A Joker who Scorns his Critics

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

For The Telegraph, 26th July 1997

Rik Mayall’s obnoxious television characters have made him into a national institution. Or so he tells Jan Moir . . .

Rik Mayall tries so hard — so very, very hard — to be modest that one’s worst suspicions are instantly aroused. Is this surface humility the real deal? Or does he use it as a pretty cloak to conceal something darker?

He has just returned from the San Remo film festival, where — aw, shucks — he was awarded a top acting honour for his role in Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, a feature film in which he co-stars with Jane Horrocks. “This will look crap in print, but it meant a great deal to me,” says Mayall quietly, examining his fingernails as he speaks; a perfect portrait of an unassuming star.

Much in the same vein, he makes the surprisingly candid admission that The Young Ones – the television sitcom that made his name in 1982 – does not deserve its hallowed place in the comedy hall of fame.

I was always the one who said: ‘Don’t repeat it, don’t repeat it.’ You see, in everyone’s mind, it was this great, amazing show. But when you are actually confronted with it today, when you see these young, thin people with lots of hair running around shouting and screaming, you think, is this what all the fuss was about?”

Since then, Mayall has established himself as one of our most popular comedians (“Longevity is a great affectioniser,” he meekly acknowledges) and, more recently, as a serious actor of some repute. He takes a tumble on the humble hurdles only when the irksome topic of critics is raised, for he feels that they have not always been as generous with their praise of the Mayall comic oeuvre as they should have been.

“Critics shouldn’t f— with me. I’m a national institution,” he snaps.

Is he joking? Someone please tell me that he’s joking. I wait for the droll punchline that would indicate a piece of arch-tomfoolery on his part, but it never comes.

People either like my comedy or they don’t,” he continues. “And I don’t like the people who don’t like it because they don’t laugh at the same things as me.”

Then, abruptly, he rinses the sneer off his face and folds back into his diffident persona, politely pouring coffee in the cool, creamy elegance of his agent’s London flat, and proudly showing off the friendship bracelet his daughter made for him.

Rik Mayall will be 40 next year and has aged well: comely flecks of grey at the temples, a broad, smooth forehead and clear, watchful eyes. He is one of those lucky men whose looks improve with each passing year, which may be one reason why he regards his approaching watershed birthday with caution, but not trepidation.

I am trying to find some kind of way through it. No one told me how to be 40. There were blueprints of how to be groovy at 20, how to be a New Man at 30 — but this? I suppose I could invent a new me. I want to be proud without being haughty, like Nicholas Cage. I want to be strong, like Pete Sampras.”

To illustrate what he means, he throws back his head with bravura and slaps a thigh muscle through his smart charcoal suit. He is wonderfully vain and prone to long periods of self-absorption.

I like me. I am always tinkering with me. I am my hobby,” he says, although he admits that excessive self-analysis can be a dangerous thing. “Sometimes, when I’m on tour, I spend too much time thinking about one little thing, then start feeling really sorry for myself.”

What do you think about?

“Myself. I think, ‘God, here I am in this big city, everyone loves me on stage at night, but what do I do all day? I just hang out and go to HMV and buy some music. I am such a sad case.’ And it’s at that moment I think what a w—– I am.”

And even more self-obsessed and neurotic than the average actor?

“That would be something I would be very embarrassed to admit,” he says, fiddling with his cuffs. “But… yes. I am.”

In the 15 years that have followed The Young Ones, his evolution through the comedy food chain can be easily charted. First of all, there was Rick, his glorious Young Ones alter ego who became the epitome of student twittery, with his uncomprehending espousal of trendy causes and his face pimple-pocked like a rancid cherry cake. Everyone hated Rick, even the man who created him.

“He was a person I was terrified I might actually be; I was always scared that secretly I was a total w—–. To be honest, I still have that fear,” he says. This is one of the reasons, he believes, that he went on to specialise in obnoxious comedy characters. “As a kind of exorcism,” he explains.

He has remained touchingly close to Ade Edmondson, who played the psychotic Vyvyan in the series; indeed, they have been best friends since studying drama together at Manchester University. “We trained together, grew up together and when we work together, we spend 90 per cent of our time laughing,” he says of Edmondson, who is married to the comedienne Jennifer Saunders. “Ade and I can hurt each other without meaning to, but we are very sensitive to the fact that we really need each other, as well as love each other. And we won’t ever let each other down.”

The launch pad provided by The Young Ones gave them the opportunity to create a cavalcade of socially dysfunctional television duos and, in the process, become the slacker generation’s answer to Morecambe and Wise. A series called Filthy, Rich and Catflap was followed by another called Bottom, both, in their way, reprising the Vyvyan/Rick relationship and the changing reality of Edmonson’s and Mayall’s own lives.

