by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
By David Allsop for The Express Saturday Magazine, 27th November – 3rd December 1999
Meeting Rik Mayall for the first time, anyone might be forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive as he bursts into the room, cursing loudly and apologising for his late arrival. This, after all, is the man who is synonymous with a new genre of scatological comedy — the manic, wild-eyed comic actor who has developed a definitively British variation of Tom & Jerry-style violence on both stage and screen.
Find him within arm’s reach of a saucepan, and you can be fairly sure that it will shortly be bouncing off someone’s skull. Give him an opportunity to spit a venomous personal insult and your ears will be scorched with a blast of vitriol that could strip industrial paint.
So when he seizes an ashtray from a table, and hefts it thoughtfully in one hand, the situation looks momentarily bleak. “I’m going to smoke. Is that all right?” he asks, stretching out in a chair and inhaling luxuriantly Anything other than an enthusiastic assent would, you feel, be somewhat reckless. Mayall’s repertoir of infamous TV characters — Rick in The Young Ones, Richie Richard in Bottom, Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, Flashheart in Blackadder — makes it hard to envisage a side to his personality that is not dangerously volatile or absurdly vainglorious.
This impression is reinforced by his late dramatic persona, Richie Twat, in Guest House Paradiso, the film he has co-written with Ade Edmondson, his professional partner since thc were both drama students at Manchester University in the mid Seventies. Twat (pronounced ‘Thwaite’, as he constantly demands in the film’s longest-running gag) is the owner of the worst hotel in the world.When he isn’t roundly insulting his guests with Fawltyesque relish he is either assaulting them, robbing them, stealing their erotic undergarments, poisoning them, or otherwise subjecting them to a catalogue of immoderate abuse, which also includes voyeurism and nuclear irradiation.
It comes as something of a surprise to discover that the real Rik Mayall is a pleasantly mannered, family loving, affable sort of character. Happily married for 12 years, he is the father of three children — Rosie, 12, Sidney, 10, and Bonnie, four — and remains in close contact with his parents in Worcestershire, his elder brother Anthony (a civil engineer), his sister Libby (who works in the music industry) and his younger sister, Kate, who is a doctor of psychology “She’s very quiet about what she thinks of me,” he conlides about his youngest sibling.
But he does share a few of the characteristics of the abrasive alter egos that he has developed over the past 20 years. His conversation is liberally peppered with expletives, his upper lip occasionally curls with impressive elasticity; and his body language — even seated — reflects and amplifies every utterance.
Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish him from the ‘Richie’ character who, over the past two decades, has thrived on a mutually destructive relationship with ‘Eddie’ — played with equal rancour by Ade Edmondson. At one point, eyeing me balefully, he asks: “Are you speaking to Ade? No? Good. Then I can slag him to hell.”
Instead, though, he goes on to describe, his partner’s directorial debut on Guest House Paradiso in glowing terms. “He’s strong, captain-like, tactical, and optimistic. He’s not a bastard, though he can be if he wants to be.”
So was it easy to be directed by his old sparring partner? “Yes,” he answers after a moment’s thought. “If you’re good. Which, of course, I am.” The biggest surprise is not just in discovering that Mayall is a very much milder man than one might have expected, but in finding that there is a vulnerable, even God-fearing side to the enfant terrible of British comedy. A recent glimpse of mortallty has caused him to reflect sobeily on the things he cleaily values in life.
Last year, shortly after his 40th birthday, he fell off a quad bike at his south-Devon farm and suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. His wife, Barbara, found him lying on his back staring sightlessly at a stormy sky, blood seeping from his ears, nose and mouth. He was taken by air ambulance to hospital, then dipped in and out of a coma for a week as his life hung in the bal-ance. “I fell off at Easter,” he recalls. “It was Maundy Thursday, which my kids now call Crap Thursday They call Good Friday ‘Worse’ Friday”
His family was told that I was not expected to live. He recalls Ade Edmondson standing at his bedside, one of the few people he recognised, and then he stops mid-sentence and has to collect himself, swallowing hard. “He was the first one there — apart from Barbara. I remembered his name, which was unusual, because other people came in and I kept getting them confused. And he was very affected. Shed a tear or two, and knew it was pretty hairy.”
Over the next two months he made a remarkable recovery — not helped by his persistent attempts to break out of hospital. “I went through a period trying to rationalise why I was there. I thought that someone was playing a really elaborate trick — but if it was a trick it’d be funny by now, and it wasn’t. I couldn’t understand this, so thought I’d better escape.
