Anyone who listened to Peel during the 70s and / or 80s can’t fail to remember hearing the genius who was Viv Stanshall and his surreal fictional narrative “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End”. Sir Henry unwound on Peel’s “wingding” as extraordinary, trippy sessions which demonstrated Viv’s peculiar wit and consummate, unrivalled wordsmithery. Mike Livesley may not have been one of those people huddled round their trannies way back when, but what he did that no one else has done when he finally got his hands on recordings of Viv’s masterpiece was to transpose it into a stage show which has received a string of brilliant reviews and which, with Stephen Fry in tow, will be closing Bristol’s Slapstick Festival in January at The Old Vic. Intrigued as to why Mike took on this labour of love – and how he got Stephen Fry to join him – we fired off a few questions to Mike – check out his enlightening, at times profound responses below.
“There were conceits that just had you shrieking with laughter … one of Viv’s better thoughts would probably blow my brains out.” – John Peel, 2004.
“Now, read on…” – Viv Stanshall.
Mike Livesley is a man on a mission. A mission to help keep the memory of Viv Stanshall and his incredible world at Rawlinson End alive to a contemporary audience. His stage show re-enacts arguably Viv’s magnum opus (although Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fans will strongly dispute that as Viv was a founding member of that too), the surreal musical monologues that went under the name of Sir Henry At Rawlinson End and which Louder Than War readers will probably remember from the many John Peel’s sessions. Mike’s show which has been a massive critical success and has caught the attention of many well known celebrities and comedians and it was recently announced that in January it would be the closing event at 2015s Slapstick Festival, the internationally renowned celebration of silent slapstick comedy, classic comedy and all forms of visual comedy, and that none other than Stephen Fry and a host of other celebrities would be joining Mike there to help celebrate Viv and his fertile, slightly dotty but always hysterical imagination.
I’m sure that, like me, a lot of you reading this will remember John Peel’s legendary Vivian Stanshall “Rawlinson End” sessions. Deliriously bonkers and utterly magical they were recorded by thousands of us, replayed over and over and often learned by rote. Weirdly, though, since Viv was so sadly taken from us, no one had ever celebrated them in any visual or audible form since. Step forward one Mike Livesley, who, in 2006, finally got his hands on a recording of “Sir Henry” after years of hearing about the incredible world of the occupants of Rawlinson’s End from many of his friends. In Mike’s words: “Well, the first time that I heard about Viv Stanshall was through the old ‘heads’ I used to hang around with, and still do, in my youth. To cut an incredibly long story short, ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’ was something which they used to speak of in hushed, reverential tones, usually when we were all back at one of their houses after the pub. They all remembered the original Peel Sessions and, due to the paucity of recorded material to reference, they had long since transferred them to their collective consciousness via countless drunken recitals. A strange foreshadow of my own current occupation. It intrigued me, this entire universe created by the gin-soaked imagination of this semi-forgotten genius, and I wanted to know more. However, until the re-release of the LP a few years ago. I had to rely on nothing but their memories.”
Mike was first played the album by a friend, but it was a while before he decided he wanted to put it on stage. “The first time I heard it proper was on a summers day in 2006, in the garden of my percussionist Jonny Hase. It was amazing to finally hear it after all the hype, and I must say it lived up to all of it. I spent an hour in bliss listening to it, and I suppose that experience must have stayed with me as two years later, whilst living in Vancouver it popped back into my head. As any Brit abroad will tell you, you miss everything about this place when you aren’t here. Heinz beans, Match of the Day, the weather even, and it was in a fit of homesickness that I recalled Sir Henry, and ordered a copy off the internet. Two weeks later, Vacouver is two weeks from everywhere, it arrived and I greedily feasted on its bucolic and uniquely English charm. Fast forward to Summer 2009, during one of my periodic attempts to get fit and I realised I was listening to one LP more than most on the iPod, ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’. I then became overwhelmed with a strong desire to see it performed. To me it would make the ultimate edition of Jackanory, but nobody, anywhere was doing it. Not only that, but in my excitement to tell everybody I knew about its greatness, I realised that most were reacting to me with a blank look and a retort of ‘Vivian who?’ To me this was scandalous, so late one night I realised that I would have to be the one to do it, and therefore attempt to consign the phrase ‘Vivian who?’ to history.”
