(Vivian Stanshall & The Old Profanity Showboat originally written for the fanzine "Punchable Nun")
BOAT OF SOCIETY
by Ken Shinn
“Vivian Stanshall is a national treasure and he ought to be protected.
He was born without any skin. There’s nothing between him and all the
sensations that the world has to give us. Because he has no protection,
he is subject to anxiety attacks. Because he is subject to anxiety
attacks, he takes things to avoid them, or he drinks. It keeps him from
experiencing these things, but it also blunts his genius and it’s
killing him, of course.” - Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, Bristol Showboat
As 1982 ended, Vivian Stanshall’s life was falling apart - again. It
was terrible, but nothing new. The Bonzo Dog was always learning new
tricks, but his voracious imagination and an even more voracious thirst
for alcohol - not to mention the Valium Rottweiler which had sunk its
fangs into his whirling brain - always demanded an horrific price.
Again and again his creations struggled with the demons of self-
inflicted mind wounds - the near-autobiographical first-person singer
of the recklessly cheery “Bout Of Sobriety”, jolly, bucolic old Sir
Henry Rawlinson unleashing The Beasht Inside. Somehow, with these
coves, it was always a joke. Always, somehow, bearable. But they
weren’t real. Vivian Stanshall was.
And he was no longer just a Great British Eccentric, a strange but
loveable figure. More and more, he had become a suitable case for
treatment. Living in squalor on a decaying houseboat in Chertsey, he
had recently split up with his second wife, Ki Longfellow, who had left
and taken the pair’s daughter, Silky, with her. As with so much around
Vivian, it wasn’t bland. It was a confusion of flailing machete,
terrified child, and a decidedly unfestive Yuletide. It ended with Ki
braining Vivian with a plant pot, while her eldest daughter Sydney bit
and throttled him like a berserker, kicking him in the groin for good
measure, to allow Ki and Silky to get away. Merry Christmas, ho ho ho.
George Bailey? Who was he? One thing was certain, the Searchlight had
gone out. His beloved houseboat was dying fast, and in a little over a
year’s time was to sink forever, taking large chunks of his life and
memories to the bottom of the Thames with her.
And yet…Vivian loved Ki, and Silky, and Sydney. His family, his
friends, he loved them all, in his own terrified and terrifying way.
And they also loved him in return. But something more was needed,
something which could somehow save Vivian from his very own personal
darkness, something which could light a fire of invention and hope,
however ephemeral, in the long dark night.
What was this something? It was a decrepit hulk, stranded in
Sunderland - Sundered, if you will - since 1978. It had sailed the
Baltic, an ageing but determined trader straight out of Masefield. At
its warrior heart beat the salvaged engine of a German U-Boat. It was a
wreck, but a fighting wreck. A wreck, la. The Thekla.
Ki Longfellow saw the potential of this rusting wonder from the start.
It was a place of oddity, yet a place of security, a place where
bizarre and wonderful creation could take place. A Cathedral Of The
Unusual, walking on the waters, albeit none too steadily. But
Sunderland was not where this should all happen. Instead, this most
unlikely of galleys was to undertake a long and arduous journey,
traversing the roughness of the waves, a crusty old sea-dog, eye set in
rheumy but determined hope on the Beautiful South…A man, a plan, a
canal - Panama. Well, a river, not a canal. And not really a man. More
a woman. Or two. But the plan was sound. And, sailing under the
Panamanian flag, the good ship Thekla hove finally into the Floating
Harbour of Bristol in 1983.
The good ship was penniless. And the ghost of a sailor walked its
decks. But money could be found. And ghosts could be talked into some
sort of peace. And, inside this great mass of rusted metal, there was a
theatre. A Theatre Of The Imagination, huge cathedral-like space
waiting only to shudder and shout forth something…hopefully something
good. The Thekla had her own spirit. It was an eccentric spirit,
capable of scaring…and also capable of loving. Small wonder that, for a
time of wonder, she did become a healing home of reconciliation for
Vivian, Ki and Silky - now all back together. And more than a guardian,
she was about to become a star.
The Old Profanity Showboat was born.
