music on / off
In Remembrance of Vivian Stanshall

21 March, 1943 ~ 5 March, 1995
Oxford, United Kingdom

Vivian Stanshall (born Victor Anthony Stanshall; 21 March 1943 – 5 March 1995) was an English singer-songwriter, painter, musician, author, poet and wit, best known for his wo... Read more >
Vivian's Home Page  |  About Vivian  |  Memory Book  |  Photos  |  Candles & Flowers  |  Videos

Vivian Stanshall (born Victor Anthony Stanshall; 21 March 1943 – 5 March 1995) was an English singer-songwriter, painter, musician, author, poet and wit, best known for his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, for his surreal exploration of the British upper classes in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and for narrating Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

The great eccentric

Stanshall was often called a "great British eccentric", but this was a label he hated: it suggested that he was putting on an act. Instead, as he himself always insisted, "...he was merely being himself." However, it is not difficult to understand why he received the label. Neil 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."

Early life

Stanshall was born on 21 March 1943 at the Radcliffe Maternity Home in Shillingford, and christened Victor Anthony Stanshall. (The name and the date are certainly correct but there is much speculation about the place, with his mother herself stating Shillingford, Oxfordshire and his father claiming Walthamstow. Vivian himself said he was "evacuated from the war from the east end" but failed to say when.)
Stanshall certainly spent some time in Walthamstow — a suburb on the borders of East London and Essex (which hints he was born there) —but at some point his mother Eileen (1911–1999) moved to Shillingford, Oxfordshire, along with thousands of others, to escape the bombing during the Second World War. There she lived with her young son while her husband, Victor (1909–1990) (a name he had adopted in preference to his own christened name of Vivian), served in the RAF. If Eileen was happy in Shillingford, Vivian was happier.

Later, he told his wife, and repeated in numerous interviews, that it was the happiest time of his life. But when the war ended, his father returned, and with him the happiness came to an end. The family moved back to Walthamstow. The return of Victor Stanshall was a turning point in the young Vivian's life. With only him and his mother, life was ideal.

With the addition of a stern pretentious father, life took a serious downturn, followed by a further shock at the arrival of a new brother, Mark Stanshall, born in 1949. They were six years apart, an age difference that apparently put a certain amount of emotional distance in their relationship that was never resolved.
Although his origins were working class, Stanshall's father wanted his sons to go to public school, or at least behave in public as if they did, and pressed them to perform well in sport. Young Vic, however, was uninterested in such pursuits, preferring — to his father's horror — to devote his energies to art and music.
Consequently, he grew up living a dual life: at home, he would have to speak "properly" or face a berating; on the street he spoke with a broad cockney accent in order to avoid a beating from his peers.

As a teenager, Stanshall secretly joined a gang of teddy boys, attracted both by the rock'n'roll and the clothing. Even among such dandies, though, he was a bit of an oddball. The polished vowels that had been bashed into him kept leaking out, and his working class mates looked upon him as something of an amusing freak.
About this time, the Stanshall family moved to the Essex coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea. Stanshall managed to earn some money doing various odd jobs at the Kursaal fun fair in nearby Southend-on-Sea.

These included working as a bingo caller and spending the winter painting the fairground attractions.
To put aside enough money to get himself through art school (his father having refused to fund such goings-on), Stanshall spent a year in the merchant navy, where he made a very bad waiter, but a great teller of tall tales.

He enrolled at the Central School of Art in London. Here, Stanshall and his fellow students, including Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and Neil Innes, who was studying art at Goldsmiths College, came together to form a band.
Stanshall changed his first name to Vivian — the very name his father had abandoned. It was not until 1977 that the documents came through that made his name change legal. [6] Those who knew him from his student days, however, continued to call him Vic.

The Bonzo years

Main article: Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
The name of the band came from a word game which Stanshall played with art school peer and Bonzo member Rodney Slater, involving cutting up sentences and juxtaposing the fragments to form new ones. One of the combinations that came out of this exercise was "Bonzo Dog/Dada". The band initially performed under this name, but soon grew tired of explaining what Dada meant. Thus they became the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — later abbreviated to The Bonzo Dog Band, or just The Bonzos.

In these early days they were a very loose assemblage, consisting of the core members mentioned above, plus just about anyone else who felt like joining in. At times there were as many as 30 of them, with gigs often featuring more people on stage than in the audience. Their act at this time consisted of anarchic re-workings of old British novelty songs, found on 78 rpm records bought from flea markets, spiced with improvisation and a variety of bizarre machines assembled from junk, with at least one explosion per gig.

