flickr-free-ic3d pan white

The Thekla at Bristol

Bristol's popular floating nightclub,The Thekla, about to go into dry dock for a summer overhaul, seems to have been around forever.


We take a look back to when, as the Old Profanity Showboat, she provided a stage - and a home - for that eccentric genius Vivian Stanshall. The madcap adventure that was The Thekla was the brainchild of novelist Pamela Longfellow, who'd had a dream about running a showboat, a centre for the arts where she could put on 'entertainments' along with food and drink.


So, in 1983, along with another slightly eccentric female, Anne Slydel, she bought a 28-year-old, 180-foot Baltic coaster in Sunderland for £25,000, sailed her up the river Avon into the middle of Bristol's harbour and then bullied the council's planning department into letting her stay.


The vessel - berthed at the Mud Dock, off The Grove - was renamed The Old Profanity Showboat and, thanks to what the Post described as 'a mixture of animal cunning, negotiating skills, sheer bluff and the odd bit of eyelash fluttering', the vessel was relaunched a year later as Bristol's very first floating theatre, music venue and bar.


It was soon after this the multi-talented writer, singer and performer Vivian Stanshall, Pamela's husband, appeared on the Bristol scene. Vivian's life in the big time league had always seemed on the point of taking off - but then too often taken a nosedive in a sea of alcohol and drugs.


see photo Bonzo Dog Band vetran Vivian Stanshall pictured on a very cold day in Bristol with his boat the Thekla and family members.


The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, for which Vivian had been vocalist, was, by now, a diminishing memory, and the film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End only really appealed to a cult audience. It seemed that the 'second greatest voice of the century', as someone had once labelled him, was destined to end his career doing voice-overs for commercials.


But Vivian still had a dream - to put on his very own musical. This wasn't to be a Sound Of Music or a even a Tommy , but a musical with the same anarchistic and surrealist outlook that encapsulated the Bonzos. Pamela now had a stage - plus the down-to earth approach needed to sort out mundane necessities such as funding, costumes, sets and the like.


The couple sat down and put a script together, with Vivian taking care of the 27 songs, the music, the arrangements and the direction. It was to be called Stinkfoot.


Subtitled An English Comic Opera and performed by the Crackpot Theatre Company, the 'entertainment' was scheduled to open in Bristol just before Christmas 1985.


The oddball characters summed up the madcap Stanshall vision - The Left Half of Screwy The Ocean Liner's Brain, The Partly Cooked Shrimp, The Balanced Nose and Mrs Bag Bag. David Harrison, journalist of Bristol Post who died three years ago, got to know the entertainer during his time in Bristol and talked to him about his latest venture.


'I met Vivian for the first time in the wheelhouse of the Old Profanity,' David recalled, 'which he'd turned it into a kind of conservatory - but a Vivian-style conservatory, complete with strange musical instruments, curious momentos, and sketches for the show.


'But what really fascinated me was his magnificent moustache, a glorious sweeping cutlass-shaped appendage which looked as if it might eventually curve right back and take root in his temples. 'It was a Flying Officer Prune moustache, a cad's moustache, the sort of creation stroked sneeringly by villains in Victorian melodramas.


'He talked quite seriously about Stinkfoot, about its genesis and imminent birth, about the promises of funding from showbiz chums to take it to London, plus a little about his new life in Bristol. 'There was little, though, of the urban spaceman, of the man who could sing about Jollity Farm without seeming stupid, and who mercilessly sent up the once vital questions of whether blue men could sing the whites or what colour to paint half a shared drainpipe.


'He wasn't well and it showed. Looking back at photos of the time reinforces my memories of a crippled giant, a mighty, creative ego in self forged chains. On a later visit, he asked if I would walk with him to King Street's Theatre Royal, a few hundred yards from the ship. But those few hundred yards were across Queen Square, one of the largest Georgian squares in Europe.


Vivian was seriously agoraphobic and there was an awful lot of sky to fall in on him crossing that square. 'As we walked... he took a deep breath, caught hold of my arm and, as I led him across, stared at the ground, and talked constantly - rambled really - about anything to keep his mind off the zillions of tons of air pressing down on his head. 'On the first night, Stinkfoot went on endlessly, desperately in need of sharp scissors and a less involved director.