I wondered if Mike has gotten used to being greeted by blank stares when he mentions Viv’s epic? “I was surprised five years ago, but now after doing it I’m not any more!” And why does he think that is, or, more pertinent to Mike, why does he think no one else has transferred Viv’s work to the stage before? “It is, without question, the most involved and difficult piece of work I have ever had to wrap my head around. To learn 60 minutes of Viv’s music, poetry and prose is possibly the greatest test of mental agility I could ever attempt, and has been such hard work I cannot begin to tell you. I originally intended to read it from a big book, as I never thought I could learn it, but my director Paul dictated it must be learned and so learned it was. This was the right decision for so many reasons, particularly as it allowed me to act out the lines, so that people can understand their many meanings. Aside from this, I am also the shows producer, and that in itself has been as equally demanding as the learning and performing. So now I understand why nobody else did it, it’s the sheer workload.”
Importantly, though, he’s now happy he’s put the work into getting it onto the stage. “However, it is all worth it. We have played a large part in ensuring Viv’s work isn’t forgotten these last five years, as when it is performed, it lives. The big London shows too have brought together lots and lots of Viv’s friends and colleagues. An achievement I am immensely proud of. Hard work, but ultimately very rewarding. I am certainly glad that I am the one who has done it!”
As someone who’s yet to see the show I wondered how Mike had transposed the show to the stage? Was it a straightforward transposition of the album verbatim? How did he go about transferring Sir Henry to the stage? “I initially sat and transcribed the recording, word for word, and my MD, the admirable Bill Leach, transcribed the music. This was then combined with direction from Paul Carmichael and away we went. We really did just blindly stumble into all of this. I just believed that it could be done and that it should be done and they all went along with it. As I said, I realised upon listening to it that it would make a fantastic edition of Jackanory, as so much of the language needs ‘acting out’ in order to fully ‘get’ what is being said. Luckily I had the good fortune to meet people who understood exactly what I meant and we made it work. That’s why it was so gratifying when the reviewer from MOJO Magazine, Andrew Male, wrote the following in his review of the show:
“Livesley’s performance gave light and life to scenes once tangled in the briar thicket of Stanshall’s knotty language.”
“I think that sums up exactly what we set out to do. To ensure Viv’s work is remembered and is made accessible for all.”
More videos of the show can be found on Mike’s YouTube channel.
So yes then – there have been many alterations to the performance, but it sounds like it’s been a work in progress – and that the changes were as much down to audience feedback and their reception as anything: “Well, it has evolved over time quite organically really. People have come and gone, venues are different shapes and sizes, and more and more ‘business’ gets worked out on the road in the van. However, I think that the one thing that has really led to the evolution of the piece has been the audience. From the first night it has been their reaction that has been the guiding hand to us in terms of improvising and playing with the delivery of the lines. Five years down the line now it lives and breathes in its own right, and is quite distinct from the original. 99% of that is due to the communion with the audience.”
Viv had such a unique way of thinking that effecting those changes couldn’t have been easy, one imagines – and that’s before we get into actually performing his words. Did Mike try to put himself in Viv’s shoes to do so? “Not really. I regard Viv as a genius, albeit tortured, and as John Peel said ‘I fear that a single one of Viv’s thoughts would blow my damn brains out’. I don’t think it would be possible for me, or anybody, to get into his mind. When I was speaking to founder Bonzo, trained therapist and mate of Viv, Rod Slater recently, he told me that Viv was ‘therapy proof’. He was just far more intelligent than anybody else and could unpick any of their reason with his own. However, I do feel that I have clicked into his train of thought on this one piece, I reckon I could deliver a lecture on the connections that actually do exist between each word and each line in Sir Henry. There is a cast iron logic to it, but it is Viv’s logic, and therefore on a much different plane to that of the rest of us.”
If one of the goals of doing the show is to keep Viv’s legacy alive has Mike won Viv – and his work – new fans through the show? “I’d say so. We have had lots of people tell us that they came along to see the show out of curiosity or because their friends or parents bought them and have left fully fledged neophites determined to find out and hear more about Viv and his work. This again makes all the hard work worthwhile.
One thing that I know is terribly hard is trying to explain Sir Henry At Rawlinson End to people what. Bearing in mind he wants people who’ve never heard of Viv or Sir Henry to come along to the show how does he explain it to people? “You know, that is one thing I don’t attempt” says Mike, “I just tell people to come and see it. I know that may appear incredibly arrogant, but it is actually due more to my inability to describe such a unique piece than any kind of artistic aloof. Come and see it – that’s all I can say.”
The fact that the show has been running for so long must mean it’s been successful yes? “Amazingly the show has met with universal acclaim from all who have encountered it.” And was Mike expecting that? “Its popularity really has taken all of us by surprise to be honest. So many really lovely comments, it has bowled us over.” And were there any particular comments he’d like to share with us? “The one comment that I really love came via the director Paul. After a show he heard two chaps talking in the bar who were both very obviously fans of the original and had seemingly come along simply to ‘poo-poo’ the show. Apparently they concluded their discussion by both repeating the phrase:
“Amazing. Didn’t believe it could be done. Didn’t believe it. Didn’t believe it could be done. Amazing.”
