A La Recherche du Vivian Perdu
By David Harrison
David died last night.
I'd lay odds that even now he dines with Vivian, discussing moustaches. (July 23, 2003)
There's a little bit of Vivian on my wall, just above where I am typing this. There's a little more in the attic and a great deal more on the CD racks. Not much really for a man who took life by the scruff of its neck, merrily bashed and battered it for a few short years, and probably wasn't in the least surprised when it finally, fatally, kicked him in the balls.
I didn't know Vivian that well. Did anyone, I wonder, outside his family or even in it? That's for them to know and us to wonder although perhaps this site, dedicated to the affectionate memory of an archetypal British eccentric, may squeeze more than the usual politenesses out of his nearest and dearest.
I first met him on board the Thekla, a Baltic coaster bought and sailed into the inner harbour of Bristol, England, by his wife, Pamela Longfellow (now known, by her preference, as Ki) and another lady who is not really part of this side of the story. Different women, different visions. The partnership splintered and fractured beneath the strain and, as a new friend of both, I even chaired a legal meeting at their solicitor's office to oversee the official parting of the ways. That is a tale which awaits a proper telling of the Thekla story: I tried to be utterly impartial, but I have never seen the other woman since while Pamela Ki remains a close and valued friend, even across the Atlantic.
She and Vivian were married then but living apart under the stress of Vivian's weird genius and his demonic drinking. The glory days of the Bonzos had long past - when I announced to my colleagues that Vivian Stanshall's wife was bringing the Thekla to Bristol, there were those who looked blank. Fame is fleeting when you are on the fringe where Vivian teetered for the whole of his life before spectacularly falling off. I first met him on board the Thekla - by then dubbed The Old Profanity Showboat to the disquiet of certain conservative councillors - in 1985. It was there he was going to stage a great musical that would herald his return to the mainstream - well, as close to the mainstream as Vivian ever approached, anyway. It was called Stinkfoot and it used the talents of anyone who wanted to play and could cut the mustard.
I have the programme in front of me as I write. "Crackpot Theatre Company is proud to present its first production, Stinkfoot, an English Comic Opera in the Grand Tradition" is declared in a flurry of Letraset stick-on typefaces. "Written by Vivian Stanshall and Pamela Ki Longfellow. Words, music and arrangement by Vivian Stanshall. Directed by Vivian Stanshall. Produced by Pamela Longfellow for the Old Profanity Showboat". The characters were what we had expected and hoped for from the creator of Can Blue Men Sing the Whites, My Pink Half of the Drainpipe and such joyous 20s recreations such as Jollity Farm. There were Screwy the Ocean Liner, The Left Half of Screwy's Brain, The Partly Cooked Shrimp, The Balanced Nose, Mrs Bag Bag (played by a young Sydney Longfellow) and a Giant Squid. Vivian even contributed to the choreography - what little was possible in the cramped interior of the Old Profanity.
By then Vivian was living on the boat and subject to strange mood swings. I recall meeting him for the first time with the awe that he often instilled in the unwary. It wasn't just the amazing, beautifully modulated voice (the second best of the century after Orson Welles someone [who?] once said) which can be heard at its elegant best at the end of the original Tubular Bells - and still retaining that essential British correctness through a thick filter of alcohol in a glorious, totally
drunken tour of a stately home
on the CD reissue. Certainly it was truly wonderful to discover that he really spoke like that in real life, but equally hypnotising was his astonishing moustache.
Was he aiming for the true RAF handlebar? Possibly. But what he had achieved was a wonderful creation, a Three Musketeers, Laughing Cavalier double curve that swept from each nostril like a river in full spate, swerved elegantly in mid flow and headed back towards the ceiling. It was a moustache par excellence; the moustache of a rogue and a gentleman and a slightly raffish cad - the kind who would attend the finest cut-glass dinner parties and quietly disappear at the end of the evening with the family silver.
I don't remember what we talked about - the show probably _ but we got on well enough, sitting in the Thekla's wheelhouse where an incipient jungle fought with Vivian's art tools and musical instruments for space. Again, that hypnotic voice, that black chocolate richness which must have been carved with angelic hammer and chisel from a block of pure mellifluence, that and the air of a slightly puzzled sheepdog which his long hair gave him - that's what remains in the memory.
After the interview, Vivian asked me to walk with him to the Theatre Royal. For anyone else, the Bristol Theatre Royal is a few hundred yards from the ship in a nearly straight line through the largest Georgian square in Western Europe. To Vivian, it was a nightmare. By then he was suffering from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, and Queen Square, which is a fair stride from one corner to another, was an endless trek across an open prairie for him. We walked to the square, chatting amiably until we reached the treeline and the boundless steppes lay before us. Vivian grabbed my arm and started talking fiercely, unendingly about anything, everything - just so the sound of his own voice could drive away the horror of all that sky. I guided him carefully from one side to the other - I doubt if he opened his eyes fully or took them off the ground for a moment or that he stopped talking for a second. Once on the other side, in the shelter of welcoming trees and tall 18th century buildings, his soul seemed to return to him and the svelte cad was back.
I saw him many times after that, watched the premier of Stinkfoot with great joy at the enormous potential, revelled with Ki when it got a London date, mourned when it didn't really work. Let her tell that story. But of it all, I most remember the first night on board the Thekla with crowds of reviewers, friends, hangers-on and possibly even a few paying members of the audience, all crowded into the smoky, vaguely decrepit, but oh so loveable interior of the Old Profanity. As we watched Vivian and Ki's joint vision come to life, I glanced over to a sort of booth at one side to see Vivian in tears, looking desolate and almost child like with Ki trying to comfort him. I never asked why and don't really want to know, but that, more than most, is my abiding memory of him.
Ki and Vivian eventually parted again, she returned to America and the Old Profanity became a rather ordinary floating disco. I never saw Vivian again.
When I read of his appalling death, I wrote to Ki offering sympathies even though he no longer meant anything to her. It was one of the worst mistakes of my life. The anguished reply that came back telling me I was so wrong shook me to the core. How could I even consider such a thing. I don't know now, but the realisation of what I had written, knowing them both, left me in despair at the inadvertent pain I had caused. It still hurts to remember it today.
Above my computer is Vivian's drawing of Isaiah the Disgruntled Flounder, one of the central characters of Stinkfoot. In my attic are the painted waves and other scenery made by artist Mark Millmore. Even better, my five year old grand daughter has discovered the Bonzos and Jollity Farm, Mr Slater's Parrot, The Monster Mash, Mickey Mouse's Son and Daughter and all the other timeless hokum songs Vivian made his own back in the oh-so-serious sixties. I wrote and told Ki that I thought Vivian would be delighted to know his music was reaching another generation. She replied, simply: "He knows".