Let’s Hear it For Rik Mayall
by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
By Jeremy Pascall for Company Magazine, June 1982.
A joke: What’s yellow and lies on the bottom of the sea? Sand! Why aren’t you laughing? All right, biting political satire: What do Lech Walesa and Menachem Begin have in common? They’ve both got foreign names! What do you mean, it’s not funny?
People fell about when Rik Mayall told those gags. Or, to be accurate, Kevin Turvey told them. They’re rotten jokes. In fact, they’re not jokes at all. But Kevin Turvey doesn’t know that, he thinks they’re corkers. Mind you, Kevin’s a complete berk. That’s what Rik Mayall says and he should know because he is Kevin Turvey …
Did you see a BBC2 series called A Kick Up The Eighties? Do you remember this Brummie who sat in a chair delivering a monologue about burning issues of the day? Well, actually, he was supposed to talk about unemployment and law and order and stuff, but mostly he rambled on about not spotting Noele Gordon in Tesco and how many cornflakes he’d eaten for breakfast (‘fifteen or perhaps sixteen’) and his girlfriend, Teresa, who cancelled their date because she had to take her dog for a walk. But she couldn’t fool Kevin, he knew it was an excuse because her dog died three years ago! Yes, he’s a complete berk.
Now, the thing is, you see, that Kevin Turvey wasn’t really Kevin Turvey, despite what the programme’s credits said. He was Rik Mayall pretending to be Kevin …
It’s quite simple. Rik Mayall is sometimes Kevin Turvey. And sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he’s Wick, the angwy poet who spouts weally tewwible poetwy. And sometimes he’s Mitch, a committed male feminist – honest – who finds that being a feminist is the best way to get his leg over a different bint each night. And quite often he’s half of 20th Century Coyote; then he might be Richard (or is it Adrian?), one of the Dangerous Brothers.
In addition, of course, Rik Mayall is one of the Comic Strip group of comics – along with Alexei Sayle (also of OTT and Whoops Apocalypse) and Nigel Planer (also of Shine On Harvey Moon) and others – which means he’s an ‘alternative’ comedian.
To some of his fellow comics ‘alternative’ equates with ‘political’ but Mayall doesn’t define his humour so narrowly. ‘Alternative comedy is about exploring different areas, not just trying to bring down western civilisation. It’s not only a political alternative but, hopefully (and without sounding too pretentious), an artistic alternative.’
Behind Richard (or is it Adrian?) Dangerous, behind the apoplectic outrage of Wick the poet when the audience snigger at his pathetic angwy verse, behind Kevin’s manically staring eyes, tightly clenched fists, fretful snorts and Brummagen accent is Rik Mayall. Born in Harlow, raised in Droitwich. a graduate in drama from Manchester University, sometime Shakespearian actor, at twenty-four his command as a performer who takes risks with his experiments in humour seems precocious. His stagecraft and technique are delectably more accomplished than most of his fellow members of the ‘alternative comedy movement’.
Off-stage he appears less self-assured, suspicious of the fame that threatens to engulf him, very, very wary of being interviewed. We talked at a ‘wind-down’ party after his appearance at Wit’s End, Brighton (one of the few venues outside London to specialise in ‘alternative’ humour). Rather than being interrogated, he prefers to contribute to a conversation which includes fellow performers – Ronnie Golden (who used to be one of the pop group the Fabulous Poodles before going solo) and Simon Fanshawe, a comic who uses his homosexuality as material (‘a gay is a poof with A-levels’). Not far away his girlfriend Lise Mayer (‘she thought up the Walesa/Begin joke’) and the professionally lugubrious Nigel Planer watch OTT.
Although he’s diffident, Rik displays none of the spiky belligerence his characters exhibit. For a comic he’s unusually self-effacing, speaking quietly without obvious ego and generously deferring the conversation to others. He’s at his most animated when discussing the techniques of his difficult trade.
‘The idea behind Kevin was to take the most boring man in the world, being as boring as possible, and make it funny. Kevin Turvey emerged as a complete surprise, an entirely new kind of comedy character (even though Rik admits the influence of Peter Cook’s cretinous philosopher, E L Wisty). ‘Part of my intention with Kevin was to waste ten minutes of television time. What’s funny about Kevin is that he thinks he knows what he’s doing. He’s patronising; here’s someone more stupid than you trying to explain things:
Trying to explain, for example, why he won’t join the SAS. Not for any pacifist or political reasons but because members of the SAS wear black clothes. Kevin doesn’t own any black clothes. To dye his clothes black he’d have to colour them in with biro. And that would take how long? About seven hours? And require at least five biros. Wait a minute, though … he’d also have to have a change of clothing which means a total of fourteen hours work with ten biros . . . it’s not worth it.
Within a few weeks of his first appearance on A Kick Up The Eighties, Kevin Turvey became a cult. Kevin did, not Rik; Mayall’s name never appeared in association with the show. Absolutely intentional. ‘A lot of people think Kevin exists; it’s very important that they are never sure about him. Is he real? Or is there a comedian called Kevin Turvey who pretends to be like that? It’s the edge, the edge of wondering whether he’s real or not.’
