Tag Archives: Neil Innes

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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Filed under Comedy, Music, sectarianism, Sex, Society, Sociology

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – soft anarchy & a concrete-floored ambulance

The flu, technology and utter laziness… Three recent enemies of this blog.

As my computer wiped photos, Michael Livesley (right) kindly recreated our meeting with Rod Slater (left) at a Soho pub.

As my computer wiped photos, Michael Livesley (right) kindly recreated our meeting with Rod Slater (left) at a Soho pub.

On 15th April, I had a chat with former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member Rod Slater and Michael Livesley, reviver of Viv Stanshall’s eccentric epic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. I was going to post a blog the following week. Three days later, the hard drive on my laptop computer corrupted, taking with it the photos I had transferred (and erased from) my phone though, fortunately, I still had the audio recording on my phone.

The new version of Viv Stanshall’s classic album

The newly-released version of Viv Stanshall’s classic album

So I thought the release of the new version of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End CD on 13th May would be a good excuse to write a blog. Then lethargy and flu set in.

The flu just-about cleared for a 20th May press launch publicising the new Bonzo tribute CD (not the same as the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End one) and their upcoming appearance at the London Palladium on 19th November.

Then flu and lethargy returned until now, dear reader, when mention of the Bonzo Dogs has reappeared here.

New Bonzo Dog album (not to be confused with Sir Henry)

The new Bonzo album (not the Sir Henry one)

“It’s not live,” Michael Livesley told me about the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End CD (not to be confused with the Bonzo Dog one). We did it in the studio. It’s got Rick Wakeman on it and Neil Innes has done a bit on it. It took bloody ages to do because, when you’re recording a complicated concept album… Well, it’s a really complicated album.

“It’s strange that something which started as an album that I turned into a stage show is now an album again. It’s the first release on Rick Wakeman’s record label Rraw. The whole idea of the album was Rick’s. It comes with a 16-page booklet with all the photos.”

“The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band have really lasted,” I said to Rod Slater.

“Yes,” he told me, “the Bonzo Dog finished in 1970, but it’s just gone on. It started in 1962, for Godsake. I don’t remember all of it that well now.”

I said: “They probably thought Beethoven would be forgotten after 50 years.”

“That’s totally different,” said Rod.

“You,” said Michael to me, “were at the Bonzo’s last London gig, weren’t you?”

The Bonzo’s last London performance

Poster for the Bonzo’s last London performance

“At the Regent Street Poly?” I asked. “No, I didn’t go. I just kept the poster.”

“I remember the very last show,” said Rod. “It was at Loughborough University. It was like a way of life had come to an end. I didn’t want to stop entirely, but some of the others were pissed-off and felt they could do with a break.”

“Pissed-off with what?” I asked. “The travelling and everything?”

“Yeah,” Rod replied. “Just the intensity, I suppose. We’d been doing it for about six years without a break, so it was getting a bit… Well… But, fuck me, I didn’t half miss it when it was over.”

“Was it getting a bit samey for you?” I asked.

“No, it went on developing. I think it came to a premature end, really, but, at the same time, it couldn’t have gone on really, because things were cracking up.”

“It’s usually better,” I suggested, “for things to end too early rather than too late.”

“I think so, yes,” said Rod.

(L-R) Michael Livesley, Stephen Fry & Rod Slater re-create Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

(L-R) Michael Livesley, Stephen Fry & Rod Slater recreate the former glories of Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

“That’s why it’s great to be doing all this stuff now,” said Michael. “Because it’s worth continuing. It’s good quality stuff. I think we’ve lost sight of what we do best in this country from an entertainment point of view. You can’t blame the influence of America or the rise of dance music or any of that stuff. It’s nowt to do with that. We now live in a world – never mind a country – where it’s cool to be thick and it’s cool not to think too much about things and it’s cool not to question authority. We live in an age of conformity. What Viv and the Bonzos did was as far from conformity as you could get. But it was done with such whimsy and so gently. There was no kicking. It was like a soft anarchy with loads of humour.”

Michael Livesley with Rod Slater at the album launch

Michael Livesley (left) with Rod Slater at the album launch

“I think now,” mused Rod, “I would be far more vicious. I am a contrarist by nature, so nothing would ever be right for me. I’m not a confrontationist. There’s no point in getting your bloody head kicked in. But to confront things with humour and present them in a ridiculous way with the very definite clear message You should think about this! underneath. That’s the best thing anyone’s ever said about my work: It’s silly, but there’s something underneath it. I’m very much more like that now. I don’t think I was sophisticated enough in the 1960s to actually…”

The original Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP

Viv Stanshall’s original Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP

“Especially with Viv,” suggested Michael. “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is the biggest examination of our class system and the Empire and everything coming to a screeching halt into psychedelia that you could wish for.”

“What were the other serious issues?” I asked.

