Paintbox, Issue 26, February 2002
CRACKLING RADIO CAPERS By Tim Worthington
Although 'eclectic' is the word most commonly used to describe John Peel's long running Radio One show. it doesn't really do full justice to the near-unique nature of his broadcasts. Peel's eclecticism is also wide ranging, meaning there is room on his shows for anything from the expected jangly Indie sounds to world music, hardcore techno sounds and ancient crackly blues records. It also means that his playlist extends beyond the accepted boundaries of music radio, and the show and its live sessions also encompass those who mix spoken word pieces and poetry with music. The eccentric Scottish poet Ivor Cutler has been a regular visitor to the studios since the late 1960s, for example, and Adrian Henri and others of his ilk benefitted greatly from Peel's support. It was this willingness to experiment that also allowed the creation, almost by accident rather than design, of one of the most popular and enduring radio comedies of the 1970s.
'Rawlinson End' was unlike all of its comedic contemporaries in just about every respect imaginable. For a start, it wasn't a regular show, but was limited to occasional broadcasts whenever its creator Vivian Stanshall was booked to record sessions for Peel's show. Secondly, it was broadcast on Radio 1, a station that was not known for its commitment to comedy programming, and in fact - barring a few short-lived experiments - would not broadcast a regular comedy series until the arrival of "Hey Rrrrrradio!" in 1988. Most significantly, the show adopted a form and structure which no other radio comedy at that time would have been allowed to undertake, shifting in a stream of consciousness between a surreal spoken word narrative and equally unhinged musical items.
In that respect, 'Rawlinson End' sounds almost as though it was tailor-made to take advantage of the possibilities and freedom from the normal restrictions that were created by the structure and timeslot of Peel's show. Yet, in fact, the idea for the series evolved almost by chance. During the 1960s, Stanshall had been a member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a legendary musical comedy outfit who blended elements of satire, pastiche, parody, visual humour and straightforward pop. While on tour, the band were highly but inexplicably amused by a strange line that they had heard in a BBC radio play concerning 'The Rawlinsons', and in common with many of the recurring themes and obsessions of their humour, the name soon found its way from a simple band in-joke to appearing regularly in their onstage banter. Eventually, the Rawlinsons began to make cameo appearances in their songs - they perform a tap-dancing solo in 'The Intro & The Outro', for example, while 'Rhinocratic Oaths' features a verse about Percy Rawlinson, who spent an unhealthy amount of time with his dog and was later arrested for tearing a postman's trousers with his teeth.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band disbanded in 1970, but were still contracted to produce one further album. In 1971, Vivian reunited with his former Bonzo associate Neil Innes to form a new outfit called Freaks, and some incredibly productive songwriting sessions began in earnest. This period of creativity gave rise to many of their best known songs, including 'Bad Blood' and 'Slush', and an extrememly experimental number known as 'Rawlinson End'. This took the form of a long narrative written by Stanshall, parodying the sort of melodramatic serialized stories featured in women's magazines to produce a headspinning story about an eccentric aristocratic family, around which musical contributions from Innes were seamlessly woven. 'Rawlinson End' was introduced into Freaks live sets, where it was rapturously received by audiences, and also recorded for a session for John Peel's show the same year. Tentative Freaks recording sessions were already underway when their outstanding contractual obligations came to light, and the sessions soon developed into those for the fifth and final Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band album "Let's Make Up And Be Friendly". "Rawlinson End" took up a sizable portion of the album's running time, eventually clocking in at almost ten minutes. The track opens with a wonderfully topsy-turvey piano piece written by Innes, over which Stanshall related the 'story so far' and its effect on various unfamiliar characters - Madge and Bobby Rawlinson have pulled up roots and been arrested by the Parks Department, Jeremy Sphincter has set sail for Australia following the poultry scandal (we won't be mentioning _him_ again), Randy has turned in on himself - no mean feat for a forty stone man, Sandra smells, and Aubrey and Maureen Rawlinson have returned to the family house in search of something to prove Roger's birthright, unaware that Paul Maynard is hiding in the priesthole... 'now read on", advises Stanshall, and the remarkable story begins.
