A wee dram with Steve Roberts

It was on a drizzly Tuesday evening in May, that I popped up to ‘The British Grenadier’, a pub in leafy Colchester, to interview Steve Roberts, director of ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’ and creator of Max Headroom. I sat myself down at a table near the door with a pint of ale, a fag and a bloody great microphone, and waited.
A few minutes passed and Steve entered the pub in a damp raincoat, as he ordered a pint of Adnams I asked if he missed the British weather, surely it must be far nicer in Los Angeles, where he’s resided since 1986? Like all who’ve gone to sunnier climbs, he disagreed, stating that changeable weather was more interesting. Not an opinion I held, I grasped a list of questions, and rattled off the first.

How did you come to know the late, great Vivian Stanshall?
‘Back in the mid to late sixties I was working producing for ‘Late Night Line Up’, which was a show originally to review the programmes of the night, be they BBC, ITV or anything else. It was like a separate BBC in a way, so I was working for this wonderful, maverick mob of people, Joan Bakewell and the like.
One day it was suggested that we get Vivian on to do something, and I thought this was a great idea because I knew of him, but didn’t know him directly, so I said “I’ll do it”, and there was a great sigh of relief, because some of the others had been exposed to Viv and his way of being, they knew better than to have anything to do with him at all when it came to a live broadcast situation.
He was an absolute bastard, he just rejoyced in fucking everything up. Anyway, we got along well, we got very drunk together too. I think we did maybe three or four shows with Viv doing all sorts of various and wonderful things, and that was how we met.
On one occasion we had a coffin in the studio, the idea was that Viv would sit up, as if rising from the dead, and then read something. Enid, my then production assistant came in very worried because in rehearsal they gave him a cue and he lay down there and didn’t sit up on cue. Standard for Viv because it gave people problems to mess about with.
I said ‘It’s alright, he knows it’s live and it’ll be fine.’ So we cued him to sit up and nothing happened, live, on the night. We had to send someone to have a look while we covered ourselves. He was fast asleep, he’d just been drinking, had gone to sleep in the middle of the show and forgotten to wake up, simple as that.

Was he a particularly difficult person to work with?
Yes, he was almost impossible, he was outrageuos, but Viv’s life was outrageous by design, he wouldn’t have had a good day if he hadn’t upset somebody, and I don’t mean annoy them but upset the convention of their life. He didn’t ever intend to hurt, wound or destroy people, he just loved to be a very naughty boy. If you gave as good as he gave then you were ok, if you shied away from it, then woe betide you.

What was it about the Rawlinson End stories that appealed to you?
It’s just funny, anarchic. I knew of it because I knew Viv, but the first experience I had of it I was literally lying in the bath when he came on to do it on the John Peel show and I jussed pissed myself laughing, I nearly drowned actually. as soon as he got going I was gone.
It was only a few days later that Tony Stratton-Smith of Charisma Films called and said ‘I want you to dop something with Vi, would you take it on?’ I said ‘I’d love to, what is it?’, that’s when he said ‘Well, I want you to do Rawlinson as a film’. Wonderful.

Did you have any previous experience of feature films at the time?
No, just Television directing and TV film directing. It was a combined operation, because Strat was a very smart guy as well as a great fan of Viv. He was a guy always out for the unusual and the brilliant, he said ‘Look, you're going to have to write this with Viv because he doesn’t understand the film form, but I don’t want to crucify Viv’s particular talents. Therefore I don’t want to have anyone working with him who will simply make it into a conventional movie. So you're going to have to handle co-writing and directing it.’
So we were sent off to a certian place to produce some bits of paper, which we duly did, but not without adventures I have to say.

