The link between Brecht, Milligan, Python, The Bonzos and Stephen Fry

Michael Livesley

Michael Livesley: another link

My previous blog was about how Michael Livesley – a fan of Vivian Stanshall and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band first staged his version of Vivian Stanshall’s radio/LP record/film of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.


“The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band started in 1962,” I said, “and ended in 1970. Sir Henry was created by Vivian Stanshall after that.”

“Yes,” said Michael. “After the Bonzos finished, Viv was at a loose end and so he sat in for John Peel (the BBC Radio DJ) in 1971 when he had a month off. Viv did four shows called Radio Flashes which featured comedy sketches with him and Keith Moon (of The Who rock group) as Colonel Knutt and Lemmy.”

“Those two must have taken some controlling.” I suggested.

Keith Moon (left) and Vivian Stanshall

Keith Moon (left) and Vivian Stanshall were far from uniform

“There is a story,” said Michael, of a bierkeller here in Soho and Viv Stanshall and Keith Moon walk in – Viv is dressed as an SS officer and Moonie’s dressed as Hitler. There’s photos of him and Moon with the map of Europe open and the riding crop.

“Anyway, after Radio Flashes, Viv got asked in to the BBC to do more John Peel sessions and what Viv chose to do was a thing called Rawlinson End which was essentially a long, rambling monologue about this crumbling stately home with the heroically drunk Sir Henry and all the people who inhabited the environs. And, as a result, the mailbag was full of: What is this? Where can I get it? 

“So John Peel’s producer John Walters used to go round to Viv’s house and literally drag him out and take him to Broadcasting House to record this thing and I suppose, by 1978, the momentum was so large they turned it into an LP.

“In Sir Henry, there are so many lines lifted from so many things, but Viv has placed them forensically in there, like with tweezers – like Joe Orton defacing a library book – and you don’t notice them because they’re seamless.

“There’s a line – I stumbled with all the assurance of a sleepwalker. Viv nicked that line from Mein Kampf.”

Michael Livesley as Sir Henry

Michael Livesley performing as Sir Henry

“That sounds unusually poetic of Hitler,” I said.

“Yes,” said Michael. “Viv puts the line – I stumbled with all the assurance of a sleepwalker – into the mouth of Hubert, his brother, crossing to the wind-up gramophone to put on some old popadoms which Sir Henry brought back from India.”

“I like the fact,” I told Michael, “that you mentioned Joe Orton and the library books.”

“Oh yes,” said Michael. “It’s like a pointless little act of rebellion that nobody may ever notice.”

“There is something oddly Joe Ortonish about it all,” I said.

“Yes,” said Michael, “They completely chew away at the foundations of all of our culture in this country and spit it out. We are talking about this, aren’t we, because you blogged about The Alberts.”

“Indeed,” I said. “How did you hear about the Alberts?”

An Evening of British Rubbish toured Britain

Influential Evening of British Rubbish

“They did a year in the West End in London in 1963,” replied Michael, “with Ivor Cutler in a show called An Evening of British Rubbish. Neil Innes and the Bonzos went to see that show and thought: This is what we should be doing!”

“So it’s not bullshit,” I said, “to claim The Alberts and An Evening of British Rubbish influenced the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band?”

“Oh no,” said Michael, “And a line can be drawn directly from Spike Milligan and The Goon Show to The Alberts to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Bruce Lacey doing the sound effects for The Goon Show and then performing with The Alberts, who influenced the Bonzos.

“I like to know every link in the chain – such as Joe Orton or The Alberts or knowing that Bertolt Brecht influenced Spike Milligan. It’s nice to know where all this stuff comes from. The Theatre of The Absurd and all that. Stuff does not just pop up out of the ground.”

I said: “The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band started in 1962 and ended in 1970. So they are a pure 1960s group.”

“Yes,” agreed Michael.