Although Stanshall probably didn't realize it at the time, this initial Rawlinson End tale was to be the first of many, and it set the basic foundations for the sprawling, intricate and truly bizarre family history that would grow round it central characters. Head of the household is Sir Henry Rawlinson, a debauched old colonial who pines for the glory days of the Empire and displays little in the way of pleasantness to anyone. He dislikes talking if it doesn't involve shouting or hurling abuse at people, but he has a way with short and to the point comments like "I don't know what I want, but I want it now," and "if I had all the money I'd spent on drink, I'd spend it on drink'. By contrast, Henry's wife Great Aunt Florrie is a sweet and pleasant woman who spends her days posing in her wheelbarrow and knitting an indefinable beige thing. Other Rawlinsons resident in the house include eccentric younger brother Hubert, Henry's ancient father Sir Hillary and mother (much to the surprise of Henry himself, who wasn't actually aware that she was there for many years), dashing young relative Ralph, tiresome adolescent Gerald,voyeuristic Candice, and Henry's older brother Humbert, who died years ago but whose ghost refuses to give up its position in the house. Other locals who help and hinder the Rawlinsons in their various unsavory activities include Timothy and Leticia Maynard (a pair of adolezcents whose main interests are vivisection and masturbation), Lord and Lady Portly of Staines. fiendish card players Doris and Boris Hazard, irritating cleaners Nice and Tidy (whose uncalled for jollity is a source of major frustration to Henry), and the unruly regulars at the local free house. Rawlinson End is looked after, with a mixture of incompetence, ignorance and ineptitude, by the loyal housekeepers Mrs. E and Old Scrotum. The small village where the family house stands is also home to The Fool and Bladder, a rowdy public house frequented by by drunken reprobates, and the appalling cricket pitch at Sensible Green. In the distance, but not far enough in the distance for Sir Henry's liking, lies Concreton, a modern town with modern ways whose very existence threatens all of the idleness and debaucery that the Rawlinsons stand for.
The story of Rawlinson End was not in fact expanded on any further until 1975, when Stanshall was invited to record anothe session for the John Peel show. Stanshall had stood in for Peel a couple of times when the presenter was on holiday, presenting an unusual programme called "Radio Flashes". The show basically consisted of Stanshall playing records, and linking them with surreal whimsy and all manner of densely prerecorded comic inserts. One running theme concerned a series of sprays designed to keep huge animals at bay, including Rhi-No, Rilla-Go and Repellaphant, and each edition also contained an episode of a truly absurd adventure serial, starring Stanshall, Keith Moon and Peel's producer John Walters as a procession of dashing heroes and dastardly cads (and which also included the immortal catchphrase "Magic Trousers, do your stuff!"). The form and convention of pop radio simple existed to be torn apart as far as "Radio Flashes" was concerned, and one show began, for no readily obvious reason, with dozens of false start attempts at playing the Beatles 'Penny Lane' (which, needless to say, was not actually played in full), constantly interrupted by Stanshall introducing the cast, the crew and some whelks.
While Peel's loyal producer John Walters found the experience of trying to keep Stanshall's sprawling and undisciplined imagination under control to be a demanding and frustrating one, he was also a great admirer of his work, and believed that there was more that could be done with Rawlinson End. Stanshall was thinking likewise, and he was duly booked to go into the BBC's studios with the intent of recording an expansion of the concept for transmission on Peel's show. The resulting session, "Giant Whelks At Rawlinson End", was broadcast in October 1975, and apparently provoked a huge volume of phone calls from listeners demanding to know what this amazing track was and where they could get hold of it. Following this response, it was inevitable that further sessions would be produced, and barely two months later Stanshall was back on the show to provide a four part Christmas special.
