Way back in the dim distant past, while I was a student at Saint Martins School of Art (studying sculpture under Tony Caro, Phillip King and other similar luminaries of the ’60 British Art Scene), I also came into contact with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, most specifically with Viv Stanshall, who we all knew as Uncle Vick (no Idea why he was called that, but that was his daily use name).
He was a very tall and remarkable figure, dressed elegantly at all times, with a very Oscar Wilde manner about him, and also in how he spoke. Basically in anyone else it would have been considered highly affected, but he carried it off with great conviction, so it was totally acceptable – though it remained a bit disconcerting to be addressed by a guy who was the same age as me as “Dear Boy”.
In spite of his high camp way of behaving, and dressing, I am pretty sure that he was absolutely not gay in any way, it was more a case that he had invented a sort of character to present to the world in preference to the “real” Viv Stanshall. I later gathered that his background and relations with his father were bumpy to say the least.
However, I knew nothing of this at that point, I merely knew this tall and eccentric tuba playing bloke, and in due time, also the whole group of them (the Bonzos that is).
Uncle Vic was a student at the Central School of Art at this point, as were most of the Bonzos, and their music was no more than a sort of hobby for them all. They got together as a group and played their favourite music, which was basically dance music of the 1920’s, and only later developed their weird and insane comedy routines. When I first saw them playing it was in a pub in Shepherds Bush in London. They played there regularly to a more or less attentive and appreciative audience in exchange for free beer and a small amount of ready cash.
Here is Uncle Vic in typical Oscar Wilde mode……
Curiously it was in that pub during one of their gigs that I saw my first pub fight, and bloody scary it was too. I was sitting on a high stool at the bar, the Bonzos were playing happily away, when with no warning, my stool was whipped out from under me, the guy standing next to me had a broken bottle pushed into his face, the Bonzos disappeared from the stage, and the guy next to me lay there in a large pool of blood… all in a matter of a couple of seconds. A very scary and salutary experience. The speed of it all astounded me.
I was living in a communal flat in Islington at the time, and one of the other tenants there was a long time mate of Uncle Vic, so he was regularly to be found, draped elegantly at the table drinking our beer and chatting to his friend. Obviously other members of the Bonzos took to dropping in as well, all part of the young art student world we lived in at the time.
It was about this time, when the Bonzos asked me to make an enormous pair of buttocks for their stage act (they had by then begun to be a comedy band). So I did this small thing, producing a huge, bright pink and revolting set of fibre glass buttocks for them, about 2 meters wide.
A bit later, after I had left St Martins and discovered the grim reality of the world’s total lack of interest in me as a sculptor, I had started work as a lighting guy at The Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, and considered myself to be a whizz when it came to lighting shows… Ah the innocent arrogance of youth eh?
By the way, I should emphasis that in spite of their anarchistic act, they actually took their music extremely seriously and agonised for hours over each and every joke or musical passage…
Anyhow, as I was the only person the Bonzos knew who knew one stage light from another they asked me to do their lighting at a concert they were about to take part in at the Royal Albert Hall. This was something of a step up from lighting small puppets in a tiny theatre with a set of Pattern 23, 500 watt stage lights, but once again, demonstrating the arrogance of youth, I took this all very calmly and duly went to the Albert Hall to take part in the rehearsals for the concert.
It transpired that this was a large concert with a load of famous groups and singers taking part people such as Joe Cocker, Tiny Tim, The Small Faces, loads of others who I now no longer can recall, and of course, the Bonzos.
Tiny Tim, by the way, was weird. A very large man, almost totally pear shaped, and totally out of it. He was brought onto the stage by two minders, clutching his ukulele and looking lost and confused. They stood him at his microphone, and when the orchestra had played his intro, and it was time for him to start, one of them tapped him on the shoulder, and like some sort of strange robot he went into his act. Did it perfectly too. Scary to see. When he had finished his act, he switched off again and simply stood there doing nothing. His minders each took an arm, turned him around and walked him off the stage. As he went I heard him ask in a small and lost voice “where are we going?” To which one of his minders said “We are going home Tiny… We are going home” Curiously during the actual concert he got on stage perfectly, did his act perfectly and got off stage again also perfectly. A very strange person was Tiny Tim.
For the rest, Joe Cocker did his normal spastic act, the Small Faces performed some of their hits and the other acts also performed their hits and all was well.
My God, that guy could sing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
However, for us lighting guys (each act had their own lighting man I discovered) it was a really tricky and lousy set up The Albert Hall was in no way set up for the rapid changes in lighting that a rock concert needed, being normally used for classical concerts where the lights basically never changed. So we had to sit up in a sort of high nest with one of the Albert Hall electricians, tell him what we wanted done, he would then relay these instructions to a crew of electricians somewhere in the bowels of the Albert Hall, who would deal with the very primitive dimmer systems they had in place then (Interlock for you older lighting men) and change the lights on stage…. Not really ideal, to put it mildly! However, we all did our best, and for the audience I am sure it all looked fine.
At about this time, Uncle Vic sold me his tuba as he wanted to buy a Surusophone to play instead. And whilst I never actually played that tuba in any band, I still have it with me, having carted it around the word with me on my wanderings… Occasionally picking it up and playing some sad melody or other….
Curiously, when I actually started to work in the “real” theatre, and became Production Manager at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, I lost contact with all of the Bonzos, and never really saw any of them again. Odd, as we had spent so much time together while still students and starting out in the real world post art school. Ah well, that is how it happens I suppose.