds to come out of this country.
Mr. Stanshall's house seems to be at the top of Muswell Hill, towering high above the smog-ridden inner city. Andy and I heave the impossibly heavy studio equipment up the tiny, unlit staircase to Vivian's lair barely able to squeeze': past the vast range of artifacts; from early Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band days. books, souvenirs of Steve Winwood collaborations, sculptures, Stinkfoot, paintings, memorabilia and musical instruments hanging on the deep green walls. The drawing room is packed too-imagine Merlin having a car boot sale and the two of us plus Vivian cram in. First off we have a cup of tea before taking up the most bizarre interview positions: me sitting ankle deep in Stanshall treasures at one end of the room, Vivian chain smoking at the other, and the photographer sandwiched in between with the lights and the cameras. The room is no bigger than eight feet long. Just as we are all settled Vivian gets up to make the tea, and it is some time before kickoff.
Recently (autumn 1991) Vivian took to the stage again
after an absence of some nine years, at The Bloomsbury Theatre where he
performed a variety of songs in the show 'Rawlinson's Dog Ends'. In the
wake of it's success Vivian has thrown caution to the wind and embarked
on a countrywide tour
'Stretty (the producer] invited me round to his office for a drink. It was my birthday. He cracked open a bottle of champagne and said 'We're going to make a film dear boy.' 21st of March. He liked the record so much that he was playing it to politicians, like the Minister of Sport, and this and that and the other, So he wanted to make this film and said that budget was £250,000. That was it, quite sufficient." He relights his roll up. I ask him why he chose Trevor Howard.
"I didn't. I didn't want him. I wanted Bernard Youens,
who plays Stan Ogden in Coronation Street. I had Henry pictured as Stan
Ogden. That's pretty much how I see Henry. Trevor Howard was brought in
simply because the distributors said that 'unless we have a star , we
can't flog it'. Apart from that and some minor parts I cast the whole
thing myself. He was a really nice bloke-there was none of the actor about
him-he was a blinkin' nice geezer, and even at that age-and I don't think
it had anything to do with celebrity-women were CRAWLING over him. We
used to go to the boozer after the shoot, of course, he had groupies,
middle aged ones. He was a hell of a bloke. If I'd been well enough at
the time I'd have taken over the direction myself. As it was I took out
a penknife at the preview and tried to stab the director. But my American
wife, at that time, knew what I was doing. It took me such along time
to get the penknife out, 'cos I was so pissed and full of pills and nerves,
and fumbled getting it out. But she knew I was going to get him and she
managed to arrest me in time."
"What had he done? [almost hurt by the question] Well he cocked up the narrative, and as soon as he got-God knows how many people involved-he became a megalomaniac, It was ridiculous. So the editors were quitting and phoning me up in tears, literally saying t hat they couldn't carryon. Sol knew that the story was on the cutting room floor, and every other day I would get a phone call saying that '...scene 35 has now jumped to scene 48, we have to explain why' three people are in the room, whom we've not met before - who they are, what they're doing and why, in your own mellifluous. poetic way in 13 seconds.' The consequence of this, of course, was a nervous breakdown for me. The film was hacked to death. I think the cinematography is terrific! and I think there are some wonderful cameo parts. I think old Trevor was bloody good in it. Well, he said s 0 himself in his book-he obviously had a really good time. I know he did. When he first turned up he didn't know who Henry was, he'd no idea at all. He said 'I like the words, I like the script'. All of them came along on the strength of the script. So I had to give him a crash course in xenophobia, brutality, racism, flatulence - in order of things the English hold close to their hearts (Henry is part of myself, which is my father)-in his porta-cabin, for three-quarters of an hour. I wouldn't have been able to do that if he'd put on airs and graces. And been a twat as so many of them are."
