Screaming Lord Sutch: The man behind the monster

Screaming Lord Sutch was a fixture on the British political scene for nearly 20 years. In an extract from his new biography, Graham Sharpe remembers the man who upstaged prime ministers and brought some sensational silliness to the election trail

Thursday 06 October 2011 05:39

"Politically, the Seventies were my wilderness years," David Sutch once admitted. For 11 years he had trooped around the by-elections and general elections alone, picking up a couple of hundred votes here, a few paragraphs in the local paper there. He had regularly changed the name of the party he was standing for, made things up as he went along. But his political life lacked a focus: he had been a virtual one-man band, and it must have been exhausting to organise. At the start of the Eighties, however, he struck publicity paydirt.

"Politically, the Seventies were my wilderness years," David Sutch once admitted. For 11 years he had trooped around the by-elections and general elections alone, picking up a couple of hundred votes here, a few paragraphs in the local paper there. He had regularly changed the name of the party he was standing for, made things up as he went along. But his political life lacked a focus: he had been a virtual one-man band, and it must have been exhausting to organise. At the start of the Eighties, however, he struck publicity paydirt.

From the first, the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (OMRLP) was media-friendly. In October 1981, Sutch recorded a four-track record, featuring "Loonabilly Rock'n'Roll", which, the sleeve notes said, "was to be the very beginning of what grew to be the Loony Party". The sleeve image showed an eerie, caped, skull-clutching Sutch emerging from a primeval swamp, as monk-like, cowled figures walked towards a prophetic illustration of an indistinct figure hanging by the neck from a gibbet.

The Loony Party was a simple but inspired idea, the right joke for the right time and Sutch's passport to permanent residency in the media spotlight. By the early 1980s, the character of Thatcher's Britain was becoming clear: unforgiving, even ruthless policies designed to stabilise the economy and make industry more efficient, but having the effect of large-scale job losses, plant closures and social unrest.

The genial, unserious manifesto of the more mature Sutch and his new party struck a chord with the British people, who quickly took him to their hearts as a kind of national institution -anarchic yet harmless, entertaining yet threatening. The "policies" were contrived jokes that endeared Sutch to the average person in the street, even if he or she didn't always feel the need to hand over a vote for him: giving pensioners heated toilet seats, for example, banning January and February to make winter shorter, and breeding fish in a European Community wine lake so that they could be caught ready-pickled.

But it was Sutch's willingness to counterpoint the insincere sincerity of conventional politicians with his own patently genuine good humour and lack of self-regard that built the affection with which he came to be ultimately regarded. Trevor Cajiao, the editor of the rock'n'roll magazine Now Dig This, recalls an interview he conducted with Sutch in the mid-Eighties, when he was in South Shields for a gig. "He was staying at the flat of a buddy of mine, and called me asking if I'd like to come over and interview Screaming Lord Sutch. By the time I got over there, it was nearing showtime, and Dave was in the bath. 'No problem,' he shouted. 'Come on in and we'll do it now.' So, in a flat in South Shields, I interviewed Screaming Lord Sutch as he sat in the bath, scrubbing his back and washing behind his ears - rubber ducks and all!" He would come to be accepted and valued as a true English eccentric, as much of a national treasure as Jimmy Savile, John McCririck and Patrick Moore.

The fledgling party first stood at one of the most controversial by-elections of the 1980s: the Bermondsey by-election of 24 February 1983, when, after a campaign notorious for its dirty tricks and smear tactics, the Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell (who would go on to become one of the century's leading gay-rights activists), was subjected to an unsavoury focus on his private life, and defeated by the Liberal candidate, Simon Hughes. Registered as DE Sutch, of the Monster Raving Loony Party, and campaigning, among other things, to make people eligible to vote at 16, Sutch won 97 votes, finishing sixth out of 16 candidates. It was not enough to save his deposit - he needed one-eighth of the votes (in 1985, that changed to 5 per cent). Sutch told a journalist that the Loonies had "only three party workers", and hit out at the proposal to raise the deposit for election candidates from £150 to £1,000 as "monstrous... It will affect everybody's democratic right to stand for Parliament." Television coverage of the declaration included a wonderful moment when Sutch's name was announced and the strait-laced commentator was forced to utter - with great disdain - the word "Loony".