It’s a pity, thinks Rik, that Kevin appeared in a comedy show. The joke would have been even better if he popped up on a current affairs programme like Newsnight. ‘I originally intended him to appear as a real reporter giving a round-up a of the week’s events. That would have been very exciting; people not knowing whether he’s real – this bloke rambling completely y off the point, totally screwing it up.’
Kevin’s next enterprise is a television documentary about his home town, Redditch. ‘I’ve never seen anybody take the piss out of documentaries yet. The ones I’ve seen have been very well presented and quite interesting. To see one that’s completely off the point, that doesn’t know where it’s going, that is appallingly filmed and edited should be very funny.’
Also very disorientating for those who still don’t realise that Kevin is a figment. Rik likes to knock people slightly offcentre: ‘One of the purposes of being alternative is to present people with something new and different. I don’t mind throwing the audience off; it’s very entertaining. It’s so much more exciting to see something you don’t expect.’
Watching Rik Mayall perform you are never sure whether he’s being serious or not. He likes to keep the audience guessing or, as one of his colleagues aptly expressed it, to trip up your expectations. The night we met he performed solo, explaining the absence of his partner in 20th Century Coyote, Ade Edmondson, thus: ‘Ade couldn’t be here tonight because he was killed … (pause) …Actually, he wasn’t killed … (pause) … I killed him … (pause) … No, that was justa joke … (pause) … He was run over.’ His comic philosophy is ‘surprise people’. Although enviably dominant on stage,
Rik avoids the spotlight off it. ‘I don’t like being recognised. I don’t like the way people treat you as if you’re more important. I’d rather not be interviewed and I wouldn’t want to go on Parkinson. There’s no point in telling people my favourite food or what I do with my life. It’s none of their business and it’s not entertaining. I don’t want people to be interested in me as me.’
Simon Fanshawe breaks in, ‘You did Russell Harty…’
‘No. I didn’t – Kevin did.’
The two are separate. He admits to hiding behind his creations. Any comedian has to put some kind of character over; some do it with facets of their own personality – Alexei does and perhaps Bernard Manning (maybe he’s not really like that in true life). Some people only work in character – look at Australians like Barry Humphries and Garry McDonald who plays Norman Gunston. I pretend to be different people.’
Becoming Kevin (and the others) is an actor’s job. ‘I can’t just turn it on, I have to get into the character. I have to sit on my own for a while, I can’t even talk to Lise. I have to think my way into Kevin, there’s a transformation in the dressing room.’
I suggest there’s a common strain of inadequacy running through his characters. A nervous laugh. Ronnie Golden points out Rik is ‘fiddling with his ear again’. (He can do unusual things with his ear, folding it in on itself and making it pop out. ‘I do loads of tricks like that. All over my body.’)
Is the ear-fiddling becoming an obsessional habit? ‘Since I had my hair cut. A friend of mine went to an acupuncturist because she was very anxious. They put a stud in the top of her ear and told her to fiddle with it whenever she felt worried. Apparently it’s a special part of the ear. Maybe I only do it when I feel nervous. Maybe it calms me down.’
I ask again: isn’t there a strain of inadequacy running through your characters?
Rik thinks. ‘It’s horrible….’ Thinks again. ‘Maybe that’s what I find most embarrassing about myself … these traits… On stage I ridicule the bad parts of myself, the things I don’t like about myself. It’s a way of coping. Laughing at these things does help.’
Humour can be therapeutic; it can also be used as propaganda. Rik isn’t solely concerned with getting a laugh. The selfstyled feminist, Mitch, who has found a contemporary way of exploiting women, is a reptile. ‘He isn’t supposed to be very funny. I wasn’t looking for a laugh but for people to react with “yeuch”.’
Again the twist, always attempting to trip up our expectations. Mayall presented Mitch out of context, performing him on Victoria Wood’s TV show, Wood & Walters. ‘Just as I wanted Kevin to appear on a serious show, I wanted Mitch to do something serious on a comedy show.’ He was upset that the producers lost their nerve and dubbed laughter over the monologue.
Mitch, he acknowledges, ‘was a bit of agitprop but I don’t feel I have to make people recognise truth. I don’t know that there’s a purpose for comedians, no-one has specified what their job is. I would never tell a comedian what he ought to be doing but one of the things he can do is make people think for a moment.’
Kevin Turvey views the world through an oblique mental chink and as he describes his tunnel vision in tortuous detail our own perception is fractionally altered. Rik doesn’t know how long he can live with Kevin – there will be no more Kick Up The Eighties. ‘It went well, it’s been done. On the cynical side, it’s not good for business to be seen too much. Also it’s not as exciting for me or the audience. Keep moving on, doing different things.’
In the meantime a new character, Harold, is evolving. ‘It’s difficult to create new characters; you’ve got to wait until they come along and they’re good in their own right. You can’t just say that next week you’ll pretend to be an East Ender. It’s nice when you find an instinctive character inside yourself who works and you don’t know why. Harold’s a beaut.’
He’s not ready to talk about Harold. ‘I can’t do him yet. It’s a sensitive stage, if you don’t laugh I may never do him again.’
Humour, be it ‘new wave’ and apparently aggressive, is ever fragile.