Tag Archives: Bonzo Dog

Michael Livesley: The Bonzo Dog’s Viv Stanshall & understanding masculinity

Michael Livesley has been reviving the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall’s iconic show Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End  for nine years with sundry Stanshall-related co-stars.

Now, he is doing two final shows – on December 7th (next Friday) at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and on December 12th at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.

The Daily Telegraph described the show as “a combination of Downton Abbey and Gormenghast set to music”.

We had a chat in a Wetherspoons pub in London.

Why is he doing two more shows? 

Why is he stopping?


MICHAEL: I can’t do any more. Nine years of having someone else in yer head is enough – especially when that person is Vivian Stanshall.

Viv Stanshall: the original Sir Henry

It’s a lot of work and it has kicked open a lot of doors for me and it’s great fun but it’s enough. We did the album with Rick Wakeman and Neil Innes. We did the Bristol Old Vic with Stephen Fry. We’ve done the London Palladium, the Glastonbury Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve done the Millenium/O2 Dome in London. A lot of other stuff. And we will be filming this one at the Bloomsbury Theatre for a Sky Arts thing.

JOHN: So why?

MICHAEL: In March this year, I was living in a village between Winchester and Andover in Hampshire – which is where we recorded the album in the shed – and it was great. But ultimately you run out of road in these places. There was nothing happening, so it was time to move back to Liverpool and I thought: Let’s put something in the work diary – and it’s the 40th anniversary of Sir Henry.

JOHN: And what happens after these two shows?

MICHAEL: There’s a Rodney Slater’s Parrots gig at the Zanzibar Club in Liverpool on 14th December. And I am doing the Edinburgh Fringe myself next year.

JOHN: Doing what?

MICHAEL: A show called Half the Man because I’ve lost five stone in three months and I intend to be half the man by the time that happens and my stand-up, when I do it, is all about my observations of being brought up by a single mother and a grandmother: the challenges of establishing your manhood within that female environment.

That’s why I hang out in Wetherspoons: so I can hang out amongst real men. These places are almost like social breweries, because they filter out the impurities in society like me and give us somewhere to reside for a while. It’s a place that’s essentially filled with wounded gazelles: divorced men, single men, who salt their wounds with warm lager. I fit right in here.

JOHN: By drinking?

Michael, in Wetherspoons, has given up drink

MICHAEL:  I am treating myself to beer today because it was my birthday last week. But, other than this, I’ve not drunk beer since August.

JOHN: And you are giving up Sir Henry too…

MICHAEL: I’m not denigrating it in any way – it’s fucking genius, but it’s not mine. It’s a bit of imposter syndrome. But, paradoxically, doing it has enabled me to find my own voice in a strange way: it gave me the vehicle to get on stage in front of people.

I sort of made a compromise when I was 16 to be a musician rather than a performer and this gave me the excuse to take it on. That’s partly what I want to explore with Half The Man. There’s a conversation to be had about what masculinity is and isn’t.

JOHN: You are gonna talk about ‘Northern folk’?

MICHAEL: Well, talk about growing up in the 1980s, growing up in the North without a dad in a very small village in Lancashire where it was all Catholic and shit… it was no picnic… Some people have a really tough life. This was NOT a really tough life.

JOHN: But…?

MICHAEL: But because me mum weren’t married, it used to rile the teachers in this Catholic school. Our side of the street were Catholic and the other side were Protestant; and we’re only talking about the 1980s. I remember standing in the front room with the curtains shut when the Protestants were on their Walk.

JOHN: The Catholics had a walk too?

MICHAEL: It was kind of like a Virgin Mary thing with a cart with stuff on it.

The teachers at my school had also taught me mum and all me uncles and aunties. I would get a school book and there would be me auntie’s name in it from 30 years back. The teachers were all long past retirement. There was a guy who taught me in the 1980s and he had been in the First World War! Fuck knows how old he was! He had a yellow streak in his hair because he always had a fag in his mouth. He reeked of whisky and had yellow teeth and used to beat the shit out of us.

I saw him take a little girl who sat next to me out to the front of the class and he pulled her knickers down and bare-bottomed smacked her. She was a 5-year-old! Real men don’t beat children. That ain’t masculine! That’s just complete and utter barbarism.