These new episodes expanded greatly on the blend of speech and music that had been established by the initial 'Rawlinson End', moving in and out of music and song in tandem with the progression of the various storylines. Characters were assigned their own tunes (including 'Aunt Florrie's Waltz', and Nice and Tidy's sidesplitting musical hall number extolling the virtues of their cleaning service), and new numbers were creatied to tie in with various scenarios and plot details. A number of these, such as 'Mr Hyde In Me' and 'Convivial Vivisectionists', were actually reworkings of unreleased Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band numbers. The intriguing constant shift between the melody and narrative was further enhanced by the nature of the storylines themselves, which utilised a frantic mass of intertwining individual stories that combined and contrasted to somehow relate a larger narrative. Yet as complex and disjointed as this might all sound, the 'Rawlinson End' shows were never short of brilliant. They flow and progress in a perfectly comprehensible fashion, virtually taking the listener on a scenic tour of the environs that they take place in, and the standard of the humour and characterisation was excellent throughout. ("How dare you belch in front of my wife!" - "Sorry old chap, didn't realize it was her turn.")
A further three installments of "Rawlinson End" appeared in 1977, and two more the following year. In 1978, the broadcasts to date were reworked into the stunning album "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End". Recorded for Virgin which was then at the forefront of 'alternative comedy' with its backing of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's notorious "Derek and Clive" albums (GG site correction: SHARE was recorded for
actually, Tony Stratton-Smith's label - which was not so much at the forefront of anything but was more a wobbly & meandering sidestep scooping up the far-fetched and thoroughly loopy), the album is rightly regarded as one of the best comedy albums to be produced in the UK. Although the contents of the album were rooted in the original broadcast stories, it is in fact far more than just a mere re-recording of existing material. The musical numbers were given lavish arrangements, and segments of storylines were combined and rearranged where appropriate, to create a work that complimented the original broadcasts whilst also adding to them.
The flurry of Rawlinson-related activity in the late 1970s culminated with the release in 1980 of a cinematic version of "Sir Henry At Rawlinson End". Directed by Steve Roberts from Stanshall's script, produced by Tony Stratton-Smith, and starring Trevor Howard as Sir Henry ("written by an alcoholic, produced by an alcoholic, and starring an alcoholic", Neil Innes later recalled with telling weariness), the quaint but manic film concerned attempts to exorcise a ghost from the family home, and was shot in black and white which perfectly complimented its eccentric nature. (GG site note: black and white, yes, but on color stock, which gave it not only its unique look of old photographs, but allowed V to show one perfect butterfly in perfect blue butterfly blue.) Stanshall himself played the role of Hubert Rawlinson as well as narrating the film, and other key cast members included Denis Coffey (who had appeared with Stanshall in the groundbreaking 1960s television comedy "Do Not Adjust Your Set") as Mrs. E, Talfryn Thomas and former Bonzos member Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell as Nice & Tidy, Simon Jones as Joachim, and Suzanne Danielle as Candice Rawlinson. Although largely ignored and rarely seen on television (and indeed, not currently available on video), "Sir Henry At Rawlinson End" is a thoroughly entertaining film and clear proof of what can be achieved in British comedy film when it is allowed to explore its own avenues rather than copying marketable successful templates. The film was also accompanied by a "Sir Henry At Rawlinson End" book, which combined the plot of the film with elements of the radio broadcast.
Although 1979's 'Gooseflesh Steps Part 1' was the last installment of the radio "Rawlinson End" for quite some time, several related songs put in an appearance on Stanshall's 1981 album, "Teddy Boys Don't Knit" (including 'Ginger Geezer' and the ode to the Rawlinson family dog 'Gums', both of which originated in the radio broadcasts, and 'Terry Keeps His Clips On' which detailed the boring life of the son of the Rawlinson's unfortunate former gardener), and a second album appeared in 1983. "Sir Henry at Ndidi's Kraal" (which some sources claim was originally intended as a film script; GG site note: Not so. What was left over from the script of SHARE, and leftovers there were in abundance, none of them were thrown into the big black cooking pot that became Ndidi's Kraal) saw Sir Henry sent to Africa to locate an undiscovered tribe on behalf of the Geographic Society, and it differed from the previous installments in the saga in several respects. Firstly, it was not actually set at Rawlinson End and hardly featured any of the regular characters (apart from a marvellous moment where, to his absolute horror, Sir Henry finds that he actually misses Scrotum and Mrs. E), but more significantly it related a straightforward narrative from start to finish, rather than the usual intricate weaving of colliding stories. Stanshall tried to block the release of the album, as he felt it was an inferior work and fell far short of his aims and expectations (admittedly, it is badly mixed and features far too many clumsy and overliteral sound effects; GG site note: Vivian neither mixed Kraal nor did he add the sound effects... these were done 'behind his back', so to speak. See site comments), but he was overruled and it duly found its way into the shops. Although the album has been widely panned and sidelined as an inferior work, it is not without merit and despite Stanshall's understandable reservations, it does deserve to be given a second listen. While admittedly not as consistent as the earlier adventures of Sir Henry (a fact that was clearly not helped by the linear storytelling approach), it frequently hits the mark and there are some truly sublime moments. Some other critics have attempted to dismiss it as a 'racist' work owing to the nature of some of the dialogue and humour, but as that's conviently ignoring the fact that just because Sir Henry's character is inevitably racist (and indeed has been since the first "Rawlinson End") that doesn't necessarily mean that the intention of the entire piece will automatically be 'racist' too, then their opinions aren't really worth dwelling on. Ironically, despite its reputation as an inferior work, 'Sir Henry At Ndidi's Kraal" is widely available on CD while several of Stanshall's other albums continue to pointlessly gather dust in the vaults.
