Neil Innes: 'A rock star who chose not to be'
PUBLISHED: 01:51 31 December 2019 | UPDATED: 01:57 05 January 2020
More tributes to surreal comedian, musician and writer who lived in Suffolk for more than 35 years
The "Seventh Python" certainly did his bit to support the arts in his adopted Suffolk. Folk who packed the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich in 2012 for An Evening With Neil Innes got true value for money.
It happened as Eastern Angles Theatre Company was striving to raise matched-funding under an Arts Council scheme.
Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting says the credit goes to Karen Goddard, then the group's marketing officer.
"She'd interviewed him in the past and found he was interested in the arts. I think she'd been nagging me for quite some time, saying 'Look, we ought to get him involved,' and as usual, in what is my way, I said 'Well, yeah; good idea, good idea…'
"And then we had to fundraise for what was a sort of personal-giving campaign. She said 'Why don't you do An Evening With…? Mix up music, a bit of performance, and an interview or something?' I said 'Yeah, OK.'
"It went really well. We had a full house. As I introduced him as a madcap comedian-songwriter I heard him shout from the side, from the dressing room, 'I can hear you!' It brought the house down.
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"It was great fun. The audience really enjoyed him, because he had loads of anecdotes from the '60s. They say that if you can remember the '60s you weren't there. But he WAS there, and he DID remember them.
"When they (The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) were recording I'm the Urban Spaceman, I think, which was produced by Paul McCartney, McCartney apparently played him a tune and said 'I'm thinking of this being our next single'. Neil said 'I thought "What a dirge! That will never get anywhere!"' And it was Hey Jude."
It became the best-selling UK single of 1968 and has sold many millions around the world.
I'm the Urban Spaceman didn't do too badly either, peaking at number five in the UK singles chart that Christmas Eve.
As a schoolboy, Ivan had been aware of Neil's skills and creativity. "People would say 'The Rutles... you must come and hear this'." The band, which parodied The Beatles, was created by comedian Eric Idle and Neil in the 1970s.
"He could tell a funny story, was an engaging person to interview, and he was a brilliant musician. He could take things and see what the common denominator was. Being able to ape musical styles I think is very, very clever."
Neil also regularly popped in to watch Eastern Angles Christmas shows and touring productions.
Steve Cooney, the company's production manager, remembers him as a "very funny, very talented writer and performer. I didn't know him all that well; we crossed paths in the '80s.
"I was quite active in the peace movement at that time, as was Neil's lovely wife, Yvonne. Despite being perpetually busy, Neil agreed to perform at fund-raisers for the campaign, which ensured sell-out evenings.
"His wickedly-affectionate impersonation of Elton John - replete in spangly jumpsuit and absurd glasses - lives on in my memory to this day.
"His 'rockstar retreat' was a ramshackle farmhouse in Debenham when I knew him - with the obligatory high-tech studio in the barn. I think he was a rock star who chose not to be: incredibly hard-working and still generous with his time, and committed to his family."