December 28th, 2008


A man called Vivian

Vivian Stanshall's plummy, plumaged voice injected psycho-Victoriana into my adolescence via his sessions for the John Peel show -- non-linear tales of family life like this one, Aunt Florrie Remembers:

When I was writing my Book of Jokes last year, I noticed an unmistakable Stanshall tone creeping into certain passages; Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (the book, the album, the film, the radio sessions) concerns an extremely eccentric family. Cassettes of Stanshall seemed to be playing back in the deeper nooks of my imagination as I wrote. His voice -- his brandy-fuelled fluidity, his tangent-leaps, his subtle perversity -- stays with you.

There's something in Stanshall's combination of perfect diction and shambolic scato-dada events which is irresistible; like clipped, correct, British Trevor Howard reading Tristan Tzara or Kurt Schwitters. (Howard of course played Sir Henry in the film.) I've never really got into the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, though.

Stanshall was both a rock and roll bad boy (his drunken exploits with Keith Moon are legendary) and a neo-Victorian art school dandy. The 1975 BBC documentary Vivian Stanshall's Week makes a good introduction:

That other clipped-voiced Englishman, Stephen Fry, made a BBC 4 documentary film about Stanshall in 2004 called Vivian Stanshall -- The Canyons of His Mind, which I'm going to watch in about thirteen hours, according to my torrent software.

I wonder if I'll be able to find footage of Stanshall's 1991 appearance on The Late Show? Just four years before his own death in a fire, Vivian (who took his father's rejected real name) talks about his distance from, and fear of, his father, who'd died the year before. That too really stays with me -- something to do with his outlandish, bright yellow clothes and huge spectacle frames, but also the candour of what he was saying. And that Peter O'Toole-like voice, calmly recounting Rabelaisian outrages.