Tag Archives: Stephen Fry

Michael Livesley: “an outrageous talent” has a comedy show and slimming advice

“An outrageous talent,” is how Stephen Fry described him.

“Bellowing, manic chutzpah,” said Robin Ince.

“Brilliant! Berserk! Simply wonderful!” wrote the Guardian.

But now Michael Livesley is quite literally only Half The Man he was and that is the title of his first ever show at the Edinburgh Fringe this August.

He has appeared in this blog a few times before, when he was staging Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Vivian Stanshall tribute shows with, among others, Neil Innes, Rick Wakeman and Stephen Fry .

Half The Man is totally different…

…Michael Palin (left) with the old-style Michael Livesley…


The new-look Michael Livesley – “It’s time for me to move on”

JOHN: You are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time this year… Why?

MICHAEL: It’s time for me to move on.

JOHN: The show is in the Comedy section But you’re not a stand-up comedian, are you?

MICHAEL: No.

JOHN: So what are you?

MICHAEL: I don’t know. I suppose the word Storyteller fits. I was a singer and then I ended-up getting into acting. I’m just talking about me life, really.

JOHN: The show is…?

MICHAEL: The line that sums it up is: Losing weight is a thermodynamic process. Eat less; move more. But it’s one that’s complicated by emotional baggage.

It’s not just about losing weight. It’s about what leads people to the psychology of locking themselves indoors and hiding away from society and filling the void – the dearth of having a social life or a life in general, filling that emotional void with food and drinking. Which is what I was doing.

JOHN: But with humour?

MICHAEL: It definitely has laughs!

JOHN: So you have lost a bit of weight…

MICHAEL: Yes, I started on the 20th of September 2018 when I was 23 stone 4lbs and, by January 2019, I’d lost five stone.

JOHN: And how much are you now, at the start of July 2019?

MICHAEL: 13 stone.

JOHN: And that’s the show?

MICHAEL: Well, I found out a lot about myself, not just by going through the process of losing weight but in the process of writing this show. I found out where my triggers were. Did you have breakfast this morning?

JOHN: Two boiled eggs. Two slices of toast.

MICHAEL: You see, in the past, I couldn’t have done that. I would have had to have 12 pieces of toast and 10 eggs. And it’s all down to this thing called the Scarcity and Abundancy Mentality.

People who have a Scarcity Mentality have… well… How many pies would you like?… ALL of them… How many pints of beer would you like?… How many have you GOT? I want to have them all because I don’t know when there’s going to be more.

Michael sings with Neil Innes at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre

It went back to all the poverty when I was growing up. Me nan had a saying: It’s like giving a donkey strawberries.

The donkey won’t stop eating strawberries and that’s kinda what I’m like. It’s not what I WAS like. It’s what I AM like.

So I changed me diet to this ketogenic diet which removes carbohydrates.

JOHN: Why?

MICHAEL: Because carbohydrate for me is… Once that chain reaction of glucose and sugar and everything within my body starts, it gives me a reward in the brain – a hormonal reward – it spikes insulin – whatever you want to say – that is addictive to me. That pleasure feeling is addictive to me.

That’s the physical addiction side of it.

But then there’s the attachment side of it. That goes on in a part of the brain I refer to as the pub-conscious. The attachment side of it is: Remember when that person split up with you, you had that big pizza and that big bottle of cola and aaah you felt good? Or: You remember when that person died, after the funeral you got really pissed and you were having a laugh with your mates?

All these things ‘leave a ring around the bath’ as they say. And you try to emulate these things like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations where she’s in her wedding dress and has the wedding cake. You try to surround yourself and build an artifice dedicated to the past. But the past has gone. 

Michael (left) and his friend Lee photographed in June 1993 (top image) and in a June 2019 re-staging of the same photo

So the day you realise the past is dead, that’s the day that things start to change. Because you realise that actually there is a life to lead. It’s about the hard work of recognising that. Letting go of the past. Letting go of all the emotional crutches that were sustaining you in a non-life.

All these shitty things happened to me in the past, but I’m still worthy of fulfilling the potential of living my life.

That’s what I realised.

German compound verbs seem to come up an awful lot when I’m writing. The one German word that describes all this is torschlusspanik – ‘gate shut panic’ – which means ‘time is running out’.

