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The Forgotten: Trousering the Ghost

David Cairns

"If I had all the money I'd spent on drink, I'd spend it, on drink."

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Right, let's get some pants on this phantom.

"I am Hubert. I do not know my last name. I was found in a snowstorm, clutching a tiny bundle, and on my finger—no wedding band." So says Hubert, played by Vivian Stanshall, in 1980's Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, demonstrating a peculiar form of romantic insanity which might involve him confusing himself with his own late mother, or possibly with the opening scene of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs.

1980 was a particularly horrible year for British cinema, which seemed to teeter on the verge of complete gangrenous moribundity (a condition that had been gaining purchase throughout the seventies, altogether a more fecund, ballsy period, but tainted with decay even so) and so it's quadruply strange that The Famous Charisma Label, a record company associated with Peter Gabriel and Monty Python, should put forth a film, shot in sepia tones and starring the pickled remnants of a great British star of the forties, based upon a series of—what? sketches?—first broadcast on radio's John Peel Show.

"The star was an alcoholic, the writer was an alcoholic, the producer was an alcoholic and the director was an alcoholic," observed Python associate Neil Innes, who had been Stanshall's chief collaborator in seminal sixties pop happening The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. In between booze fugs, Stanshall had since his bandleader days very slowly and occasionally contributed audio comedy situational poetry for the radio, and this no doubt was an attempt to package those thoughts into some more commercially exploitable form. Some hope!

While Stanshall played all the characters on the air, in a variety of plummy and mellifluous tones, including the world's finest Boris Karloff impersonation, in film we have a variety of crusty thesps to embody the voices. Sir Henry himself is played by the great Trevor Howard, a long long way in time and space and health from Brief Encounter.

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"Now read on..."

Based on Stanshall's own father, Sir Henry is an imperial monster, lord of his manor and sunk in a drunken cloud of xenophobia, senility and outright madness (barbed wire barricades bisect his bed; he keeps German POWs as pets). As with the Indian-born Spike Milligan's surreal take on empire, there is marked discomfort to be had, along with hilarity, at the nostalgic horror with which the film lovingly delineates its central character's racism and savagery. "The jungle bunny is not without his own peculiar sense of decency," muses Sir H, swilling a brandy snifter. He also blacks up and dons a tutu at one point, which is harder to explain, though the tutu recalls Harry Andrews as the Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class, a possible role model for Stanshall's skewed vision.

Add in Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, Dickens, Mervyn Peake and the stench of dissolution, stir well, and don your gas mask: that feeling of skeletal distortion is normal as you pass through the funhouse mirror.

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Director Steve Roberts, Stanshall's co-scenarist, makes a decent fist of things at the helm, with Martin Bell's luminous cinematography and Stanshall's hummable yet intricate score. Often the film seems more concerned with being beautiful and strange than being funny, and it's more concerned with both than it is with developing any kind of narrative through-line. What arc there is comes from the anticipation of "the Burning," a vaguely pagan annual local ceremony at which Sir Henry will preside in Viking helm and tweeds, and in the quest to trouser the manor's wandering ghost, a deceased brother of the lord, killed in a dubious hunting accident without benefit of breeks. (The scenes with the roving ghost, invisible, talking to his mummified mother who lies abed with the cobwebbed remains of her last chicken dinner upon her blanket, actually achieve the otherworldly dream-gaze of Dreyer's Vampyr. Seriously.) There's also a subplot involving sinister village vicar Reverend Slodden (Patrick Magee, probably Britain's most cult actor), but none of that actually creates much forward momentum.

In place of movement we have Rawlinson End, "still as canal water," as Stanshall's VO proclaims, throwing in the elegant portmanteau word "Miss Havershambling" amid clusters of eccentric descriptors. Since the movie begins, quite literally, at the End, and remains there for its duration, it depends more upon a slowly crumbling stasis than upon traditional momentum-based structures, which seems fitting when you consider it's central character.

"Lovely Trevor: never sober," reminisced a friend who worked with Howard on Green for Danger back in '48. Another acquaintance spotted the Great Man on location shooting The Missionary two years after Sir Henry, described a fossilized dinosaur cocooned in blankets, barely capable of movement or consciousness, yet here he is, blundering wickedly about with something resembling a woozy glint in his eye. He seems to understand instinctively everything that's going on, which is more than anybody in the audience can say, and his combination of belligerence and decrepitude is very much the spirit of the film. Weird as it is, the film's celebration of English eccentricity and malice is perhaps in tune with the actor's own sozzled wit: this was the man who mischievously opened a huge cage of exotic birds in a Cannes casino, when he grew bored of watching David O. Selznick lose at the roulette wheel. The gaming house was sealed with the expensive guests trapped inside while the staff ran about trying to net the fugitive parakeets, Howard chuckling in a corner the while.

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"Time for Time to flash her dazzling dentures."

Alas, Steve Roberts has never made another film, and Stanshall, after fifteen more intermittently productive years, died in an accident combining the grotesque and absurd elements of his Gormenghastly creation: smoking a cigar and drinking brandy, somewhat haphazardly, in bed, he flambé'd himself, his hairy chest acting as a convenient wick. Except that's not true: the coroner found the fire was caused by an electrical fault, and the mythic version seems to spring from the imagination of Neil Innes. However, it remains true that Stanshall's demise occurred one hundred years to the day after that of the real Sir Henry Rawlinson...

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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