The Young Ones
by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
By Mark Ellen for Smash Hits, 25th October – 7th November 1984
Rick, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil have got a book coming out on October 25. It’s called Batchelor Boys and it’s very funny. It’s also, according to Rik Mayall, the last thing they’ll ever do.
“It’s smut and I’m proud of it!” declares Rik Mayall. “It’s as though the publishers have given the four boys a lot of money to produce a book and this,” he chuckles, “is the crap they’ve come up with.”
It’s the sort of comment you’d expect from someone lounging in a swivel chair in his publishers’ plush London basement, smoking fags, picking his teeth and occasionally doodling on the brand new boardroom table with a biro. The two of us are flicking through a copy of Bachelor Boys, a book featuring the absurd antics of a rather camp poetry reading twerp called Rick, a gormless lentil-loving hippy called Neil, a smarmy Jack-The-Lad character called Mike, and a demented punk medical student called Vyvyan. In TV terms they’re better known as The Young Ones and the book’s therefore very silly, very funny, very childish and very full of pathetic scribblings, unmentionably stains and words like “bottoms”, “snot-face” and “complete and utter bastard”.
It’s also the last thing The Young Ones will ever do, which seems a good enough reason to discover how they got to be doing it in the first place. Apart from a quite expensive looking overcoat, “and the fact that I’m losing my hair and putting on weight”, I doubt that Rik — now 26 — is very different from the Rik Mayall that was studying drama at Manchester University in’75. He wanted to branch out into comedy and realised that the only way to make a start was “to be attacking something”. He’d met Ade Edmondson (who plays the part of Vyv) — “very long hair at the time, torn flares, into Jimi Hendrix” — and they’d formed an act called 20th Century Coyote aimed at deflating the Oxford & Cambridge review-type sketches that were terribly trendy at the time.
Also involved were Lise Mayer (now Rik’s girlfriend) and Ben Elton (both of whom helped Rik write The Young Ones).
Ade and Rik soon began doing double-acts, short plays with ludicrous titles like Death On The Toilet– “I was Death and Ade was a man called Edwyn”. There was also My Lungs Don’t Work and a graveyard thriller called The Church Bazaar — A Fete Worse Than Death. While performing Death On The Toilet to packed pubs at the Edinburgh Festival in `78, Rik, sick of watching “crap poets” perform their horribly pretentious verse, scribbled down some old rubbish on the back of an envelope, got up, read it really badly and was greeted with rapturous applause. “And that’s how the Rick character started.”
Two years later, the pair of them were playing at London’s Comic Strip club doing various new routines like The Dangerous Brothers — “about two very angry guys. Ade did a character called Adrian Dangerous and the character Vyvyan is a toned-down version of that.”
Sharing the same stage was another double-act called The Outer Limits: one of them was Nigel Planer, who sometimes did an act as a hippy in the audience called Neil who came up on stage and made a total nerd of himself; the other was Peter Richardson who’s now in charge of the TV series The Comic Strip Presents. The four of them decided to do a ‘sitcom’ (situation comedy) about four students who lived in a house with Alexei Sayle playing the part of the landlord. Peter sketched out an idea for the Mike character, but then fell out with the TV producer, so actor Chris Ryan was roped in to play the part.
And that — pretty briefly — is how The Young Ones began.
“When we all started out,” Rik explains, “it was at the same time as punk. And there was the same spirit — getting up on stage and shouting and attacking everything that was sacred. And the one thing we really wanted to attack was the whole idea of ‘youth’ that had been built up at the time, the idea of everything being OK when you’re young’ that they always foster in youth programmes. When I was young I was a complete bastard — utterly selfish, most young people are — so I wanted all the characters to be really selfish.
“The four boys are rather like a traditional sitcom family: Mike is the Dad — he’s smooth and a real prat; Nell is the Mum — he’s selfish in a passive sort of way, he moans at people rather than shout at them; Rick Is the daughter — really childish and self-obsessed; and Vyv Is the son — you can’t say he’s a complete bastard ‘cos he’s just got no morals at all.”
They recorded one show, then had to present their BBC producers with an essay on why they thought the programme was funny in order to be allowed to make an entire series. And once they’d started screening the first six programmes, The Young Ones began to take off in a big way, mainly because there was something in it for everyone.
“That’s right, it had a very broad appeal. We didn’t want the four boys to be Young People On The Dole, we wanted them to be students ‘cos everyone hates students. Young people don’t like students, students don’t like themselves, parents don’t like students ‘cos most of them have got a son who’s like one of The Young Ones and really young people liked the cartoon quality, the slapstick. Not clowns with red noses pretending to fall over but real Laurel & Hardy-type violence. In the end, all the characters are horrible but lovable at the same time.
“I remember,” he says, “going to a Channel 4 party not long after the series started. People kept coming up to me and telling me it was brilliant and I suddenly felt, wow, we’ve got something on our hands here!
“Yeuccch!” There’s a Rick-like snort of embarrassment. “That sounds really showbiz!”
Rik seems quite convinced, though, that there’ll be no more offerings from these horrible but lovable characters. He’s done two lots of The Young Ones, he says, two lots of Kevin Turvey (repeated on the the recent A Kick Up The Eighties series), he’s doing his third lot of The Comic Strip Presents for Channel 4, he doesn’t want to put a record out (as ‘Neil’ did) and he’d like to try something new.
“I was very tempted to try a one-off Young Ones for Christmas Day — imagine it, the Queen’s speech and all that, killing Santa Claus! — but no, we’re not going to do any more. I want to do something — I hesitate to say it — but more grown up though that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘serious’ or ‘important’. I got a lot of letters from people saying, ‘You bastard! How come you can’t be bothered to do any more Young Ones? Do you know how many people you’re disappointing?’ But we don’t want to become like Are You Being Serves? or something. That’s why we stopped. You either do something ‘cos It’s a piece of art or to make money, and I’m an artiste.”
And also,” he adds, “we want to do something better.”