There is a whole confusion about what masculinity really is. The sort-of imposition of masculinity in those communities was completely at odds with what I believe masculinity is.

There was one murder in the village where I grew up. 

JOHN: How many people in the village?

MICHAEL: About 300 or 400. It was a mining village.

JOHN: What was the murder?

MICHAEL: This guy – Mulligan – murdered his girlfriend in the local woods. His dad was the village wife-beater. This sounds like bullshit but there WAS a village wife-beater. Everyone knew he did it. He was the guy whose wife had a black eye going for the bread on a Sunday morning. Everybody knew it and everybody tolerated it.

My mum used to say that men love women but they don’t like them. That ain’t true in general but in that village – that little place – I think it was.

Anyway, so when Mulligan stood up in court and they asked him why he’d murdered his girlfriend, he said: “I thought that’s what you did.”

That is true.

And you can buy into that, because all he had seen all his life was his dad knocking bloody hell out of his mum.

And that is quite incongruous because, in the world I grew up in, the women were in charge. Everyone colluded in the illusion that men were in charge but they were not and I don’t think that’s a peculiarly Northern industrial thing. I think that goes across the animal kingdom. And the frustration and anger that that situation brings about with the section of the population that are physically stronger is… Well, that’s the kind of world I grew up in. 

When I was 16, I started working in a pub and, on a Sunday morning, they would put trays on the bar with black pudding and tripe and cheese – a peculiarly Northern Catholic thing which I had not been aware of at home, because alcohol played no part in my upbringing. 

Until I started work, I was not aware of 50% of life, because I was brought up in a 100% female household. It was a male thing. On a Sunday, men went to the pub, ate meat and left the women at home.

In my home, we had a half-bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky that me grandad won in the Catholic club in the 1970s that remained untouched until me mum met the man they called Barry and then it went within a week. 

JOHN: The man they called Barry?

MICHAEL: Her boyfriend. My mam met the man they called Barry when I was 13. He was just a fucking alcoholic wanker. 

JOHN: Is he still alive?

MICHAEL: No. Everyone’s dead. That’s the crazy thing about the North. Within about 20 years, every fucker’s dead. There’s no longevity.

JOHN: So this is your next year’s Edinburgh Fringe show – with a few laughs thrown in.

MICHAEL: In one of your blogs, you said every successful Edinburgh comedy show needs a dead dad story!

JOHN: Yes, at about 40 minutes into the hour…

MICHAEL: I’ve got nothing BUT dead dads, not that I’ve ever met me dad.

JOHN: I saw a show the other day and the comic wasn’t good enough to sustain 60 minutes. The show sagged at about 32 minutes and I thought: You need a dead dad story in there…

MICHAEL:  After nine years of doing someone else’s work, you end up with this big backlog of things you wanna say yourself.

JOHN: And you now have nine years’ experience of how to say things.

MICHAEL: Yes. I had no father figure to explain where I should fit in… it’s all that stuff I want to explore… and doing Sir Henry has given me the legs to realise how to do that.

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Nudity on ITV, balloons & how Malcolm Hardee fell out with OTT Chris Tarrant

Malcolm Hardee with Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee in Alternative Comedy’s early days with his protégée comedian Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

As I have very little time to write a blog today and as yesterday’s blog was about the ‘old’ ITV, here is an extract from comedy icon Malcolm Hardee’s increasingly prestigious autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. It is about his participation in Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show On Legs and refers to OTT, the adult TV series produced by Chris Tarrant after his success with children’s series Tiswas.

At this time, I was working on the continuing Tiswas series.

Because ATV/Central messed-up and did not at first give the OTT team their own office, Tarrant squatted in our Tiswas office for around (if memory serves me) a month. I later worked on the LWT series Game For a Laugh, but not at this point.

This is Malcolm Hardee’s story…


The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

The Greatest Show on Legs perform the Balloon Dance (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Clarke, Martin Soan

The Greatest Show on Legs’ breakthrough was doing The Balloon Dance on ITV.

Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks was supposed to be with The Greatest Show on Legs on the OTT pilot, but he’d buggered off to Cornwall. He’d had enough.

This was right in the middle of The Mad Show.

