Bums The Word
by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
By Steven Grant for Time Out, 18 – 25th September 1991
Their new TV show Bottom, is about two hopeless, thirtysomething idiots. Meanwhile, Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall are hitting the stage as Beckett’s bums in Waiting for Godot. When will the comic reprobates stop arsing around?
Since its British unveiling in a production mounted at the Arts Theatre by a then cherubic Peter Hall some 36 years ago, Samuel Beckett’s first play Waiting for Godot has become part of the language and the mythology. Many plays and playwrights enter our vocabulary but with this savage cosmic joke about men in bowler hats waiting in a barren, arid landscape for a God-like figure who never turns up, Beckett did it in considerably less time than Shakespeare, Congreve or Wilde.
Since Beckett’s death in December 1989, the play which has been performed all over the world by all kinds of people straining under all kinds of oppression convicts, Communists, South American hippies, Soweto blacks, liberal democrats – has looked in danger of turning into a star vehicle. Robin Williams and Steve Martin attacked it in America recently, and it’s now the turn of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. They turn up at the Queen’s Theatre as the expectant tramps Vladimir and Estragon in a cast that even extends the Young Ones connection to Christopher Ryan, the pint-sized member of the scrofulous quartet, playing the hapless Lucky alongside Philip Jackson’s Pozzo. Les Blair directs and, intriguingly, the set is designed by Derek Jarman.
It’s tempting to ask if Vladimir and Estragon will now be smashing each other over the head with hammers or cider bottles and screaming ‘Godot, you Bastard!!!’ across the void, but there are complications in this attitude. As Edmondson, the balder, bespectacled, more thoughtful ‘miserable cunt’ of the duo, says: ‘The play was always considered for a double act, I think, and if we want to get very wanky you could say that Vladimir and Estragon represent two halves of an Everyman which is essentially what…’ Mayall, the handsomer, chirpier, more obliging member of the duo, chips in: ‘…every double act is. Hmmm.’
It’s certainly true that much of Beckett’s early work was inspired by knockabout vaudevillians and cinema greats like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy (Beckett once said with typical waggishness that the only thing he knew for certain about his two protagonists was that ‘they wore bowler hats’). The characters in Godot owe much to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose differing cinematic personae are reflected in the characters themselves: Vladimir (Mayall/Chaplin) more optimistic, patient, paternal against the more frightened, child-like, clumsy Estragon (Edmondson/Keaton). Keaton was even offered the part of Lucky in the first American production of the play; according to Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s unofficial biographer, Keaton turned it down on the grounds that he thought the play was rubbish and hadn’t been able to finish reading it!
Mayall and Edmondson also quote an impressive pedigree of interest; Mayall’s first attempt at writing, a mordant little number called Death on the Toilet done at Edinburgh in the late ’70s when the pair worked under the name of Twentieth Century Coyote, plus many of their early Comedy Store routines, were inspired, says Mayall, ‘by the early Beckett plays. We’re too thick to understand the later stuff because of their tone, their theatricality, their punning – all that stuff like “I can’t go on like this”, and then walking off stage and coming back with a funny walk and saying “But I can go on like this!!” that was all from Beckett.’
Mayall and Edmondson both played in Godot in their youth, Mayall as an eight year old boy-messenger in an amateur production mounted by his dad in Droitwich and, later on, as Vladimir while a student at Manchester University; Edmondson played Estragon (‘I can only learn the one part’) at the same Alma Mater, but both remember most vividly the productions that they saw rather than helped to create. Mayall: ‘At Manchester they were very into all these punk, nude, studio productions. I remember a nude Edward II and a nude Godot where this guy called Steve played the tree and when Estragon sat down at one point there was this uneasy silence and then this almighty rush that lasted for 15 minutes and Estragon was covered in piss! And this guy who played the pissing tree would train very seriously by going to the bar every night and drinking six pints of lager. But they obviously hadn’t thought out the production very clearly because when Pozzo and Lucky came on, the floor was so soaked that they skidded all over the place and the audience were walking out.’ ‘I remember,’ adds Edmondson, ‘this one very serious Stalinist woman who sat in the front because she was dead keen and she got soaked and very angry.’ Mayall: ‘Then there was another production where Pozzo was played by a woman, and when it came to the speech about “giving birth astride the grave”, she mounted this scaffolding and then unravelled about ten feet of red ribbon from you know, the girl’s place, so that was very strange. We were thinking of incorporating the idea into this production; two old has-beens with three miles of heavy industrial cable stuffed up their arses!’