In an attempt to explain the nine year absence, I ask about his fallow period. ''I've never had a fallow period. I've simply had frustrating periods where I've been so damn sick I couldn't do anything. I've been producing stuff from the Abyss and it's cost me. You must go to your doctor in tears-you can't go with quip and a grin. He wouldn't take you seriously, would he?The only time l stopped was when I physicaliy couldn't move; even during the agoraphobic period - that was terrible: eating, shitting in the one room. Whatever I had was brought in by a neighbour or a cab. But I had my paints, my tape recorder and as many of my instruments as I could cram in there, so I was making stuff all of the time. And when I've been in hospital,doing things in hospital - in fact being in hospital gives me a terrific lift because I'm away from all of these things-everywhere l look there are instruments saying 'lt's about time you learnt to play that properly, and that properly, and that properly. Why don't you finish that painting? Why don't you finish that sculpture: The whole place is ROARING with demand! I write better playing snooker, or anywhere. I escape to places. I've never understood boredom"
We get to Stinkfoot - an English comic opera the basic
premise of which is the story of the triumph of Good Humour, Growth and
Optimism over Greed, Self-Pity and Pessimism. Stinkfoot was written as
a comic opera in the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition - clean fun which
enlivens the audience. The end result was a delightfully bizarre and original
production which too was staged at The Bloomsbury.
"I was in the process of rebirth, clutching at life, and wrote the bugger [Stinkfoot] in 8 weeks. And got people as bands and people came through the auditions, and people who were completely amateur and needed to be bullied and cajoled. But by the end of it I would write the next scene overnight and come down at nine to direct. and they would already be directing themselves. People, who a couple of months, or six weeks before, had begun their day at 11 o'clock with a spliff and couple of pints, were bollocking each other for being iate. It was really smashing. Very very exciting."
Recently Vivian was included in 'This Fish Is loaded: the book of surreal and bizarre humour' edited by Richard Glyn Jones. (Xanadu Press £12.99). He is embarrassed by his inclusion especially as he is keeping company with works of other writers such as Woody Allen, Guy Apoolinaire, Mervyn Peake, Man Ray (with whom he once worked) Baudelaire and Alfred Jarry. He is happy, but nothing pleases him more than the success of his 'Rawlinsons Dog Ends'. " At the Bloomsbury, I got the house lights turned up. I like to see my audience. This will sound like a contradiction but l like the removal and the fact that one is on stage, but I also like to feel that it's your Uncle Charlie up there, getting up to do something. I like to talk to people, I like them to talk back to me-not to heckle, which would really throw me. It would throw me now. And whilst I'm theatrical in gesture - I've been like this since a child, I'm not theatrical in my approach to what I do, unless it's a set piece and probably then it would be parodic. It's getting better.
"I think the audience were chuffed to see me having a go. I would like to think that I gave them a bit of stuff of some value I don't want to harp on that nor would I wish to - Poor Old sod. A tour's come out, which I've put together myself, and l know I've iost two and a half thousand before I've set out on it. Maybe a record company will come along and save my bacon, I don't want the legacy to my children to be some unfinished paintings arid some adverts for chocolate, for Godssake, I want them to be proud of me. Comeback? I've never been away!"
So, Vivian how does this tour differ from the others you have done? "1'm sober."We all laugh. "The kind of audiences I'm getting at the moment. l don't think it matters a hoot that I'm a bald old geezer - looks and things don't apply in my case. I've put adventurer on my passport." He plans to spend every day doing more and more. I don't exactly know where all the time went but I knew I had so much more to ask him. He's agreed to anolher interview in a couple of months time, which is great because I'II remember to ask him about being Hubert and eating the worms.
"Some years back," the cigar's out now, Vivian is enjoying himself and Andy is firing pictures whilst mesmerised in ecstatic rapture, "a Daily Mail woman phoned me and said: 'We're doing a piece on Sir John Betjemen, and we'd like you to accompany him as the younger generation of English eccentric. Are you still doing it?'. Of course, I played along with this, 'Yes, but only between the hours of 2 and 6pm -cos it's really exhausting, all that dressing up and the spasms.' She was quite serious about it - she understood. They came down and let me be eccentric for a few hours". More laughter. Yes, he's doing it.