Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Sir Henry's creator, the multi-talented Vivian Stanshall, is perhaps best remembered for being the front man of the anarchic Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the theatrical rock-comedy outfit who came to world-wide notice when they performed a number during the strip joint sequence in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour movie. The Bonzos had been the house band on the British TV show that was the precursor to Monty Python's Flying Circus, Do Not Adjust Your Set, and the band's guitarist, Neil Innes, went on to provide a variety of musical services for the Monty Python team during the 1970s. Parts of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End could be described as being slightly Python-esque but such a comparison doesn't really do this bizarre and determinedly unique and original film justice. While Sir Henry at Rawlinson End does contain its fair share of endearingly daft moments, it remains more than anything a genuinely surreal, uncompromising and biting social satire.
"English as tuppence, changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and effete, bold flag-bearer. Lotus-fed Miss Havershambling, hermit crab-type fist eremite. Feudal still, reactionary, Rawlinson End ..."
An eccentric and intolerant old bear of an aristocrat, the drunken Sir Henry Rawlinson (Trevor Howard) suddenly finds himself beset by a number of increasingly pressing problems. Two German prisoners (Simon Jones and Gary Waldhorn) are stepping up their efforts to escape from his private prisoner of war camp while the restless ghost of his brother Humbert (Michael Crane) has taken to scaring his dinner guests out of their wits. Matters are made worse when two criminals, a dishonest clergyman called Mr Slodden (Patrick Magee) and his wide-boy assistant Buller Bullethead (Harry Fowler), decide that rich pickings might be found at Rawlinson End.
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End started life as an intermittent short feature on John Peel's BBC radio show. The episodes were written and performed by Vivian Stanshall, who affected a variety of accents and voices with which to bring his crazed characters to life. Stanshall once recalled that his aspiration-fuelled father had forced him to adopt a posh accent that didn't truly reflect his social origins but that same posh accent was put to great use during the sections of the Sir Henry radio shows that required the services of a narrator. Here Stanshall really came into his own, drawing the listener in with some remarkably clever and effective language and word play that served to set the scene for each of the episodes' dramatic character-driven segments. Sir Henry's adventures were continued via their appearance on a long-playing record, which in turn led to the cinema feature that is the subject of this review.
The targets of Stanshall's satirical wit here are the old English aristocratic colonial-types, whose unswerving sense of racial and social superiority continues to resist calls for racial and social equality. Brilliantly, and in some strange way endearingly, brought to life by Trevor Howard (The Third Man, Ryan's Daughter, The Charge of the Light Brigade) in what just might be a career-best performance, Sir Henry is a gruff former man-of-action who constantly laments the decline of the British Empire. Most of his conversations dissolve into misty-eyed reminiscences of some campaign or other fought on foreign soil. These reminiscences inevitably include a degree of racist name-calling and the off-hand dismissal of other races' cultural practices. Sir Henry's mindset is such that when he discovers that bathing in the effluence at a local sewage works eases his lumbago, he determines that blacking himself up, dressing in a tutu and riding to the sewage works on a unicycle is the best way for him to travel incognito. It's this quite ridiculous disguise that first brings him to the attention of Buller Bullethead.
In the world of the English aristocratic colonial-type, the English working classes are afforded the same disrespect and disdain as their foreign counterparts: all subalterns together, if you like. Sir Henry abuses his house staff without a second thought. His butler, Old Scrotum ("the wrinkled retainer") (R G Devlin), lives in fear of Henry's temper and he receives a pistol-whipping at one point here. Rawlinson End is so huge that Old Scrotum can only meet his master's calls in a timely manner if he precariously climbs up the outside of the house and enters Henry's room via the window. Mrs E. (Denise Coffey) the cook-cum-maid has to sleep in her uniform so that she can get out of bed and prepare Sir Henry's breakfast the second that he calls for it. There's even an indication that Sir Henry routinely enjoys sexual favours from Mrs E.: when a drunken Henry drops a slice of meat onto his lap, his dog sneaks under the dining table and tries to retrieve it. Without looking down, Sir Henry simply complains, "Mrs E., until you learn to take your teeth out I'll not up your salary". In many ways, the sign on Seth Onetooth's (Nicholas McArdle) delivery van says it all: "Turkey to the gentry, poultry to the lowly." There's a pervading aura of decay at Rawlinson End and this is further reflected in the grubby and disheveled uniforms that Old Scrotum and Mrs E. sport.