Edmondson, the non-smoker of the pair and temporarily off the booze following a series of brushes with the law over drunk-driving which culminated in a three-year-ban, says that ‘despite all this, these productions were mind-numbingly boring and pretentious. Because we’re doing this then obviously the idea is that we emphasise the comedy in the piece. There’s a tendency because it’s Beckett and because the play is full of these wonderful aphorisms and philosophical insights to treat it like the Bible. The more we’ve rehearsed it the more obvious it’s become that the content is extremely funny; there are double meanings but the end-point isn’t sex or shitting or pissing, it’s usually philosophy or theology. For example, if Estragon says that Vladimir always waits until the last moment, he’s talking about him taking a leak, but the inner meaning is really about the onset of chaos, death, final despair. It’s different in that respect.’
Director Les Blair isn’t so well known for his theatre work, although Edmondson appeared in two very fine Blaire TV films, Newshounds and Honest, Decent and True, where he played respectively an obscene news editor who rapes and then sacks a female colleague, and a smugly content ad man. This wimp/scuzzball side to his performing personality contrasts heavily with the head-banging Vyvyan of the Young Ones. ‘We wanted Les,’ says Edmondson, making it clear who the bosses are, ‘simply because he’s an intelligent man who could help us make sense of it, make it into a thing.’ ‘Because,’ counters Mayall, ‘we keep finding so many specific problems; it’s such a hellish text to learn because it’s so circular, so deliberately repetitive; the words “I’m going” occur ten times. There’s one cue three pages into the play which could take you straight to the end if you fuck up, and another one three pages before the end which takes you straight back to the beginning if you mix it up! And I really don’t think it’s just a star vehicle. There was a bit of the “Rik” thing when I did The Government Inspector at the National, a few performances where people were screaming and girls threw pants on the stage, but largely I think a theatre audience is looking for something a bit different and the ones who are going because of Alan B’stard or the Comic Strip films will…’ Edmondson: ‘… probably be too intimidated by their surroundings to misbehave.’
This last 12 months have seen something of a coming together for the couple who describe their partnership as a ‘marriage made in the lav’. This week their long-awaited TV series for BBC2, Bottom, a kind of Young Ones meets Thirtysomething, starts its six-episode run; this is very much a low-rent affair – heavy on grossness and with a few strong laughs which depend, as always, on the duo’s penchant for fighting and self-destruction, notably a scene in which Edmondson attempts to remove a wart from Mayall’s hooter with a pair of pliers.
Mayall says that one scene where he’s discovered wanking caused the bigwigs at the Beeb some nerves, but not to any great extent. Edmondson says that Bottom is their way of using that period in their lives ‘after university and before regular income when there was no student hand-out, no student buddies and you were forced to walk miles to the butchers to save 20 pence or buy the supermarket brand of baked beans.’ Hardly the lifestyle both of them enjoy now, but then perhaps the meals at the Groucho, the gala balls and the first-night parties will be for later. And presumably life is a little bit tougher without the likes of Ben Elton and Lise Mayer (the girlfriend Mayall impregnated and then dumped for another) providing the material.
Mayall: ‘I don’t think we’re stepping back with this; Bottom is the first thing we’ve written together for some time, and I think it’s the best thing we’ve done; it marks a new chapter in a relationship that will hopefully last as long as we live.’ Muttered chortles from both.
Certainly, though always linked together, Mayall and Edmondson’s careers have taken different turns in the last decade; as well as the big TV series, and the stage work, Mayall has his first Hollywood movie (everyone’s doing it) Drop Dead Fred, with Phoebe Cates, out here in October after doing well in the States. He got the part after The New Statesman became a cult success in America. The last series, which at its peak attracted over eight million British viewers, saw this very ’80s monster cuckolded by his flunky Piers and stuck in a Siberian labour camp. But Mayall says: ‘He isn’t necessarily finished by a long way. I think a lot of his fans were amazed and shocked when he got stuck in the snow, they couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t turn the tables and escape.