By the time the general election was called for 9 June, Sutch was raring to go and, as he had with Harold Wilson, decided to take on the Prime Minister by standing in Mrs Thatcher's own seat of Finchley, north London. He came up with the novel idea of campaigning while carrying a large tin-opener to "open up the Iron Lady". The media coverage was sensational. The Prime Minister, however, was less than amused by his antics. "Thatcher had no sense of humour, and wanted everything kept serious," Sutch's guitarist Chris Black says, "but David had an Elvis-lookalike, Leyton Summers, on the stage with him at the count. Alastair Burnet, ITN's venerable election-night anchorman, commented that it was a bizarre scene." Sutch managed 235 votes.

Across the country, the Loonies fielded 11 more candidates, having merged with another fringe group, the Green Chicken Alliance. The star performer was Wally Welly, who polled 664 in Esher, while Legendary Lonnie managed 504 in Stoke-on-Trent. Only Dick Vero failed to make three figures, finishing one short in Dulwich. Sutch arranged morale-boosting visits to constituencies being contested by Loonies and found himself playing a gig in Bradford, backed by a punk band whose members had no knowledge of his repertoire. "I did four numbers at 200mph, with lots of noise and shouting," he later reported, "and none of us knowing what we were doing. It was my most embarrassing experience in 30 years on the stage."

It was six years later, in 1987, that the Loony Party appeared to upset all of its strictures by winning a seat. The party chairman, Alan Hope, was elected to Ashburton Parish Council, in Devon, but the party's reputation was somewhat redeemed as he was elected unopposed. The following year, the stand-up comedian Bob Winter (then known professionally as The Late Henry Henderson - He's a Dead Man) became a Loony candidate. He and Sutch shared a room for the night a couple of times on the campaign trial, and Winter was struck by Sutch's naivety: "He would ask the most ridiculous questions in all seriousness. Things you'd think a fellow would know, like, 'Is pie and chips fattening?' He had absolutely no idea about exercise, and his physical condition was one of the things that seemed to concern him. He knew I had experienced depression and wanted to know what it had been like..."

In the meantime, there was no let-up in his publicity-seeking escapades - frequently, however, with a genuine civic or altruistic agenda. In April 1988, The Sun ran the headline: "Sutch tries to raise the dead!" over a story reporting Sutch's launch of Brave Aid, a campaign to generate £2m to save Mill Hill East cemetery, where Billy Fury was buried, after it had been sold to developers. Sutch planned a concert to kick off the campaign - featuring the Grateful Dead.

If the Loony Party had been started as a joke designed to prick the self-importance of politicians, then Sutch's second campaign of the Nineties was the punchline. The Bootle by-election of 24 May 1990 was the high point in Sutch's political career: in effect, he put the Social Democratic Party out of business.

The original SDP had by then merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats, but David Owen and his followers had chosen not to be subsumed into the new party and decided to soldier on as the SDP. In Bootle, Sutch and the Official Monster Raving Loony Party finished sixth out of eight, with 418 votes, ahead of, and thereby utterly humiliating, the SDP. It was the beginning of the end for Dr Owen. Sutch observed that "the only reason the SDP had a doctor in charge is because it's a very sick party" and gave Owen the opportunity of merging their two parties. He even spoke of relinquishing the Loony leadership in the doctor's favour, but Owen, Sutch said, "gave a sad little smile and turned it down". "Humankind owes Sutch a debt of gratitude," Ken Livingstone commented, "for destroying the SDP."

After the humiliation of Owen, there was only one way the party could go, and that was gently downhill. Perhaps Sutch sensed it but was powerless to call a halt to the political monster he had created. The party had brought together many otherwise unfocused individuals who were dependent on it to give meaning to their lives, even if it meant basking in the reflected glory of their leader. Previously, the party had had absolutely nothing to live up to, and no achievements of which to boast; now, beating one of the "major" parties meant that every subsequent result would be regarded as in some way a disappointment. Some people within the party would start to take it all a little too seriously. Factions and feuds would begin to erupt, just as in a real political party.

But in another respect, Sutch the joke politician managed to be ahead of his time. During the Mid Staffordshire by-election on March 1990, he had found himself having a conversation with the Labour opposition leader, Neil Kinnock, who recalls: "I knew that we were overhauling the Tories, so I said to David, when we bumped into each other, that if his intervention as the Loony Party prevented us from winning, I would skin him alive. His reply was, 'Don't worry. If I stop you winning, I'll skin myself!' David was a very likeable character and, sometimes, a bloody nuisance... but by-elections just aren't the same without him.