Henry's melancholic and wistful wife Florrie (Sheila Reid) has spent years knitting a stair carpet as a mark of respect for a lost lover. Just when we think that she might be the most human aristocrat in the film she has a flashback to happier times, recalling how Henry was once a softer and more compassionate individual. Her heart is warmed when she remembers how Henry, upon hearing that their elderly gardener had fallen and broken his leg, strode quickly into the garden and shot the man dead because "he couldn't bear to see even the lowliest of creatures in pain". At the film's finale, the Rawlinsons host 'the Blazing', a bizarre pagan celebration in which the manor's lumpen locals are obliged to rush at Sir Henry while he attacks them with a huge Viking broad sword that only he can draw from its mystical scabbard. We are told that the Second World War ended many years ago, and the presence of digital watches and a hang-glider suggest that the film is set in the late 1970s, but everything else about the film plays as if it were set in the 1950s. Stanshall himself claimed that the film was originally envisioned as a kind of "sur-Ealing comedy".
Other characters encountered at Rawlinson End include Ralph Rawlinson (Daniel Gerroll), Henry's son who was driven mad during an adventure in the tropics: he now plays billiards on horseback and fools around with African blowpipes. Ralph's sister Candice (Suzanne Danielle) is a silent and mysterious beauty: she dresses like a priestess from ancient Greece and strikes bizarre and ritualistic poses whenever she's on camera. Danielle, who played Emmannuelle Prevert in the original Carry On team's final feature, Carry On Emmannuelle, would have made a superb Vulnavia if the proposed third Doctor Phibes film had ever gotten off the ground. Lady Phillipa of Staines (the extremely funny Liz Smith of The Royle Family) is another old drunk while her husband Lord Tarquin (Ben Aris) is a rather nervous aristocrat who wasn't man enough to fully embrace his colonial tour of duty. Peregrin Maynard (Jeremy Child) is a generic upper-class twit. In the prisoner of war camp two Germans, Max and Joachim, are employed to do their best to outsmart Sir Henry by trying to escape. Buller Bullethead is a local spiv who talks using very complicated cockney rhyming slang and colloquialisms ("An oily rag? Anytime, me old mucker! Saloon bar shagged, lipstick on the tips and no gobbin'. Lovely.") while Mr Slodden remains the film's darkest character. A defrocked priest, he's resentful, bitter and cunning and Patrick Magee (Demons of the Mind, The Masque of the Red Death) does a superb job bringing this thoroughly nasty piece of work to life.
All of the acting on display here is truly excellent. Under any other circumstances, Vivian Stanshall himself might have stolen the show on two counts. The first is his turn as Sir Henry's innocent but deranged brother Hubert. Standing at around six foot two, balding but sporting long hair and an equally long beard, Stanshall made for an imposing figure and his natural ability to project a disturbing air of mad genius is well-used here. Stanshall also excels in his role as the film's unseen intermittent narrator. In one sequence, his two roles come together quite superbly. When Henry shoots down a hang-glider who is soaring above his lake, the action cuts to Hubert who is fishing nearby. He's dressed like a mad Sherlock Holmes and his fishing line is attached to his ukulele. While a bemused Hubert sits silently watching the water for activity, the narrator's voice tells us that, "On pleasant English evenings, Henry's brother Hubert went angling. Hubert put it about that swans were really giant snorkels and that they betrayed dinosaur leviathans gliding cold-eyed beneath the lake ... He had been told that the lake embosomed enormous barbells, and this, translated through his ear-trumpet and giggles, became 'anonymous barbers'. He wondered how and why these hairdressers stayed submerged for so long, and was determined to catch one." The narrator's observations are immediately followed by yet another surreal and bizarre occurrence. Hubert's other interests include his collection of rotting fruit and his fondness for performing disturbing impersonations of birds.