“What?” asked Rod. “When? Then?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well,” said Rod, “we were all likely to be bloody fried, weren’t we? The Bomb. And there was misogyny unlimited. Still is. All manner of… For Godsake, it was a totally different world. You couldn’t get away with a lot of it now, but no-one questioned it.”

“The next thing up,” said Michael, “is Glastonbury. We are doing Sir Henry at Rawlinson End at Glastonbury, which I think is the perfect setting for it.”

“How many people will be performing it?” I asked.

“Seven of us. Six days under canvas. It’s not for the faint-hearted. We are on at 8 o’clock every night in the Astrolabe Theatre.”

“When I went to Glastonbury before,” said Rod, “I couldn’t stand the shit on the shovel.”

“There are different toilets in the artistes’ area now,” said Michael.

“The best place to hang around then,” Rod continued, “was the BBC area. That was where the phrase ‘the remains of the Bonzo Dog Band’ was coined by some girl presenter.”

“After Glastonbury,” said Michael, “we will be gearing up for the Bonzo tour in November.”

A previous Bonzo reincarnation in December 2015

A previous Bonzo Dog reincarnation back in December 2015

“Who are the Bonzos now? I asked.

“Me, Rod, Sam Spoons, Legs Larry, Vernon (Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell).”

“What does the tour involve?” I asked.

“One of the most exciting parts,” said Michael, “is playing the London Palladium on 19th November. That should be fun.”

“And the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End CD is already out,” I prompted.

“Yes,” said Michael,  “a good culmination of six years of working with different people. My brief for it was always: Just think of it as a Radio 4 play. The way to really get subversive comedy listened to is to have it masquerade as something else and I think there’s no more innocuous thing than a Radio 4 play. You think you’re going to hear croquet on the lawn with cucumber sandwiches.”

“That’s where the Rawlinsons came from,” said Rod. “We listened to those bloody plays when we were in the ambulance. Viv latched onto that. Those terrible plays and Mrs Dale’s Diary, which you can see in the early Bonzos’ stuff.”

“Ambulance?” I asked.

“Vernon,” said Rod, “bought this ambulance with a concrete floor and it had chairs in the back. Armchairs and all our equipment.”

“Why did it have a concrete floor?” I asked.

The Bonzo Dogs’ ambulance had a concrete floor

Bonzo Dogs’ ambulance had a concrete floor and a hand brake

“I don’t know,” said Rod. “but it did. There was a Dinky toy made of it.”

“It had reinforced concrete for the floor,” agreed Michael.

“One day,” mused Rod, “its brakes failed going down Shooters Hill and Vernon, with great presence of mind, pulled on the hand brake, which pulled his shoulder out and he was hospitalised. But he managed to stop the ambulance.”

“It was fortunate,” I said, “that he was in an ambulance.”

“Someone,” mused Michael, “sent me an article from the Fortean Times the other week about the Sitwell family. Dame Edith Sitwell was this early 20th century poetess.”

“Oh, they were all bonkers,” I said.

“They were like the Rawlinsons,” Michael continued. “This George Rersby Sitwell owned a 16th century castle in Spain that he ended up retiring to, because had had enough of the modern world. He made this place like the 16th century. He was even more bonkers than Sir Henry Rawlinson. So these people did exist and they were ripe for the picking in the 1970s.”

Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson.jpg

Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson

“The day Viv died,” said Rod, “there was actually a real Sir Henry Rawlinson who…”

“Yes,” said Michael, “who had died on the same day 100 years earlier. He died 5th March 1895 and Viv died 5th March 1995.”

“It was 5th or 6th March,” said Rod. “They don’t know whether he died before midnight or after.”

So it goes.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Nostalgia

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 1960s, Comedy, Music, Theatre

In memory of Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Michael Livesley

Now teetotal Michael Livesley at the Soho Theatre, London

I got an email from Michael Livesley.

It said:

“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.”

Michael’s boyhood tribute band The Eatles

Michael’s boyhood Fat Gang tribute band The Eatles

“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.”

Neil Innes, Rick Wakeman etc are joining in

Neil Innes, Rick Wakeman etc are joining in

“And now you’re doing shows,” I said. “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, on April 12th at the Laugharne Festival and Radio Stanshall on May 9th at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London.”

“The shows have got an agent now,” Michael told me. “The same agent as Roger McGough and Andrew Motion.”

“The ex-Poet Laureate?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“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.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP

Vivian Stanshall’s original Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Vivian’s son Rupert’s website

Vivian’s son Rupert’s Handyman site

“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.

Michael as Sir Henry in the premiere at Liverpool Unity theatre, June 22nd 2010

Michael in the Liverpool Unity premiere on 22nd June 2010

“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?

(From left) Rick Wakeman, Michael Livesley, JonnyHase & DannyBaker

(L-R) Rick Wakeman, Michael Livesley, Jonny Hase and Danny Baker at the Bloomsbury Theatre after the show

“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.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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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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