Back in Your Face
by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
For Hotline, Winter 1999
With a new movie and a feature length Blackadder in which he gets to snog Kate Moss, Rik Mayall is back at the top of the comedy ladder. Not bad for someone who got the obituary writers twitching when he spent a week in a coma, says Pierre Perrone.
“There should be an English Heritage plaque saying: ‘this is where he had a very serious accident’.”
Rik Mayall is making light of the events of 10 April 1998 when the 600 lb quad bike he was riding around his Devonshire estate rolled over and left him with a brain haemorrhage. He spent a week in a coma and experienced serious memory loss (forgetting even his wife’s name) and couldn’t work for five months. “I always take the summer off anyway so falling off a bike made no difference,” he adds with a slightly nervous smirk worthy of one of his small screen creations. Overzealous Fleet Street editors commissioned his obituary pretty sharpish and, when I mention it, he swears profusely and is even more agitated than usual. “Let’s not talk about that. It’s over, it’s gone!”
Is he tempted to have a peep at them, like Friedrich Gulda, the Austrian pianist who faked his own death in order to read his obituaries and then came clean? This idea captures his imagination and Mayall enthuses again, like the actor he can be. “Fabulous, what a great idea for a film! Rik plays Rik in The Rik May all Story. It’s a joke about a vain man playing himself!”
However much he tries to wisecrack, Mayall admits the accident changed his perspective on life, if not on comedy. “If I was a wide-eyed rebel staring death in the face, it would have been great, but I’m a sad old Englishman. I’m just grateful for being alive. Isn’t that pathetic? I should be much harder. I’ve been allowed another chance and, when I look at my wife and Ade [Edmondson, his long-time comedy partner] and the kids and the work and the respect, I know I have a lot. I’d expect to be slapped on the back of the head and thrown in the grave! Now I get builders saying: ‘all right Rik mate?’, as if they were my friends, which is nice.”
At first, coming back proved daunting, even with the support of Edmondson, his wife Barbara and their three children (daughters Rosie 13 and Bonnie four, and son Sydney who’s 11). “I was terrified,” he says. “Was I going to be able to think properly or remember anything? We got over the medical worries — the brain haemorrhage, the medication — and I thought: ‘can I still act?’ And that was a real fear. So I eased back into things last September. I did a voice-over for some little kiddies’ animation thing. I was playing two frogs, not even the lead characters. I needed to do it because, if it was a complete disaster, nobody was ever going to know. I did it and it was great and I walked out and I was so bloody happy! Inside I felt I’d been let off.”
He went to Africa and played Merlin in the film Merlin 2000. So, when it came to filming the movie Guest House Paradiso, in which he and Edmondson adopted incarnations of Bottom’s Eddie Hitler and Richard Richard to play guesthouse owners from hell, he was ready to take on the role, knocks and all.
“It’s a different kind of acting, a higher standard when you’re with Ade, especially with him directing, he’s a fantastic director:” Mayall says that Edmondson was careful with him but not overprotective. “He didn’t want to treat me as if I was ill but he wasn’t going to make a worse product with me limping around. In fact, the kitchen fight is one of the best fights we’ve ever done. We didn’t use stuntmen. The amount of times my character Richie gets beaten around the head. It’s just so violent and so big!”
Apart from punch-ups, the new film includes voyeurism, radio-active fish, drunken chefs, naked waiters, projectile vomit and a series of explosions — but it’s all in a day’s work for Rik and Ade. Amazingly the pair have never injured each other, even though Edmondson once accidentally hit Mayall with a real brick instead of a theatrical fake. However, there was the time when Young Ones cohort Alexei Sayle knocked Mayall out with a shotgun.
