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Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

Posted on the 03 April 2017 by Christopher Saunders

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

"I never met a man I didn't mutilate!"

You won't easily find a stranger movie than Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980). Vivian Henshall's radio broadcast-turned-comedy album becomes a uniquely incoherent film, utterly mind-blowing in its gonzo, disconnected weirdness.
To speak of plot is a travesty, but for reference: Sir Henry Rawlinson (Trevor Howard) is a demented British aristocrat who drinks, shoots and relives his military career, surrounded by sycophants and disapproving relatives. He lost his brother Hubert (Vivian Henshall) in a hunting accident, and now Hubert's ghost haunts Henry's home, along with a long-lost dog. Henry summons an exorcist (Patrick Magee, playing straight man for once) to put his brother to rest, but Hubert won't stop until he finds a fresh pair of trousers.
British comedy is home to exuberant eccentricity, be it the madhouse satire of The Ruling Class or Monty Python's mannered surrealism. Still, Sir Henry's madness stands in a class of its own. Henshall (who also acts and narrates the movie) throws all sense out the window for 68 minutes of pulsating insanity, inundating viewers with slapstick, broad sight gags, toilet humor and occasional outbursts of wit. If there's any broader sociological point beyond the inherent inanity of aristocrats, it's lost amidst the weirdness.
It's best to enjoy Sir Henry for what it is, a cavalcade of outrageous jokes. Sir Henry's antics range from riding bicycles in blackface drag to attacking angel-winged squatters with lances, when he's not bellowing war stories over a bottomless brandy glass. His nonchalance contrasts with his hysterical costars, who scream (or in one lady's case, practically orgasms) at the sound of Hubert's ghost, a maid (Denise Coffey) obsessed with tapeworms and a faithful butler named Old Scrotum (J.G. Devlin).
All of this is pitched at utter hysteria, with jokes not so much building on as crashing into each other. Assorted weirdos crawl about Rawlinson End, from two radiomen who impersonate Nazis to bamboozle Sir Henry and a barbershop duo in his drawing room, then bow out unceremonious. There's a long flashback to Hubert's demise that's an exercise in bad taste without obvious humor. Sight gags build from a stuffed dog pissing on the carpet to an elaborate pagan ceremony where Sir Henry winds up hacking villagers to death, apropos of nothing. It's intermittently funny, but the overall impression is rambling excess.
That Sir Henry works at all is largely attributable to Trevor Howard, who plays Sir Henry as an extension of his Lord Cardigan. Whether he's playing straight man, oblivious to the madness around him, or actively taking part, Howard commendably commits to his role, devouring scenery with abandon while dispensing casual slurs and bizarre-o witticisms ("What's thinking got to do with decisions?"). Reduced to gentlemanly cameos by this point in his career, Howard surely relished the opportunity to cut loose, scoring with an interpretation both fearsome and funny.
Certainly there's an audience for Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, whose weirdness and scarcity have earned it a cult following. For many viewers though, its nonstop, otherworldly silliness will prove too much to swallow. Then again, there's Trevor Howard bellowing "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I WANT, BUT I WANT IT NOW!" with the same angry, entitled incomprehension as our current president, and of that, there can never be enough.

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