He goes on to recount the first of a number of instances that could have come straight out of an episode of one of his sitcoms. “In a clumsy slyness, I’d say to the nurses: “I think I’ll go for a walk and stretch my legs. But I noticed that wherever I went they were always with me. I’d say: “Really, I’m just going for a walk You don’t have to come. And they’d reply, “Oh we like you Rik, we just like your company You don’t mind, do you?”
“So I’d start walking a bit faster, suddenly changing direction like a loony, and they’d still be with me. God, those girls were great. Occasionally I managed to make a break for it, and I’d get to a locked door, and they’d gently take me back to bed.” But it was during a transfer to another hospital in London that he finally managed to give his nurse the slip. “We’d just got to the room, and the poor guy who was looking after me wanted a pee. He’d just closed the toilet door, and I was gone. Poor devil. I was down the street, and a taxi came by and I jumped in. It was fantastic! I couldn’t believe I’d escaped.”
He made it back to his west London house, and was let in by a perplexed family friend. “Jeff was there, he’s a theatre director so he’s used to actors, and I wanted to open a bottle of champagne to celebrate being home. Or Vodka, or even beer. Strangely enough, Jeff couldn’t find a bottle of anything anywhere. He’d been running around furiously stashing everything.”
Promptly returned to Charing Cross hospital, protesting that he’d never felt better, he was told he faced major brain surgery because of the residue of clotted blood still clogging his head. “Excuse me touching you,” he says to me, leaning forward and tracing a finger around my forehead. “The surgeon told me that if the blood didn’t disappear in two days, he was going to have to take the top of my head off like this. Like an egg. And he wasn’t joking.”
On the final brain scan before surgery, Mayall was ‘alone with God’ in the scanning machine. “I was in there longer than the last time. When I came out, the surgeon had a kind of smile on his face and said, ‘It’s gone!’. He said he’d checked and rechecked, and that it was a mystery. But it had definitely gone. And I was so happy to be alive, and happy that I’d been let off death and let off having the top of my head removed. What damage would have been done then? Not that he wasn’t the best in the world, but it could have been ‘Oops-a-daisy! I’ve knocked over his knob nerve. He’ll never have an erection again.'”
Required to take anti-epileptic drugs to assist his recovery, Mayall suffered a seizure last February after he “got bored taking them” and nearly bit off his tongue. Now he acknowledges that he must be more circumspect about his health, and that he will probably be reliant on medication for the rest of his life.
“Of course, I’m grateful to be alive and I take a joy in it. It sounds pathetic, but it happens to be true. I enjoy myself just by being alive. Going to the lav and doing the washing up. And working with Ade, and being creative, and finding out that after the blood disappeared I could still act.”
Earlier in his recovery he had constantly been beset by fears that he would never be able to work again. “I couldn’t string a sentence together. Words were jumbled around and I didn’t know what was going on. My brain was full of blood. Then after it went, I started dipping my toe in, doing little bits, beginning with a voiceover. The real tester was doing Jonathan Creek, which wasn’t difficult but there were a lot of lines to learn. It was a joy to do. They were very gentle and nice. In fact, people were relentlessly nice to me.”
He pauses, and draws heavily on a cigarette. “Gratitude? I don’t know what I should feel. What have I done to deserve this? What am I needed for? If I was a more religious man…” His voice trails off uncertain whether he should be sharing such spiritual reflections.
“Perhaps I’m getting nearer that way,” he continues after a moment. “But I don’t know how to be religious. I often ask myself what am I being kept for? Is it for a particular deed that needs doing? I don’t know what that is, yet, but I shall know when the time comes.”
Mayall is now back writing and performing full-time. In the past year he has completed another film Merlin 2000 The Return, been in constant demand for cartoon voiceovers, and become the convincing face of corporate arrogance in the Virgin Trains television advert.
He has no current plans to resurrect any of his former roles, although he concedes that he might one day make an exception for Alan B’Stard (“I lurved him”) and Kevin Turvey — the engagingly deluded, pizza-faced teenager from the Black Country who made his TV debut in the early Eighties. “He’s my Dad’s favourite. I’ve been thinking of doing him becoming religious and wearing a dog collar”.
He will doubtless continue to play characters like Richie Twat, rooted in timeless adolescence, for the rest of his career, but Mayall acknowledges that his near-death experience has made him grow-up in ways he is still only beginning to fully appreciate. And he’s not alone. “I feel maturer, stronger and happier. But the kids have matured, too. They went through almost as bad an experience as Barbara. Even Bonnie, who’s only four, has a saying if I lose a slipper or something: ‘Daddy. There’s no emergency we can’t handle.”