Vivian Stanshall (born Victor Anthony Stanshall, 21 March 1943 – 5 March 1995) was an English musician, painter, singer, broadcaster, songwriter, poet, writer, wit, and raconteur, best known for his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, for his surreal exploration of the British upper classes in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and for narrating Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.
Originally from Walthamstow — a suburb on the borders of East London and Essex — his mother Eileen (1911–1999) had moved to Shillingford, Oxfordshire during the Second World War to escape the bombing, living there happily with her son while her husband, Victor (1909–1990) (a name he had adopted in preference to his own christened name of Vivian), served in the RAF. With the end of war, the father returned, and the little family moved back to Walthamstow. The return of Victor Stanshall was a turning point in the young Vivian's life. With only himself and his mother, life was ideal. With the addition of a stern pretentious father, life took a downturn, followed by a further shock at the arrival of a new brother, Mark Stanshall, born in 1949. They were six years apart, an age difference that apparently put a certain amount of emotional distance in their relationship.
Although his origins were working class, Stanshall's father wanted his sons to go to public school and pressed them to perform well in sport. Young Vic, however, was uninterested in such pursuits, preferring — to his father's horror — to devote his energies to art and music.
Consequently, he grew up living a dual life: at home, he would have to speak "properly" or face a berating; on the street he spoke with a broad cockney accent in order to avoid a beating from his peers.
As a teenager Stanshall secretly joined a gang of teddy boys, attracted both by the rock'n'roll and the clothing. Even among such dandies, though, he was a bit of an oddball. The polished vowels that had been bashed into him kept leaking out, and his working class mates looked upon him as something of an amusing freak.
About this time, the Stanshall family moved to the Essex coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea. Stanshall managed to earn some money doing various odd jobs at the Kursaal fun fair in nearby Southend-on-Sea. These included working as a bingo caller and spending the winter painting the fairground attractions.
To put aside enough money to get himself through art school (his father having refused to fund such goings-on), Stanshall spent a year in the merchant navy, where he made a very bad waiter, but a great teller of tall tales.
He enrolled at the Central School of Art in London. Here, Stanshall and his fellow students, including Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and Neil Innes, who was studying art at Goldsmiths College, came together to form a band.
Stanshall changed his first name to Vivian — the very name his father had abandoned. Those who knew him from his student days, however, continued to call him Vic.
In these early days they were a very loose assemblage, consisting of the core members mentioned above, plus just about anyone else who felt like joining in. At times there were as many as 30 of them, with gigs often featuring more people on stage than in the audience. Their act at this time consisted of anarchic re-workings of old British novelty songs, found on 78 rpm records bought from flea markets, spiced with improvisation and a variety of bizarre machines assembled from junk, with at least one explosion per gig.
The Bonzos might have continued in this way, probably disappearing into obscurity, had it not been for a nasty shock: the 1966 chart success of a winsomely arch number called Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville Band — a band comprising session musicians created by songwriter Geoff Stephens, whose musical style was uncannily like the Bonzos' own. So soon as the record became a hit, Stephens and his record company needed a band to present themselves as The New Vaudeville Band. Bob Kerr, a Bonzo member, tried convincing the others that they should craft a similar sound to achieve greater commercial success, but the advice was rejected. Still, the remaining Bonzos realised that if they were to make a mark for themselves, they would have to forge a new path.
According to the band's manager Gerry Bron, Vivian Stanshall was given several weeks to produce songs for the new professional Bonzo Dog Band. When people arrived at his studio they found he had written nothing and had instead focused on nothing more than building a variety of rabbit hutches . From here on, they started writing their own material and dropping it into the act alongside the old novelty numbers. With Stanshall now liberated from his original role as tuba player and firmly established as the front man, the act became more sophisticated, more daring, satirical, and original. Aside from the adventurous music and lyrics, it was quite a performance: Stanshall sang, played a variety of instruments and on a good night would also perform a prolonged fully-clothed strip mime, culminating in some spectacular tit-juggling. Stanshall provided one of the highlights of the show: a vulgar joke about Jesus.