Mayall and Edmonson met at Manchester University in 1975 where they were studying drama. “The very first lecture we had, the professor made a bit of an entrance, there were 30 of us sitting and up I stood! That’s what we did at school, but all the other students laughed at me. They all thought I was really square. I noticed Ade with long flares, long hair, John Lennon glasses and he had his feet up on the desk. Then he took out a cigarette and lit up. I thought: ‘oh, my God, this guy is so stupid, he’s gonna be expelled!’ But he wasn’t stupid, he was just incredibly cool!”
Opposites attract and Edmonson and Mayall soon formed an unrivalled partnership. By the second year they were doing standup gigs together in a club called The Band on the Wall in Manchester. “There was a lot of pretentious stuff going on in the late Seventies, what with Red Trousers, Red Ladder, Red Spanner and North West Trousers who used to come along and teach us how to be Marxists in a really drab way.” Mayall says that his and Edmonson’s routine was a reaction to the po-faced humour of the time. It formed the basis of their long professional relationship.
“It’s a kind of marriage, call it Yin and Yang, it’s exactly what it is,” says Rik. “We’ve always stuck by each other. He was there when I came round after the accident,” says Mayall. “We met 24 years ago which is a long time in any relationship, let alone a comedic relationship. We are seriously a double act, but we go away, we do other things. He makes me laugh. Yesterday, I was working with him and I had him on his knees laughing, his ribs were hurting, we were both laughing so much. Perhaps our greatest pleasure is making each other laugh. I can say one thing and he’s just about to follow it and I can see what he’s going to say. It’s like weaving a plait.”
Their laddish brand of comedy is physical, but not clownish. “Slapstick and pantomime have always been dirty words for me and Ade,” he says, preferring to describe the style they seek as: “the way you feel energised if you were in a pub fight. There’s a connection between that and the release, the rush of emotion that laughter is. If we ever understood it completely, it wouldn’t be fascinating. Basically, we’re funnier together than on our own.”
At university, Mayall and Edmonson checked out every band that came their way. “I saw Doctor Feelgood and Wilko Johnson, the guitarist, was something of an inspiration for my Young Ones character Rik,” confesses Mayall. “I was really thrilled by him because he looked like a kid that shouldn’t be in a band, trying to be groovy and looking like he’d taken something he shouldn’t have.”
Indeed, at least 10 years before comedy was tagged the new rock’n roll, The Young Ones infused their own brand of riotous comedy with a punk attitude, drawing on Tommy Cooper, Tom and Jerry and the Bonzo Dog Doc Dah Band as inspiration. A Bonzo track is reverentially used in Guest House Paradiso.
In the Eighties, the comedy/rock’n’roll traffic was a two-way thing and, having featured the likes of The Damned and Jools Holland on The Young Ones, Mayall, Edmonson, Planer and co found themselves worshipped by students the world over. “There’s something very nice about being slightly illegitimate. Even in America, there were an awful lot of Young Ones fans. I think MTV showed a lot of episodes when it started and people felt they had discovered the series for themselves. There was no ‘buy the T-shirt’ hype. There was a pirate element about it. Maybe I’m a terrible old romantic. If Ade was here, he’d probably say:’what a load of crap!’.”
Mayall flirted with Hollywood in 1991 with the lead role in Drop Dead Fred, but refused to do a sequel. “I don’t like sequels,” he declares, and argues that Guest House Paradiso is not Bottom The Movie even though the characters draw heavily on Eddie and Richie in the series. (Mayall often names himself Rik, Rick, Rich, Richard or Richie and argues that this is not him being lazy, but to prevent confusion while on set.) He’s also adamant that Paradiso is not a steal from Fawlty Towers. “British comics don’t steal. There’s nothing written down, there’s no organisation, it’s just part of our culture. You might go to Hungary and see a brilliant mime do a very clever joke, and you might steal it if you’re pretty sure that no-one is ever going to know. I’ve been stopped by Adrian or stopped him several times where we’ve said:’no no, it’s Python; or ‘it’s The Goons’.
