Review: Michael Livesley and Brainwashing House – Sir Henry At Rawlinson End


English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus-fed Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite. Feudal still, reactionary, Rawlinson End …

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is perhaps the very pinnacle of English eccentricity – a pastoral, surreal and meandering tale of the titular Sir Henry and his unusual family, servants and irritants, created initially as a series of sessions for John Peel’s radio show in the 1970s by ex-Bonzo Dog Doodah Band man Vivian Stanshall, then compiled into an album and later made into one of the most brilliantly oddball feature films ever shot.

In the original version, Stanshall acts as narrator and voices all the characters, mixing his already-noteworthy sense of English whimsy with florid and complex wordplay, punning, double-entendre and all round oddness, backed by a authentic sounding folk score to tell a story that goes nowhere particularly, but features a fine cast of characters – the feudal and psychotic Sir Henry, his wife Florrie, brother Hubert, Old Scrotum the Wrinkled Retainer (i.e. butler), housekeeper Mrs E, and ‘resting theatrical artistes’ Nigel Nice and Teddy Tidy. Interspersed with this would be short musical numbers, as quaintly off-normal as the narrative.

Sir Henry seems so connected to Stanshall’s own character and style that it seems impossible that anyone could ever successfully reinterpret it (the film might be considered such a successful reinterpretation, but of course Stanshall was heavily involved in that project). The 2010 stage version of the story – which rather sensibly did not attempt to flesh out the original recordings, but simply present them as a live performance, more akin to a concert than a stage musical, with Michael Livesley taking the Stanshall role of narrator and voice actor – seems by all accounts to have been just such a successful reinvention. Indeed, short of bringing Stanshall back from the dead, this was the only – or more accurately, the best – way of bringing new life to the material and introducing it to a brand new audience. All very good.

The problem with the soundtrack to the live performance – the first release from Rick Wakeman’s RRAW Records – is a rather unavoidable one … namely that, when stripped of the live performance aspect of the affair, it becomes little more than a facsimile of the original – a cover version album, rather like those ‘sounds like…’ LPs of the 1970s. As good as it might be when seen and experienced live, on record it will always seem like a duplicate of the essentially identical but superior original. Livesley does a fine job with the narration and the character voices, but he is no Stanshall – who ever could be, frankly? – and guest appearances from Wakeman and Neil Innes, while very welcome, again fail to register much when you can’t actually see them on stage.

All this makes this album a rather curious affair to review, because this might well be one of the recordings of the year, if not for the somewhat pesky fact that it already exists in a better version. In a sense, it is damned by its own respect and love for the material – the best cover versions are those that reshape and reconstruct the originals, not the slavish duplications of something that we already have, but of course that was never an option here. And unlike a stage or screen musical, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End was never originally conceived to be performed by a variety of casts – it was very much Stanshall’s baby.

So this is an odd fish. A fine interpretation of a great work, lovingly recreated and nicely presented, but which is entirely unnecessary if you own the original piece. Should Livesley’s live version of Sir Henry appear in a venue near you, I have no hesitation in suggesting that you drop all plans and venture forth to catch it. But on record, you are more advised to seek out the original recordings, and this is very much for the completist only.