Bad politics – Rik Mayall in The New Statesman

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

By Tony Cooke for The Stage, 17th January 2007

Rik Mayall insists his latest project, playing the sleaze-ridden MP Alan  B’Stard from his eighties TV hit The New Statesman is not a telly spin-off but a  necessary damnation of the last ten years of British politics.

“Tricky one before we start. How do I present myself? Nice guy? Crazy mad  guy? Good bloke?” Rik Mayall’s opening words say a lot about him – he’s not an  easy actor to pin down.

In person, Mayall is genuinely very funny. He gets excited. He lays himself  bare. He mentions things he probably shouldn’t. He says ‘fuck’ a lot.

A few minutes in, any prepared questions are out the window and I’m running  to keep up. He doesn’t like to be contained.

“I don’t like authority. No, that’s not fucking hard enough,” he says with a  grin, “I don’t do law.”

He might be slipping in and out of screen personas but a glance down his  resume tells the same story. Mayall seems to have spent the last three decades  avoiding being pigeon-holed – three iconic sitcom characters, Hollywood actor,  Emmy Award-winning voiceover, TV leading man, stand-up comic, national stage  actor and writer.

“It’s difficult to talk about yourself without looking like you’re bigging  yourself up but I like the way that I don’t belong to any stream of  entertainment. I swore on all sorts of holy things that I would never repeat  myself.”

That could explain the pains he goes to defending his latest choice of  project to me. He’s brought Alan B’Stard, the sleaze-ridden MP from his eighties  TV hit The New Statesman, to London’s Trafalgar Studios. A move that could be  seen as selling out for the father of alternative comedy?

“I’m very keen that people don’t think this is a telly spin-off. It’s a play.  We are doing it on Whitehall, virtually next door to Tony Blair and Alan is  based in number nine Downing Street.

“Twice in my lifetime so far, this character has presented itself to me to  change the establishment of the British kingdom,” he adds, with a B’Stard slur. “I brought down Thatch for my people. And now I’m bringing down ‘Bleurgh’, for  my people who I love and love me.”

The original writers of the TV series Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran  persuaded Mayall to pick up the role again by showing him how their new play  moves B’Stard on. “It’s just a massive damnation of the last ten years of  British politics,” Mayall explains. “Alan can get older, because evil is a  permanent thing. Alan is who invented New Labour. He is now a very established  global figure. He’s having sex with Condoleezza Rice, he’s starting wars on the  mobile, things like that.”

Marks and Gran are also on hand to keep the script ultra-topical, something  Mayall relishes. “Oh fuck yes. It’s lovely. We had some stuff about Pinochet  leaving me various things in his will just after he died. It’s great.”

A successful regional tour in 2006 confirmed there was still a public hunger  for B’Stard but Mayall believes this London run is a whole new challenge. He  takes a big pause, then quietly starts explaining.

“I don’t want to sound pretentious. See, I’m always covering my arse. He  doesn’t like to be himself does he Rik, always hiding away,” he slams the table  and is back to boisterous again. “London is by far the hardest stage to play,  without doubt. I mean I’m the best at it and this is by far the best show  there’s ever been but it’s very challenging.

“The sense of humour in London always changes, just because there are so many  different people and so many visitors, you just don’t know who is there. You’ve  got to get out there and quickly find out who or what they are. It’s a very  sensual moment.”

Helping him feel his way with the London punters, Mayall is keen to  name-check his fellow cast members. In fact, he’s scarily insistent. “Helen  Baker is a fucking genius. Kamaal Hussein is a fucking genius. Garry Cooper,  Lysette Anthony and Alexandra Gunn are the same. I’m telling you I want this  printed.

“We all react and move with the audience, there haven’t been two plays the  same. It’s about genuinely entertaining those people. They’re not witnesses to  the play for someone else. You start with a room of 400 strangers and you end  with a seriously committed army,” he states, slamming the table once more.

Marks and Gran have known Mayall for 20 years and at the start of last year’s  regional tour Gran described to me what he thought made Mayall tick: “He is a  larger than life performer at his most comfortable, I think. If you asked him to  do The Vicar of Dibley it would come over as a big piece of acting. I’m not  saying he doesn’t do an absolutely perfect job but that’s what people like.”

Gran also explained why they’d chosen to write every line of The New  Statesman, instead of farming it out. “Rik wouldn’t allow it. He needs a very  close, trusting relationship. But after a while we realised it wasn’t the sort  of character or style of show that could easily be subcontracted.”

Mayall moves on to talk about his heroes and his influences are surprising – not so much actors but extreme performers. “I tell you who is one of my heroes;  Wilko Johnson, he was the guitarist from Dr Feelgood. I learned as much in the  seventies about performance from him as from anybody. His stage presence – an  absolute seizure of the audience. Power and terror.

“You’ve go to have balls to come to my theatre, because at the Trafalgar  Studios you are so near to Rik.” He leans right into the tape recorder: “Don’t  be frightened people.”

For someone with such a love of shock and anarchy on stage and screen, his  early upbringing seems rather reserved. Richard Michael Mayall was born in 1958  in Harlow, Essex, the second of four children and when he was three his family  moved to Droitwich, near Worcester.

