Rik’s Progress

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

For The Observer, 27 January 1985

Rik Mayall – loved and hated by millions of TV viewers as the maniacal student Rick in The Young Ones – takes on a different audience at the National Theatre on Thursday as the hero of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Stephen Fay met him.

Rik Mayall has a memorable face. His eyes are set wide apart, he has high cheekbones, big ears and good teeth. He is about to open in the starring role in the National Theatre’s new production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Yet a large number of the National Theatre’s audience might not recognise Rik Mayall’s memorable face, or know his name.

Those who do recognise him will have seen him in The Young Ones on television, playing a spotty, maniacal, squirming student called Rick who asserts that things he likes, Cliff Richard, for example, are brilliant, the ‘r’ fading into a ‘w’. Mayall has also appeared as Kevin Turvey, an investigative reporter from Birmingham, in another BBC series, A Kick Up the Eighties. The Turvey character is about 23, slender, rather gormless – which is how Nikolai Gogol, in his notes for the actors, described Khlestakov, the hero of The Government Inspector, his bitter comedy of bureaucratic manners.

This conjunction seemed irresistible to Richard Eyre, the play’s director, and Rik Mayall did not resist. It will be his third appearance on the legitimate stage, though he is sure enough of himself and his skills to have turned down the National’s earlier offer of the part of Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer because he didn’t think it was quite right for him.

Mayall provokes the most astonishing burst of hyperbole from Eyre, who is not normally given to it. ‘Rik is prodigiously gifted, intelligent and extraordinarily unaffected by his phenomenal success,’ he says. Eyre cast Mayall as Khlestakov because he believes that the classics should be viewed from the vantage point of the present. ‘With him you have an instant contemporary link. He is modern man.’

Eyre’s praise is so extravagant that a suspicious individual might think he was trying to rationalise a gimmick: after all, Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys Jones tend to play their television personalities on the West End stage. But an examination of Mayall’s brief life so far helps dispel such charges.

Mayall was born in 1958 in Droitwich, near Worcester. He went to King’s School, Worcester, and Manchester University. Since then he has made a living as a comedian, mostly using material he has written himself. His father taught drama at a college in Bromsgrove, and his mother was also a teacher. Both were involved in local theatre clubs, and Mayall’s first stage performances were in Waiting for Godot and Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan when he was still a child. At school he acted all the time, and loved it: ‘There was something inevitable about me becoming an actor.’

For the whole of his adult life, he notes, Mrs Thatcher has been Prime Minister and he recalls the time before her accession as though it were a golden age: ‘Those were better days. We were free to go to university and study as scholars rather than prepare for a job.’ Even then he thought maybe he ought to study English, but what he wanted to do was drama. His parents told him to go ahead. At Manchester he spent more time writing gags and acting in short plays performed in a pub than he did on academic work. ‘Eventually it became very Commedia’ (as in dell’arte). Gogol was on the syllabus, but Mayall was on stage during the relevant lectures.

At the National Student Drama Festival in 1978 the Guardian awarded him the Boris Karloff award for the most outrageous ham. While at the Festival he auditioned for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company’s American tour and got a part in The Comedy of Errors. As soon as he had graduated, he was working in the States. The only trace of Rick, the Young Ones student, in Rik Mayall’s private personality is the repetitive use of one word, and the tour of the United States was, he says, ‘brilliant. I’ve never had so much fun.’ He still loves touring: it’s like getting paid for going to a party.

Manchester provided not just a degree; it created a state of mind. Mayall explains: ‘Most drama students who leave there feel they know all about the theatre, so if they want to direct plays they just form a company and direct them. They don’t join a ladder system so they know what they will be doing in 10 years’ time. When I left Manchester I was a very arrogant young man. We all wanted it now.’ He did not have long to wait.

Richard Eyre first saw Mayall at the Comic Strip Club in London, home of alternative comedy. The young comics who performed there had no aspirations to the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ type of Oxbridge-dominated humour. They can sound like a convention of coprophiliacs; ‘Thatcher’ is deployed as a swearword. A number of them appeared on television in A Kick Up the Eighties, including Mayall: ‘It was good for us, though we really had to clean up our act.’

Mayall had the idea for The Young Ones sitting at home one night with his girlfriend Lise Mayer, the daughter of his tutor at Manchester. The extended family of Manchester graduates went to work to mould the various characters they had invented for their club acts into a narrative that would fit the conventions of a BBC situation comedy. The third writer was Ben Elton, who had been a couple of years behind Mayall in the drama department. Ade Edmondson, who had written and acted in the pub plays with Mayall, joined Rick as Vyvyan, the medical student with studs in his forehead.

Cleaned up though they were, the scripts were fairly disgusting and violent. The kids loved them, perhaps because of the show’s lunatic anarchy. Mayall says he sees The Young Ones as something he did to purge himself of Manchester.

His fellow alternative comedians scrutinised the work and judged it terrific. One of them, Robbie Coltrane, compares Rik with Tony Hancock. ‘Hancock was an unpleasant character incorporating all the hypocrisy and aspirations of the lower middle classes in the Fifties. Rick is just the same in the Eighties. He wants street cred, wants to be a rebel, to care about nothing and be an anarchist. But we all know he’s a hypocrite and that he’ll be a computer analyst by the time he’s 30, the little shit.’

As television sit-com The Young Ones have been killed off. But they live on in book form, and rose high in the bestseller lists before Christmas. The book, directed mainly at the preoccupations of schoolchildren, contains some inspired, almost surreal, lunacy.

Mayall takes his comic technique seriously (as most comedians do), having learnt from Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise and the Pythons. Just before starting rehearsals for The Government Inspector at the National, Mayall went on tour with a one-man show, to prove to himself that he could perform solo for an hour. Alexei Sayle (the best comedian now, according to Mayall) and Billy Connolly can do it easily, and he thought he should be able to do it too. He wrote new material each afternoon and tried it out each night. He’s not sure where all the gags come from, but thinks there is a storage system in the back of his head where all comic ideas collect. ‘Maybe you never write gags, you just take them out of the cupboard,’ he says. The cupboard is never bare: he can now do hour-long shows.

He supposes his audience may be drawn from disillusioned pop-music fans, who no longer bother to go to live concerts where bands cannot reproduce the sound of their records or the extravaganza of their videos. Fans at cabaret behave much as they do at a pop concert, rushing to the front of the stage and screaming a bit when he appears. This form of cabaret is a profitable phenomenon too: Mayall did 21 venues in 17 days. Every one was sold out.

Though he acted in a play in Manchester last year, his National Theatre debut at the age of 26 is his first substantial role in the theatre since he played Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors when he was 20. I said I thought he was remarkably bold to be trying it, and that he seemed to be taking it very calmly.

He quoted the title of a B.B. King song – ‘You better not look down if you want to go on flying’ – as being the way he feels. ‘You can only do your best, as my Mum used to say … as my Mum still does say.’

That nonchalance may only be skin deep. As we left the room at the National Theatre where we had been talking, he looked at a seating plan for the Olivier Theatre, in which he will be performing, and asked if I knew what the seats coloured in yellow were for? I said they showed where the Fleet Street critics sat. Rik Mayall looked away. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ he said, as he made his exit, ‘this is real grown-up stuff, isn’t it?’