For a while the band existed as a semi-pro outfit playing the college circuit, but it wasn't long before they acquired a manager, went full time, and found themselves booked on the working men's club circuit mainly in the north of England. The band dominated their lives, traveling to low-paying gigs in an old van crammed with any number of musical instruments, an assortment of props, and prop robots. In 1967, they appeared in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour television special playing "Death Cab for Cutie" during the strip club scene, and this was followed by a slot as the house band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a weekly TV revue show also notable for early appearances by most of the Monty Python troupe.
In 1968 the Bonzos scored a surprise top ten hit with a number called "I'm the Urban Spaceman" but they never repeated that success although Stanshall, through his many costumes, became a forerunner of America's Martin Mull.
The band toured incessantly and recorded several albums, which led to a tour of the United States. This was so successful that they were booked for another US tour soon after. Neil Innes remembers that the band were reportedly stopped by a local U.S. sheriff and asked if they were carrying any firearms or drugs. When they denied both, the officer asked how they were going to defend themselves. Viv Stanshall piped up from the back of the minibus, "With good manners!"
Between the tours, however, something brought about a crippling change in Stanshall's personality. None of his fellow Bonzos claims to know just what caused it, but by the start of the second tour he was taking very large doses of tranquillisers prescribed by a private doctor , ostensibly to treat stage-fright. Nevertheless, the workload never let up. The band had a punishing schedule, often playing more than one gig per evening. In 1970, after six years of mounting exhaustion and depression, Stanshall quit.
For all his problems, Stanshall never lost his sense of humour. In particular, his exploits with close friend Keith Moon are legendary, perhaps the most notorious involving Stanshall going into an unsuspecting tailor's shop and admiring a pair of trousers; Moon then came in, posing as another customer, admired the same trousers and demanded to buy them. When Stanshall protested the two men fought over them, splitting them in two so they ended up with one leg each. The tailor was by now beside himself but right then a one-legged actor, who had been hired by Stanshall and Moon, came in, saw the trousers and proclaimed "Ah! Just what I was looking for."
Aside from such pranks, the two also worked together. For instance, when Stanshall took over the John Peel radio show for a while, Moon appeared as Lemmy in the saga of Colonel Knutt, idiot adventurer-detective. Moon also produced Stanshall's recorded maniacal version of Terry Stafford's Suspicion.
In early 1974, Stanshall wrote, arranged, and recorded his first solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. A complex, idiosyncratic affair, its lyrics were acutely personal insights laced with poetry, as well as overt references to his penis. The album has a jazz-rock flavour, rich with African percussion. Such artists as his friend Steve Winwood, Innes, Bubs White, Jim Capaldi, Ric Grech, Doris Troy, and Madeline Bell made guest appearances.
The Rawlinson family had been populating Stanshall's imagination for quite a while, their very first appearance (in name, at least) being on the Bonzos' 1967 number The Intro & The Outro: "Great to hear the Rawlinsons on trombone".
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 of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (recently released on DVD), starring Trevor Howard as Sir Henry, and Stanshall as Hubert, followed in 1980. It was also based on the Peel recordings, with many variations from the LP. Some of the film's music was provided by Stanshall's friend Steve Winwood. A book of the same name by Stanshall, illustrated with stills from the film, was published by Eel Pie Publishing in 1980. Nominally a film novelisation, it was 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, never appeared. It was to have started:
A second Rawlinson album, Sir Henry at Ndidi's Kraal (1983), recounts Sir Henry's disastrous African expedition, but omits the rest of the Rawlinson clan. According to Stanshall's widow, he regarded this recording as sub-standard and it was released against his wishes. Stanshall was often drunk and/or depressed during production, which took place on The Searchlight, a house boat he bought from Wings' Denny Laine and moored between Shepperton and Chertsey on the River Thames. He lived on it from 1977 to 1983. Converted from a Second World War era submarine-chaser, it was forever taking on water and sank with all his possessions aboard. Almost all of them were retrieved, some the worse for water damage.