‘Maurice (Gran) and Laurence (Marks) could be up for another series but this time I think we’d like to know the date and result of the next General Election in advance. Last year Thatcher resigned just as the series was due to be made but luckily I’d got so happy that night I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder so that gave them time to do some rewrites. Basically I can do what I want now. I don’t want that to sound arrogant, but if something doesn’t work out there’s always standup comedy or TV comedy, so I just enjoy it.’
Though Mayall has more strings to his bow and a more marketable brand of appeal flowing locks, nudge-nudge chat-show friendliness, cute smile, funny voices – Edmondson has long been the more committed of the two when it comes to straight acting. According to Mayall, not only did Edmondson play Hamlet at public school (yes) in Pocklington, Yorks, and long regret his decision to turn down the part of Gail Tilsley’s lover in Coronation Street but, when the alternative comedy scene moved cabaret-wards in the early ’80s it was Ade ‘who wanted to move away from all that stand-up stuff and go more towards real theatre which our routines at the Comedy Store always were, much more than the rest of the performers.’
So had their primary rehearsals for Godot taught them anything about their own relationship? ‘We’ve always agreed,’ says Mayall, ‘that our relationship has worked so well since 1976 because we don’t talk about it or even consider it in each other’s presence.’ Edmondson: ‘I think that we’ve always socialised most when we’ve been working. That’s when we see most of each other.’ Mayall: ‘Yes, but you don’t socialise when you’re working. You just say, right, see you on Monday then. You don’t go and get pissed.’ Edmondson: ‘Yes, but when we’re not working we sometimes don’t see each other for months at a time.’ Mayall: ‘Hmm. I can’t remember when we last stopped working, when was it, last autumn?’
Just as this is starting to sound a little too unhealthily like very early Beckett dialogue, the conversation moves on to the Williams-Martin Godot on Broadway. Edmondson says that though he hasn’t seen it, he hears from Peter Richardson, of Comic Strip and Comedy Store notability, who met Steve Martin in London, that it was ‘pretty much a disaster. They didn’t get on with each other and Robin Williams started improvising; apparently he was going into the audience and telling jokes, can you imagine that: “Goood Moooorning Vietnammmmm” in the middle of Godot with poor old Sam spinning in his grave like a top.’
Mayall insists that Beckett will be spinning in his grave ‘with merriment and glee’ at the prospect of this latest production; it’s unlikely. During a rather brief meeting I had with the Nobel Prize winner in London some years ago, Beckett confessed that Waiting for Godot had become a millstone around his neck, a schooltext, a mantra for a Godless age that had knocked sideways all perceptions of his later work. It’s also always been, as Sam knew full well, his biggest money-spinner. Indeed, the Queen’s production has already scuppered another, much smaller one, a Japanese Festival offshoot put together for the ICA and to have been shown later this month at the Lilian Baylis theatre, by a group of actors, academics and students at the School of Oriental and African Studies. This Noh version would have used chunks from Endgame and Worstward Ho as well as Godot and the Japanese director claims that Beckett personally gave the group permission for the project. According to a spokesman for the group, Workshop Five, the production had been cancelled after pressure from both theatrical agents Curtis Brown and by the Queen’s version’s producer, Phil McIntyre, who found the ‘clash’ unacceptable.
Mayall and Edmondson seem a pair, like Vladimir and Estragon, waiting at the crossroads despite all the upcoming projects with their names attached. ‘I was the one who never wanted to be a rock star,’ says Mayall. ‘Oh yes,’ sneers Edmondson, ‘so that’s why we have to call you Little Rik, is it?’ They’re referring to their painful Bad News rock tour during which the duo were pelted continually with bottles filled ‘with puke and piss’ and Edmondson, stuck up front with the guitar, was constantly finding his ‘mouth full of other people’s spit. I’ve probably got AIDS from it.’ The tour, says Edmondson, helped to ‘exorcise the rock-star demon’, but now, well into their thirties, rich, famous, married with five kids between them, it remains to be seen how many demons are left. And just where their talents lie and how far they will continue to stretch. One day, after all, the gobbing, the brawling, the puking and the whining finally have to stop. As every father knows.
Waiting for Godot previews at the Queen’s Theatre from September 23. Bottom is on Tuesdays on BBC2.