‘I’m the Neurotic and Sensitive One’

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

The Andrew Duncan Interview for Radio Times, 29th January – 5th February 1995

He’s no longer a ‘Young One’ but Rik Mayall shows no signs of growing up. However, beneath that anarchic image is an actor who takes his work very seriously.

Travelling by Underground to our meeting in a grim public house near London’s Old Vic theatre on the south bank of the Thames he has, he says, been contemplating an “angle” for this interview. Helpfully, he now discloses the result of his thought: “Rik is back for 95.” Mmmm, yes. We read that Alexei Sayle allegedly called him “an empty-headed bimbo” (maybe it was a joke) and he is immortalised – with Romans discovering salt, a riot, and other notable events – on a proud civic mural in his home town, Droitwich, but whoever thought he’d been away? For 14 years, since he was 22, he has achieved a ubiquitous, if not always appreciated, success. Now, though, he is “back” with a vengeance, making a multi-cultural pitch for attention. There is the Rik Mayall Presents trilogy on TV, a Simon Gray play, Cell Mates, in which he stars with Stephen Fry, opening on 17 February at the Albery Theatre in the West End, a new series of Bottom with Ade Edmondson, an autumn countrywide tour of the show and – as a diversion – he will be reading poems for children in a series called Wham Bam! Strawberry Jam! “So I’ve got the children’s market sewn up as well,” he grins.

He seems relaxed and languid, not at all the driven workaholic such output might suggest. He is ageing prettily (just a bit of grey at the temples) but claims one of the disadvantages of being a performer is you watch yourself getting old. “I look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh, dear.’ Some people go under the knife to pretend to look 18. That’s tragic. No one should do it. I’m 36, which means some parts are impossible to play. Romeo would be difficult, but Lear is over the horizon. The adventure shouldn’t stop because you get to a particular age. You carry on to the next bit and see what’s coming. I like anything that gives me variety but television is my life’s blood, even though it’s been declining ever since it gained respectability in the 70s and early 80s. That doesn’t bother me. It means my stuff looks good as everything else gets worse. The punters will accept me so long as I don’t go on doing the same thing. I was on the beach in Barbados and a magistrate from Stoke told me how much he liked The New Statesman at the same time as some American kids ran over shouting, ‘Richie…Virgin’ [his character in Bottom]. There was no connection between the two groups.”

The three comedy dramas in Rik Mayall Presents illustrate his versatility. In The Big One, he plays an estate agent, Louis, a liar who assumes the identity of a dead man and finds his fantasies coming dangerously true; in Dirty Old Town he is Raymond, a down-and-out whose life is transformed when he is mistaken for the author of a film script; and in Clair de Lune he is a minicab driver studying for a law exam who encounters strange adventures with a beautiful woman [Serena Scott Thomas] he picks up en route to take his 7-year-old daughter for a birthday outing, where she is to be a “princess” at a medieval banquet. “My favourite character is Louis. Raymond was fun, but having to wear a beard was a drag. It had food in it all the time because he was homeless and I wasn’t allowed a trim.

The son of drama teachers, he had an early initiation into the theatre at 7 when he was cast by his father as an urchin in Brecht’s The Good Woman Of Setzuan. “Acting wasn’t foisted on me. I was bright and passed the 11-plus a year younger than other guys, so I couldn’t shine in sports because they were all bigger. Getting up on stage and making people laugh was the only thing I could be good at. A friend and I wrote terribly serious plays about the nuclear holocaust and other important schoolkid issues, but the audience just laughed. I’d play up to them, show off, and I thought, ‘I like this.’ It’s still a thrill for me. It always will be. I’ll keep going until I drop.” Hormones confounded his early academic promise, when he met a girl, Jo who teas more worthy of study than A-levels. “I did badly. I wasn’t concentrating on the right thing, lifewise. Well, actually I was. Luckily I scraped it to Manchester University during ‘clearing’. He found kindred spirits – Ben Elton, Ade Edmondson and his then girlfriend Lise Meyer – and they formed their own clique. “We defended ourselves against the prevailing attitude which was a hangover from the 60s, a lot of worthy and very bad left-wing theatre-Marxism for 3-year-olds. We’d come to university for excitement and enjoyed drama because it meant staying up late and showing off. We were all good old lefties but didn’t want to sit po-faced in a theatre being bored all night. We wanted to have a good time.”

Influenced by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Goons, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise – “quite an eclectic mix” – he and Ade formed the 20th-Century Coyote group, which they took to the Edinburgh Festival. He toured America with the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company – after winning the Boris Karlloff award for “Most Outrageous Ham” at a National Student Drama Festival and, with Edmondson, became part of the original Comedy Store team, graduating quickly to television and success in The Young Ones. “I was famous at 22, which was fantastic. I’ve been lucky. But although I put across this front that Ade and I just do entertainment, we both have a degree in drama [his is a 2:2] and know what we’re doing. We take our work very seriously, without being too pretentious. Others are allowed to be ‘artists’. We’re not, because we’re considered to be just funny-men.