"In the course of the conversation, we discussed having a bet on who would be the first rock'n'roll prime minister but decided that, since I was the nearest thing to a rock'n'roll opposition leader, I was in with the best chance of getting the next job.

"We agreed to try to think of other names, since it was obvious that a rock'n'roll prime minister would need his very own rock'n'roll band for great state occasions, such as coronations and the opening of Parliament. David, naturally, was the only member of the future band that we could envisage at that time. He then said that he wanted to discuss appearance and recording fees and, since the title would be no problem, a peerage. I told him to sod off - we parted laughing. Little were we to know, of course, that Ugly Rumours' rhythm guitarist, young Tony Blair, was to become the first rock prime minister."

He finally succumbed to the despair of depression

Is it too much to suppose that a man who lived for publicity may finally have been prepared to die for it?

When Yvonne Elwood (his partner) opened the door of David Sutch's late mother's house at 10 Parkfield Road, South Harrow, on the afternoon of 16 June 1999 and found his body hanging from the banisters, she thought it was another of his black jokes. So the first thing she did was to take a photograph of him. "He'd ask me all the time to take photos - I've got more than 2,000," she says, and explains that Sutch had done similar things before, although she doesn't elaborate. "I really did think this was another..."

But it was not a joke, and the memory has never left her. "It comes back to me from time to time - when I'm in the supermarket, for example - for no apparent reason... I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it. He always wanted people to take photographs; he couldn't be photographed enough. He was desperate for publicity."

For many of those Sutch left behind that day, the news seemed unimaginable. Rumours began almost at once that foul play had been involved: for those who knew him best, believing that Sutch did not kill himself seemed the only way they could imagine his passing. They found it beyond belief that David Edward Sutch did what he actually did. They could not understand what could have triggered such an act.

Suddenly, the whole world seemed to be coming up with theories: he did it because his beloved mother's dog had died, severing his last link with his mother; he did it because he was being blackmailed (according to that theory, handwritten notes containing allegations about Sutch's sexuality were found in the house when he died); he did it to avoid getting married. All in all, Sutch's death gave the media a field day. At last, again, everyone was talking about him.

Certainly, Sutch's keenness on publicity was partly professional - obviously, the better known his name was, the easier it became to make records, win votes or charge higher performance fees. But anyone who knew the man even briefly soon realised that Sutch's need for publicity was all-encompassing. He understood completely the desire for fame for its own sake that fuels such cultural phenomena as Big Brother. Having lived for fame, perhaps he sensed that his extended 15 minutes in the limelight were almost up. That might not have bothered David Sutch - but it was unthinkable for Screaming Lord Sutch.

He died as David Edward Sutch. He chose to wear not the clothes of his alter ego, but - as Elwood confirms - ordinary day clothes. Here is the clearest sign possible that it was David Sutch finally succumbing to the despair of depression. The only way to reclaim the real, private Sutch would have been to kill off the public Sutch - but that would never have worked. The shadow would have remained looming over him. It was a conundrum with no resolution short of self-extinction, the ultimate proof that he no longer wanted anything to do with Screaming Lord Sutch. Around his neck, as he died, was a small piece of jewellery. On one side was a happy-looking moon face. On the other was another face, dark and desolate.

Screaming Lord Sutch would inevitably live on in true dead-celebrity style. But David Sutch was already being forgotten, even as Yvonne Elwood opened the door to find his hanging body. It was Screaming Lord Sutch who survived, whose name and image endure in the public imagination. Many today have to be reminded that he is dead when they hear the name Screaming Lord Sutch. Of David Edward Sutch, though, there is almost no trace today, except in the hearts and minds of those who loved him.

Sutch's old friend Melodie Staniforth is one of those. "He used to love a mirror I own," she recalls, "with a picture of a sad-faced clown on it. I would often find him sitting and staring into that mirror. He would ask me if he could have it - I would always tell him no, but he'd keep on asking, and keep on looking into it... The clown was what he was looking at - the sadness of the clown's face. David played the clown... when he wore clown's clothing he was happy and he entertained people; he made them laugh. In the sad clown's face he saw himself." Had others seen what Sutch saw when he gazed into the looking-glass, his story might have had a different ending.

'The Man Who Was Screaming Lord Sutch' by Graham Sharpe is published by Aurum Press, priced £16.99. Readers of 'The Independent' can buy the book for the special price of £15.50 (including p&p) by calling 0870 079 8897

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