THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SIR HENRY AT RAWLINSON END” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 164: “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” (1980 British comedy starring Trevor Howard).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A completely unknown quantity in the United States.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely, old chap.

The 1980 British comedy “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” is virtually unknown outside of its native country. It’s not a great film, by any stretch, but it does offer a rare cinematic record of the remarkable talents of Vivian Stanshall, a singer/composer-turned-funnyman who is best known outside of the U.K. as the driving force behind the 1960s musical group Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

During his prime, Stanshall’s reputation in his country was so strong that the Beatles cast him in their movie “Magical Mystery Tour” as the sleazy cabaret star who performs “Death Cab for Cutie” (this was the only time an outsider performed one of their songs in a Beatles flick). The concept of the Sir Henry character (a severely eccentric aristocrat presiding over an estate packed with lunatic behavior) was actually a throwaway comic monologue used to pad the running time of a Bonzo Dog record. Response was so strong that Stanshall expanded the Sir Henry routine into full-length comedy records and a BBC Radio series.

I’ve never heard the records or radio shows, but judging from the film version I would assume they were designed to run along the lines of the landmark 1950s BBC Radio offering “The Goon Show,” which packed wildly surrealist sketches with zany non-sequiturs, crashingly awful puns and a delirious refusal to follow any law of logic. The film works best when Sir Henry is allowed to engage in bizarre declarations of authority and warped observations of proper protocol. Some of the funnier aphorisms include:

“I never met a man I didn’t mutilate.”

“If I had all the money I’d spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink.”

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth forcing someone else to do it.”

“Frankly, once I’ve eaten a thing, I don’t expect to see it again.”

The film version of Stanshall’s routines, alas, had difficulty expanding on the wonderfully warped (but short) monologues into a full-length feature. A lot of the problem was due to Stanshall himself. By the time the film was made, Stanshall was dealing with a severe alcohol addiction that often threatened to disrupt production (he disobeyed orders to stay on the wagon by sewing vodka bottles into his coat). Stanshall’s self-destructive behavior clearly contributed to the casting decision of giving the Sir Henry role to veteran actor Trevor Howard while allowing Stanshall to play a minor character.

The virtually plotless “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” is a collection of wacky but unrelated sequences where daft behavior is taken to extreme measures. The cantankerous Sir Henry spends his days pursuing bizarre activities such as dressing up in blackface and drag and riding a unicycle, maintaining a private prisoner-of-war camp consisting of two captured German soldiers from World War II (he constantly thwarts their escape plans, which include dressing up like angels), and terrorizing his servants including the butler Old S*****m (he beats the man while yelling “You’re supposed to love me!”).

All around Sir Henry, the world of Rawlinson End is a madhouse. The ghost of brother Hubert haunts the upper floor of the mansion (he died missing his trousers and is condemned to wander the halls as a pant-less spirit). A flashback reveals Hubert (played by Stanshall) using a broken ukulele to go fishing for hairdressers (a three-man barbershop singing choir float across the waters). A man plays billiards while on horseback. A hang glider flies by and is shot down by Sir Henry. A skanky wedding photographer pickpockets the bridal party while setting up portraits. And on and on.

While some of this is very funny, the complete lack of cohesion ultimately dooms the film. Without a plot, “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” is merely a series of nutty sequences designed to poke fun at the British aristocracy through a fixation on rude behavior. Sir Henry blows his nose in a tablecloth, a dog urinates in a brandy glass, people fart, etc. In bits and pieces, it is amusing. But with no foundation, it’s just a lot of crass jokes that ultimately grow tiresome.

The only genuine foundation to “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” is Trevor Howard in the title role. Although he was one of the most popular British actors of his time, Howard was never considered a natural for comedy. Wisely, he never plays Sir Henry for laughs – he keeps his character completely straight in a stiff-upper-lip style. Even at his most outrageous (the sight of the white-mustached actor in blackface and a tutu is utterly astonishing), he carries on as if all is well and nothing is askew. The rest of the cast, however, plays their parts so broad in a poke-in-the-ribs style that it creates a terrible imbalance – Howard is funny for acting normal while the other actors are less amusing for trying too hard to generate laughs.

“Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” was the first stab at film production from Charisma Records. Comedy writer Steve Roberts, who never made a film before, was signed to direct. He never directed another film and his subsequent career pinballed between writing cult comedy (the “Max Headroom” TV series) and writing kiddie fluff (the Disney straight-to-video “Aladdin 2: The Return of Jafar”). For no clear reason, it was decided to shoot the movie in black-and-white. Roberts’ direction never took advantage of the monochromatic setting, and in a weird way it only contributed to making the low-budget flick look more amateurish. Due to an error in post-production, the film was tinted in sepia. No effort was made to correct it for theatrical release.

Although the Sir Henry character was popular in Great Britain, no one liked the film adaptation. Stanshall was especially angry at how it turned out, telling a journalist: “When I saw the rough cut, thank God I was drunk, because otherwise I would have been armed and there would have been bloody wounds – and more!” Although British comedy was already a staple of American theaters and television, “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” was never shown in the United States. Outside of a few collector-to-collector services that sell copies based on a British DVD release, it remains a mystery on this side of the Atlantic.
“Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” is an interesting failure, but that’s my opinion. And as Sir Henry would say: “If I want your opinion I’ll thrash it out of you!”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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