Some of the scenes involving the ghost of Sir Henry's brother Humbert are actually quite spooky. The ghost is never seen but it pushes along a stuffed bulldog on wheels called Gums. When the ghost walks the corridors of Rawlinson End, a loud The Haunting-like supernatural pounding can be heard, plaster falls from the ceilings and the lights flicker on and off. A flashback reveals that the ghost is actually trouser-less and it is rumored that if the ghost could somehow be 'trousered', it might speak before moving on to rest. Henry isn't scared of the ghost and he has his own reasons for not wanting it to speak. However, Henry becomes so incensed when Gums urinates in his brandy (he simply cannot abide diluted alcohol) that he agrees to call in Slodden for an exorcism. In another absurdist twist, Slodden insists that all of the Rawlinsons attend the exorcism dressed as trees since this will assist in disorientating the ghost. With his foot now in the door, Slodden is determined to take the Rawlinsons for all that he can.
The above account really doesn't come close to relaying just how thoroughly bizarre, and at times unsettling, this film actually is. If you can imagine a very English satirical comedy that just happens to quite naturally project the kind of intensely strange ambience that is more commonly associated with arthouse oddities like the Quay Brothers' Institute Benjamenta, I guess you're part way there. Stanshall's take on comedy may well be something of an acquired taste too - a lot of his material is funny without necessarily making you want to laugh out loud - but Sir Henry at Rawlinson End remains a neatly assembled little film that is perhaps only spoiled by a seemingly rushed or mismanaged denouement: An attempt to cover the equally odd action that is taking place simultaneously at both 'the Blazing' and the prisoner of war camp employs some peculiarly disorientating and somewhat baffling cross-cuts which result in the show's narrative threatening to become momentarily impenetrable during the lead up to the closing stages of the film's final reel. But this blip doesn't really pose an enormous problem in this kind of setting: The film's narrative arc as a whole follows a very surreal and stream-of-consciousness-like logic of its own at the best of times.
Thankfully, the show's cinematography and art direction are so rich that there's always something on screen that is grabbing the viewer's attention in some capacity during the film's less-than-lucid moments. Filmed in and around the huge and architecturally impressive Knebworth House, art director James Acheson made great use of the curious décor, and the many unusual artefacts, found inside the stately home. Virtually every shot here is both imaginatively composed and jam-packed with interesting and surreal background details. Acheson went on to make a name for himself as a costume designer on Time Bandits, Brazil, The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons, etc. Shot in black and white, the film actually plays sepia-toned: Word was that the film's sepia tone was actually the result of a lab error at the processing stage but the off-colour look suits the film's strange, decaying and dusty ambience just fine.
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is presented here in fine form: picture quality is near enough excellent. There are one or two small scratches present but the picture remains pin-sharp. Audio quality is excellent too. A number of Vivian Stanshall's whimsical ukulele-based songs (think of Laurel and Hardy's take on The Trail of the Lonesome Pine for a rough idea of their sound) appear throughout the film and these come through loud and clear, as do his strangely twee and rustic-sounding instrumental/incidental cues. The clever dialogue that propels this show along is clear too but the presence of sub-titles will assist those who have trouble deciphering regional British accents. Steve Roberts's commentary track is a little rambling but reasonably informative: he gets stuck into a selection of complimentary bottles of wine while delivering stories about Stanshall drinking on the set and Howard drinking off the set. The two page synopsis is a document that Stanshall prepared for preview audiences after the film had been completed. It doesn't make understanding the film any easier but it does stand as yet another fine example of the man's literary talents.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent -
Supplements: Commentary track by Steve Roberts, Sheila Reid & Jeremy Child, trailer, picture gallery plus Sir Henry-related graphics, the script pages for two unshot scenes, Vivian Stanshall's two-page synopsis, the words to a chant performed during 'the Blazing' and Charisma Films's original biography sheets for a number of the show's cast and crew
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2006
Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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