Loon on the Hill
Evening Post, 1988
The invitation to attend a performance of Vivian Stanshall’s Stinkfoot describes the work as “offbeat, funny, bluesy, loony”. There are not, I fear, words liable to ensnare me into beating a path to the theatre, being only a step away from “zany”.
“Zany”, as we know, means Kenny Everett, that dreadful buffoon who plays jokes on people, and most members of the new generation of profoundly unfunny comics. The description of Stinkfoot as “an English comic opera” does not exactly set the pulses most furiously racing either. In truth, the only seductive words on the invitation are “Vivian Stanshall”.
Since first hearing Stanshall back in 1968, when he was a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, I have argued that he is - on his day - the funniest man in Britain. Not jokes exactly, although there are jokes, but the rejoicing in language, the tumbling word games with which he brings his lunatic characters to life, is unsurpassed. One of his thoughts, I have cooed modestly, would probably blow my damnfool brains out.
With this in mind, it was with an unsteady hand that I dialled Stanshall’s phone number on Monday night. His mocking, beautifully modulated voice announced that any message left would meet with his fullest attention, adding, as an afterthought, that if I was going to say anything filthy, would I please speak clearly. I left the first of a brace of mildly hysterical messages on the machine, explaining that I needed to speak to him urgently, the better to bring Standard readers The True Story.
The result of these messages was that Sheila, whose first husband I am, was woken from richly deserved slumber slightly after two in the morning.
She later told me that Vivian Stanshall’s was possibly the only voice on earth by which she could be woken from sleep without becoming abusive. The further result of these messages was that about elevenses time the following day, I was greeted on his Muswell Hill doorstep by Vivian himself, thinner than I remembered - him, not me - less eccentrically bearded, dressed in rather downbeat pyjamas and dressing gown. He shuffled ahead of me into a room which had me jotting the words “Victorian clutter” in my notebook.
Feeling absurdly nervous and attempting to impress upon him that this was a serious, even important, interview, I asked the celebrated droll when he was born. From the large bed, his wife, the delightful Ki, spluttered with laughter. Vivian spluttered with indignation. If I wanted that sort of stuff, they wanted to know, why didn’t I crib it from the January issue of Q Magazine. Sound thinking, I thought.
However, Stanshall, feeling perhaps that he had been a bit tough on me, started to speak of his schooling. “Which school did you go to then?” I asked, attempting to seize the initiative. He could not immediately recall, but remembered that whilst still a pupil and the owner-operator of the best voice in the school, he had met Clement Atlee. “Singing?” I asked, thinking of the voice. “No, I don’t think he sang,” Vivian replied, thinking of Atlee.
This interviewing lark, I felt, was strictly a mug’s game. Further relentless probing revealed that Stanshall is working on another comic opera, based on the lives and characters of his parents. This may well be called Haircut. His present thoughts were still very much with the previous night’s apparently deeply unsatisfactory rehearsal of Stinkfoot. The computer-driven lighting left, it seemed, much to be desired and the stage in near perpetual gloom. In an oafish attempt to bring a little light into the Stanshall’s morning, I reminded Vivian of when the Bonzos shared the Hatfield Polytechnic stage with the John Peel Roadshow.
The night is still horrid in my mind because a trio of men - all named, if memory serves, Eric - had built the disco equipment they wished me to use from discarded East European washing-machine parts. My intense gloom at the resultant catastrophe was lifted only by a vintage performance from the Bonzos. Vivian could not recall the incident.
I next urged him to cast his mind back to the BBC studio at the end of the 1960s. A man taking part in a live radio programme introduced by myself had, as his first step towards a nervous breakdown from which he eventually recovered completely, removed all his clothing in a somewhat confrontational manner. In the terrible silence that followed this disrobing, I heard Vivian murmur, “I say. What an awfully good idea.” For some reason these words echo in my mind and give me new heart whenever disaster looms. Vivian did not remember this either.
With panic rising in my ample bosom, I asked him about a line from the Mephistophelean saga of Rawlinson End, brought into your homes by Radio 1 FM - the latest episode can be heard on my programme on Monday night - and to the cinema screen by a cast which included Stanshall himself and Trevor Howard. Newsagent Reg Smeeton had been described as wearing glasses the frames of which were shaped like a Ford car. Had it been, I wanted to know, a Capri or a Cortina? Husband and wife exchanged glances before Vivian sought out the original manuscript. It had been, we all discovered, the Cortina.
Fortified by this knowledge and by the certainty that Vivian Stanshall, having turned his back on the drink and tranquillisers that obliterated the 1970s for him, will continue for some time yet to have ideas that make me spit with envy, I stepped out into the soft sunshine of Muswell Hill.
Vivian was born in 1943, by the way.