Entertainment

Cult Movie: Sir Henry At Rawlinson End

The mighty Trevor Howard plays a man who embodies the worst that the old British empire has to offer and is proud of that fact
The mighty Trevor Howard plays a man who embodies the worst that the old British empire has to offer and is proud of that fact The mighty Trevor Howard plays a man who embodies the worst that the old British empire has to offer and is proud of that fact

VIVIAN Stanshall’s first flirt with fame came courtesy of his time spent as leader and chief chaos creator with those arch English eccentrics and arthouse surrealists The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the late 1960s. Truth be told, it was probably also his last.

A decade on and Stanshall’s star had pretty much fizzled out. A raging alcoholic, he was left to play the role of the colourful outsider, capable of the occasional Woodhousian flight of fancy when called upon but mostly left to live out his days as just another boozy eccentric who’d essentially slashed his obvious talent against the proverbial wall.

That’s why Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1980) is all the sweeter, really. A final hurrah for Stanshall the writer, it’s a fully formed cult beauty of a film that’s as dissolute and charmingly shambolic as the author himself.

Trevor Howard is Sir Henry, a supremely sozzled aristo who lords it up at Rawlinson End, his tumbledown ancestral home on the banks of the river Riddle, deep in the heart of olde England.

Sir Henry goes about his everyday business surrounded by his irascible family, an ageing retainer called Old Scrotum (played by the great Irish stage legend JG Devlin), a troublesome ghost in the corridors and a bizarre prisoner of war camp in the grounds.

The concept of the character was born when Stanshall stood in for John Peel on the radio and decided to replace the standard between-song DJ patter with a selection of rambling monologues delivered in the style of a boozed-up posho. The broadcasts garnered a cult following and suddenly a movie version to expand the gag to its logical conclusion was commissioned.

It says a lot about the confused world of the British film industry in 1980 that this directionless, plot-free mess of a movie was made at all but give thanks that it was because Sir Henry At Rawlinson End is a brilliantly offbeat slice of silliness.

Directed by Steve Roberts, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Stanshall, and shot in black and white and sepia tones, it goes nowhere really but does so with style and panache.

Story-wise it’s little more than the tale of how Sir Henry tries to exorcise the ghost of his brother Hubert (played by Stanshall) who is left in limbo when he dies with no trousers on.There’s not much else to report but when the supporting cast of oddballs and weirdos, including Samuel Beckett’s favourite actor Patrick McGee, are this entertaining, who cares?

Certain elements, such as the German POWs who are kept for sport in the gardens and the all-pervading casual racism, make for uncomfortable viewing but there’s still something magical about it. Best of all is the mighty Trevor Howard who turns in a perfect performance as a man who embodies the worst that the old British empire has to offer and is quite proud of it.

In attitude, if not social status, he is Stanshall. The old Bonzo never surpassed this gem but at least his limited legacy is there for all to see.