Directed by: Steve Roberts
Starring: Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, Denise Coffey, Vivian Stanshall, Sheila Reid, J.G. Devlin
When the film version of Brit eccentric (and former front man of the self-proclaimed Dadaist pop/rock group the Bonzo Dog Band) Vivian Stanshall’s concept album Sir Henry at Rawlinson End premiered in 1980, it was reported that Stanshall was so pleased with the results that he stabbed director Steve Roberts. If the story involved anyone other than Stanshall, I’d be inclined to think it apocryphal. In Stanshall’s case, it seems perfectly believable. That the film was made at all is pretty remarkable. The character of Sir Henry Rawlinson first appeared in a nine-minute cut, “Rawlinson End,” on the Bonzo’s last album Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly (1972). But the character—and the mythos of Rawlinson End—developed in Stanshall’s, well, unique mind to become the full-fledged brilliant insanity of an entire album, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, in 1978. While lacking much in the way of plot, the album detailed the daily routine of English rural life at a crumbling estate, Rawlinson End, presided over by the lovably outspoken fascistic thug Sir Henry—a man prone to thoughtfulness along the lines of “mercifully” hitting his butler across the face “with the soft end of his pistol,” and shooting a gardener with a broken leg because “he never could stand seeing even the lowliest creature in pain.”
The film version preserves most of the album’s calculated insanity and intricate wordplay, but grafts a kind of plot involving the need to exorcise Sir Henry’s (played in the film by the great Trevor Howard) elder brother’s (killed by Henry in “an understandable mistake” years earlier) ghost from Rawlinson End with the aid of a defrocked and completely unscrupulous clergyman (Patrick Magee). None of it makes a lot of sense. It’s not meant to. It’s instead a deliberately outrageous satire of a kind of English life taken to extremes. As a film, it’s almost impossible to describe, and it’s equally difficult to digest in a single viewing. Like its source album, you could listen to the soundtrack dozens of times and pick out new clever wordplays and casual outrages.
If Sir Henry-isms like “I never met a man I didn’t mutilate” and “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth forcing someone else to do it” and “Generally speaking when I’ve eaten something, I don’t want to see it again” appeal to you, this may be your dish of tea. How do you feel about a man who keeps a pair of boar tusks for the specific purpose of “defacing Reader’s Digest”? And does this description of Henry’s younger brother Hubert (played by Stanshall) capture your fancy:“As a child Hubert was ... unusual. In his adolescence during the summer, in a northerly direction parallel to the earth’s axis, he would throw himself naked onto the lawn, and with that loathsome, blue-y Roman clock face tattooed about his private parts think about Jean Harlow very hard, and from the shadow cast tell the time with remarkable accuracy”? If it does, you’ve been waiting for this exceedingly strange, completely unique film.