The late 1980s were a turbulent time for Stanshall and his creativity was badly affected by his personal problems and battles with alcohol dependency. Only two "Rawlinson End" shows were produced for Radio 1 during the decade, both of them in 1988. However, it was a seemingly revitalised Stanshall who saw in the new decade, and 1991 brought a fresh burst of coherent creativity, resulting first in "Crank", a superb autobiographical musical suite performed for BBC2's "The Late Show", and then the stage show "Rawlinson Dog Ends". Boasting the involvement of Neil Innes and fellow former Bonzos Rodney Slater and Roger Ruskin Spear, the show combined elements of "Crank" with the Rawlinson saga and selected musical highlights from Stanshall's back catalogue. Although convential 'wisdom' claims that the shows were a chaotic disorganized mess with the musicians constantly unsure of what Stanshall was going to do next, audience recordings of the shows disprove this. Stanshall is alert and performing on top form throughout, and band and audience alike sound as though they were having a great time. Plans were announced at this time for a projected new Rawlinson End album, "The Thing At Rawlinson End", but if this was actually recorded then it has yet to see release. Instead, elements of its storyline were reworked into two further shows for Peel, both broadcast in 1991. Keeping true to the spirit of the intertwining storylines that had made the shows so unique, 'Cackling Gas Capers', and 'The Thing At Rawlinson End' related a variety of strange tales relating to Sir Henry's befriending of a dinosaur that he discovered living happily in the grounds of Rawlinson End. The two unlikely friends were last seen heading for Concreton, hellbent on wreaking havoc of some description, and this provided an untimely but fitting end to the saga of Rawlinson End. Following work on these shows, Stanshall's problems began to overtake him once again, but he did revisit Rawlinson End for a series of bizarre adverts featuring Dawn French as Sir Henry. There were also plans for an animated version for Channel 4, but sadly these came to nothing when in 1995, Vivian Stanshall tragically died in a fire at his home. Although a handful of original "Rawlinson End" shows were repeated, albeit in a frustratingly abridged form that detracted from their style, as a tribute in 1996, there has been very little celebration or even acknowledgement of his undisputed masterwork. Which is a shame, as a CD box set containing all of the original BBC recordings would be utterly fantastic.
In a world where a comedian only has to avoid appearing on mainstream variety shows to be labelled a 'cult' performer, "Rawlinson End" remains a cult series in the purest and most genuine sense. As it was never broadcast on a regular basis, its audience was by necessity composed of devoted and loyal followers, and its enduring popularity is due largely to an appeal created by word-of-mouth excitement. Yet it has still managed to become a hugely popular series in its own right, and arguably even the second most influential radio comedy of the 1970s (after "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy", of course), and the fact that it essentially developed from a straightforward radio session is proof positive that it is possible to create a success without resorting to tried and tested audience-pleasing tactics. John Peel's still on Radio 1 nowadays, and even though it's less likely that something equivalent to to "Rawlinson End" could come about under the station's current profile, it's reasuring to know that it potentially could.
Sandra still smells, by the way.