We call it a mid-life crisis.

That feeling is what happened to me. I got this torschlusspanik.

People like you were telling me I should be getting on with things. You know you’re capable of at least having a go at this stuff. Get on with it. What’s standing in your way? – Oh, well, I don’t want to stand out there being 24 stone because of all the criticism and all the public shaming.

Public humiliation forms a big component of fat people’s lives. And the name-calling and all the other shit you go through in life… which bit by bit by bit makes you retreat and shrink your world down to your basic ‘Sitting in a room surrounded by things that give you comfort in the hope that you can reignite that fire within your mind and within your emotional being’.

So that’s kind of the story. I lay on my side for so long that the hair on my left leg stopped growing. Honestly. Truly. I was so lazy, my hair couldn’t be arsed growing.

JOHN: But you weren’t just sitting in a room doing nothing. You were constantly going off on stage being jolly and singing and joking.

The old Michael (beer bottle in hand) with Rick Wakeman

MICHAEL: I was doing that every now and then but, in-between, I’d lock myself away and drink and drink and drink – just crazy fucking drinking.

JOHN: And you moved back from London to Lancashire. Was that linked?

MICHAEL: I suppose now, looking back, you could say that gave me the support that I needed and made me feel less anxious. Because anxiety and depression were completely and utterly ruining me life.

JOHN: And…?

MICHAEL: Charles Bukowski, the American poet, has this great poem called The Spark about how shit his life was but how he kept this spark and how he would have to blow on it to keep it alive and it was kinda keeping him alive. The poem ends with the great line: A spark can set a whole forest on fire. Just a spark. Save it.

My show is about me trying to do everything I could to give me the outward confidence to match what I believed I could potentially do to improve myself and improve the life of others.

It’s a modern phenomenon: eating all this crap and locking ourselves away. We didn’t used to have the option. You had to get off your arse and go out to work every day.

JOHN: You don’t want to lose any more weight, do you?

MICHAEL: Well, I could but I can’t. I’ve been on these monitors at the gym that tell your body fat and I’ve got no body fat to lose. I’ve got so much muscle now. I’ve never been that guy. I’ve become muscular by accident.

JOHN: What are you going to do after the Fringe?

MICHAEL: I’d like to tour the show. And I do the videos online. I’ve been doing videos talking about the process.

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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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Political Correctness has not gone far enough! – Ban Baldism and Beardism!

We have lived long enough in a world where women are constantly undermined in favour of men. For hundreds of years, women have been seen as ‘not as important’ or ‘not as good’ as men.

Recently, it was revealed that BBC TV’s QI host Sandi Toksvig was getting only 40% of the fee previous host Stephen Fry received.

This is outrageous!

The fact that Stephen Fry did the job for ten years and is generally accepted as bringing prestige to the show is not a factor, any more than the fact that Paul Merton has appeared on Have I Got News For You for what seems like generations. Just because he has should not mean he gets paid any more than a one-off guest panelist. People should be paid according to the amount of wordage and length of screen time they have in each episode of each panel show.

Popularity and statistics are less important than pure equality

The fact that Sandi Toksvig currently has 158,000 Twitter followers and Stephen Fry has 12.7 million should not be a factor. This is about equality of pay for people doing the same job.

All comedians in any stage show should be paid exactly the same and there should be a statutory rate per minute no matter whether the comedy is performed in a local club or at the London Palladium. Comedy is comedy. A comedian is a comedian. A presenter is a presenter is a presenter.

There should be statutory rates for plays. All actors playing Hamlet should be paid the same amount. It is outrageous they are not. It is the same play and they are spouting the same words.

“One equal wage for all creative performers” should be the mantra for the 2020s. An actor is an actor. A comic is a comic. A TV presenter is a TV presenter. 

We should ban all financial negotiations on pay and fees

NO PAY DISCRIMINATION!

Talent is a matter of opinion not a fact. We should outlaw performers’ agents and ban all financial negotiations on pay and fees because negotiating is, in itself, an inherently discriminatory endeavour. 

THIS IS ABOUT EQUALITY!

But we should also positively discriminate more generally. 

PC has not gone far enough.  

Equality is not just a right; it is a necessity and should be – it has to be – enforced. 

