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Vivian Stanshall - a Great British Eccentric.

Just off Muswell Hill Broadway a few paces down Hillfield Park, outside number 1, is one of our rare local Blue Plaques.

This  marks the former home of performer, painter, poet, writer raconteur and musician Vivian Stanshall a true British Eccentric.

This week would have been Vivian Stanshall 70th birthday - he was born on 21 March 1943 and lived much of his early life in Walthamstow.

Stanshall first came to public attenton on the TV series Do not Adjust Your Set as vocalist of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - The "Bonzos" were an eclectic and peculiarly British mix of music hall, trad-jazz, psychedelic pop with a liberal sprinkling of surreal humour and avant-garde art.

The band was formed by Stanshall with fellow students at the Central School of Art in London (Including Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and Neil Innes). Innes said of their first meeting: "He was quite plump in those days. He had on Billy Bunter check trousers, a Victorian frock coat, violet pince-nez glasses, and carried a euphonium. He also wore large pink rubber ears."

The Bonzos had early pop success with "I'm The Urban Spaceman", and "The Intro and the Outro"(referenced on the blue plaque above) they had a successful musical career supporting stadium rock bands as well as headlining their own shows. After a fast and furious few years the band broke-up and went their separate ways.

In the mid 1970's Stanshall found renewed fame as the master of ceremonies on Mike Oldfields Tubular Bells album, introducing each of the instruments in turn with a nod to his earlier performance on the 'Intro and Outro" hit record.

Stanshall went on to record several albums as a solo artist.

He also created the character Sir Henry of Rawlinson End, initially on the John Peel's radio show - but it was later turned into a stage show and film as well as a radio series of his own (currently being replayed on BBC 4Extra). Sir Henry showcased Stanshall's masterful command of vocabulary alongside an acerbic exploration of the British upper classes. There are countless quotable lines amongst the various versions of the piece many of them Art-Imitating-Life type quotes such as this from Sir Henry himself: If I had all the money I'd spent on drink, I'd spend it on drink."

Audio Downloads are available from the Rawlinson End archive.

In the 1980's Stanshall and his wife the American author Pamela ‘Ki’ Longfellow spent some time living on a boat. Ki Longfellow's concept of a boat kitted out as a travelling performance space, gallery, restaurant and artists’ studio was made real with the sailing vessel she called "The Old Profanity Showboat" they lived on board the boat with their family and took it on a crazy voyage from the North East of England around the coast to Bristol where it it remains docked today.

After his second marriage broke-up Stanshall lived alone in his Muswell Hill flat; By this time his star was waning. A lifetime of heavy drinking and tranquiliser misuse- in an attempt to control his depression and panic attacks - had taken its toll. His wife, Ki Longfellow by then living in the USA, recounts how he was severely ill and living alone in a condition of self-neglect.

Several reports from this era record his occasional visits to local pubs and off-licences, making his way along Muswel Hill Broadway with his walking-stick, often dressed in weird or inappropriate clothing. One local recounted a book reading by Ray Davies in the Muswell Hill Bookshop when Stanshall attended in a floor length candlewick dressing gown over the rest of his outfit, a large felt hat and a silver topped cane. He spent the evening heckling Ray Davies throughout his reading and talk.

Viv Stanshall died in a fire at his Muswell Hill flat in Hillfield Park sometime during the early hours of March 6th, 1995.

The blue plaque on the gate post was erected by friends and neighbours to celebrate his life.

Stanshall's work influenced many artists and performers; several of the Monty Python team cite him as an influence and Stephen Fry and Danny Baker have each referenced his impact on their broadcasting style.  Stanshall is remembered in a BBC Great Lives Radio documentary by Neil Innes it is available to listen online.

The short video below introduced by John Peel was screened as an obituary piece on BBC TV soon after his death - it gives a flavour of his eccentric art.

You can find out more about Vivian Stanshall's Life and work via the Vivarchive website run by a group of admirers.

A 70th birthday celebration show has been organised at the Bloomsbury Theatre on March 25th 2013, by Mike Livesley, and Vivian's son Rupert. Mike is currently staring in the rave-reviewed one-man show 'Sir Henry at Rawlnson End' which he will be performing in its entirety as part of the birthday celebration with many guests including Neil Innes. You can even follow Sir Henry on Twitter! @SirHenryShow

Happy Birthday Ginger Geezer!

  • I am very grateful to Mike Livesley for improving this piece by clarifying some innaccuracies in the first version. Details of Mike's one-man-show are on the web www.sirhenrylives.com and you can follow Sir Henry on twitter @SirHenryShow

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Tags: blue plaque, local history, muswell hill, vivian stanshall

Comment by Mark on March 19, 2013 at 9:31
Comment by David Williams on March 20, 2013 at 7:54

Vivian was a friend and client of mine and is very sorely missed. Shall pop over and look at the plaque. Thanks for the heads up

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