Neil Innes and Mike Livesley: His work should not be forgotten

A new stage show celebrates the work of comic genius Vivian Stanshall. Its creators tell Laura Davis why he is one of the most important artists of the 20th century

THE first time Neil Innes clapped eyes on Vivian Stanshall he was almost less taken aback by his eccentric appearance than by the lack of reaction from other people witnessing it.

Stanshall, then quite a chubby figure, was wearing Billy Bunter-style check trousers, a Victorian frock coat, oval purple glasses and a huge pair of rubber ears. Under one arm he carried a euphonium.

He was basically wearing a junk shop, recalls Innes.

Hardly anybody in the pub took any notice of him. It was like clearly the man has enough troubles of his very own.

Although Stanshall had a loyal following during his lifetime he was found dead in 1995 after a fire at his North London flat recognition of his contribution to the zanier side of British culture has since faded.

He and Innes were both members of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the avant garde 60s pop group behind the hit Im the Urban Spaceman (co-produced by Paul McCartney under the joke name Apollo C Vermouth) and the TV comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set.

Among his many artistic ventures, Stanshall performed with The Rutles, voiced Mike Oldfields 1973 Tubular Bells album and stood in for John Peel on Radio 1.

It was the Heswall-born DJ who frog-marched Stanshall into a studio in 1978 to record his cult one-man comedy Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

It is this most playful of the performers creations that Merseyside actor Mike Livesley has revived as a stage show, which is touring to Liverpools Epstein Theatre next month.

In How Nice! To Be in England, Innes will be adding to the programme by performing songs and excerpts from his own comedy show A Peoples Guide to World Domination, and generally celebrating immature themes by getting the audience to blow raspberries and thumb their noses.

If Vivian is remembered as larger than life then its because he was, says Innes, who went on to collaborate with Monty Python and create spoof Beatles band The Rutles.

He did extraordinary things that other people couldnt get away with.

I remember one lunchtime and there was a sweet little lady with one of those pull-along baskets on wheels and he dropped down on one knee on the pavement in front of her, singing.

At the end, she said thats very nice love, thank you. Anyone else would have been whacked around the head with a handbag.

Another of Inness favourite Stanshall stories was when he visited Marks and Spencer with The Whos Keith Moon in search of the shops strongest trousers.

Eventually they would take a leg each and pull as hard as they could and rip them in half and say I dont call that strong, he laughs.

The best time they did it they just walked out but theyd hired a one-legged actor to come hopping in at that time saying ooh, just what I want. How much?

It has been a strange sort of thrill watching Livesley perform Stanshalls words in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, adds Innes.

I was good friends with George Harrison and when we did that Albert Hall tribute (Concert for George in 2002), hearing all the other people sing the songs actually made me hear them again in a funny way, he says.

And thats what its like with Mike. Celebrating Vivians language brings it alive again. It shouldnt be forgotten.

Its Stanshalls passion for words that drew Livesley to Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which includes descriptions such as a pale sun poked impudent marmalade fingers through the grizzled lattice glass, and sent the shadows scurrying, like convent girls menaced by a tramp.

Its one of those things people went on about for years and Id never encountered, he says.

Then a friend played it to me one afternoon in the garden and it just blew me away with the complexity of the language.

Livesley wrongly assumed that someone, somewhere would have transformed the recording into a stage show.

It was when I was in bed one night that it hit me, he says. I was frozen in terror I thought Ive got to do this.

He performs Stanshalls words just as they were written, with a live band on stage to accompany him in the comic songs interspersed between tales of the peculiar Sir Henry and his motley crew of relatives holed up together in a crumbling stately pile.

His actions enhance the deeply-layered language, much of which is lost in a single listening.

The crazy surrealism of it is a lot like Edward Lear, says Livesley, who grew up in Haydock.

But it could only have come out of the 60s counterculture. Its a direct offspring from what The Beatles were doing and what the Bonzos were doing.

Its quite the tragedy that people arent aware of it because I think Vivian is one of the most important British artists of the 20th century and his Rawlinson End work is some of the best written and certainly innovative uses of the English language.

Learning the 60-minute script, with its tongue-twister phrases and multiple characters, was a big challenge for Livesley.

Stanshall naturally switched between accents thanks to his unusal upbringing in North East London, with an RAF officer father who insisted he swapped his natural Cockney for received pronunciation.

Vivian himself said the accent was literally punched into him, says Livesley.

There are songs in Rawlinson End when he slips from Cockney to artistocrat seamlessly in a way that he had to learn how to do as a kid because if he spoke posh on the streets with his teddy boy mates hed get a slap and if he came in the house and spoke Cockney hed get a slap off his dad.

He was constantly acting.

HOW Nice! To Be in England is at the Epstein Theatre October 12-13.

Liverpool Post, September 20, 2012