By Michael Owen for The London Times, 26th May 1999
In his first interview since the accident that nearly killed him, Rik Mayall talks to Michael Owen
In possibly one of the filthiest kitchens created by man, the abundance of cooking pots, saucepans and ancillary equipment begins to look threatening. Rik Mayall casts an eager eye over the scene and says: “That’s where we are going to have our first fight tomorrow. There’s going to be a lot of head clattering. Can’t wait.”
These words from the actor who, a year ago, lay in a neurological ward, where his family had been told he was not expected to live, announce not just the completeness of his recovery but also his return to the world of mayhem he has been creating with his sparring partner, Adrian Edmondson, for the past 20 years.
The pair are bringing the television characters they created in Bottom to the big screen. They have cooked up a film called Guest House Paradiso, in which they are the co-owners of the worst hotel in the world. The film is currently shooting at Ealing Studios with Edmondson as director.
They embarked on the screenplay two years ago, but progress was interrupted by Mayall’s accident when he turned over a quad bike in the garden of his Devon farm. He was flown by helicopter to a Plymouth hospital and for three days remained on the danger list. On the fourth day the doctors indicated the first sign of a possible recovery and on the fifth day he woke up. “I opened my eyes and saw my wife Barbara, my parents and Ade. They were all crying. I didn’t know what had happened.”
This is his first interview since his near-death experience. Sitting in his dressing room, he looks fit and vigorous with his long fair hair swept to the back of his neck. He reviews the event in the cheeriest terms, regularly breaking off for laughter and blaming himself for all the concern he had caused: “What a prat!”
He has no recall of the accident and only knows he was discovered beside the machine with blood pouring from his ears, nose and mouth. “Barbara saw me lying there in the garden from the window. She thought it was another of my silly jokes at first.”
In hospital, a massive brain haemorrhage was diagnfive days. “When I woke up my first thought was: ‘Oh no, I haven’t gone out and got drunk and fallen down in the street or something?’ I was totally confused. It was very spooky and I was doing some very strange things.
“I could not remember names, not even my wife’s. I could not work out what was happening. I wanted to break out. I tried to pick up nurses, asking them to come for a walk so I could make a run for it. They managed to talk me out of it.”
He was transferred to a private hospital in London and made another break for freedom. “The doctor excused himself, saying he was going to the loo for a moment, so I grabbed a dressing gown, ran down to get a taxi and went home. I was given another injection. Whack, that put me out again and I woke up in another bloody hospital.”
For six weeks the haemorrhage lingered while he went through continued brain scans. “They put you through this huge machine. It’s like something out of Star Trek. Then the doctor told me the blood had to come out so they would take the top of my head off. For two days I panicked. Then they ran another scan and it had gone. I have been as happy as Alice ever since.”
There was a self-inflicted relapse a few months later when Mayall took himself off the medication he was prescribed. “I had an epileptic-type fit. My wife found me having a convulsion, sort of jerking around on the bed. So I went back on the pills.” Life returned to normal as he re-embraced his family, including his children aged 12, 10 and three. He says: “I’m magnificently proud of all of them. Not only Barbara for her stoic quality, her inner bravery, but also for the strength and patience of my kids.”
But he became nervous as he approached his return to work. “That was a complete new terror – would I ever work again?” He eased himself back with a simple voice-over which he accomplished as if nothing had ever happened. Since then he has appeared in a Jonathan Creek special on TV at Christmas, and played the title role in another film called Merlin 2000, while deliberately avoiding publicity. Now, however, he feels confident about discussing the past year.
Apart from punch-ups, the new film includes voyeurism, radioactive fish, drunken chefs, an exotic beauty, naked waiters, projectile vomiting and, of course, a series of explosions. Mayall has no fear of submitting himself to the most extreme physical stunts.
“Ade has been shockingly careful to make sure I’m all right on this film – and I am. We’ve always prided ourselves on not using stuntmen, unless it is something they do better like jumping off a cliff or falling downs tairs. There has been quite a lot of head-battering over the years but I can honestly say Ade has never hurt me. Alexei Sayle knocked me out with a shotgun once and I think it was Nigel [Planer] who hit me with a real brick rather than a plastic one, but overall I’ve been lucky.”
After the film, he will be reunited with the writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who wrote The New Statesman and created the memorable Alan B’Stard, MP, for a new television series called Dirty Work. It features Mayall as a cynical ex-detective involved in the underworld of drugs and crime.
But there will be no return to The New Statesman, even though the current spin-doctoring political climate might be ideal for B’Stard’s machinations. “Alan is away licking his wounds, or someone else’s wounds. I think we carried on with him longer than we should but we couldn’t leave him alone. It was a mistake really and it would be a shame to go back to him now.”
Have people’s attitudes changed towards him? “Yes. Before the accident people used to say: ‘Do something crazy, Rik.’ Now it’s genuine affection. It’s not ‘Hello, darling, how are you?’ but more straightforward. ‘You all right, Rik?’ ‘You better now, mate?’ That’s great.
“See, I’ve grown up and turned nice.”