While The Young Ones reflected their student flat-sharing days, Catflap depicted the perils of instant celebrity and Bottom was about getting older. The latter, in particular, was a huge success, spawning massive, sell-out British tours and a pair of characters called Richie and Eddie, whom Mayall refers to as “our Eric and Ernie”.

Richie and Eddie were cartoons made flesh; in their world, furniture was smashed, genitals were crunched and their predilection for puerile, fourth form farty-botty-trousers-down humour bored some viewers – such as me, for instance – to death. Mayall, however, cannot find it in himself to forgive or to comprehend those who fail to share his comic vision.

“What do you mean, Mrs Critic?” he says, quite nastily. “People who don’t understand Bottom, who don’t get it, are like people who don’t understand jazz. They are wrong. To dismiss it as farty-bottom humour is like dismissing Dizzy Gillespie’s music as noise.”

Mayall’s comedy output is so prolific (remember his malignant MP, Alan B’Stard, in the television series The New Statesman?), that we tend to overlook his more serious work, which includes a Hollywood film, Drop Dead Fred, and a well-received series of dramas for Granada Television in 1994. And we also forget – in the brouhaha which surrounded the incident — that it was Rik Mayall whom Stephen Fry left in the lurch when he bolted from Simon Gray’s doomed West End play, Cell Mates, the following year.

“It was terrible for me. My greatest regret was that it was a good role for me, but so long as Stephen was OK, as long as Simon was OK, that was what really mattered. Stephen had to do what he had to do and I was piggy in the middle. What could I do? I had to stick it out. I couldn’t go off as well, you know. I threw up every night before going on stage. Still, I did get a nice letter from Dame Maggie Smith saying, ‘Good on you, for staying in the trench.’ Which was nice. But then, I am a very good boy.”

His latest film, Remember Me? is a based on a Sixties television play, freshly scripted by Michael Frayn and destined to go down in history as the last comedy ever produced by Ealing Studios. Among a cast which includes Robert Lindsay and Imelda Staunton, Mayall is impressive in the role of Ian, a depressed, unemployed, inadequate husband who creates a pool of gloom whenever he walks into a room and is despised by his children. Given his claims that he is attracted to unsavoury characters because they expunge some concomitant nastiness in himself, what are we to make of his decision to play such a dreary, middle-aged has-been?

“I got a feeling inside myself that I wanted to be Ian for a while; there was a piece of me that connected with him. You’ve got to laugh at someone as selfish and self-obsessed as Ian,” he says, showing that he is entirely capable of laughing at himself after all.

His own home life, in comparison, appears to be a study in domestic bliss. He lives with his wife and three young children in a fine house near Ladbroke Grove, west London, which he calls Nintendo Towers, as it was purchased from the proceeds of a series of television ads for the computer games company. But, hang on, didn’t he once swear he would never debase himself by appearing in adverts? Didn’t he once proudly say: “It makes me feel unclean. If audiences see me telling a lie for money, I lose their trust.”

“Yes I did, I did. But that was back in the Eighties and I’ve grown up and straightened up now. I could be embarrassed, because that argument is no longer going on in my head . . . but I’m not. And give me a break! I’ve got a family to feed.”

He has been married for 12 years to Barbara, a former make-up artist he met while working on a production in Glasgow. “They understand actors,” he says. Their meeting ushered in a rather messy period in his life, as he had been living for five years with his then girlfriend Lise Meyer, the comedy writer who helped script The Young Ones. While both women were pregnant by him, Mayall eloped with Barbara and married her in Barbados. Sadly, Meyer later lost the child she was carrying. The episode appears to cast Mayall in a rather callous light, but he is understandably reluctant to discuss it.

“It is very private stuff. I am not one of these people who have to bolster their fame by talking about those bits of their lives they messed up. It was a mess, but it happened 12 years ago. And Lise and I have been friends again for the past 10 years, which is all you need to know.”

His oldest child, Rosie, is now 11, followed by Sidney (nine) and Bonnie, who is nearly two. “It’s all been a wonderful blur of nappies and scripts and washing up and fun,” he says, adding that he can hardly remember what it was like not being a father. “When did all that New Man thing happen? It was always second nature to me, because I was 10 when my sister was born and I looked after her.

“So I changed our babies, all that stuff, not because I was told to, but because I am a natural dad. I don’t think I am strict — I’m certainly not a beater. I’m a very mellow man these days.”

He pauses and thinks for a moment. “Mature, I think, is the right word to describe me.”

And modest, too, of course. When the mood takes him.

Remember Me? is on release at selected cinemas.