For years, bald men have been discriminated against and maligned. It is overdue that this is reversed and bald men like me should be paid more and given more job opportunities than more talented, experienced and suitable hirsute men after years of discrimination and ridicule aimed against us. Hairism must be rooted out. We must restore and impose equality.

As far as I am aware, no bald candidate for British Prime Ministership has ever beaten an hairy candidate in a General Election. 

Churchill versus Atlee in two slaphead UK General Elections

With Atlee v Churchill in 1945 and 1951, it was the battle of two slapheads. In the General Election battle between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock in 1987, Thatcher had the hair and, indeed, the balls.

The fact that baldism is rife in politics and in Society at large is self-evident.

And the same goes for men with beards.

For too long has Society accepted open discrimination against bearded men.

Margaret Thatcher, it is reported, would not appoint any bearded man to her Cabinet.

But this particular discrimination goes way back. It started, I believe, in Britain with the Beard Tax in 16th century England when Queen Elizabeth I introduced a tax on every (male) beard of more than two weeks’ growth.

In 1698, Peter the Great introduced a beard tax in Russia “to bring Russian Society into line with Western European countries”. The Tsarist police were empowered to forcibly shave off the beards of those who refused to pay the tax. This inevitably triggered a revolution in 1917.

But this institutionalised beardism is not just restricted to Right Wing regimes.

Even People’s champion Enver Hoxha fell prey to beardism

When, in 1979, I went to Albania (then under the benevolent leadership of Enver Hoxha) I had to have part of my beard shaved off so there was a gap of at least regulation distance between my chin beard and my sideburns.

Even under a benevolent Socialist regime, beardism can flourish and has flourished.

What all this proves is that there is deep-seated institutionalised beardism and hairism engrained in the very bedrock of society, including  British society.

The only way to rid our country of these pernicious prejudices is to have quotas.

There should be quotas in all jobs in all areas of society for bald men and bearded men related to their percentage of the population at large.

If a hairy-headed or shaved-chin candidate is more qualified to do a job, then he (or she) should be rejected in favour of a bald or bearded candidate, until the correct quotas are met. 

It is unfortunate but it is necessary.

This is about equality.

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Comedy singer Ariane Sherine – from Duran Duran to Humanist ‘reservations’

Ariane Sherine and I first had a blog chat in October 2014, when she released her music album Beautiful Filth.

This Saturday, she is headlining the annual (free) One Life Humanist Choir concert at what she calls “the fabulous heathen palace” of Conway Hall – more correctly the Ethical Society’s London HQ.


JOHN: Are you in the choir?

ARIANE: No. The choir are amazing and brilliant. They’re going to be playing seven songs including two of my favourites: Days by The Kinks and Billie Jean (Michael Jackson). When I was originally approached, though, it was also suggested they might supply a choral backing for my songs and I was so excited. I was thinking about writing out sheet music for the first time in decades and what sort of arrangements I would score, but then the choir heard some of my songs and I was told they had ‘reservations’.

JOHN: Why? Are you singing about God?

ARIANE: No. Singing about sex. The choir ‘had reservations’, so I sent them one of my cleaner songs and they said: “Wow! If that is the more subtle one then the extreme ones could be interesting!” They said they had too full a schedule to do the backing, but I think they were being polite and were actually put off by my filth.

JOHN: What was the clean song you sent them?

ARIANE: Would You Still Love Me

Would you still love me
If I took you to the cleaners?
Would you still love me
If my nose turned into a penis?
Would you still love me
If I never said thank you or please
And I always did asparagus wees
And my flange smelled like blue cheese?

JOHN: What did they find objectionable?

ARIANE: I don’t know. I’m totally baffled.

JOHN: You are also bringing out a book in October. I presume that is going to be full of filth too?

ARIANE: No, it’s not. It’s called Talk Yourself Better: A Confused Person’s Guide To Therapy, Counselling and Self-Help. It’s a beginner’s guide to therapy and types of therapy. I’ve written guides to the different types of therapy which are short and funny like myself. And there are contributions from people who have had therapy – including Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker, David Baddiel, James Brown…

JOHN: James Brown the singer?