Her short and glorious life began, somehow fittingly, with a production
within the bowels of the ship by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
Genius in miniature was the curtain-raiser…but purely the curtain-
raiser. The Old Profanity was a place of wonder. Vivian painted strange
and extravagant pictures and posters - his dreams brought to reality by
the boat in more ways than one. Like some bizarre fairy tale, the
vessel even had a dwarf stowaway, name of David Rappaport. The Time
Bandit leader became a freelance pirate, sleeping in a secluded berth
and helping himself to beer from the ship’s bar with the help of a
cunningly-used crate. By the time Vivian, Ki and company realised he
was aboard, they didn’t want to throw the little bugger off. The Old
Profanity began to weave her own strange, benign magic on her unlikely
complement. And her crowning glory was coalescing, in a glorious cloud
of evolutionary stench…the aromatic marvel known as Stinkfoot.
Ki had written the original tale for children, the story of Stinkfoot,
a New York alley cat, and his many adventures. Vivian became involved
with it, and, inspired, started to write new songs. And new characters
started to appear, poking their impudent noses into the old story,
mutating it to marvellous effect. The Great Soliquisto, a ventriloquist
left weakened after the departure of the two cats - Stinkfoot and
Persian Moll - who really perform his act for him, but who redeems
himself: an Ocean Liner; a Giant Squid; various Shrimp, Lobsters and a
Hoarse, Coarse Coastguard - to name but a few. Yes, Stinkfoot now
became a rollicking, hilarious musical yarn of adventure, redemption,
and the high seas. A pier and the sea were made real, in a theatre,
inside a boat. How could this be anything but a work of genius? And a
joy to Vivian, who increasingly saw the role of Soliquisto as
“Who are we to complain if the sheer output obscures the narrative and
the shape?…the marvel is that here is an original, unusual musical,
smelling of the salt sea, with Coward, Cagney, and Mae West around to
keep us happily buoyant.” - David Foote, The Guardian
A musical show? On a rustbucket boat? Conceived by a group of bizarre
eccentrics? Surely this was going to fail. But no - for very little in
Vivian Stanshall’s life was ever entirely sure, ever entirely
predictable! The production was an enormous success, playing night
after night to packed houses. If the seats ran out, then the audience
calmly brought cushions and grabbed floor space. Over the run (two
memorable weeks from 7 to 21 December, 1985), the audience included the
likes of Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood and Stephen Fry.
It was truly the Old Profanity Showboat’s finest hour. The sheer energy
and enthusiasm which infused the whole project was too much to sustain,
and the whole thing fell apart as quickly as it had coalesced, with
bills becoming impossible to pay and new and exciting offers of other
work re-energising lives which were now repairing. The end of the Old
Profanity Showboat was both sad and yet, oddly, amusing. The ship was
abandoned by June, 1986, and Ki - last off of the boat - didn’t even
lock it up after her, only to later learn that “an old bum found the
thing. Can you imagine the miracle of being a shuffling old bum,
wandering around the docks at Bristol and discovering an open ship in
which there is a full bar? He finished all the beer. And we are talking
about kegs of this shit.”
These days, some 18 years later, the Old Profanity is no more. The
Thekla still floats serenely in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, now a well-
known, much-loved, but rather less idiosyncratic musical venue. Vivian
Stanshall passed on nine years ago. Stinkfoot has long since prowled
off down some suitably shady alley.
And yet…and yet the triumph remains. And the allure. What must it have
been like, I wonder, to sit in the heart of a trading ship, watching
that colourful crew of charismatic characters, sailing a sea that sat
inside a ship? To be crammed into that place, large as it was,
experiencing that bizarre cross-breed of morality play, pantomime, and
Gilbert & Sullivan? I can’t honestly say. But I do know that I’d sooner
have been at the premiere (or the last night, or any other night) of
Stinkfoot than at any other premiere that’s been held during my
lifetime. Stage, screen, whatever.
So here’s to Vivian, and Ki, and Silky - to their families and friends!
Here’s to Stinkfoot, and The Great Soliquisto, to Persian Moll. to Mrs.
BagBag, and all of their strange and wonderful company. And here, most
of all, is to the Old Profanity Showboat - long may her jovially
disrespectful spirit guard the waters of Bristol. So
“I created this project to present him, cocoon him, house him, give him
a stage. Maybe some day, it still will.” - Ki Longfellow-Stanshall
(A celebration of Stinkfoot, the Comic Opera, as it was on the Old Pro
with photos, cast list, program, photos, et al was published last year
by a delight of a Dutch publisher. You can find it at
. Specifically, this