VIVIAN STANSHALL Biography - Theater, Opera and Movie personalities


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Vivian Stanshall (March 21 1943″ March 5 1995) was an English musician, writer, wit, and raconteur and is probably best known for his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. He is also well known for his weird take on British society, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End .


Born Victor Anthony Stanshall in Shillingford, Oxfordshire. Soon after, the family moved to Walthamstow, on the borders of East London and Essex, where Viv lived happily with his mother, surviving the bombing while his dad was away in the RAF. When his father returned, things at home became fraught. Although working class, Mr. Stanshall aspired to middle class values, seeing his son as potential public school material and laying great emphasis on sportsmanship. Viv, though, could not have been less interested in such pursuits. Art, Music & Literature were what thrilled him - and appalled his dad.


Thus, Viv became a walking schism: at home, he would speak ‘properly’, as his father expected him to; with his schoolfriends, to avoid getting beaten up for being ‘posh’, it was broad cockney. As part of his anti-parental rebellion, he joined a gang of local Teddy Boys. The polished vowels kept leaking out, though, and consequently they looked upon him as something of an amusing freak.


In his teenage years, the family moved to the Essex resort of Southend on Sea. Here Viv managed to get employment doing various jobs at the ‘Kursaal’ funfair. He also worked as a bingo caller and spent the winter months painting the fairground attractions.


After a period in the merchant navy, Stanshall enrolled at Central School of Art, in London, and together with fellow students Rodney Slater and Roger Ruskin-Spear, plus Neil Innes, who was studying music at Goldsmiths College, decided to form a band. The name came out of a word game involving cutting up sentences and juxtaposing the fragments to form new ones. One of the combinations that came out of this exercise was “Bonzo Dog/Dada".


Thus was formed the famous/notorious Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band -later abbreviated to the Bonzo Dog Band. Their early material consisted of anarchic re-workings of old British novelty songs, found on 78 records bought from flea-markets. It was all in the performance: as front man, Stanshall sang, played a variety of instruments and on a good night would also perform a prolonged and hilarious fully-clothed strip mime, culminating in some spectacular tit-juggling. His very non-PC Jesus joke was also a highlight of the act.


For a while they existed as a semi-pro outfit playing the college circuit, but it wasn’t long before they were at it full-time. Over the next half-decade the band toured and recorded several albums, the success of which led to a tour in the US. It was so successful that they were booked for another US tour soon after. Inbetween the two, however, something happened in Vivian’s life to bring about a change in his personality. No one seems to know just what that something was - at least, none of his fellow Bonzos claim to know - but by the start of the second tour, he was on very large doses of tranquilizers, prescribed to treat some kind of mental illness. But the work carried on. The band had a punishing schedule, often playing more than one gig per evening.


After six years of gruelling hard work, they decided to call it a day” as much from sheer tiredness as anything else. Stanshall went on to form various short-lived groups such as Bonzo Dog Freaks, featuring the guitar talents of the rotund Bubs White, and ‘Big Grunt’.


Viv’s next big success came with ‘Rawlinson End’. It was first mentioned in a Bonzo Dog Band song of the same name. In the 1970s Stanshall recorded numerous sessions for BBC Radio 1’s John Peel show which elaborated, with a fine mixture of eloquence and irreverence, on the weird and wonderful adventures of the inebriate and politically-incorrect Sir Henry Rawlinson ("If I had all the money I’d spent on drink…I’d spend it on drink."), his dotty wife Great Aunt Florrie, his “unusual” brother Hubert (who, for speed, stature and far-seeing habitually goes on stilts), old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer, Mrs. E, the rambling and unhygienic cook, and other inhabitants of the crumbling stately home Rawlinson’s End and its environs. BBC Radio 4 fished some of these recordings out of the vault for a very late-night repeat at Christmas 1996, but there seems to be little chance of a commercial release.


An LP, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which reworked some of the material from the Peel sessions, appeared in 1978.


