APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SIR HENRY AT RAWLINSON END (1980)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Roberts

FEATURING: Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, Denise Coffey, J. G. Devlin, Vivian Stanshall

PLOT: As villagers descend upon the English estate of Rawlinson End to celebrate The Blazing, the eccentric lord of the manor Sir Henry is persuaded to bring in outside help to exorcise the ghost of his unfortunate brother, whom he shot in an unfortunate hunting accident and who is unable to pass on to the next plane without his trousers.

Still from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The film incarnation of Vivian Stanshall’s spoken-word radio prattle series is a fitting adaptation. It’s a melange of relentless mockery of the English upper class, Dada-esque mishmash of characters and situations, full-bodied embrace of inappropriateness, inveterate wordplay, and plummy lost-up-its-own-duodenum narration, with a visual style that places one brow-raising tableau after another into a curiously nostalgic atmosphere. It’s nutty from the jump and never eases off.

COMMENTS: It seems that the first tale of the eccentric Sir Henry Rawlinson was a desperate improvisation, a last-minute creation of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band leader Vivian Stanshall to fill out the too-short B side of a new album. Among the lovers of Britain’s penchant for absurdist, nonsensical humor, Sir Henry was a hit, and Stanshall created new – well, stories doesn’t seem like the right words – installments on John Peel’s radio show, and then released them as spoken-word albums. So a transition to the silver screen is maybe not a surprise, but it is remarkable how many of its most uncinematic traits have made the jump untouched.

Viewers of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey” might recognize the milieu, but the goings-on are something else entirely. Like a demented “Prairie Home Companion,” the “Rawlinson End” stories are meandering tales of a community filled from top to bottom with insane people doing insane things. Stanshall doesn’t look down on his creations, but he vividly reveals them for the defiantly venal, crude, and obnoxious people they are. The hoity-toity visitors could easily be renegades from ’s Upper Class Twit of the Year competition, while the help are no less mad, running miles from one end of the estate to the other and unspooling directionless monologues about the misfortunes of others. Happily, there is no tedious audience stand-in to remind you that these nutters are “not like us.” The only logic to be found here is the ill kind.

Barely a frame of film is allowed to flicker without a trace of absurdity: a man plays snooker while on horseback, a barbershop trio appears perched on the edge of a lake. Stilt walkers, vaudeville duos, Egyptian priestesses, all show up randomly and vanish as quickly. And if you long for consistency, well… so much flatulence. Every line of dialogue is overwrought; no ten-word sentence will be uttered when a 30-word polysyllabic phrase will do. Names are wonderfully absurd when they’re not blatantly vulgar. The wordplay is relentless and there’s nothing linear at all. You get the sense that if you chopped the film up into 5-minute segments and rearranged them, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Sir Henry is at the center of all this madness, and he’s more than worthy of it. As portrayed by the esteemed actor (and proud drinker) Trevor Howard, Sir Henry is bonkers above all others. Howard supposedly relished the role (which afforded him the chance to spew such bon mots as “If I had all the money I’d spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink”); and it’s unlikely anyone else was going to offer him a part where he could don blackface and a tutu and pretend to unicycle down a country path. He’s precisely as rude and officious as a member of the English landed gentry ought to be: he belittles the staff (“If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth forcing someone else to do it”), shoots skeet with pretend paratroopers (when he’s not trying to gun down actual hang gliders), keeps his own personal German POW camp on the estate, and complains vociferously when the urine from a dead dog waters down his liquor. It’s a real credit to Howard that even amidst a film of crazies, he truly stands out.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is a triumph of nonsense. The hint of plot is immaterial to the proceedings; it’s about being batty. The closest the film comes to a mission statement arrives in the very last line of dialogue, a hint from the narrator about the action in a possible future tale: “There is considerable misunderstanding.”

Sadly, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is unavailable on streaming platforms, and can only be found on a Region 2 DVD (which will not play in most North American players). Hopefully this situation will be rectified in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“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… 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.” – Lee Broughton, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by maxwell Stewart, who called it perhaps the strangest film ever made” and added “Viv Stanshall was a true genius.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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