The Bonzos might have continued in this way, probably disappearing into obscurity, had it not been for a nasty shock: the 1966 chart success of a winsomely arch number called Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville Band — a band comprising session musicians created by songwriter Geoff Stephens, whose musical style was uncannily like the Bonzos' own. So soon as the record became a hit, Stephens and his record company needed a band to present themselves as The New Vaudeville Band. Bob Kerr, a Bonzo member, was asked by his friend Stephens to become the band, and he tried convincing the others that they change their name to achieve greater commercial success, but the advice was this point Kerr left the band. Several weeks later, the band appeared on Top Of The Pops performing the songs in clothes exactly like the Bonzos. An emergency meeting was called and the band decided to wear whatever they wanted. The Bonzos realized that if they were to make a mark for themselves, they would have to forge a new path.

According to the band's manager Gerry Bron (brother of the actress Eleanor Bron), Vivian Stanshall was given several weeks to produce songs for the new professional Bonzo Dog Band. When people arrived at his studio they found he had not written a single thing, focusing instead on building a variety of rabbit hutches.
From here on, they started writing their own material and dropping it into the act alongside the old novelty numbers. With Stanshall now liberated from his original role as tuba player and firmly established as the front man, the act became more sophisticated, more daring, satirical, and original. Aside from the adventurous music and lyrics, it was quite a performance: Stanshall sang, played a variety of instruments and on a good night would also perform a prolonged fully-clothed strip mime, culminating in some spectacular tit-juggling. Stanshall provided one of the highlights of the show: a vulgar joke about Jesus.

For a while the band existed as a semi-pro outfit playing the college circuit, but it wasn't long before they acquired a manager, went full time, and found themselves booked on the working men's club circuit mainly in the north of England. The band dominated their lives, traveling to low-paying gigs in an old van crammed with any number of musical instruments, an assortment of props, and prop robots. In 1967, they appeared in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour television special playing Vivian's "Death Cab for Cutie" during the strip club scene, and this was followed by a slot as the house band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a weekly TV revue show also notable for early appearances by most of the Monty Python troupe.

In 1968 the Bonzos scored a surprise top ten hit with a number called "I'm the Urban Spaceman" (produced by Apollo C. Vermouth aka Paul McCartney), after management wanted them to "play the game" as Innes put it, to try for a hit single. They never repeated that success although Stanshall, through his many costumes, became a forerunner of America's Martin Mull.
The band toured incessantly and recorded several albums, which led to a tour of the United States. This was so successful that they were booked for another US tour soon after. Neil Innes remembers that the band were reportedly stopped by a local U.S. sheriff and asked if they were carrying any firearms or drugs. When they denied both, the officer asked how they were going to defend themselves. Vivian piped up from the back of the minibus, "With good manners!"

Between the tours, however, something brought about a crippling change in Stanshall's personality. None of his fellow Bonzos claims to know just what caused it, but by the start of the second tour he was taking very large doses of tranquillizers prescribed by a private doctor, ostensibly to treat stage-fright. Nevertheless, the workload never let up. The band had a punishing schedule, often playing more than one gig per evening. The band got sick of the whole touring scene, and decided to split still as friends. In 1970, after six years of mounting exhaustion, they broke up.

After the Bonzo Dog Band

Stanshall went on to form various short-lived groups including The Sean Head Showband, Bonzo Dog Freaks (featuring the guitar talents of the rotund Bubs White) and BiG GrunT. At one point, he even went into teaching art and drama at a boys' secondary modern school in Surrey.[citation needed] By now, his life was dogged by alcoholism and panic attacks, which he tried to control with Valium; he would have these problems for the rest of his life. He had several spells in hospitals in attempts to stop or control his drinking, but they never worked. He was also still being prescribed larger and larger doses of Valium, which, he later reported, made things worse by adding another addiction. Even so, he continued to write music and tour. His longtime friend, Pete Moss (the original musical director of The Rocky Horror Show), toured with him, providing musical direction and support.

For all his problems, Stanshall never lost his sense of humour. In particular, his exploits with close friend Keith Moon are legendary, perhaps the most notorious involving Stanshall going into an unsuspecting tailor's shop and admiring a pair of trousers; Moon then came in, posing as another customer, admired the same trousers and demanded to buy them. When Stanshall protested the two men fought over them, splitting them in two so they ended up with one leg each. The tailor was by now beside himself but right then a one-legged actor, who had been hired by Stanshall and Moon, came in, saw the trousers and proclaimed "Ah! Just what I was looking for."

Aside from such pranks, the two also worked together. For instance, when Stanshall took over the John Peel radio show for a while, Moon appeared as Lemmy in the saga of Colonel Knutt, idiot adventurer-detective. Moon also produced Stanshall's recorded maniacal version of Terry Stafford's Suspicion.