The Bonzo’s last London performance

I never saw the Bonzo’s last London performance

“In my spare bedroom,” I said, “I have a poster for the Bonzo’s last London performance – at the Polytechnic in Regent Street – but I didn’t go. I did see Grimms. I remember Neil Innes singing How Sweet To Be an Idiot with a duck on his head.”

“It was a thing out of Woolworth’s,” replied Michael, “called a Quacksie with the wheels took off it.

“Viv got on stage at The Lyceum in London on 28th December 1969 to announce the band was ending. At the time, he was completely bald after getting up halfway through the family Christmas dinner and shaving off all his long hair. He returned to the table to resume eating with a bald head.

“They worked out their commitments for the next 3 months, including the Polytechnic gig on 21st February, and their very last gig was at Loughborough University on 14th March 1970. They had to do an LP in 1970 due to contractual obligations. And Viv’s LP of Rawlinson End was released in 1978.”

“When Lou Reed was contractually obliged to do an album,” I said. “he released a double album of just noise.”

“Yes,” said Michael. “In the mid-1960s, Brian Epstein was going to sell the Beatles to Robert Stigwood, who managed the Bee Gees and the Beatles said: If you do that then, for all the albums we owe you, we’re just gonna sing God Save The Queen for every track.”

“The 1960s and 1970s,” I said, “always seem to have culture-changing originality.”

“That,” said Michael, “is the crux of a lot of the radio documentary I’m currently making about Neil Innes – The Bonzos were the house band on ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set and that’s where they met Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones (later in Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Then, in the second series of Do Not Adjust Your Set, Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python) comes along doing the animations. When I talked to Terry Gilliam, it became self-evident to me just how different those times were and how mavericks like Tony Stratton-Smith were so important to that thing.”

YouTube currently has a clip of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on Do Not Adjust Your Set.

“There’s a book – Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall – and, in that, he argues that young people were making art then because tomorrow they might be blown to smithereens. There was an immediacy to art in the 1960s and 1970s when you were growing up with the threat of nuclear destruction over your head. You’re not going to have the same set of values. You’re not going to have the same application of deference. You’re just going to do stuff because you might not be here tomorrow.

Arty Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall

Arty Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall

“I think within Bomb Culture there’s a lot of explanation for the 1960s and 1970s – that immediacy, that explosion of culture in the 1960s and 1970s. There were people like Brian Epstein and Robert Stigwood and Tony Stratton-Smith who had money and said: Just go do it. We’ll worry about it later

“Tony Stratton-Smith – BOF! Go make Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Here’s money. Go make it. He wasn’t worried about getting his money back and, in the short term he lost a lot of money. But that attitude means you can just create.

“You don’t get that now – it’s all about making money – though now there’s a democratisation about the tools of creating. You’ve got a recording studio in your pocket.”

“And you get to work with whoever you want,” I said.

“I am the luckiest fan there is,” said Michael, “to be working with all these people. I love every aspect of creating, like everybody does in this game. I’ve been asked to sing with the Bonzos at the Coco in Camden Town on 17th April. That’s even madder. To be asked to sing with them.

“And I sang the Bonzo’s number Sport (The Odd Boy) – with Stephen Fry at the Old Vic in January, which was a real Pinch myself moment.”

“Is Stephen Fry a fan of Vivian Stanshall?” I asked.

“Oh, massive. He’s a huge fan. He indulged Viv an awful lot while he was alive. He helped him put on shows. He bankrolled Stinkfoot at the Bloomsbury Theatre.”

“You yourself don’t have that sort of Medici figure,” I said.

“But I’m happy to be at the mercy of market forces,” Michael told me.” There’s got to be some satisfaction in this work. It’s no good going playing to your mates every week and them telling you you’re wonderful.”

“The worst thing,” I agreed, “is to be on your death bed and wonder What if?

“It is,” said Michael, “like that great philosopher Terry Venables said: I’d rather regret what I’ve done than what I’ve not done.”

Michael’s upcoming gigs are on the Sir Henry website.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Theatre, 1960s

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