“Of course, we all know Fawlty Towers. It is the only other thing set in a hotel that’s very funny. But we wouldn’t have touched anything that even smelled like it. For example, my character Richie, the hotel manager, has a yellow cardigan which is really foul and I thought of having elbow pads. But Ade said no, it’s too Fawlty Towers,” explains Mayall. However, the film does have the feel of Fawlty Towers, with a streak of Bottom and a hint of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Hotel guests who suffer at the hands of the hapless owners include Fenella Fielding and Still Crazy’s Bill Nighy as well as a French couple Vincent Cassel (La Haine, L’apartment) and Helene Mahieu (the new face of Renault Clio). “Casting them was Ade’s stroke of genius,” says Mayall. “They’re both very handsome and very sexy and, in the film, they are quite obviously superior human beings to Richie and Eddie. Adrian and I represent the old British opinion that the Continentals know something about love and sex that we don’t. In a sense, the happy ending, very unusual for us, when we both walk off with Helene, is a nod to Casablanca.” This begs the question whether the pair, in real life, have ever competed for the same women. “We have the very good fortune to have completely opposite tastes in women,” says Mayall, “I always go for dark girls, my wife Barbara, she has big brown eyes and lots of dark hair, while Ade’s always gone for blondes, Jennifer Saunders has got blue eyes and blonde hair. I’m Celtic and he’s Aryan.” Mayall’s previous girlfriend, comic writer Lise Mayer also had dark hair. He infamously dumped her after five years to elope with Barbara, a make-up artist at BBC Scotland. At the time both women were pregnant, though Mayer later lost her baby. Apparently, Mayall and Mayer are friends once more.
Rik’s entire conversation is marked by maniacally gesticulating elastic faces and character voices from the nerdy pearls of Kevin Turvey in A Kick Up The Eighties to the sneering quips of MP Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman. Then there was pretentious actor Richard Rich in Filthy Rich and Catflap as well as the brash womanising Lord Flashheart and Mad Gerald in Blackadder. It’s as if these alter egos are a defence mechanism. He laughs nervously at the suggestion that they are too close for comfort. “Um, interesting point,” he says before batting the suggestion away with, “This is getting really intellectual. My characters don’t fit in but they desperately try to. Perhaps I’m trying to expunge myself of all my sins by playing these kinds of characters,” he sighs, only half joking.
If atonement is his game, then it probably doesn’t come sweeter than in his next role. In the feature-length Blackadder Back And Forth Mayall plays Robin Hood and gets to snog Kate Moss, who plays Maid Marian. “She went: ‘oh, that’s my first screen kiss’. So I thought we ought to do a couple more takes, but Richard Curtis said: ‘Rik, now, you’re just being dirty, you can’t do it again!’ It will be screened at the Millennium Dome in January and on telly as well.”
He’s also lined up to do Four Men In A Plane, a Comic Strip film set in Spain with Peter Richardson who directed and acted in the Comic Strip as well as directing Rik in the recent Virgin Trains ads. Rik famously declared in the Eighties that he would never debase himself by appearing in adverts, but he’s since backtracked. “That was back in the Eighties and I’ve grown up and straightened out. Give me a break, I’ve got a family to feed!” He is not embarrassed by his about turn. Why should he be when the proceeds of a computer games campaign financed his swanky Notting Hill residence — a house he calls Nintendo Towers.
Next, he plans to play “a Roman soldier who doesn’t like the drizzle in Britain, who gets a few backhanders and is this complete git.” By then, his next film script with Edmonson should be ready. “It’s the funniest title ever written, but I’m not going to tell you because someone will nick it. Anyway, it’s not a sequel to Guest House Paradiso. It’s Richie and Eddie but they’re doing something in completely different circumstances.”
And so the man with the boundless energy, which undoubtedly helped him bounce back from the brink of death, bounds on, almost a walking show in his own right. “As long as I’m on I’m fine. I’m only ever bored off stage waiting to come on.”
Guesthouse Paradiso is out now. Blackadder Back And Forth is at the Dome and is expected to screen on BBC1 on December 31.