“The star was an alcoholic, the writer was an alcoholic, the producer was an alcoholic and the director was an alcoholic.” I cribbed that line from David Cairns’s loving write-up about this film. It’s a quote from Neil Innes, the musician who worked with Vivian Stanshall in the cult 1960s comedy outfit The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Innes was talking about this film, Stanshall’s elegy to an England whose class-defined distinguishing features were being sandpapered away by social-democratic change. The concept first saw light of day on the Bonzos’ album Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly, then made its way on to BBC DJ John Peel’s radio shows in the 1970s. Essentially a series of sketches featuring recurring characters, it comprised a menagerie of crusty English stereotypes – a sozzled lord, his dithery wife, a wayward brother, a wrinkled retainer called Scrotum, and more – with all character voices (most notably the booming Sir Henry), bright-as-a-button narration and singalong ditties by Stanshall himself. Later, a reworking of the radio shows became a cult LP and, finally, this film. Here it’s the great Trevor Howard, star of Brief Encounter, as the double-barrelled blotto walrus Sir Henry – “if I had all the money I’d spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink” – and he is, in every sense, perfect casting, while Stanshall is terribly underused as Sir Henry’s useless brother Hubert. Innes’s quote explains a lot about this maddeningly missed opportunity to turn Stanshall’s great rambling shambling mix of poetic wordplay, high cultural reference, low humour and gotcha knockabout into a major work of some sort. What did make it to the screen falls short of the audio version, but it is all we have. A kind of cacklingly eccentric Downton Abbey, it’s undoubtedly one of a kind.
© Steve Morrissey 2007