An Arse Oddity
by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
Oxford Student, 8th November 2001
Alex Hemingway talks to Bottom star Rik Mayall
“Lets just cover the rules. I’m here because I adore you Alex, and you’re my favourite journalist ever… And secondly, I need to punt all the Oxford gigs.”
Rik Mayall is in good spirits. Touring the latest live incarnation of cult TV show Bottom, he is in Birmingham on date 31 of a 76-show tour. “I did the biggest fucking live gig I’ve ever played last night — there,” he shouts, waving his hands excitedly towards the National Indoor Arena. “4,500 people! And it was fab, really great.”
That we are having this conversation at all is something of a miracle. Three years ago he was nearly killed in a quad bike accident on his Devon farm. For four days his outlook was bleak, but in a twist even the most imaginative of scriptwriters wouldn’t have considered, he staged a miraculous recovery on Easter Monday; “My resurrection,” he adds. After an extended period of convalescence, and a brief stage appearance in Cambridge last year, he is back on the road for his first full tour since the accident. To the casual observer, he appears in rude health. “The only thing I have now is the occasional lapse of memory, but Adrian (Bottom co-star and comedy partner Edmonson) is such a merciless Nazi that whenever it happens on stage he just takes the piss.”
Raised in Worcester, he speaks fondly of his childhood. As the head of a drama department, it was his father that imbued his love of the stage; “I was on with Dad’s students in Brecht plays when I was about four. So yeah, I’ve always been in it and always loved it.” From there he made the move to Manchester for a degree in drama, though by his own admission he made a hash of his A-Levels and only made the course through clearing because “everyone fucked up their A-Levels in ’75.” With a cheeky glint in his eye he continues: “the admissions officer, David Mayer, was a very nice man… so I started shagging his daughter. Of course, I had to keep that quiet so I could get in.”
It was in late 1970’s Manchester that the various important strands of Rik’s early career came together. His flatmates and friends included Adrian Edmonson and Ben Elton, and girlfriend Lise Mayer with whom he would go on to co-write The Young Ones. “I didn’t so much cheat my way in, as just have a lot of luck, running into so many good people who were always on my side.” He continues, “A lot of student theatre at the time was bollocks; kind of Marxism for three year olds, so Lloyd Peters, a friend or mine, went into some pubs and eventually got us a residency at the Band on the Wall (a legendary Manchester music venue). It was unheard of… comedians with a fucking residency in a jazz club!” For these early shows, the writing process was suitably last minute; “We’d make it up on Monday, try and roughly write it on Tuesday and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday we’d improvise it on stage; stuff with great titles like King Ron And His Nubile daughter, Who Is Dick Treacle, and My Lungs Don’t Work. And we were making money, which was not the thing to do. The thing to do was sit down and think about Marx, but instead we just had a fucking good laugh, shagging everybody and making money. It was much more rock and roll.”
It was with My Lungs Don’t Work that they made the trip to London, putting on six shows that reputedly pulled a total audience of five. Importantly, one of them was a journalist. “He described me as a “talented little maniac”, which I liked.” Looting My Lungs Don’t Work for the best routines, they crossed town to a new comedy venue, the Comedy Store, and it was here that the next important player in the story came in, in the shape of producer and writer Peter Richardson. “Pete is a genius, and he was like “Hey, why don’t we start a club, our own club.” So we did.” Christened the Comic Strip, the club was the foundation stone of the Comic Strip Production Company which spawned, among other things, the long-running TV show ‘The Comic Strip Presents…’
The success of the club was buoyed by Rik’s first television appearance as Kevin Turvey. “I phoned up Alexei Sayle and said, “Are you going up for that telly thing next week?” And he said, “Rik! It’s fucking tomorrow!” I hadn’t written a fucking bean, I hadn’t written anything, so I was shitting myself, and I thought, well what am I going to do? I know, I’ll do it Brummy, and I’ll call him Kevin, and I know, I won’t write any material, I’ll just talk like he’s the most boring man in the world.” Incredibly, Rik was picked, and his subsequent television appearances brought the live audiences to the club in their droves. Throughout our conversation, Rik sees it important to correct me whenever I mention that there may ever have been a career ‘plan’. ‘There was never a plan. We were never into that, we were just kind of doing what we wanted to do… yeah, doing it for the craic, doing it for the fun.”
And so came the time to think of bigger things. “I was living with Lise at the time, and that’s when we thought, hey, we could all be on telly. It would be fantastic, we could all be living in the same house, and we could have two double acts: me and Ade; Peter and Nigel (Planer), and Alexei could be the fucking landlord! We could do whatever we wanted! So we wrote it, and sent it off, and they said yes…” And so, after a minor disagreement and the departure of Peter Richardson, The Young Ones was born. Charting the lives of four students with totally different outlooks on life, it achieved an almost instant cult following.
