I got an email from Michael Livesley.
“I just now came across your blog on The Alberts whilst researching their Evening of British Rubbish show.”
“I am currently making a radio documentary about the career of Neil Innes.
There is a promo for the radio documentary – titled Innes 70th Year – on Soundcloud
So, obviously, we met and had a chat the next time Michael came down to London from Liverpool.
“I never actually saw The Alberts perform,” I told Michael, “but I went up to Norfolk to see them at home and Tony Gray was dressed as a cricketer for no apparent reason. I think he probably just generally dressed that way. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes and all that lot – are a bit Albert-ish.”
“When I was a teenager in the 1980s,” Michael told me, “I was aware of Neil Innes cos of The Innes Book of Records and when BBC TV repeated The Rutles. After that, me and me mates in school formed ‘The Fat Gang’ who were all the fat lads who used to wag it and go and do other stuff cos school was a bit boring.
“We started a thing called The Eatles in the shed in my back garden and we did daft songs about food, inspired by Beatles songs – Your Mother Should Eat and Magical Chippie Tour were a couple.
“I wasn’t aware of who Vivian Stanshall or The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were until I got into what I suppose are called ‘art school’ bands when I was at art school myself. It was only about twelve months later, but that seems like years when you’re a kid.”
“The ex-Poet Laureate?” I asked.
“You’re keeping good company,” I said.
“We did Sir Henry at Rawlinson End with Stephen Fry at the Old Vic two months ago,” said Michael. “Aardman filmed it – not in stop/start or we would have been there all year. It was me, Stephen Fry, Ronnie Golden, Neil Innes and Rod Slater out of the Bonzos.”
“You’re like a fan who struck gold,” I said.
“When I first started doing Sir Henry at Rawlinson End,” said Michael, “it was cos I loved it. I wanted to see it performed. And partially also because I was sick of people saying: Who is Vivian Stanshall? People shouldn’t be allowed to forget.
“I was cycling all the time, trying to get fit and listening to it – the record. But I wanted to see it performed. It sounded like the best Jackanory story you’d ever heard. It had been filmed but, when you have different actors playing all the parts, it takes away from one storyteller doing all the voices.
“The 1978 LP was all as a result of this amazing guy called Tony Stratton-Smith, who was a maverick in the 1970s and who threw money at the likes of Monty Python and Vivian Stanshall and Genesis. He founded the Charisma record label after he had been a sports journalist. He described himself as a gentleman and adventurer.”
“When you decided to do the show,” I asked, “you had to get the family’s permission?”
“What was Vivian Stanshall’s father like?”
“He’s dead now, of course,” said Michael. “They all lived in Walthamstow and, before World War II, it was all East End geezer accents there but then his dad went away to the RAF in the War and came back speaking posh and made his lads speak like that. Viv said about the posh accent that it was literally punched into him.”
“Any eccentricity in the family?” I asked.
“His dad,” replied Michael, “was born Vivian and changed his name to Victor Stanshall and then Vivian was born Victor and changed his name to Vivian Stanshall.
“And his dad used to roller-skate all the way from the East End to the City of London in his pinstripe suit. He used to tell Vivian: With a good haircut and clean fingernails, one can literally roller-skate to the top.”
“Vivian has a son?” I asked.
“Rupert,” said Michael. “He’s got watfordhandyman.com He does building work. I think if your father is Vivian Stanshall, your rebellion is to become ‘normal’ for want of a better word.”
“What do you yourself do?” I asked Michael.
“I’ve thrown away all the fall-backs,” he told me. “all the safety nets. It was a year to the day the other day since I walked out on me last job teaching drama.”
“To be a promoter/performer?” I asked.
“A performer,” Michael replied. “Being a promoter is a necessity these days, really.”
“So you were cycling around,” I said, “and decided you wanted to see Sir Henry at Rawlinson End performed on stage. So what did you do?”
“I got a band together,” Michael told me, “and hired the Unity Theatre in Liverpool for two nights. I got a good theatre director called Paul Carmichael, totally versed in Shakespeare and absolutely obsessed with classic British TV comedy. I knew he would know all the right cultural signposts.
“The reviews were great and the next morning the guy who ran the theatre rang and asked me to do it again. Then it started building up a momentum and it was when I was in Paris for about a month, bored, drinking all the time that, one afternoon I thought: I need to put this on in London.
“So I got on the internet and hired the Lion & Unicorn – just a room above a pub in Camden – and staged it there one Friday night in October 2012 and Neil Innes came to see it. And Ade Edmondson and Nigel from EastEnders.
“Afterwards, Neil Innes gave me this massive hug and a guy from Mojo music magazine was there and reviewed it which helped. The show was on the Friday and then, on the Monday morning, Neil Innes rang me up and just said: Hi, Mike. What can I do to help?
“So then we did some more shows and I did a couple of shows with Neil at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool and then in 2013, when Viv would have been 70, we ended up at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and all the Bonzos bar Roger were able to appear and the next thing was Rick Wakeman and John Otway both said they’d do it too. And that went really well. Danny Baker came along to watch. It was madness. It’s been nearly six years of work now and the first three were very difficult in terms of getting traction.”
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