So, at about 6.30am one morning, I knocked-up Martin Potter who used to operate our tapes and he came out with us and did  the pilot for OTT and the audition for Game For a Laugh.

We needed someone permanent and Martin Potter wasn’t interested, so we recruited Martin Clarke from Brighton, who’d been in a theatre group called Cliffhanger. He had quite a posh voice and looked a bit like Tony Blackburn, so we called him ‘Sir Ralph’.

We were invited to do The Balloon Dance first on Game For a Laugh but, when we got to the LWT studios, the producer wouldn’t let us do it naked. He said the show was for family viewing.

“But that’s how we do it,” I said. “That’s the whole humour of it.”

He sent researchers out to get smaller and smaller items of underwear – even going into sex shops to get us jockstraps. But we held out and said:

“We’re not doing it with our pants on”.

We partly held out because we knew that OTT also wanted us on ITV in a month’s time and they would let us do it naked. In the end, we did the Scottish sword dance on Game For a Laugh. We used the show’s co-presenter Matthew Kelly as the crossed swords. He had a broken leg at the time. So we kept our clothes on but terrorised Matthew Kelly in exchange.

A month later, we finally got naked on TV when we performed The Balloon Dance on OTT. (The video is on YouTube) That was in January 1981. It was one of the first programmes made by Central, who had taken over from ATV as the Birmingham ITV station.

OTT was meant to be the all new, very daring adult version of Chris Tarrant’s anarchic children’s show Tiswas. Alexei Sayle performed on it every week and still no-one understood his humour. Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Helen Atkinson-Wood were the other OTT regulars.

On the first night we were there, the studio audience didn’t react very well to the over-all show but, when we came on, we set the place alight – figuratively speaking – and afterwards there was a furore in the press, which we wanted. Mary Whitehouse complained about it, which is always a good thing.

We got on very well with Chris Tarrant but, two or three years later, we did the Balloon Dance on another late-night TV show created by him (Saturday Stayback – there is a video not including Malcolm on YouTube). It was shot in a pub and he was desperate for ratings, because they hadn’t been very good. So he got us in to do the last show in the series.

Afterwards, there was a big end-of-series party for everyone and we weren’t invited to it. So our roadie saw a massive bottle of champagne – a Jeroboam – and nicked it. We were giving Helen Atkinson-Wood a lift because she also had to miss the party to get back to London. We all got in our Luton Transit and suddenly Chris Tarrant came running out, mad, shouting:

“You’ve had my champagne!”

“No we haven’t!” I lied.

“You have!” he yelled. “You’ll never work on TV again!”

At this, Helen Atkinson-Wood jumped out of the van because she didn’t want to be associated with us and the roadie drove us off back to London.

I have heard since that Chris Tarrant says this incident involved the pub having some silvery cutlery nicked which had sentimental value to the landlord. If anything else was nicked, it wasn’t us; we just nicked one bottle of champagne.

Anyway it all ended in tears. But our first appearance on OTT was our big breakthrough and afterwards it was all congratulations.

As a result of our TV success, we ended up with an agent, Louis Parker, who treated us like The Chippendales.

We went mainstream. We were doing hen nights and End of The Pier variety shows for two or three years – not the University shows that we had done before. Literally end-of-the-pier. Colwyn Bay and Blackpool we did. We were a novelty act doing a 15-20 minute show for what was then an enormous amount of money: about £500-£600 a show. But there were three of us to pay, plus a roadie.

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson, who clashed with the show’s BBC producer

While we were doing that, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson went on to TV success in The Young Ones.

Pete Richardson (who went on to direct The Comic Strip) was meant to have been in that: he was meant to have been the one that no-one knows. They wanted a macho-man figure as a counter-balance to the others and Pete was replaced by someone they recruited out of a casting agency.

The Young Ones garnered all the credit for being clever comedians, while we were literally performing a dumb show. Our success was short-term, lowbrow and mainstream.

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs doing the Balloon Dance in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

We even performed at a TUC Conference in Blackpool where Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dogs got booed off for being sexist: he was singing a song about a woman with tits and they didn’t like him. But they liked The Greatest Show on Legs naked with balloons. Except that we didn’t use balloons: we used photos of Mrs Thatcher to cover our genitalia and, after we turned round, our penises were sticking out of her mouth.

They loved it.

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