…to each other. That’ll do for me.”
Has doing the show made Mike change his opinion of Viv at all? It turns out it has – and he makes what to some of us may seem like quite a profound, if perhaps sad, observation: “Oh yes, definitely. The image we tend to have of Viv is that of a drunken genius either lying on the floor in some wild bout of existential angst or an excitable artiste wildly ejaculating incredible artistic statements and works. However, to me now he also seems to have been a quiet and thoughtful man who was probably just a little bit too sensitive and thin-skinned for this monstrous world we are all born into. My belief is that he created the world of Rawlinson End as a coping mechanism, a sanctuary of his own design that he could escape to when it all got a bit too much. He describes this world in such pin-sharp detail that he obviously inhabited the place. It is so ironic that a world he created from such pain brings such joy to the rest of us. But it seems that that is the lot of the tortured artist unfortunately.”
Moving into jollier territory and looking forward, Mike must be thrilled to be working with Stephen Fry on a production of “Sir Henry…” in January – was he surprised when he found out that Stephen was coming along? “Oh incredibly so. I know that Stephen is a very busy man, and so to actually find a window in his schedule is testament in itself to the abilities of the organisers of the Slapstick Festival. It is wonderful that Stephen is taking part as he was such a great friend of Viv’s and has been a torch bearer for his work and legacy ever since he died. His commitment to Viv is unquestionable. As for sharing a stage with Stephen, yes, I am very chuffed about that and most surprised, in the best possible way! I am a great admirer of Stephen and his work, so to meet and perform with him will be a real highlight. I have no idea what he will think of our show? I do hope he likes it!”
And how does Mike see the show fitting in with the Slapstick Festival? “From what I know of the Slapstick Festival it fits in very well with the ethos and philosophy of it. Like ourselves, festival organiser Chris Daniels is driven by a strong desire to not allow these wonderful artists from the past to be forgotten, and to see their work brought to life again for future generations. That is our prime motivation too.”
And in time honoured tradition as we approach the end of our grilling of Mike we wonder what the future holds in store for the show? “Well that really depends upon a lot of factors. Last year the show band ‘Brainwashing House’ decided to call it a day after four years, so since then I have continued to do the show virtually solo with my percussionist Jonny. They have only really reformed for this Slapstick Festival show as, like me, they are all very impressed with what Slapstick stands for and the quality of the programme that they put together each year. So in terms of personnel I don’t really know? Jonny and I shall go on, but beyond that who knows? I am also trying to find a promoter to take on the show as it now has a life of its own, and I feel that for it to reach its full potential it needs that. I would really like to tour the show nationally and remind people nationwide of Viv’s genius. Especially as this year marks the 20th anniversary since his sad passing. But I need the help of a promoter to do that, so if one is reading this do get in touch!!”
And for Mike Livesley – has he contemplated what he’s going to do after Sir Henry? “The bar obviously,” he quips, before carrying on… “No, seriously, my next project is a radio documentary to celebrate the life and work of Viv’s ‘oppo’ in the Bonzos in what will be his 70th year. It is called ‘Innes 70th Year’ and features me criss-crossing the country in my clapped out car to speak to not only Neil but also colleagues and those he inspired alike to get a full picture of the great man and his work. So far I have interviewed the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Rick Wakeman, Robin Ince and Mike McCartney and it has been a joy, and I am about to begin the really fun bit, the editing (Check out trailer). Like Sir Henry, it is very much a labour of love, and I really hope that a national broadcaster will be interested in, er, broadcasting it some time next year. I also continue with my own music and comedy too, that never stops.”
And on that note the interview wound up. Check back here in a couple of months time for a review of the show.
For people unfamiliar with Sir Henry the album can find it on Youtube in its entirety here.
Mike also has a show on Dandelion Radio at 10pm, Christmas Eve, called The Ghost of Christmas Pants. So it’ll lead straight into the festive 50! You should know where they are now but just in case: dandelionradio.com.
Mike has two websites, one here: livo.co.uk and the other here: sirhenrylives.com. He’s also on Facebook not once but twice, with the second being a Sir Henry Show Facebook page and tweets both as @MichaelLivesley and @SirHenryShow. Oh, and he has a WordPress blog too where he wrote a great blog about the show we’ve been talking about above with Stephen Fry.
The Slapstick Festival runs from January 22nd – 25th 2015 an can be found online here: slapstick.org.uk with a full breakdown of all the shows being on this link. Alternatively just visit participating venues: Colston Hall, Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre and Watershed Media Centre. You can also like the festival on Facebook and follow it on Twitter as @SlapstickFest.