His father taught drama at a college in Bromsgrove, his mother was also a  teacher and both were involved in local theatre groups. The young Rik was soon  performing, acting in shows at King’s School, Worcester, before going on to  study drama at Manchester University.

It was at Manchester in 1975 where he first met Adrian Edmondson and they  soon cemented their comedy partnership with the act 20th Century Coyote. Mayall  denies they were cocky enough to believe they were destined for success: “We  never looked at it that way, we just wanted to have a good time. We never said ‘Hey let’s get on television. Just imagine in 30 years we can both sit there in  the studio for Celebrity Abortion Sniffing looking like complete and utter  fucking wastes of oxygen’. No, it wasn’t like that.”

On graduating, Mayall showed the early signs of wanting a varied career,  landing a dramatic role touring the USA in The Comedy of Errors for the Oxford  and Cambridge Shakespeare Company. But by 1980, Mayall and Edmundson’s act had  been a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe and they made their debut at London’s Comedy  Store, as well as at the Comic Strip Club – comedy was making stars of them  both.

Mayall made his TV debut in 1981 as time-wasting investigative journalist  Kevin Turvey in sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties. A year later, along with his  then girlfriend Lisa Mayer and Ben Elton, he conceived and wrote a sitcom to  bring together several characters he knew from the alternative comedy circuit.  In late 1982, The Young Ones united Mayall and Edmondson with Nigel Planer and  Christopher Ryan, in a flatshare from hell. Its unpredictable, fantastically  infantile, violent style shook British TV comedy to the core.

By the mid-eighties, Mayall had such popularity, even the National Theatre  came knocking. He did eventually appear in The Government Inspector in 1985 but  he flatly turned down the first play they offered, feeling it wasn’t right. “I  feel proud to have turned that down. I wish I could remember what it was. Let’s  say Hamlet. Yeah, I turned down Hamlet. Well who fucking wouldn’t? I mean how  many gags are there in that?”

Mayall and Edmondson followed up The Young Ones with the unfairly panned  Filthy, Rich and Catflap in 1987, before finding their feet again with Bottom in  1991. Reflecting on these series now, Mayall says they’re feeling dated. “The  Young Ones, or Richie, or any characters like that, they have been of their  period,” he adds.

He won’t deny that Bottom’s characters Richie and Eddie could happily return  as pervy old men but for now the phenomenally successful decade of Bottom Live  shows has come to an end and Mayall still seems to miss it. “We didn’t suffer  from any delay with Bottom Live. You wrote the script and you didn’t have to  wait for someone to approve it, cross out some of your jokes and ask for other  lines.”

As well as B’Stard and Bottom, Mayall has worked the last two decades with  his trademark scatter-gun approach. A burst of films, including Drop Dead Fred,  Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis and Carry on Columbus. Scene-stealing turns as  Flashheart in the Blackadder series. Narrating children’s show Jellikins.  Playing King Herod on a DVD production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Voicing  several animated characters to international acclaim.

Perhaps most critically celebrated was his run of six single ITV plays in the  mid-nineties under the banner Rik Mayall Presents… The series bagged him a  British Comedy Award nomination for Best Actor in 1993.

However, the most coverage surrounding him in the press in recent years was  not for his work at all. “You probably know that I’ve met God, in 1998. God and  I are like that,” he says, referring to his near-fatal quad bike accident at his  Devon farm in front of his wife Barbara and three children. “Jesus was only dead  for three days. Two thousand years later, I was technically dead for five.”

With that experience now overcome, Mayall is approaching 50 with what seems  the same energy as ever, just less places than he’d like to use it. “Telly’s  been very peculiar to me in the last few years. My agent will be cross with me  if I say I wish I got more of a variety of scripts offered, because that’s the  sort of thing one doesn’t say. I mean, I’m not desperate to appear on Casualty,  I can live without that.”

Later he retracts the Casualty comment, after all Edmondson has been a Holby  City regular since 2005. But you could hardly blame Mayall for having the desire  to do something more challenging. “I don’t think telly is as exploratory or  brave as it was,” he states. “I watched Steptoe and Son the other night.  Fantastically acted, it was much more theatrically shot in those days and they  were playing a studio audience all the time.”

He also isn’t about to jump on the celebrity reality TV or panel show  circuits. “No! I do get offered them. Well I presume I get offered them. I  probably said no emphatically a few years ago. I don’t really appear as  myself.”

I start to ask what he would like to do next and suddenly he’s again less  self-assured. “What do you think I should do next?” he interrupts. When I  suggest a series of single plays such as Rik Mayall Presents are lacking from TV  at the moment, he nods in agreement. “It’s me, that’s what’s lacking on TV at  the moment.,” he laughs. “No but I appreciate that, thank you. Well let’s do  that then. You write the fucking thing and we’ll just come in and destroy BBC2,  or something like that.”

His appetite for shaking the establishment to the ground hasn’t waned, then,  but the question is, beyond B’Stard, whether he can find a new role big enough  to do it.

“I have just received the script for a lesbian vampire movie,” he adds with  another B’Stard leer. “I’ve not said yes to it yet, so I’m not going to name the  part but I was like, yeah! Be paid to go all the way to Hungary to watch all  that. Come on!”