ARIANE: No, John. He’s dead. That would be difficult, especially as I don’t believe in an afterlife. James Brown, the former editor of GQ who also launched Loaded magazine. 

JOHN: What are Humanists anyway? They’re just atheists.

ARIANE: They are atheists with ethics. Atheists who are good without God.

JOHN: Surely it’s just a way of making atheism into a religion, isn’t it? Which is a bad idea, because almost all religions are OK. It’s organised religion that turns things bad. And Humanism is just organised atheism.

ARIANE: No. We have no places of worship; not even community centres. We don’t stop anybody from doing anything.

JOHN: Except joining in with rude songs.

ARIANE: (LAUGHS) That might be a drawback.

JOHN: You keep saying “we”. You created and organised the Atheist Bus Campaign in 2008. But are you a Humanist?

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

ARIANE: I am. I’m a patron of Humanists UK. 

JOHN: Shouldn’t you be a matron not a patron?

ARIANE: That sounds a bit frumpy. I’d rather be the sex goddess of Humanists UK.

JOHN: That would involve flanges, though… So what are you going to sing on Saturday if you can’t sing dirty songs?

ARIANE: I can sing my dirty songs. The choir just won’t be doing the backing.

JOHN: What would they have been doing if they had done it? Ooh-aaah Ooh-aaah ooh-aaahs?

ARIANE: I might have had them sing “vaginosis”. I have always dreamt about one bit in Will You Still Love Me?

Would you still love me
If I had pungent halitosis?
Halitosis
Would you still love me
If I had bacterial vaginosis?
Vaginosis

I would have loved to have had that Vaginosis, John. 

JOHN: You’re not just a singer of dirty songs, though. You have a bit of previous. With Duran Duran.

ARIANE: Yes. I left school at 16. I was asked to leave.

This girl was bullying me and she spat in my lunch and I threw a full coke can in her face and gave her a black eye. Her step-sister’s gang were waiting outside the school to beat me up or worse and the deputy head had to escort me past the gang and it was made clear to me this couldn’t happen again and that I should leave school.

I remember the deputy head saying to me: “You’ve got to work out what you are going to do with your life now,” and I said, “I know what I’m going to do. I am going to go and find Duran Duran.”

A young Ariane Sherine with Simon Le Bon

So I found out where they were recording, went down to the studio, met them and started hanging out with them and that’s what I did for the next three years.

JOHN: As a groupie…?

ARIANE: No, no. As a songwriter. I wanted to write songs. I told them that and they would listen to my songs and give me advice and feedback.

JOHN: But you never actually played with them…

ARIANE: I did do some sessions for one of their records, playing piano and singing – Ken Scott was the producer. But my contributions didn’t appear on the album and they meant to thank me in the liner notes but forgot. And then I didn’t see them for eight years. Then Simon Le Bon saw me interviewed on television when I was promoting the Atheist Bus Campaign and he sent me a letter via the Guardian.

JOHN: Because you were writing columns for the Guardian at the time.

ARIANE: Yes. So we kind of rekindled our friendship then.

JOHN: Any chance of Duran Duran doing a cover of your Hitler Moustache song ?

ARIANE: No, John, it wouldn’t work.

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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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Yesterday’s quirky day from The Great Terror to a woman not playing a horse

Nick Awde singing opera in the streets of Edinburgh yesterday

Nick Awde seemingly sings opera in Edinburgh’s streets

In my opinion, this blog may meander around a bit in its subjects, but one uniting factor is a little bit of quirky detail. And yesterday had some quirkiness woven into it.

I had bumped into Nick Awde the day before.

He is a writer and critic for entertainment industry weekly The Stage, has published books under his Desert Hearts imprint by comedy people Phil Kay and Bob Slayer and he himself co-wrote Pete and Dud: Come Again (about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) and, solo, wrote Jimmy Savile: The Punch and Judy Show which (as a title) Ellis & Rose infamously performed at the Edinburgh Fringe – though, it has to be said, mostly without much reference to the original script.

Anyway, Nick Awde invited me to go and see the world premiere aka a rehearsed reading of Midnight at the St James’s Theatre yesterday. He told me it was a very serious Azerbaijani play about the Stalinist Terror.