So beneath the slapstick he has a message? He looks at me disparagingly and chides, “That’s a simplistic question. What can I say? It’s too academic to ask, ‘Are you making a point?’ Views come across anyway if your heart is in the right place. When I’m lying under a skip being Raymond [in Dirty Old Town] I think I’m saying something about homelessness without ramming it down the audience’s throat. I’m old enough and grown up enough to know that my opinion is just an opinion, so all I try to do is tell an interesting story and give the punters a good time. If they take anything back from it, that’s OK. I just keep my eye on the ball and make sure the product is good. You do that by watching the ratings and being sensitive to what the punters want. You don’t do it by reading the critics.”

This is fortunate as, at first, neither The Young Ones nor Bottom were well reviewed. “Quite atrocious” is one of the kinder comments about Bottom, with its cartoon violence, plastic sick, schoolboy double entendres and waggling bottoms. He and Ade hit each other over the head with a cricket bat, scrunch each other’s testicles, and shout. A lot of viewers enjoy it, apparently.

“We’ve had a very rough ride critically, so if we’re going to survive and feed our children we have to take a philosophical view. I try to think the newspapers aren’t worth bothering about, but it hurts when the reviews aren’t good. Ade is much more bullish, which is one of the reasons I’m in love with him. He’s tough. I’m the neurotic and sensitive one. Although we both have our separate lives, I’ll be working with him until I die, doing our double act in different forms. We were called Rich and Eddie in Filthy, Rich and Catflap, and I was Rick in The Young Ones, so there’s a similar lineage. Bottom is in a straight line from what we’ve always done – violent, exciting comedy. It’s sordid and domestic and we’re paring it down all the time so you get nearer the bone of the joke. If our last series doesn’t win a Bafta it will show what a lot of ‘fools’ [ttanslated from his more robust vernacular] the judges are” He doesn’t know how many more series they can make. “It’s a question of how much we can do in that kitchen and living room. We’ve hit on the vague idea of making the next series historical – Richie Hood and His VMerrie Men, Richie Turpin…. We’re like Laurel and Hardy. They put on tricoms or policemen’s helmets. It didn’t matter. It was still Stan and Ollie.

“All the characters I’ve done with Ade have been incredibly unpleasant and horrible, but you can understand their motivation and don’t hate them. They’re just socially dysfunctional. I’ve tried to psychoanalyse myself, and I think it release for all the things I can’t do normally cause I’m a reasonably nice, polite, middle-class chap who doesn’t throw people through windows or set light to farts.” Indeed, he is the ultimate in middle-class domesticity, married to Barbara – “she was a make-up artist. Now she’s a mum” – and living in apparent bliss with two children, Rosie, 8, and 6-year-old Sidney. He is looking forward to being in Cell Mates because he says, “I can play with my kids all day, go and do a bit of shouting in the dark and then come home again. The only drag is that Barb and I won’t be able to give our traditional Valentine’s Eve party. It’s always been a good excuse to round up the old gang and have a drink.”

After The Young Ones become a cult show in America – “I am a massive cult, a complete cult, in the nicest possible way,” he jokes – he made a Hollywood film, Drop Dead Fred. He says it taught him a lot about acting, which he has put to good use in Rik Mayall Presents. “It was terribly nerve racking at first because film is a realistic art form which the British are not very experienced in. We’re far too led by writing and told to ‘deliver the words’, which isn’t natural. I watched [co-stars] Carrie Fisher and Kevin Klein. When they change words the writers don’t mind at all. Here they’d say, ‘Why didn’t you notice the comma?’ All I wanted to do in the trilogy is film anecdotes – something extraordinary happening to ordinary people.” He contributes to the scripts, and co-writes Bottom with Edmondson. “I increasingly like writing but I’m not ‘driven’ like Ben [Elton], who will sit at the typewriter all day. I couldn’t. My act of creation is interpreting words.”

He has done this most successfully with devious MP Alan B’Stard in the four series of The New Statesman, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, which have won an International Emmy and a Bafta. “The Tories love Alan. I didn’t think they would at all. Very weird. Lots of them claim to be the inspiration and are proud of it. He’s certainly not dead. I think he’s a perenial Alf Garnett figure who will pop up and comment from time to time. There’s talk of standing at the next general election as a genuine Conservative – perhaps in Huntingdon [the Prime Minister’s constituency].” B’Stard is a far cry from children’s poetry. “Having the facility to pretend to do stand-up,” he begins, and noticing I look worried by this unfamiliar mode checks himself, “Oh, all right, cut that out – being great at stand-up means you’re also good at being a talking head, so when they asked me to help with a poetry special I agreed so long as I could do The Walrus and The Carpenter, which has always been my favourite. Dad used to read it to me and me and Ade called one of our shows The Walrus and The Carpenter. It fits our strangeness, and I’ve always wanted to do it justice. It’s part of my eternal search for excitement. I want to have a good time. it’s gone all right so far.”