Originally aired as spoken-word segments for John Peel’s radio show in the 70s, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band frontman Vivian Stanshall’s diaries from his dysfunctional aristocrat Sir Henry soon became a cult interest with listeners, coalescing into a gentle, hilarious and plain off-the-wall 1978 album, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, and a film by the same name in 1980. Stanshall’s eccentricity, madcap humour and love of language influenced a generation of comics from Phill Jupitus to Stephen Fry. Now actor-comedian Mike Livesey tips his pith helmet to Stanshall’s creation in his own production of Sir Henry… as part of Stone Free festival on Sunday June 19.
What’s the concept?
It’s Vivian Stanshall’s 1978 LP brought back to life, a mix of spoken word and songs. I’m Sir Henry and I’ve got a full band called Brainwashing House featuring Andy Frizell from Wizards Of Twiddly on guitar, crumhorn and a lot of other mad stuff who did a lot of work with Kevin Ayers, plus Suzy Honeyman who was Viv’s violinist. I was very keen to get her involved – one of the reasons being so this set-up isn’t just a bunch of blokes - but it’s very gratifying that someone who you admire is willing to take part.
How did the show come about?
I’ve been making music and writing comedy since I was about 15. In 2009 I was with what I call the concussionist in the band, Jonny ‘Purple’ Hase, and he played me Sir Henry At Rawlinson End in one of our late-night ‘Amnesia Express’ sessions. Normally he’d be skittish and whipping records off after a minute to put another on, this he played for the whole hour. A while after, I was living in Vancouver and missing home. I bought this and it became something I came back to over and over, particularly as a soundtrack to my periodic fitness kicks when I’d returned to the UK, cycling down by Liverpool waterfront. I’d think, ‘Wow, this would make the ultimate edition of Jackanory.’ I searched about and no one was doing Sir Henry at all. One night, fuelled by Erdinger, I had a flash of inspiration that I should do it.
There’s a LOT of dialogue. How do you not lose your thread?
The album’s a curious beast, so the show’s not quite a gig and not quite a play, but the original director insisted that I learn the hour of incredibly complex poetry, and it was very challenging. It’s like climbing a sheer cliff face. How I initially learned it is by using the landmarks on my bike ride; in my mind I know when something is coming into view and what bit of dialogue does with it. Once you’re reciting it and in that world, it’s great because you can truly describe it. It’s an amazing imagination to tramp around – it was Viv’s way of coping with the horrors of everyday life and a wonderful place to escape to.
Sir Henry is a bit like The Archers gone wrong.
The Archers is a good comparison as it has the patina of Radio 4 drama, which could be on while you’re doing your tomato cuttings in the shed and you might not generally be listening, it’s sort of there as a texture, but if you go beyond that you find all sorts of stuff going on. It’s quite macabre, bizarre, gin-sodden. Sir John Betjemen is a good reference, too, say something like Indoor Games Near Newbury from his album Banana Blush, as he was also on the same label as Viv, Tony Stratton-Smith’s Charisma. It’s about English life, but what resides just beneath the surface.
What’s so great about Viv Stanshall?
Apart from his wonderful use of language, he’s so good at parodying the class structure and the lack of care the elite have for the poor. It’s subversive in the extreme but masquerades as something as unthreatening as an afternoon radio play. We live in an age of such conformity where you don’t question authority, that it’s lovely to be presenting a piece of work that 40 years on is still quite challenging and acerbic. It’s a soft anarchy. You couldn’t have a more establishment, cut-glass accent than Viv, but that’s the surface. He wasn’t high-born at all; he literally had it punched into him by his RAF Captain father who’d risen through the ranks from humble beginnings and knew the value in those days of [adopts posh accent] ‘Talking like that’.
Sir Henry, and Vivian Stanshall, might be a little of a cult concern but there are some well-known fans.
Word gets out, yes. Stephen Fry did a show with us at Bristol Old Vic and Ade Edmondson came to the very first show I put on in London, in the 40-seater Lion And Unicorn in Kentish Town in 2011. That’s when I first Neil [Innes, Stanshall’s bandmate in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and future collaborator]. That show really changed the trajectory of what I do, bringing it to the attention of a lot more people.
How does it feel to be performing on the same day as a hero of yours, Rick Wakeman?
It’s amazing – the whole event is amazing. Rick’s putting out the Sir Henry Show record out as the first release on his new label, RRAW. He’s not only a mentor but he’s been a mate and very helpful. To tell me that ours was going to be his first release and the label was just for him and his mates, can you imagine that? And then to say ‘If it’s alright with you I’d like to play piano on it’ [laughs]… I’ve got a photograph of me meeting him for the first time when I was 17 at his gig and the grin I’m doing is like Mr Ed. So I can hardly wait until Sunday!
The Sir Henry At Rawlinson End CD is out now via the Sir Henry Lives website, with a single, Wheelbarrow (How Nice To Be In England!), out on June 24 featuring Rick Wakeman, Neil Innes and Bonzo’s Rodney Slater.