TREVOR HOWARD, A GENTLEMAN AND A PLAYER
By Vivienne Knight
“I don’t know what I want but I want it now!” yells
Trevor Howard as ‘Sir Henry’
in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. Whatever it was, he got it and plenty more from Vivian Stanshall, the eccentric genius who was behind - and in - the film.
Sir Henry’ was first born of Vivian Stanshall on John Peel’s radio show in 1977: a permanently pissed feudal jingoist whose motto is Omnes Blotto, who plays war games with German prisoners of war kept as pets on his estate, and who protects himself from his wife’s advances with a barrier of barbed wire down the middle of his bed.
As a kind of musical event, this lovable character became a popular album, a book and, as a film, the most anarchical British comedy ever. No Lars or Panates remain intact, no shibboleth rests unturned, no joke is too old to be revamped, and if some of the new ones cause Aunt Hattie to wrinkle her nose, they equally give Uncle Bert a belly-laugh. The line “If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink,” finds its way straight to the hearts of the faithful.
As the outrageously eccentric aristocrat with his id firmly mired in the past Empire glories - “Never met a man I didn’t mutilate” - Trevor Howard was in a brand-new comedic element, visually and vocally. Vivian Stanshall thought of Sir Henry as surr-Ealing comedy. Many critics thought of Monty Python or the Goons with overtones of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas; they also saw a film that might become a cult. Since it was shot in black and white in three weeks and cost less than half a million dollars, it certainly deserves a place in any film history of its time.
Vivian Stanshall’s first reaction to Trevor Howard as Sir Henry was that Trevor was too upper-crust and wouldn’t do at all. It is a measure of Stanshall’s integrity that he didn’t seize upon such a famed actor, right or wrong. When the film was finished he found that Trevor was more like Sir Henry than his own creation.
By rote, eyebrows were raised at the very idea of Straight-bat Howard appearing in such an esoteric jape, and he knew it. “’Why on earth is he doing that film?’ they’ll say, and the answer is, because I want to do it. I might never get the offer to do such a thing again.” And he didn’t, because there never was quite such a thing again.
Trevor thought the film highly comic and a film to see more than once, “People want to see it again and again because you can’t grasp it all at once. It’s wild.”
(Ki’s notes. During filming, Trevor and Vivian got on beautifully. Unable to go to the director for advice on much of anything - since the ‘director’ hadn’t a clue - Trevor came to Vivian. “Please,” Trevor would say, “tell me about Henry.” And Vivian would tell him and tell him, and they wound up nose to nose, tippling and talking and grinning at each other like podded peas, and for some reason... Vivian was soon asked not to come on the set anymore. Perhaps ‘banned’ is a better word. I do believe tradition has it that Mister Standstill was barred for his drinking, but in this case, the ‘true’ truth is this: he was banned because the director was dreadfully out of his depth, and all the actors knew it, and their appealing to Vivian made it very very obvious to everyone else. The proof of this? The cinematographer, who went on to win an Academy Award for a film he made about teenage runaways and hookers in Seattle, became fast friends with Vivian... and only with Vivian. Vivian may have had a wee probbie with Old Demon Alcohol, but he was ever the consummate artist.)