In early 1974, Stanshall wrote, arranged, and recorded his first solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. A complex, idiosyncratic affair, its lyrics were acutely personal insights laced with poetry, as well as overt references to his penis. The album has a jazz-rock flavour, rich with African percussion. Such artists as his friend Steve Winwood, Innes, Bubs White, Jim Capaldi, Ric Grech, Doris Troy, and Madeline Bell made guest appearances.

Rawlinson End

Stanshall's next big success was Rawlinson End. (Much of the text can be found at "Vivarchive" and at "Rawlinson End Book") In the 1970s he recorded numerous sessions for BBC Radio 1's John Peel show which elaborated, with a mixture of eloquence and irreverence, on the weird and wonderful adventures of the inebriated and blimpish Sir Henry Rawlinson, his dotty wife Great Aunt Florrie, his "unusual" brother Hubert (who, for speed, stature and far-seeing, habitually goes on stilts), old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer, Mrs E, the rambling and unhygienic cook, and many other inhabitants of the crumbly Rawlinson End, plus its environs.
The Rawlinson family had been populating Stanshall's imagination for quite a while, their very first appearance (in name, at least) being on the Bonzos' 1967 number The Intro & The Outro: "Great to hear the Rawlinsons on trombone".

An LP, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which reworked some of the material from the Peel sessions, appeared in 1978. A sepia-tinted black and white film version (recently released on DVD), starring Trevor Howard as Sir Henry, and Stanshall as Hubert, followed in 1980. It was also based on the Peel recordings, with many variations from the LP. Some of the film's music was provided by Stanshall's friend Steve Winwood. A book of the same title by Stanshall, illustrated with stills from the film, was published by Eel Pie Publishing in 1980. Nominally a film novelisation, it was distilled from all the various versions of the story, including a good deal of material that was not used in the film.

A projected second book, The Eating at Rawlinson End, never appeared. It was to have started:[
"In the blue wardrobe of heaven are many unused clothes, too tight-fitting yet too beautiful to throw away. And in that wardrobe we hang our likenesses, yellow diaries yellowed with yesterday, thumb smeared with tomorrow. But the now, the present, like the hollow screech of ancient flamingos in search of shrimps, is still vibrantly shocking pink."

A second Rawlinson album, Sir Henry at Ndidi's Kraal (1983), recounts Sir Henry's disastrous African expedition, but omits the rest of the Rawlinson clan. According to Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, his widow, he regarded this recording as sub-standard and it was released without his knowledge and against his wishes. He was ill when making it, and the record company issued it as quickly as possible. Stanshall was often drunk and/or depressed during production, which took place on The Searchlight, a house boat he bought from Moody Blues and Wings' Denny Laine and moored between Shepperton and Chertsey on the River Thames. He lived on it from 1977 to 1983. Converted from a Second World War era submarine-chaser, it was forever taking on water and sank with all his possessions aboard. Almost all of them were retrieved, some the worse for water damage.

At Christmas 1996, BBC Radio 4 retrieved some of the Peel show recordings from the vault for a late-night repeat, but there seems[citation needed] to be little chance of a commercial release, though some have appeared on a bootleg CD together with some of Stanshall's collaborations with Keith Moon.

Sir Henry's final appearance was in a television commercial for Ruddles Real Ale (c. 1994), where he is portrayed by a cross-dressing Dawn French, presiding over a family banquet at a long table. Stanshall reprises the role of Hubert, reciting a poem loosely based on Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat, at the end of which all the diners produce oars and row the table off-screen.
Another late appearance (c. early 1995) was as one of several "talking heads" on a 30-minute documentary produced by the pop group Pulp (to promote their single Do You Remember The First Time) talking about the experience of losing your virginity.

There's Always More...

Stanshall collaborated on numerous projects including Robert Calvert's Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells where he is the Master of Ceremonies, breathily announcing the buildup of instruments in the finale of the first side of the album, appeared with Grimms and The Rutles, as well as occasionally working with The Alberts and The Temperance Seven.

While living on the Searchlight, Stanshall composed and recorded Teddy Boys Don't Knit, and wrote and recorded Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. There, he also wrote and filmed the film of the same name for Tony Stratton-Smith's Charisma Records company. At the same time, he co-wrote with Steve Winwood the songs for Winwood's Arc of a Diver and wrote some of the songs he later used for Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera, the musical comedy he wrote with his second wife Ki Longfellow.

After the Searchlight, the Stanshall family lived and worked on the Thekla, a Baltic Trader, which was sailed 732 nautical miles (1,356 km) from the east coast of England to be moored in the Bristol docks. Ki had bought the Thekla in Sunderland, and converted her into a floating theatre called The Old Profanity Showboat. Vivian joined her when the doors opened to the public for the first time in May 1983. In December 1985, the ship saw the debut of their production, Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera.