At Christmas 1996, BBC Radio 4 fished some of the Peel show recordings out of the vault for a late-night repeat, but there seems to be little chance of a commercial release, though some have appeared on a bootleg CD together with some of Stanshall's collaborations with Keith Moon.
Sir Henry's final appearance was in a television commercial for Ruddles Real Ale (c. 1994), where he is portrayed by a cross-dressing Dawn French, presiding over a family banquet at a long table. Stanshall reprises the role of Hubert, reciting a 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 offscreen.
Another late appearance (c. early 1995) was as one of several "talking heads" on a 30 minute documentary produced by the pop group Pulp (to promote their single Do You Remember The First Time) talking about the experience of losing your virginity. This was certainly his last interview on camera.
While living on the Searchlight, Stanshall composed and recorded Teddy Boys Don't Knit, and wrote and recorded Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. There, he also wrote and filmed the film of the same name for Tony Stratton-Smith's Charisma Records company. At the same time, he co-wrote with Steve Winwood the songs for Winwood's Arc of a Diver and wrote many of the songs he later used for Stinkfoot, the musical comedy he wrote with his second wife, Ki Longfellow-Stanshall.
After the Searchlight, the Stanshall family lived and worked on the Thekla, a Baltic Trader, which was sailed from the east coast of England to be moored in the Bristol docks. His wife, Ki, had bought the Thekla in Sunderland, and converted her into a floating theatre called The Old Profanity Showboat. The ship saw the debut of Stinkfoot.
Stanshall wrote 27 original songs for Stinkfoot, sharing some of the lyric writing with his wife. The show involved bizarre characters that Stanshall imagined living under a seaside pier. It proved a success, with people coming from all over Europe and even America to see it. It was revived in London some years later, but flopped.
There's also a 28 minute film of Viv that currently languishes inside the BBC vault: 'One Man's Week' dated 1975 looks at a week in his life and includes footage of him at The Manor Studio recording studio playing music with Gasper Lawal, Mongezi Feza, Anthony White and Derek Quinn. This film also shows him talking about his turtles and playing his 'Phonofiddle'.
Stanshall's instantly recognisable voice won him several commercial voice-overs, including a campaign for Cadbury's Mini Eggs which involved a reworking of the Bonzos' song Mister Slater's Parrot, under the title of Mister Cadbury's Parrot.
He was married twice: in 1968 to fellow art student Monica Peiser (they had a son, Rupert, that year, and were divorced in 1975); and on 9 September 1980, to novelist Pamela "Ki" Longfellow. They had a daughter, Silky, born on 16 August 1979, named after a racehorse called Silky Sullivan, her mother's childhood favourite. (Stanshall was seriously considering Dorothy. "Just think," he said, "We could call her Dot!") His marriage was celebrated in the song, Bewildebeeste, as was Silky's birth in The Tube, on his second solo album Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981).
In 1991, Stanshall 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 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 his father had never shown it, not even on his deathbed.
Then in 2001 Jeremy Pascall and Stephen Fry produced a wonderfully affectionate and highly informative documentary for BBC Radio 4 on Viv featuring (amongst others) Mark Stanshall, Neil Innes, Steve Winwood, John Walters, and even Stanshall's own briefly employed agent Phillipa Clare. This labour of love charted the story of Viv from childhood until his tragic death in 1995. Stephen Fry knew Stanshall quite well and, along with his personal thoughts, introduces a fascinating series of reminiscences that reveal something of the genius of the man. The show featured many clips from Stanshall's work including 'Colonel Knutt and Lemmy' in an episode called 'Breath From The Pit'.
The recording also relates one of Vivian's last and most vividly poignant poems (posted by Stanshall to a friend and received the day after his death), entitled 'With My Mouth Turned Down For The Night.