A sepia-tinted black and white film version, starring Trevor Howard as Sir Henry and Stanshall himself as Hubert, followed in 1980. It was also based on the Peel recordings, with many variations from the LP. Some of the music was provided by Stanshall’s friend Steve Winwood.


A book of the same name by Stanshall, illustrated with stills from the film, was released in the 1980s. It was nominally a film novelization, but was actually distilled from all the various versions of the story, including a good deal of material that was not used in the film. A projected second book, The Eating at Rawlinson End, sadly never appeared.


A second album, Sir Henry at Ndidi’s Kraal (1983), recounts Sir Henry’s disastrous African expedition, but disappointingly omits the rest of the Rawlinson clan.


Sir Henry’s final appearance was in a TV commercial for Ruddle’s Real Ale (c. 1994), where he is played by a cross-dressing Dawn French, presiding over a family banquet at a long table. Stanshall reprises the role of Hubert, reciting a weird poem loosely based on Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, at the end of which all the diners produce oars and row the table offstage.


Viv was often introduced as one of “Britain’s greatest eccentrics", but this was a tag he disliked. It made it sound as if he were acting in some way, and he was almost militant in affirming that he was just “being me". However, it is not hard to see why he received the label: of their first meeting, in a large Irish pub, Neil Innes said, “He was quite plump in those days” he had Billy Bunter check trousers and a Victorian frock coat, pince-nez glasses, carried a euphonium and wore pink rubber ears.”


For a few years in the mid-Eighties, Vivian lived and worked in Bristol on The Old Profanity Showboat. A creation of his wife’s, the ship saw the debut of Vivian and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall’s comic opera Stinkfoot . Vivian wrote twenty seven original songs for Stinkfoot, sharing some of the lyric writing with Ki. People came from all over Europe to see the thing…and some from as far away as America.


Stanshall’s refined voice won him a great deal of work for commercial voice-overs, including a Cadbury’s Creme Eggs campaign that included a reworking of the Bonzos song “Mister Slater’s Parrot", under the title of “Mister Cadbury’s Parrot".


He collaborated on numerous projects including Robert Calvert’s Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, appeared with Grimms and The Rutles, as well as working with The Alberts and The Temperance Seven on an occasional basis. He also wrote the lyrics for two of the songs on Steve Winwood’s hit album Arc of a Diver.


Other solo albums were Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead ([1974]) and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit ([1981]).


His life was dogged by depression and a drinking problem. He had several spells in hospital in an attempt to stop or control his drinking (this was before modern day notions of rehab). He was also prescribed valium, which - he later reported - seemed to have made things worse, simply adding another addiction.


He was married twice, in 1968 to Monica Peiser (divorced 1975, they had a son, Rupert, born 1968); and in 1980 to Pamela (Vivian dreamed her name was Ki, and as Ki she is now known) Longfellow. Ki and Vivian had a daughter, Silky, born 1979. On March 6th, 2004, Silky Longfellow-Stanshall gave birth to a son she’s named Ty Vivian.


At one time he owned a houseboat on the Thames, which sank with all his possessions aboard. He was later arrested for damaging a neighbor’s houseboat.


1991 made a 15-minute autobiographical piece called Vivian Stanshall: The Early Years, aka Crank, for BBC2’s The Late show, in which he confessed to having been terrified of his late father, who had always disapproved of him. A later programme for BBC Radio 4, Vivian Stanshall: Essex Teenager to Renaissance Man (1994) included an interview with his mother in which she insisted that his father had loved him, but Stanshall was mortified that he had never shown it.


Stanshall was found dead after a fire at his North London flat, seemingly started by Stanshall falling asleep while smoking in bed. Fuelled by brandy fumes, the cigarette had set fire to his long ginger beard.


A one-hour television documentary, Vivian Stanshall: The Canyons of his Mind, was broadcast on BBC Four in June 2004. In common with many recent BBC documentaries, this was made in widescreen and all of the illustrative footage, which was shot in standard ratio, was cropped to fit.