Viv first came to public attention with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The Bonzos had a hit, in 1968, with I'm The Urban Spaceman but failed to follow this with a rewarding sequence of chart biggies. They made several diverting LPs, were pretty huge on the college circuit and an LP of performances recorded for Radio 1 is due for release in a few weeks time, as soon as I can get the sleeve notes written, in fact.
After the Bonzos broke up, Viv continued to record for Radio 1, usually under the direction of John Walters, one of too few people who could moderate Viv's barmier excesses, and who had the foresight to see that here was an exceptional man who should be perservered with, even in the face of unreliability and prevarication on an epic scale.
The result of Viv Stanshall's work with Walters was a sequence of extended pieces, interspersed with songs, about Rawlinson End and the grotesques who peopled this hellish stately home.
Whenever one of the irrregular Rawlinson End episodes had been broadcast, the following weeks were spent fielding letters and phone calls from astonished listeners who wanted to know what it was and where they could get it.
I have to admit that I was slightly alarmed by Viv in the flesh, not only because of his sometimes unusual behaviour, but by the feeling that I was face-to-face with someone whose thought processes were not only very different to mine but vastly superior.
I've always had a similar reaction to Captain Beefheart and since hearing that Stanshall and Beefheart spoke regularly on the phone, I've been lying awake at nights wondering what these two astonishing men might have been talking about.
Viv was a wonder and it is fortunate that, although we have too little of his work by which to remember him, we do have this film to remind us of some of his many and curious parts.
As lead singer of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Vivian Stanshall was the court jester of the underground rock scene of the Sixties. The quintessential art school band, the Bonzos were a chaotic muxture of music hall, rock parody and Dada nonsense. Resolutely English, Stanshall & co. brought an absurdist sense of humour to a scene that was already beginning to take itself too seriously.
[Excerpt: Death Cab For Cutie from Magical Mystery Tour]
Despite the Magical Mystery Tour, the Isle of Wight Festival and their solitary hit, I'm The Urban Spaceman, the Bonzos were perhaps too anarchic even for the Sixties.
Stanshall spent much of the Seventies on the rampage with his friend Keith Moon, two madcaps living out of their wits. His oddball progress culminated in his book, record and film Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, with a cast of very English characters, including himself as Hubert.
[Excerpt: Hubert meets Rev. Slodden in the hall]
After a fruitful writing partnership with Steve Winwood, Stanshall fell out of sight for much of his last decade. His most visible work prior to his death being a series of extraordinary beer ads.
This Stanshall playlet is how Viv saw his life in 1991. Take it away, Viv...
Why me? Why won't it stop? I don't know. Are there any clues?
[Draws two "?" in the air]
Clues. A few years ago a woman from the Daily Mail phoned to inform me they were doing a piece on Sir John Betjeman and they would like me to companion him in the article, I being representative of the younger English eccentric. She wanted to know if was still doing it. Well, I don't do it, I'm merely myself, as near a dammit, without frightening the housing estates, and her question was absurd rather than fatuous, as it suggests deliberation, as rather as though you woke up and decided "I'm going to be a garnaum today" or [twit voice:] "I'm going to be giant squid for the weekend" or [Sir Henry:] "That's it! I'm going to be a wardrobe for the rest of.. um.. my word! Well, strap me to a tree and call me Brenda!"
I'm whatever you like, just don't expect me to join in. I do like games, though. You see, I'm not different for the sake of being different, only for the desperate sake of being myself. I can't join your gang: you'd think I was a phoney and I'd know it.
[Song about his father]
The first two years of my childhood were wonderful: just me and Mum and me and my voices, evacuated from the East End to Shillingford, Oxfordshire. Idyllic. And I remember everything: bombs whumping and deranged cows budging into the kitchen and Mum shuffing them out with a broom. I was freakishly precocious: first words at four months and I could have conversation with you at ten months, and that's pretty scary. And I was running, running, running. I had to be strapped into my pram. I can still smell that pram and feel the sticky blue leatherette of it. I hated it - and the tugging. At the bottom of the garden, the long garden, the Thames with paddle boats. Sardined they were, with dancing, battle-happy on-leave soldiers and their girls, dancing and laughing and shouting back to me. And the music... this sort of stuff...