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen the West End musicals Showstoppers! and Bend It Like Beckham – both bright, jolly, uplifting, toe-tapping feasts of singing and dancing and primary colours – so I cannot honesty say that an Azerbaijani play about the Great Terror seemed wildly appetising. Well, it would not be an attractive proposition at any time but – Hey! – I thought – It might be interesting or eccentric or both.

Midnight - the Great Terror musical

Midnight – Stalin’s Great Terror as a musical

So I went yesterday afternoon and realised I must not have been paying full attention to Nick when he described it to me, because it was a MUSICAL about the Great Terror written by Elchin Ilyas oglu Afandiyev, who has been Deputy Prime Minister of Azerbaijan since 1993.

And it was not eccentric. It was wonderful. It was a serious and very dark musical about The Great Terror which I thought owed a little bit to J.B.Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Although, I should point out, I have never actually seen An Inspector Calls.

Well, I possibly may have seen it years ago on the London stage but, as is well documented, I have a shit memory – I can’t remember the plot but have a vague memory of a two-storey stage set.

Midnight did not have a two-storey stage set.

Anyway, Nick Awde’s involvement in Midnight is as artistic director of the Aloff Theatre company which staged the play/musical and which is “dedicated to the promotion of new and classic works from East Europe and Central Asia” and which is “currently focusing on the interchange of dramatic resources between Azerbaijan and the UK”.

So Nick Awde, in my eyes, should be described as – and, indeed, is – an Englishman raised in Africa living in France with a Georgian passport involved in an Azerbaijani theatre company who wrote about Jimmy Savile as a Punch & Judy show.

I think that qualifies as quirky.

At St James’s Theatre yesterday (left-right) Hannah Eidinow, Norman Baker, Christopher Richardson and Nick Awde

At St James’s Theatre yesterday (left-right) Hannah Eidinow, Norman Baker, Christopher Richardson and Nick Awde

After the show, Nick told me that one of his relatives had been in the British Army and had been carried onto one of the boats evacuating the troops at Dunkirk in 1940. He had not been wounded. He had been carried on because, like many of the British troops at Dunkirk, he was paralytically drunk.

Retreating through a not-totally-devasted France, they had been taking shelter in abandoned farmhouses, most of which retained their wine cellars. His relative could remember little about the evacuation from Dunkirk except being carried onto a boat.

Inevitably, Nick had invited interesting people along to see the Midnight musical yesterday afternoon.

Notably:

  • former Liberal Democrat MP and Minister of State for Crime Prevention at the Home Office, now author and rock singer, Norman Baker who bizarrely, like me, was born in Scotland, partly brought up in Aberdeen and partly brought up in Essex.
  • and Christopher Richardson, founder of the Pleasance venues in Edinburgh and London who, it turned out, had previously designed theatres and theatre seats – it was suggested my buttocks may have rested on one or more of his creations – and who, in a previous incarnation as a teacher, had taught Stephen Fry.
Jody Kamali - Spectacular!

Jody Kamali – eternally Spectacular! and eccentric

I then had to rush to see Jody Kamali’s excellent Spectacular! show at the Museum of Comedy (I had already seen it at the Edinburgh Fringe in August). Afterwards, he told me about someone he knew who had a dispute with Rowan Atkinson at a press conference at the Fringe in 1971. As a result, his friend’s show was sold out despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Rowan (very popular on the Fringe at the time) allegedly stood outside the venue every day screaming to the public NOT to go in and see the show.

Anyway, eventually, in the early hours of this morning, I got home to an e-mail from this blog’s South Coast correspondent Sandra Smith (who seems to be spending less and less time on the South Coast).

The email said:


I went to the Camden’s People’s Theatre in London this evening to see Lou aka LoUis CYfer, from the Admiral Duncan pub, Soho.

Louis Cyfer welcomes Sandra with open arms (Photograph by Sandra Smith)

Lou welcomes Sandra into dressing room with open arms (Photograph by Sandra Smith)

She got a Guardian review and is booked for Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe next year. I really enjoyed her one woman show Joan

She wove her late grandmother, Catherine, into the piece, complete with reserved empty chair. It was beautifully done.

I got to play a cannon instead of a horse and gave it my all.

My efforts were clearly not appreciated because the audience all laughed.


As is often the case in this blog, I have no explanation and it seems wiser not to ask.

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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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