Main article: The Thekla

Stanshall wrote 27 original songs for Stinkfoot, sharing book and lyric writing with his wife. The show involved bizarre characters that they imagined living under a seaside pier as well as characters taken from Longfellow's early tale for children called Stinkfoot. It proved a success, with people coming from all over Europe and even the Americas to see it. It was revived in London some years later with Peter Moss as musical director, but was not a critical success.
In late 2008, interest in restaging the show, never flagging, became a reality. The comic opera, trimmed by Ki from three hours to two, is now in pre-production for a British revival, hopefully in 2010. A "Stinkfoot Showcase" will play the Thekla in Bristol, England (where it was written and first staged), on July 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 24th of 2010. This is a showcase of Stinkfoot's songs backed by a full band and selected cast members (including Nikki Lamborn and Vivian and Ki's daughter Silky Longfellow-Stanshall) plus special guests. Though open to the public, the showcase is to attract backers for the revival of the full musical.
Main article: Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera
There is also a 28-minute film of Stanshall currently inside the BBC vault: One Man's Week, dated 1975, looks at a week in his life and includes footage of him at The Manor Studio recording studio playing music with Gaspar Lawal, Mongezi Feza, Anthony White and Derek Quinn. This film also shows him talking about his turtles and playing his 'Phonofiddle'[citation needed].

Stanshall's voice won him several commercial voice-overs, including a campaign for Cadbury's Mini Eggs which involved a reworking of the Bonzos' song Mister Slater's Parrot, under the title of Mister Cadbury's Parrot.

He was married twice: in 1968 to fellow art student Monica Peiser (they had a son, Rupert, that year, and were divorced in 1975); and on 9 September 1980, to novelist Pamela "Ki" Longfellow. They had a daughter, Silky, born on 16 August 1979, named after a racehorse called Silky Sullivan, her mother's childhood favourite. (Stanshall was seriously considering Dorothy. "Just think," he said, "We could call her Dot!"[citation needed]) His marriage was celebrated in the song, Bewildebeeste, as was Silky's birth in The Tube, on his second solo album Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981).
In 1982, Vivian provided a spoken word segment on Lovely Money, a single by The Damned.
In late 1988, after Fish had left Marillion, the band considered using lyrics Stanshall had written, but in the end decided to hire John Helmer instead.

In 1989, his short interview with John Wesley Harding was released on Harding's God Made Me Do It: the Christmas EP.

In 1991, Stanshall made a 15-minute autobiographical piece called Vivian Stanshall: The Early Years, aka Crank, for BBC2's The Late Show, in which he confessed to having been terrified of his father, who had always disapproved of him.

A later programme for BBC Radio 4, Vivian Stanshall: Essex Teenager to Renaissance Man (1994) included an interview with his mother in which she insisted that his father had loved him, but Stanshall was mortified that his father had never shown it, not even on his deathbed.
Then in 2001 Jeremy Pascall and Stephen Fry produced a documentary for BBC Radio 4 on Stanshall featuring (amongst others) Mark Stanshall, Neil Innes, Steve Winwood, John Walters, Vivian's constant Musical Director Peter Moss, and even Stanshall's own briefly employed agent Phillipa Clare. This charted the story of Stanshall from childhood until his death in 1995. Stephen Fry knew Stanshall quite well and, along with his personal thoughts, introduces a series of reminiscences. The show featured many clips from Stanshall's work including 'Colonel Knutt and Lemmy' in an episode called 'Breath From The Pit'. The recording also relates one of Stanshall's last poems (posted by Stanshall to a friend and received the day after his death), entitled 'With My Mouth Turned Down for the Night'.


Stanshall was found dead on 6 March 1995, after a fire at his Muswell Hill (north London) flat; coincidentally, this was one hundred years to the day after the death of (the original) Sir Henry Rawlinson. Though Stanshall often smoked and drank in bed and even set fire to his long ginger beard, to the frequent concern of his wife and friends, the coroner found that the fire was caused by faulty wiring near his bed.


In 2001 Chris Welch and Lucian Randall wrote a biography of Vivian called Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall. In 2003 Ben Schot's Sea Urchin Press published the script of Vivian Stanshall and Ki Stanshall-Longfellow's Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera with an introduction by Ki. Ki plans to publish The Last Showboat: an Illustrated Memoir of Vivian Stanshall, the Old Profanity Showboat, and Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera.
Serious plans are afoot to restage Vivian and Ki's production of Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera somewhere in Britain in late 2009 or early 2010. Some of the roles are cast (ie: Silky Longfellow-Stanshall will play "Elma, the Electric Eel"; Nikki Lamborn will reprise her role as "Persian Moll") and many key theatrical personnel are in place.

Reproduced from Wikipedia:

Under the creative commons licence:

[ back to top > ]