Significantly, The Young Ones galvanised the close bond between Rik and Ade that has been the hallmark of their careers over the past 20 years. The way that he talks fondly of Ade gives you some idea of the closeness of their relationship; “He’s a canny cunt, Edmonson… I want you to hear this students. Edmonson is a talentless fuckwipe, and just like a leech he attaches himself to geniuses like myself and Jennifer (Saunders, Ade’s wife). He has a very easy life — when he’s not on stage he’s just drinking.”
The Young Ones also provided the starting point for the character evolution that has brought them to the present day. “Rick and Viv are related to Richie and Eddie, they were there in Filthy, Rich and Catflap (a late-1980’s series that followed The Young Ones), and they both kind of existed before telly anyway… so they’ve always been there.” For the uninitiated, Richie and Eddie — AKA the Hammersmith Hardmen — could be best described as a pair of odious, violent, foul-mouthed freaks, whose sole pleasures in life are to hurt each other and to try (unsuccessfully) to get laid. Throw into this a heady mix of pathos, some outstanding character acting from Rik and Ade, and more than a generous helping of exquisitely executed violent slapstick. If you are still in need an analogy, think Morecambe and Wise on crack, and you’re probably halfway there. A large cult following was guaranteed.
For the Richie and Eddie fans, it was the move to the live arena that really sealed the success of Bottom, with three sold out tours to their name over the past 10 years. “They are great characters to pluck out and pop into new situations. And they grow as well. The first live show we did was all in the flat, the second one we started in the flat and then moved to the prison cell, and the third one was all on the island… Hooligans Island. Then we moved away to film, and we did the hotel in Guest House Paradiso. Unlike Benji (Ben Elton) or Alexei (Sayle), Ade was always uncomfortable with stand up comedy… We need sets, we need a plot, a story.” That doesn’t mean that improvisation is redundant in their humour; “One of the crew came up to me last night and said, “oh, I loved that bit,” and he told me this line that I’d shouted that I couldn’t even remember. I’m not there, it’s Richie that’s on stage, its improvised comedy… it’s very sharp…”
Bottom the TV series ran for four years, and, like most things that Rik and Ade have done, it split audiences and critics down the middle. He talks at length of the demise of the BBC, “it has shot itself in both feet”, and cites the dismantling of the special effects unit and the privatisation of the make-up department as two reasons why a return to the television studio is no longer something to look forward to; “It’s kind of daunting thinking how disappointed we’re going to be. I can imagine asking, “Can I have a house that I can walk into, and then it becomes tiny and I can eat it? Can I have that?” And the suits will be like; “No… but maybe we could do it on the computer.” Fuck off! The magic has gone! But then again, maybe we’re old men, from another time…”
The new show has the usual mix of slapstick, violence and crude humour. But with the addition of some very clever plot twists involving the set and the actual road crew, he describes it as “a new horizon in entertainment.” But how do they approach writing a show like that? “It’s very fecund. We’ll have one gag, and go from there. “I don’t want to hit you with a frying pan, because I just did that… why don’t I hit you with a chair then… oh no, I’ll tell you what – maybe it isn’t actually a chair – we could eat half the sofa so it looks like a chair… in which case we’ll have to stop the fight so that we can eat half the sofa. And then halfway through the fight he’s got to go to the toilet. Yeah, but the toilet has burnt down, because it’s been attacked by aliens. Yes, that’s more like it.” You see how it just sort of breeds…”
Whether their brand of humour is to your taste or not, it certainly pulls in the crowds. “It’s going great, the best yet… except for the heckling. Heckling is a very crap, unproductive thing to do, because some of the really crap members of the audience have started shouting really old fashioned heckles like “have a wank”, which I think is about 3 shows old. This one drunk wouldn’t shut up about it, so I invited him up on stage. I thought I’d put him on stage and then we’d both fuck off and leave him until the audience bottled him. So he comes up, this sad drunk, and he couldn’t get on stage…he couldn’t climb up, and the whole show had stopped and we were just watching this fat drunk man trying to get on stage. The audience were very complimentary on that after the show, asking who the actor that played him was, but he was just a real bloke. What I’m trying to say is… don’t heckle; it’s not even funny, it’s embarrassing to hear.”
So, does he have any advice for future audiences? “Oh yes. You can throw pants. Richie, in his supreme sex, has only had 5 pairs of pants thrown at him after 31 shows. And one of them was a blokes pair, amusingly soiled…” Oxford, you have been warned.