Articles

THE PERFECT SIR HENRY

Recollections on Rawlinson's favourite son

Words: John Hobbs

Whilst a member of the infamous Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band the fertile mind of Vivian Stanshall started to develop the fictional world of the House of Rawlin and the grotesque inhabitants of the Rawlinson family manor. In the perennial favourite song, the Intro and the Outro, on the Bonzo’s first LP, we heard the Rawlinsons on trombone. From small acorns mighty oak trees grow. The saga of this feudal jingoist, and his family grew over two decades from radio and record to film, book, and stage.

The story has been often told, by Vivian and others, that the original inspiration came from introductions to radio plays or articles in women’s magazines in waiting rooms. During the years his ‘now read on dot dot dot dot’ style developed, but Sir H only slowly emerged from the shadow of Aunt Florrie’s recollections, the earliest mention found Henry at breakfast chuckling over the obituaries in the Times. At one point, during the sketches developed for If It’s Wednesday on Radio 4, even the name Rawlinson suddenly altered to Rawlbottom, but thankfully only the once.
Vivian’s musical leanings and fashion sense were rooted in an earlier age, the Roaring Twenties. Early Bonzo publicity shots could have been taken with Al Capone, and the source of much of their repertoire was taken from novelty songs found on 78’s. It is therefore understandable that the Rawlinson End saga found its roots in the upper class values of the inter-war years, a fading empire, and a crumbling family pile.

From the scripts we are told that Sir Henry Rawlinson was the second son of Sir Hillary Rawlinson, and the only details we are given of him is that he returned from Cairo in 1888. Henry had an older brother Humbert, and a younger brother, Hubert. After Henry accidentally killed his elder brother in a drunken duck shooting accident he married Humbert’s lover Florrie.

So who was Sir Henry Rawlinson? Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, a distinguished Victorian soldier, diplomat, and Assyriologist could almost have been Vivian’s model. In one of those twists of fate he actually died March 5, 1895 one hundred years to the day before Vivian met his own terrible end.
It could be argued that Sir Henry was based in part upon his own father who came home from the war obsessed with mores acquired from mixing with the RAF Officer caste. Vivian had grown up in a working class environment in Walthamstow and later at Leigh-on-Sea, and he never resolved the conflict of life on the street with life at home and consequently never reconciled his relationship with his father.

Although Vivian performed Sir Henry on the radio and later on vinyl, when offered the chance, by Tony Stratton-Smith in 1980, to transfer his creation to celluloid, an actor had to be found to play the role. After developing a film script with friend and producer, Steve Roberts, ideas for the cast were prepared. Vivian was talked out of taking the lead, taking instead the role of Hubert. It has been reported that Vivian suggested Bernard Youens, the actor who played Stan Ogden for many years in ITV’s long running soap opera Coronation Street, for the part. This didn’t get pursued and Trevor Howard was offered the role even though Vivian’s first reaction was that Trevor was too upper crust and wouldn’t do. Trevor Howard took the part as he thought the film highly comic and one that people would want to see many times. Steve Roberts recalls Vivian being charmed by Trevor, others report that each recognised in each other a kindred spirit and set about cementing their relationship with drink. Vivian had to give Trevor a crash course in xenophobia before they started, but by the end of the filming Vivian found Trevor to be more like Sir Henry than his own creation. To see him deliver the classic lines ‘if I had all the money I’d spent on drink I’d spend it on drink’ is to understand this completely.

The next, and last, time Sir Henry was to make an appearance on film was for a series of adverts for Ruddles Ales. At the time these were commissioned Trevor Howard had passed away so a new casting was needed. Vivian played Hubert again, and the brief appearance of Sir Henry as each advert faded saw heavily disguised comedienne Dawn French pictured.

This may have been the end of the saga, but recently an amateur dramatics troupe, the Orion Players of East Sussex, have staged a version of Rawlinson End. Nick Linfield developed a script and played the lead role. The production was full of song and dance and it sampled all periods of Rawlinson history ensuring all the classic one-liners were included. Other people have expressed interest in putting on their own productions so maybe this is the direction Rawlinson End will take in the future.

The lead role obviously calls for a Falstaffian figure. Whose names could entered into the fantasy stage list. Oliver Reed is sadly no longer an option, Brian ‘stop shouting’ Blessed could do although Warren Clarke would be preferable. Richard Griffith has the presence but is maybe too nice. Watch this space.

John Hobbs
18-11-2005

 

Addendum:

The bullish and somehow endearing qualities needed to play a character such as Sir Henry could be brought to life by a number of potential actors. I guess that this will never be, with the state of Viv’s estate is in.
However, actors such as David Jason (who worked alongside Viv on Do Not Adjust Your Set) has some of the charicteristics that could potentially make a well rounded portrait of Sir Henry, but as with Richard Griffiths I suspect his persona is one of too nice a character to make a convincing Henry.

The marvellous John Rhys Davies is definitely bullish enough - and is certianly quintessentially English, as those who spotted him under layers of latex in The Lord of the Rings have seen, he can perform the grumpy and spectacularly voilent characteristics that mark out Henry.

Rhys Davies is a veteran actor of some standing, as is Ian McDiarmid who played Reg Smeeton in the original Rawlinson End film, and was recently to be seen in the new and spectacularly below par Star Wars movie as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. This I found incredibly amusing at the time, almost expecting him to say ‘Did you know there’s no name for the back of the knees’.

After considerbale speculation, we’ll just have to content ourselves with Colin Penfold, who played Henry
in the October 2005 play, reprising the same role he played in the 1993 production.

Jon Street
December 2005

Blurb from the Henry play programme...
Colin Penfold is an ‘almost’ original Orion Player, Colin is very pleased to be reprising his role as Sir
Henry after twelve years. But, as he puts it, ‘Practice makes perfect!’. His apprenticeship with the Orion Players has led to a string of stage and TV appearences including pantomimes at the Hawth, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Arundel Festival Sweeny Tod and West Side Story at the Arundel Playhouse, The Bill (ITV)and Mile High (Sky One).
Currently auditioning to be Robbie Coltrane’s understudy in... Just about anything.


Bernard Youens as Stan Ogden



Trevor Howard as not Sir Henry