It was a bloody good show, full of vivid imagination and invention. 'There were some gorgeous songs and some quite superb singing. The sets and costumes were marvellously realised and the cast played their hearts out. 'There was just too much of it, that's all. 'A fitter, more aware, Vivian might have seen the longeurs, the self- indulgences, the unnecessary fat, in Stinkfoot.' In September 1984, the show's 'creative process' was filmed for a BBC Arena documentary.


'After the show moved to London, three years later, I didn't see Vivian again. News of his tragic death in a fire in 1995 wasn't, somehow, unexpected, although it seemed a grim way to go for a man who had his head in the clouds. 'If he'd had a chance, he'd have stage managed something really spectacular and memorable.' The Old Profanity closed, after a cash crisis, in 1986. It reopened as The Thekla in the late 1980s.


Vivian Stanshall - A SURREAL humourist, once labelled 'a unique and inspired comic genius', Vivian Stanshall was rated alongside the late, great, Peter Cook. But he was also an accomplished showman, mime artist, mystic, painter, potter, sculptor, songwriter, and musician, credited with being able to play the tuba, trumpet, baconium, banjo, mandolele and, last but not least, the jew's harp.


Amongst his many friends and admirers were the comedians John Cleese, Eric Idle, Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry. DJ John Peel referred to him 'the court jester of the underground rock scene in the 1960s'.


He had the potential, many said, to become hugely successful if he had not succumbed to drink and drugs as well as being prone to depression. Journalists had a habit of labelling him an eccentric but friends insisted that, most of the time, he was just being himself.


The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah-Band's drummer on their last tour dates, Glen Colson, recalls Vivian as a very personable and friendly guy who happened to have an unpredictable public side.


His great love of the absurd can be seen in the classic musical spoof The Intro And The Outro and the cult Sir Henry At Rawlinson End. He also played the 'Ginger Geezer', a Southend rocker, in the spoof Teddy Boys Don't Knit. Born in East London in 1943,Vivian was, so we are led to believe, an extremely gifted child, uttering his first words at four months and holding conversations at 10 months.


When the family moved to Southend after the war his father, a City accountant, took to rollerskating to work whilst his mother taught the lad to knit and crochet. At home he was encouraged to use a posh accent, but once outside the front door he reverted to a local Teddy Boy dialect, hiding his ' Edwardian' clothes in the garden. Leaving school without any qualifications, his mother urged him to go to the local art college.


But, after his father objected to such an arty start in life, Vivian ended up in the Merchant Navy. But he did eventually get to Walthamstowe art school, where he was taught by Peter Blake, who was himself to seek inspiration living in the beautiful countryside near Bristol later in life. It was while at London's Central School of Art, Goldsmith's, that the teenager met 'Legs' Larry Smith and Rodney Slater who, between 1962 and 1965, were to make up the legendary satirical Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.


The Bonzo's 1969 best-selling album Keynsham (which also had a track of the same name written by Neil Innes) was inspired by the much lampooned Horace Batchelor advertisements on Radio Luxembourg.


They had a big hit with Urban Spaceman, which was in the charts for some 14 weeks. After their final gig in 1970, many expected Vivian - like fellow band member Neil Innes - to take up a solo career.


But, after forming a number of short-lived bands, Vivian experienced a nervous breakdown and then became addicted to drink and tranquilisers. He went on long binges with Keith Moon of The Who - the most infamous being when they dressed up as Nazi officers and went on a tour of the East End. Vivian later played euphonium with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, had a cameo role in the film That'll Be The Day and was the subject of an episode of BBC2's One Man's Week.


He also put in an appeared in The Beatles' film, Magical Mystery Tour. In the early 1970s he was the Master of Ceremonies on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, as well as playing with numerous other well-known musicians, such as Steve Winwood.


He then found a new audience, via Jack de Manio's Radio 4 chat show, as a house eccentric and on the John Peel Show performing under the title of Radio Flashes, along with Keith Moon's Life With The Moons.


He even took over The Kenny Everett Radio Show (with Moon) for a while. It was during the late 1970s and early 1980s, while living with his second wife Pamela on a Thames house boat, that he penned Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, which was made into a film (the degenerate aristocrat was marvellously played by Trevor Howard) and the partly-autobiographical Teddy Boys Don't Knit.


It was when that vessel sank that the couple came to live in Bristol. In 1994, he appeared in Pulp's film Do You Remember The First Time? as well as doing a further autobiographical piece for Radio 4.


Vivian died, tragically, in a fire which broke out in his third floor London flat on the morning of Sunday, March 5, 1995. He was just 52.

4 faves
Taken on December 2, 2007