Vivian Stanshall is, to his fans, the loveliest, warmest secret in the world of comedy. But with such luminaries as Stephen Fry and Chris Morris citing him as a major influence it is, perhaps, time to revere Viv as one of the true comic visionaries of our times, even if it is now too late now to let the poor bugger know it.
After leaving school Sir Viv (as I’m afraid I’m going to insist on referring to him) spent a spell in the merchant navy before going to a series of art schools where he and some fellow students loosely formed the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band somewhere between 1962 and 1965.
After the end of the Bonzos in 1970 he embarked on solo career, including a number of short-lived bands, two musical albums, writing his own musicals and guesting on other people’s records, including announcer on Tubular Bells. After a rather fallow period in the 1980s, interest in Viv began to grow in the early 1990s, but sadly, before any of it could pay off, he died in a house fire in 1994.
But Stanshall’s single greatest legacy to us is the world he invented called Rawlinson End. The name Rawlinson crept up in many Bonzo tracks and eventually found a home on the band’s final album Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly (1972).
The LP was hastily slung together affair, recorded purely out of contractual obligations and two years after the band had split up, but the track Rawlinson End stands out as a masterpiece. In it Stanshall plays the narrator and all the characters in a short play parodying the kind of continuing, “The story so far…” fiction found only in magazines in dentist’s waiting rooms.
Rawlinson End is presented as the kind of country estate PG Wodehouse wrote about, but gone terribly to seed. Vivian kept himself busy through the 1970s with numerous radio appearances, and through these he amassed a series of stories about Rawlinson End and its inhabitants which he broadcast and eventually gathered them together for an album, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1978), released on the Charisma record label.
English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus fed, Miss Havershambling opsimath and eremite, feudal still, reactionary Rawlinson End.
The head of the Rawlinson family is, as before, Sir Henry. Alcoholic, racist, intolerant, sentimental, ex-army, high Tory and low brow, Sir Henry Rawlinson is simply one of the greatest comic creations of all time. He also, it has to be said, gets all the best jokes (‘If I had all the money I’d spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink’).
He is married to Great Aunt Florrie, an altogether more wistful character, seemingly locked in some previous Mitford-girl existence. She is also intensely superstitious (‘Consulting a book called “Itching” before she goes to the bog? God’s teeth, what did I marry?’) and appears to have long since abandoned her sex life. She likes things to be ‘nice’. Also resident at Rawlinson End is Sir Henry’s brother Hubert (‘In his mid-Forties and still unusual’).
Hubert was, for Stanshall, a form of self-portrait, as Eccles was for Spike Milligan and EL Wisty for Peter Cook. He is essentially an innocent idiot, never a main part of the plot, always slightly outside the action of the world, commenting on everything going on around him in his own twisted way. He walks around on stilts purely for the pleasure of hearing people having to shout up to him, he grows watercress in his ears, and:
In his adolescence, during the summer, in a northerly direction parallel to the Earthly axis, [Hubert] would throw himself naked onto the lawn, and with that loathsome bluey Roman clock-face tattooed about his private parts, think about Jean Harlow very hard, and, from the shadow cast, tell the time with remarkable accuracy.
The two other main characters are Mrs. E., their ancient but fiery housekeeper and maid and, everyone’s favourite joke, their elderly obsequious butler Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer. There are also the Maynards (‘So much incest in that family, even the dog’s got a club foot’), relations of the Rawlinsons and whose dinner party at Rawlinson End provides what little plot the album has. Minor characters include Seth Onetooth, landlord of the local pub The Fool & Bladder, Reg Smeeton, resident pub know-it-all (‘Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knee?’) and music-hall double-act turned cleaners Teddy Tidy and Nigel Nice.
The enduring appeal of the Rawlinson End saga lies not just in Stanshall’s rich characterisations, but also in his wonderfully over-lubricated language, where poetic imagery and metaphor jostle with sparkling alliteration, literary references and beautifully Chaucerian low humour. Listen to this description of waking up with a hangover:
Sir Henry Rawlinson surfaced from the blackness, hot and fidgety, fuss, bother and itch. Conscious mind coming up too fast with the bends, through pack-ice throbbing seas, boom-sounders, blow-holes, harsh croak Blind Pews tip-tap-tocking for escape from his pressing skull. With a gaseous grunt, he rolled away from the needle-cruel light acupuncturing his pickled-onion eyes…
With the heady mixture Stanshall’s word play, mixed with the grotesque images and decay, stunning one-liners and hilarious absurdism, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End is quite simply one of the greatest comedy LPs ever made. Also worthy of note is Stanshall’s use of music. The story is punctuated with wonderful little songs, as well as the truly haunting background music, all of which contribute to the swirling English folkiness of the album (the musicians were Stanshall himself, Steve Winwood, Jim Cuomo, Julian Smedley and Pete Moss).
The album spawned a book, a stage play and finally a feature film in 1980, with Trevor Howard resplendent as Sir Henry, JG Devlin as Scrotum and Vivian as Hubert. There was a follow-up album, 1983’s Sir Henry At Ndidi’s Kraal, an altogether less successful project which Stanshall immediately disowned but still not without its merits.
Rather happier were Vivian’s later sessions for John Peel, chronically two more short episodes in the saga (The Crackpot At The End Of The Rainbow and The Eating Of Rawlinson End, both 1988), and he began to compile to proper sequel of the first album under the working title Sir Henry II, as well as beginning in discussion with Channel 4 about a possible animated series based around his stories. If only the silly bugger hadn’t gone and died on us.