The Script has been describled by Viv’s widow Ki as"‘He [Steve] and Vivian ended up with a script as long as the Bible, old and new testaments, one that would have needed twice Cecil B. DeMille's budget to shoot.’" was that accurate?
Not at all, it was written to length, it was 120/130 pages and it finally ended up at 90 or something. Viv would sit down and we’d talk and write and reams of stuff would happen, but he may have been mixing the piles of paper up with original Rawlinson material.
Viv was actually in that respect, rather disciplined. If you said ‘Look Viv, we can’t go beyond 110 pages, we’re going to have to deal with it.’, he’d bluster and then sit down and deal with it.
We went out to a pub one night and he was offended that the place was full of midgets, in a sense everyone was a midget to Viv because he was a very big fella. But of course what he’d not accounted for was that these were all jockeys, in Newbury. There must have been 100 of them, all having some wild celebration and he decides to introduce one of Rawlinson’s games ‘shove ashtray’ (based on shove ha’penny), he got a huge triangular ashtray, put it on the end of the table and punched it. It just cleared the table.
We were set upon by extremely wild jockeys and trainers and we were lifted and bodily hurled out of the Pub, through the doors. I came to at the bottom of these four steps with a lot of baying jockeys at the top and Vivian lying there in the middle of it all saying ‘Why does this always happen to me?’
He just had no idea of the mayhem he caused sometimes.

Casting: Suzy Figgis cast it.
Getting hold of Trevor Howard was the first step, which was Strat’s function as Producer. Trevor very generously said he would look at it, and we all had lunch, Viv, myself, Strat, Trevor and his agent. Breathing anywhere near Vivian was a remarkable experience, having lunch with him when there was drink flying about was something else altogether. Trevor just sat there, staring and chortling, he eventually siad to Strat ‘These people are entirely insane, I must do this.’ and it was that simple.

Writing by Jonathan Street.


More on Steve Roberts
Long after they had finished the film an incident occurred. Steve lived on a barge in Wouldham, Kent, Vivian would come down occasionally and they had roaring (pissed) good times. Viv was extraordinary good fun if a bit wearing.
His son Toby, who was about 5 at the time, was almost killed in a very bad car accident. It was a very testing time for his parents. When he actually, miraculously, survived and was released from hospital Steve found it very difficult to talk on the phone, he didn't have the reserves to hold a conversation. Vivian called and just said 'I have just heard what has happened to Toby, how is the little rascal?'. With Vivian he found he could talk and he explained that the little rascal was almost dead, and is recovering swathed in bandages.
Vivian said 'I will see you shortly' and he took a taxi from Staines to Kent, spent God knows how much on it. He didn't know how to use trains, the world and Vivian didn't meet at many places. He arrived at the barge stone cold sober (the first time he had seen him sober). Like Gandalf, flowing beard and wild moustache, he stormed on to the barge saying 'Lead me to him dear boy, you must be suffering'. He went through and disappeared into the forecastle bedroom where Toby was, and nothing happened. When he checked two hours later he found Toby sitting bolt upright staring, with one eye like a tennis ball, transfixed, with Vivian telling him stories. Vivian sat in that room for 3 days and did not drink or act out of order, and simply talked Toby back to life.
You don't do that if you're as badly damaged as people think you are; you don't do that if the buddy you've made a film with had thrown you off the set and you hate him for it; you don't do that unless you've got an enormous sprit. He sat there and devoted those days to Toby. It's a side of Vivian which, too often, is not understood by people. He was a wild and dangerous bastard, but one of the sweetest guys you could ever meet.

There was another time when Vivian rang Steve's wife Liz. He adored Liz, always behaved impeccably around her, which was unusual considering how he acted round most women. When asked where Steve was she told him he was out on the river rowing with Toby. Viv exploded 'How can he do that? I can't row on rivers with my son'. It wasn't that he was angry with Liz or Steve, he was angry with himself because one side of his personality kept him away from these innocent forms of pleasure. He couldn't row up the river, like Mr Toad, with his son, and sometimes it hurt him a lot.
While they were writing the screenplay Steve once spent 4 hours on a bed with his arms around him as he wept and begged me to stop him dying. He'd fall down and assume the foetal position because he'd taken a cocktail of pills and his heart would start fibrillating. At these times Viv would become very afraid that he was going to die. You'd have to get hold of him and drag him to bed. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence among his acquaintances for these situations to arise.

Part 2

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