by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
By Adam Sweeting for Radio Times, 22nd – 28th May 1993
“They’re not comedies, they’re dramas,” Rik Mayall insists of the three films he has made for Granada TV, of which Thursday’s Briefest Encounter is the second. In fact, it wasn’t until the first day of shooting that he discovered that the films were being made by the comedy department, not the drama department.
Then, when he found they were being shown under the banner Rik Mayall Presents, he began to fear viewers might thing they were in for a riot of rudeness and rowdiness of the sort Mayall has served up in The Young Ones or Bottom. “It gives me responsibility for the whole thing, which I think is unfair on the others,” he says.
By a remarkable coincidence, all three films find him accompanied by strikingly attractive leading ladies: Jennifer Ehle (from The Camomile Lawn), Amanda Donohoe and Helena Bonham-Carter. “Yes, that’s very agreeable,” smirks Mayall, now 35, though having married his wife Barbara five years ago, he tactfully disclaims any pretensions towards being a ladies’ man. “Maybe, when I was younger,” he mutters, fingering a wisp of gray hair above his ear.
The films also give Mayall a chance to show off his range, and even some subtlety. In the first one, shown last week, he played the ageing northern game-show host Micky Love, and the role seemed to contain bits from every tacky TV quiz from the past 30 years – with a dash of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer for good measure.
Briefest Encounter is a duet for Mayall and former LA Law star Amanda Donohoe. It’s a surreal black comedy about two people who meet at a party and end up wishing they hadn’t. The best may be the last – Dancing Queen, with Helena Bonham-Carter as a strippergram girl with a heart of gold, playing against Mayall’s gullible but sympathetic upper-class twit.
“Granada TV came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do some television plays?’ and I said, ‘Yes’,” Mayall remembers. “Then it developed into film. Obviously, as a performer, I’m showing off, with three characters. Micky Love was a much more get-your-teeth-into-it character than Greg in Briefest Encounter because Greg has to be enigmatic, and you have to not know whether he’s a loony or not. I’m proud of my work in all three of them, and especially Micky Love. I think Micky’s a well-rounded, well-executed character, and it’s not what you expect from Rik Mayall, really.”
The piece might have run along familiar Mayall lines if director Nick Hamm hadn’t pushed him out of his instinctive impulse to play Love as a straightforward b’stard. “Nick said no, make him nice, he’s a nice guy and he believes in what he says. It made him a much more tragic figure.”
His best-known roles hint that Mayall has an affinity for cruelty and selfishness – Rik from The Young Ones, the despicable Tory MP Alan B’stard in The New Statesman, or Richie from Bottom. But Mayall seems shocked at the suggestion that his art imitates his life.
“Er … that’s not a Radio Times sort of question. I don’t know how much of my stuff is an expression of what I’m really like. I think that when I come to a drama, I instinctively say, ‘What’s wrong with this guy, what’s bad about him, what do we laugh at in him?”‘
Even though he has enjoyed a recession-proof level of success for well over a decade, Mayall seems a little nervous about his new venture. He and Ade Edmondson are currently in the middle of a sell-out national tour with the stage versionof the raucous TV show Bottom, but Mayall knows how difficult it is for comics to be accepted playing dramatic roles.
“Everything I’ve always done has always been badly received initially,” he laments. “The Young Ones was hammered when it first came out. Filthy Rich and Catflap disappeared without trace, and then The New Statesman was hammered because it wasn’t The Young Ones or Catflap. It’s only when you come to the second series that people say, ‘Oh, everyone else likes it. OK, I’d better like it then’.”
Mayall claims that the Granada series means he’s “expanding rather than going straight”, but fighting your way out of a popular pigeonhole is always an uphill battle. He met Ade Edmondson when they were both at Manchester University, and they began writing “funny plays” together.
What made them famous, though, was their stand-up comedy routines in London, first at the Comedy Store, and then at the Comic Strip, at the start of the 80s.
The Comic Strip led to The Young Ones and TV stardom, but it also trapped Mayall into repeating himself. ” I developed the Rik character from The Young Ones into a crap comedian, who came on and did crap jokes,” he says. “My stage act for the next ten years was developing that.”
Touring with the Bottom stage show has made him realise that he and Edmondson may have missed some opportunities along the way. “This is what we should have been doing all along, but it takes a bit of fame in order to get this staged,” he explains. “It’s a sort of rock ‘n’ roll play really – a kind of contemporary slapstick.”
Mayall has regularly dipped a toe into less familiar waters, such as the American film Drop Dead Fred, or stage appearances in Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit, Gogol’s The Government Inspector, and (with Ade Edmondson) Waiting for Godot.
But he thinks comedy will always be the closest thing to his heart. “I’ve always been a populist. I do stuff that makes me laugh. You have to surrender to it, and if you do you’ll have a good time. Most comedians do it because they need to laugh as well, for whatever reason.”
Will he ever be taken seriously by theatre critics? If he isn’t, Mayall still has enough humility to know when he’s well off. “Just as long as I can do a bit of film, a bit of TV, a bit of live theatre, and a bit of sunbathing in Devon, that’ll do me, for as long as I’ve got.” Could be worse.