One Old Double Act Deserves Another

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

By Zoe Heller for The Independant, 22nd September 1991

Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, the rude boys of television sitcom, are about to star in Waiting for Godot. They told Zoe Heller why this is not as funny as it seems

”It is already clear,” a critic wrote of Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall in 1987, ”that what they seem to see as defiantly juvenile, and we see as embarrassingly childish, is not the outcome of a particular series but part and parcel of these particular comedians. Farting, references to genitalia and extreme violence are their stock-in-trade and so – regardless of the format – their most appreciative audience will continue to be drunk teenagers.”

However unfair and inaccurate, this rebarbative judgment neatly summarises the comic style with which Mayall and Edmondson have become associated. They form part of the coterie (Dawn French, her husband Lenny Henry, Edmondson’s wife Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer, Ben Elton) that emerged at the end of the Seventies and went on to dominate the comedy scene in the Eighties. But within this group, Mayall and Edmondson have made a certain brand of maniacal comedy their own. Which is why their latest undertaking strikes the onlooker as so brave. Or foolhardy.

From this week, the princelings of fart gags will be in residence at the Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, playing Vladimir (Mayall) and Estragon (Edmondson) in Waiting for Godot. It is the first West End production of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy in 35 years. Les Blair is directing; Derek Jarman has designed the set. None of this, however, is likely to distract attention from the casting.

In their rehearsal room at Sadler’s Wells, the two men anticipate the likely objections with a fretful mix of optimism and irritation. Edmondson, dour in thick-rimmed spectacles and cropped hair, insists they will get a ”hammering” from the Press. ”We always do. And this time, we’ll get an even worse hammering because it’ll be seen as two vulgar, horrible little comedians taking on some great dramatic classic. But we’ll make a success of it – and then they’ll be really cross.”

Mayall, the more glamorous, actory side of the partnership, swishes his blond hair and puts on a silly voice. ”We both went to drama school. So we know what we’re doing, OK?”

Mayall and Edmondson have been together since their student days at Manchester University in the Seventies. After their degrees, they started doing cabaret and short, lunatic plays. They eventually landed at the Comedy Store in London, where they were picked up by television. The Young Ones, their manic piss-take of student life, broke up the sofa-centred chunter of traditional sit-com with explosions of grotesque slapstick and a-thousand-and-one bogey and bottom jokes. It was high-volume, low- taste, occasionally brilliant stuff.

Since then, both men have done plenty of solo work, which has often had a subtler comic hue. Edmondson has written and directed episodes of Comic Strip and acted in a couple of films (including a straight role as a tabloid journalist in Les Blair’s News Hounds). Mayall, more famously, has done some theatre (lead roles in The Government Inspector and The Common Pursuit), some television (The New Statesman), and has made his first foray into Hollywood, starring in the forthcoming Drop Dead Fred. Yet Mayall and Edmondson have managed to fit in plenty of work together and their tendency, whenever they reunite, is to return to Young Ones mode – two snarling wallies exercising their loathing for one another in squalid circumstances.

As The Dangerous Brothers, they offered what were essentially abstracted Young Ones sketches with heightened violence. In Filthy Rich and Catflap, (with Nigel Planer, another of the Young Ones), they did much the same thing, but in a domestic setting. And clips from their new series, Bottom (in which they play two penniless, violent flatmates who are always arguing), suggest business is still as usual.

So reservations about the new Godot are perhaps less unreasonable than the two comedians care to admit. They say they have always wanted to ”do Godot”, and this year, after one of their own compositions proved unstageable (Mayall: ”It involved wrecking the theatre every night – the level of destruction was just too extensive”), they decided to give Beckett a bash. But can Beckett’s text, with its delicate balance of humour and anguish, survive the sausage-grinder of their frenzied style? Will Vladimir and Estragon be squeezed into the ready-made shapes of Rik ‘n’ Ade?

Mayall and Edmondson respond grumpily to these enquiries. They don’t think they have been repeating themselves for the last decade, and if the critics cannot distinguish between their finely wrought characterisations, then that is the critics’ problem.

Mayall: ”People go on about the similarities in what we do…”

Edmondson: ”But it’s a bit like saying to an artist, ‘Well, a lot of your paintings have blue paint in them; why aren’t you advancing and using more red paint?'”

Insofar as they will admit to a fixed set of comic manners, they will not, they say, be changing them for the purposes of this play. ”There’s no need to,” Mayall explains. ”Our comedy actually developed through a love of Beckett – of Godot in particular – and a lot of our early stuff was Beckett piss-takes. I have always been drawn to Beckett. I like the simplicity. I like the honesty. I like the vulgarity, the violence. I like the uniqueness of it – the way it doesn’t fit in and it annoys people. Our style is actually very Beckettian.”

”Estragon and Vladimir are two halves of the same person – they are a double act,” says Edmondson. ”And the two halves are much the same as the two halves we’ve developed: Rik plays the vain, conceited one and I play the boorish, stupid, down-to-earth one.”

None of which means, apparently, that they will be playing simply for laughs, or lapsing into extra-textual routines. Three years ago Robin Williams appeared as Vladimir in Mike Nichols’s Broadway Godot, and ruffled critical feathers by ad-lib bing. Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the first London production, lamented that the multiple repetition of lines like ”Why don’t we go?” made it ”astonishingly easy” to miss out great chunks of the play. In these circumstances, it must be a terrible temptation to improvise. Mayall and Edmondson, however, shrink at the idea.They have merely tinkered with a few stage directions andreturned to the French text in places ”to sort of re-translate it”.

Edmondson: ”Normally when we’re rehearsing something, it’s a constant process of editing. But with this, it’s actually been a relief to get to grips with a text that doesn’t change.”

Mayall: ”We’re actually doing a very traditional version. I hope people won’t be disappointed that we’re not being groovier . . .”

Edmondson:”That it’s not the ‘Allo ‘Allo team doing Godot…”

Both men say they feel ”reverent” about the play’s ”philosophical bits”. But they express their reverence in sharply differing ways. Edmondson sniffs and says it’s ”nice to have jokes where the double entendre is about important philosophical topics rather than someone’s bottom”. Mayall is more fervent. ”I think the best comedians share the philosophical vision expressed in this play. ‘They give birth astride of a grave….’ – that’s why you get into comedy – because you have that vision of life, that desperation, and you are telling jokes to avoid thinking about death…”

As he goes on, a note of cod-Beckettian bleakness enters his tone. ”If you have no religion and you know you’re going to die, you know there’ll be nothing else, and you try somehow to avoid that truth…”

Edmondson looks bewildered. Mayall continues: ”That’s what Vladimir and Estragon are doing – passing the time so they don’t have to hear all the dead voices.”

Suddenly Edmondson waves his sandwich, ”Oh bollocks Richie.”

Mayall smiles. ”That’s why I’m drawn to Ade,” he explains. ”None of these things seem to bother him.”

Waiting for Godot’ previews at the Queen’s from tomorrow; opens 30 Sept.