NEIL INNES FIRST MET VIV Stanshall in a pub in New Cross
(he was 20, Viv was 22): "He was rather overweight and wearing a
frock coat and Billy Bunter trousers, and he had these little tinted oval
Victorian glasses perched on his nose, an unpleasant violet colour, a
euphonium under his arm and these horrible pink false ears. It was a rough
sort of pub where it was pretty hard to 'merge in' anyway." One of
Viv's ambitions with the first line-up of The Bonzo Dog Dada Band was
"to play as badly and as loudly as possible".
Recording the track Shirt at Morgan Studios for the album Tadpoles, the band encouraged Viv to wander out into Willesden High Road with a 40-foot mike lead and stop passers-by for some "reaction", their comments on the quirks of the fashion trade and shirts in particular (an episode that made a great impression on the young Chris Morris). Very few members of the public played ball, partly because Viv was wearing underpants and a pantomine rabbit's head. Of the sections that were usable, one appears in We Are Normal, an Irish voice that points out "he's got a head on him like a rabbit".
Viv and friend-in-booze Keith Moon had a regular pastime: "testing people's reactions". With this in mind, they once repaired to a gentlemen's outfitters in search of "a strong pair of trousers". To test the wares, Viv and Keith took a leg each and pulled until the trousers parted company. "Not really very strong are they?" Viv informed the appalled assistant. At which point they'd arranged for a onelegged man to enter the shop who, on seeing two sets of single-legged trousers, exclaimed, "That's exactly what I'm lookin' for!" and bought both.
Viv once sent off for 10 vintage copies of the Daily Telegraph and recruited nine of his pals to sit reading them on the Circle Line, enjoying the gradual- but soon horribly confused - reaction of his fellow passengers as they wondered if they'd fallen through a wormhole in time.
Booked to appear on the 13-Part satirical TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set along with future Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones - The Bonzos were asked what props they might reqnire for the first recording and shot back the following reponse: "Three cardboard boxes, a springboard, a petrol tanker and the largest bath you can find but it needs to be orange", none of which they had any intention of using. ITV rang back and to confirm they'd got the boxes and the springboard, teams of people had been painting the bath but they couldn't find a petrol tanker and would an oil drum do? "They never forgave us," Neil Innes admits. "We were summoned to a meeting - Rodney, Viv and I - and we turned up wearing rubber masks."
The Bonzos were thrown out of Chappell's Studios in Bond Street after VIv suggested they see "what sound a tuba would make if you filled it up with water ".
Viv bought a rusting freighter which he christened The Old Profanity Showboat, and lived for a while on a WW2 minesweeper moored on the Thames at Chertsey with a collection of painted guitars, masks, props and pictures, and an African pith helmet plumbed upside down as a sink. The boat eventually sank with all his relics onboard. "Nothing ordinary ever happened to him," Neil Innes reflects. "I mean if you lived on a boat and it sank, why would it sink on your birthday?"
Viv briefly formed The Sean Head Showband with Eric Clapton to record the single Labio-Dental Fricative.
When Viv lived in Finchley he had one of his hedges clipped into the shape of a human leg.
Viv recorded a series of sketches called Radio Flashes that were broadcast on John Peel's night-time Radio I show in the '70s. He played the part of the fruity-voiced Colonel Knut with the inevitable Moon as his luvvable sidekick Lemmy. ''A typical day," his producer, the late John Walters, remembered, "would involve Viv bowling in direct from the chemists, where he'd queued impatiently behind someone buying a new-fangled insect deterrent called Wasp-Eze, and immediately improvise on-air his own brand of aerosol for the' cautious safari-traveller. Cue Air On A G String - 'Do you have pachyderm problems? Why don't you ... tssst! tssst!Repello-phant! As used by the Royal Family! Just watch those big fellows pack their trunks and go!' But it all went horribly wrong in the end. It was the day of the broadcast and we still didn't have the last episode in the serial. The heart starts to pound. No-one arrives. Then Mooney's there - and he's the unpredictable one. Where the fuck's Viv? In he bursts with a ukulele, the old clinking carrier-bag. 'Som' mate, been driving round London looking for an offie that'll take a cheque!' I said, never mind that, thank Godyou're here, Let's get the levels up and do this last episode. It's going out tonight. And Viv just looked at me and said, 'Hang on mate. I've got to write the bugger first."
Neil Innes's speech at Viv's-funeral (on March 21 1995) perfectly captured both the affection people felt for Stanshall and the mounting difficulty of haviug to deal with him. "Was he," Innes wondered, "immensely brave or merely reckless? Did he fear that no-one would love him ifhe allowed himself to be ordinary? He has bequeathed to all of us the comedy and tragedy of his life in order to illuminate our own."
THE FIRST HALF
THE SECOND HALF
WITH MANY THANKS TO JANICE SIMPSON AND DANNY BARBOUR.