[20s-style jazz song]
Sadly for me, when the boys did come they included my demobbed father, who'd now got it into his noddle that he was officer class. By the time we'd moved back to Walthamstow, East 17, he spoke like this [posh accent:] "Hello". So on the streets I's speaking loike this otherwise I's definitely goin' ter get me 'ead bashed in woilst at 'ome it's all "What ho, Ma-ma! Hello Pa-Pa! And shall there be buns for tea?"
Officer class, he determined to be a Chartered Accountant. And to this end he polished his shoes so shinily that when you looked down you could see all the way up to his suspenders (or up skirts, if you fancied it). And then he'd cover the shoes with protective rubber galoshes, and with bowler hat rammed tight and brolly grasped, he'd would every morning roller-skate from Walthamstow to the City. It was thus explained to be, and with the utmost solemnity, that, common as I was, with polished boots and accent, it was possible to roller-skate right to the top of, and out of, your tree. The self-made man formula, manifest. My father was quite normal. I quickly learned to roller-skate and go bald.
I was downright terrified of my father, I still am and he's been dead for more than a year. Everything I did was a disappointment and everything I didn't do (sport, maths and so on) was unnatural because he could do it. And when it became clear to him that I was incorrigeably to become one of them, that is to say an artist of some sort, he disowned me. He even refused to hold my hand after the age of five. It was the beginning of the beginning. Not surprisingly I became quite a...
I do remember persuading my mother to persuade my father to allow me have a duffle coat and of the first day of wearing it in the street a little boy cried to his Mum "look at that man!" and she repied to him "don't look at him, he's a crank". My fringe was licked and secured with a hairclip, I was wearing my school tie. My Mum explained to me: "cranks, we don't know any of them and moreover they're common." I was thirteen. I then tried to be a Teddy Boy, hiding my drape jacket and drainpipes behind the coal bunker. The posh accent which had been literally bashed into me kept leaking out so in that particular gang I was tolerated as an amusing mascot. My Mum taught me to knit and crochet when I was tiny and... teddy boys don't knit.
Meanwhile my father spent the last twenty years of his life vigourously watching television.
[Possibly An Armchair and Fresh-Faced Boys]
About this time I became disaffected with the Roman Church. It wasn't so much being slapped round the chops at Communion. Me, fourteen and naughty, kneeling at the alter rail and Canon Bishop, a fierce Irishman, his head carved from the beetroot, bearing down dispensing the Host... catches me 'aving a crafty butchers at the other Communicants... eyes closed, tongues lolling out... and I can't keep a straight face, so in the In Nomini Patrii Et Filii I cop the Et Spiritus Sanctii [slap] right round the noui. Went back to me pew like this [squints] and me Mum thinks "bedad, the boy has the state of Grace in him!" No, it was the translating of the Mass into English so's you could understand it. I confessed to my Mum that I now didn't understand it at all. Without the hallucinatory mumbo-jumbo it became for me at best vulgar and far too dull for my kidney. [Sir Henry:] "I like my steak heretic and bloody."
[Spreading His Light]
From the sqeezable age of three till I went to art school and sipped of the mad, generous grip of classless meritocracy, even yobbos can sculpt, I can recall almost nothing. For most of it, the horror, has been quite blanked out, save that I was improper, unfit, unfit and a sissy. But rather curiously clever, so I was doing it deliberately and was therefore a shocking waste.
My biological childhood wasn't so much bad as bewildering and I got though it, not so much courageously, but rather hopelessly, innocently burdened with the inreluctable conviction that I was destined to be an artist. And I really couldn't help that. Shocking waste or not, the trials and the astonishments did provide the stuff from which I fashioned my work. So the childish things I had then to do in secret I now do in public.