SIR HENRY AT RAWLINSONS END
Directed by Steve Roberts
Starring Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, Denise Coffey
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll jab your eyes with fingers still trembling from the trauma of being made a child again. Like the first time you saw Thief Of Baghdad or Wizard Of Oz or Bride Of Frankenstein. You’ll jab your eyes just to check you’ve just seen what you think you’ve seen. You think you’ve seen Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, the movie adaptation of chief Bonzo Dog Viv Stanshall’s masterpiece solo 1978 album about a fading, inebriate English lord, his home, his family and his brother’s ghost. Pretty soon you’ll think about the film and put it in its place. A weird little corner of cross-reference but a place nonetheless. Parts remind you of Ealing. The acid-drop mot justes of dialogue, the sepia tint, the cruelty that makes its landscapes so alive, the olde English rural idylls and bucolic backwaters that seem to fester with ancient restlessness and rancour – pure Kind Hearts And Coronets. Parts look like a Chris Marker movie. Some Buñuel, mebbe. A healthy dose of Vigo anarchy. A touch of Python at their blackest. Strange echoes of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. But you’re still nowhere near and you know it. So you watch it again.
And this is what’s crucial – Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, originally released in 1980, and now proudly with us again after an almost subterranean existence for the last 25 years (video copies have been selling for around £35 on eBay), isn’t a film to talk about, quote (although so rich in killer oneliners is it that this whole review could’ve simply been assembled from your faves), ‘recommend’ as such. To recommend it is to condemn it to a shelf life, a dusty inert existence as a cult classic – whereas Sir Henry is a film to be experienced as closely and seriously and often as possible, a work of art that should sink under the skin and into the bones and do its good work like vitamins and Trout Mask Replica. It’s a film that only makes sense as it is happening – as maddeningly skewed and disturbing and dementedly able to derail itself, back through time and inward through the mind – as British life itself.
Directed by Steve Roberts (who later went on to make the Max HeadroomTV series), Sir Henry is an attempt to shore up the long-running ‘Rawlinson’ motif that recurs throughout Stanshall’s work. Stanshall, who first floated the Rawlinson concept on the very first Bonzo Dog track ever (on 1967’s ‘Intro/Outro’ he introduces “the Rawlinsons on trombone”), fully explored his imaginary Rawlinson family-cavalcade of upper-class grotesques through a series of stunning Peel Sessions in the early Seventies, collating and refining the material into the Sir Henry album in 1978, and further chopping and elaborating his ideas into the final script of the film.
The film inevitably leaves plenty out of the Rawlinson saga that you can find on the sessions or LP (or indeed the book that succeeded the movie) – as such, Stanshall hated it. In comparison to the Rawlinson LP, it’s a more obviously eccentric, less measured take on English insanity and the insanity of being English. But there are heroics in the movie that can’t be denied – in the clarity, the cheapness, the unearthly look of the piece and in two words. Trevor Howard. The best movie drunk ever, not just because he clearly is drunk, but because no one before or since has captured the insufferable conviction, high sanctimony and black doom of your day-to-day piss-artist quite so appallingly and invisibly. It’s no accident that while Stanshall was writing much of ‘Rawlinson’ he himself was drunk, depressed and living in a perpetually waterlogged houseboat pitched between Shepperton and Chertsey on the Thames. And of course the true hero is Viv’s words, or rather our words, for queerly Sir Henry makes you proud to be British, and to speak this wonderful language, in a way entirely free of sentimentality or hokum or patriotism. The national curriculum is bereft without it.
Sir Henry emerges not as the diseased ramblings of a posh nutter, or zany, or absurd, or remotely ‘surreal’ at all. Sir Henry At Rawlinson End insists, quite clearly and correctly, that British life is madness, is to be driven out of your wits by the weight of history and the ghostly powers of what words we use and where and why we use them. Sir Henry knows that nothing is more platitudinous in suggestion and wonder than pub chat digressions, house parties, arguments with your nearest and dearest and the local foes who swim across your transom every goddamn day of your life. And like that life, Sir Henry should be taken on and in and lived with as best you can. I can’t recommend it highly enough so I won’t even start. It’s out there if you want it. And in here (tap skull and chest) whether you want it or not, Englander pig dog. A talking picture. And what could be more wonderful than that?
(from Plan B Magazine, 2006)
(from Plan B Magazine, 2006)