For This Is Brighton And Hove, 29th November 2000
The (slighlty less) young one Rik was alarmed when he suddenly realised he could not tell the difference between colours but was horrified to discover the crash would mean he could never drink again. ‘That’s when you know it’s serious’ Rik Mayall’s near-death experience after crashing his quad bike had some serious repercussions for the popular comic as Jakki Phillips discovered.
Rik Mayall smokes deeply, nods gently and makes sympathetic noises as I tell my story.
I was 13 years old when I suffered a serious head injury after roller skating backwards into a tree.
I don’t remember the accident but my friends tell me the impact of the collision snapped a branch and left me unconscious on the pavement in a pool of blood and twigs.
What I do remember is waking up in Plymouth’s Derriford hospital and not being able to say my own name.
Then I remember a massive pain racing between my temples, hours of vomiting, double vision and a nasty dent in my head.
After a week in hospital I was released with my brain, memory, vision and spirit intact.
My parents banned me from skating for a month but after that I was back down the local rink with the rest of my roller hockey chums.
When I finish Mayall hands me a cigarette, lights it and stares probingly into my eyes.
I want him to talk about the quad biking accident which nearly killed him two years ago. After reading press cuttings from the time I discovered he lives in Devon, near my parents, and was also taken to Derriford hospital after the crash.
I am working on a philosophy of shared experience. We both banged our heads in the pursuit of adventure, both spent time in Derriford hospital and now we’re both sitting in a London theatre, Mayall promoting his new play A Family Affair which comes to Brighton on December 4, and me gathering information about his life, career and near-death experience.
He leans forward and whispers, “After the accident, did you ever suffer ….?”
“A fit,” I answer and shake my head. “No, thankfully I didn’t.”
“I’vvvvve gggggt epppillllepppsy, he slurs in true Bottomesque fashion, lolling his head from side to side and rolling his eyes, “but I rarely admit it.”
Now he’s pure Young Ones. “Because those bloody film and theatre producer people won’t bloody like it”, he says running his fingers through his slick-back hair and tapping his feet maniacally.
I take a drag on my cigarette and look for an ash tray.
“Where should I flick my ash?” I ask.
“Any old where, I don’t care, cause I’m Rik Mayall and it’s you who is going get in trouble” he says with a wink and a rat-like sneer.
From deep and meaningful we’ve leapt into a minefield of naughtiness. It’s almost as though I ask a question and Rik selects the appropriate character to answer for him; Rik from The Young Ones, Ritchie from Bottom, Kevin Turvey or the mischievous Drop Dead Fred.
It seems Rik is as much a product of his characters, as his characters are a product of him.
His career parades itself in his personality and you can’t help but be charmed by his snotty schoolboy humour, his playful arrogance and his “is that a canoe in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me” type charm.
Rik knocks back his second double espresso and leans forward as though addressing his secret gang. (Actually it’s just me and a photographer but I guess we’ll do).
“I take epilepsy pills but the p***er is, they’re counter acted by alcohol.”
Right on cue we gasp at the thought of life without booze.
“And that is when peoples’ faces really go white,” he says tapping his ash in our direction as though punctuating our guilt.
“People say yeh, you fell off your quad bike, yeh unconscious for five days, yeh nearly dead, and now you can’t drink …you can’t drink!”.
As Mayall laughs his blue eyes dart about like hyperactive roulette ball, one a little slower than the other.
When they settle in their sockets he strokes back a lose hair, reclines in his chair, arms folded, foot hoisted up on his knee and says “So you went back to roller hockey then? I haven’t been back on the quad bike yet, but I haven’t decided what to do with it.
“It’s just sitting in my barn. I go in, look at it and it looks at me. I haven’t even touched it. Perhaps I’ll just set it on fire, or push it over a cliff, something big and glamorous.”
Mayall talks about his accident with poetic and often humourous honesty but the experience is obviously still, fresh, vivid and frighteningly real for the 41-year-old father of three.
“I had been working with Stephen Fry on a film for television. I came back home for the Easter Holidays to see my wife Barbra and the kids. When I arrived Barbra was busy working so I went out on my quad bike.
“My little daughter Bonnie, who was two at the time, and her cousin Red, had followed me out to the shed and they were asking for a ride. I said no, it’s too dangerous but she was going ‘pleeeeeease daddy’, so I said all right and put them both on the petrol tank and off we went. But as I drove out of the shed, I felt rain on my arm. I thought, ‘come on Rik this is too dangerous’, so, thank God, I lifted them off and told Sid, my son, to take them inside. If I hadn’t they’d be dead now.”
With his children safely inside Mayall started his first lap of their property, which used to be a cattle farm and is mostly grass except for one small concrete path.
“It’s unbelievable that with miles of grass I had to fall off on the concrete. Just unbelievable,” he sighs.
“Barbie told me she looked out the window and saw me lying on my back, in the rain, with the quad bike upside down and said to herself ‘yeh yeh very funny Rik’, and went back to work. Then five minutes later she looked out and thought ‘Oh God, he’s still doing it, I better go out and pretend I’m surprised’ and thank God she did. When she found me there was dark blood oozing from my nose, mouth, ears and eyes. That was Thursday, what my family now call Crap Thursday, because it was the day before Good Friday. I was supposed to die on Sunday, interestingly, that was Easter Day. It sounds as if I’ve romanticised this story, but it’s true. On the Sunday the doctors changed their minds and told my wife that I may wake up.”
Rik eventually regained consciousness on the Monday.
“Now when you’re a boy, and you wake up in the morning, the first thing you do is check your nob. So my first memory is this I remember opening my eyes and thinking, f***, how drunk was I last night. Where the hell am I?
So I check my nob and there was this tube coming out of it, and I thought what the f***, I can’t even remember the party. Christ what’s that in my nob. So I thought right, I’m getting this out. So I pulled at the tube, but just as I was about to rip my nob off, (don’t worry, don’t worry fans),” he sniggers, “four birds in nurses uniforms jumped on the bed, and started shoving the tube back in my nob and I thought, ‘hoorah, the party’s not over yet baby. Lets rock ‘n’ roll!”
Rik is exhaustingly fidgety. He is in and out of his seat, pulling faces, flinging his limbs about like a master storyteller, and throughout he thrives on making us laugh.
“But then,” he bursts out with a big chuckle, “it transpired my wife was there as well and I thought, ‘what sort of party is this?’ But then things started getting really weird and I realised it was a proper hospital and that there must have been an accident.”
Doctors later told Rik that three fifths of his brain had been swamped by blood and were unable to function.
“The brain is like a spaghetti of roots, and motorways, which are attached to each other, a jungle if you like. I had to re-route all my thoughts cause those motorways were blocked. My brain was trying to think but really odd things were happening. I could hear colour, see smells, but I couldn’t communicate any of this because my memory of words had gone.”
During the next month, Rik’s condition steadily improved and he was eventually moved to a London hospital for further tests.
“I remember going for a walk with my son Sid. I thought I was a lot better but when we got outside the hospital I remember standing in the street looking at all these blossom trees and suddenly I had this urge to get each piece of blossom, every petal, and put it under the correct tree.
“The road was full of blossom trees and cars were driving past and beeping at me. I was shouting, ‘f*** off’, because I was getting angry.
Each time I put a piece of blossom under a tree it would blow away.
“I knew my head wasn’t quite right and after more tests the doctor told me the blood in my head wasn’t going.
Apparently the body is supposed to ingest the blood and then you poo it out, but in my case, that wasn’t happening.”
To this day Rik is convinced that his doctor helped save his life by “scaring” the blood from his brain.
“It had been seven weeks and the blood was still there. My doctor called me to his office, and I think this was some sort of technique, but he put his hands on my head and said ‘if the blood has not gone in two days, I’m going to take the top of your head off, from here to here (Rik runs his finger from temple to temple).
“We’ll go inside your head, take the blood out and then sow you up’. As you can imagine, I f***ing s**t myself but I pretended to be calm and went along with it saying, ‘yeh, seems like a good idea to me’, and then I went home and went ‘Arrrrrrggggghhhhhhh’.
“But there was nothing I could do so I waited two days, tick tick tick, and finally the time came. I went back to the hospital and they put me back in the head scanning machine with all these f***ing cameras going round my head and I was thinking, ‘Oh f*** he’s working out where every single bit of blood is and then he’s going to open my head and take it out and it’s going to leave me with serious brain damage and I’m going to die. . . f***’
“After the scan I waited hours then he called me into his office and said ‘I don’t get this Rik. The blood has just completely gone.’ I wonder sometimes if it was his last card, as though he thought I’ll scare the blood out and it obviously worked.
“If you say to the brain, ‘Look, if you don’t get rid of that blood in two days I’m going to rip you to pieces’, your brain thinks, ‘Right we’d better get rid of this blood then’. But I had just spent weeks learning to use certain parts of my brain and then suddenly the blood had gone, my brain was clean and open and it was like wooooo.
“So I got really confused again, but anyway it’s a happy story and I’m supposed to be talking about the play.”
Rik returned to the stage for the first time since his accident on October 16 in the UK premiere of Family Affair by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri.
“If I wasn’t ready I wouldn’t go back. The real reason I’m going back to theatre work is cause I want to, because there is nothing I enjoy better than working in front of an audience. I’m not in it for the cash. It’s not like I’m going to Hollywood, with my hat on backwards and my gun held sideways, for millions of pounds. We’re doing some proper f***ing theatre here. Real stuff, grrrrrrrrrrr, I’m hungry. I want to do it.”
Rik Mayall stars in the subtle, amusing and observant comedy, based on the French play and film Un Air De Famille, alongside Anne Reid, who recently appeared in Dinnerladies, Stephen Pacey and Susan Wooldridge. A Family Affair opens at the Theatre Royal on December 4 and runs until December 9.