Deadlier Than the Mayall

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

Daily Mail, 20th September 2003

Rik Mayall cheated death after a quad bike accident put him in a coma for five days, but, as Michael Hellicar discovers, he still refuses to take life seriously.

One bulging eye is constantly watchful, while the other is swivelling away on a journey of it’s own. There is the expressive mouth- switching in an instant from sneery sarcastic schoolboy grin to manic leer and then to an innocent magical smile. The many mood swings of Rik Mayall are fascinating. Here he is, at age 45 going on 12, a naughty adolescent lurking inside him, his conversation peppered with underwear, body parts, and underwear. Then he becomes the student anarchist, anti-everything except Vanessa Redgrave, about whom he has written some extremely bad poetry which he recites with his r’s pronounced as w’s.

‘Vanessa Wedgwave, Vanessa Wedgwave,’ he begins and the rest doesn’t really matter because it’s lost in his own great gales of laughter. After that comes the more mature Rik Mayall. ‘I used to do wild things, like saying ‘let’s all put on ladies clothing and steal a bus.’ The instinct is still in my guts, but I’m more likely to think twice before I do it. I can be gloriously stupid, But if it helps to divert peoples attentions from the grimness of life, I’m happy. Clowning around is certainly my personal escape.’

Mayall knows all about life’s tribulations because, in April 1998, he stared death in the face. Or, as he puts it, ‘I would have done if I’d have been conscious.’ Riding his 600lb quad bike at his farm in Devon, it toppled over, pinning him to the ground. He was airlifted to hospital by helicopter, with head injuries so severe that at first the doctors said there was little chance that he’d survive.

‘My skull was fractured and my blood was haemorrhaging from two places in my brain. Blood was sloshing around inside, and, if there had been anymore swelling, that would have been it. Not that I knew that- I was in a coma for five days. Eventually I woke up and the doctor told me he would have to cut off the top of my head to relieve the pressure. I was terrified. Then an incredible thing happened- everything healed up just before I was due to have the operation. They couldn’t understand it because they had never seen anything like it before. Maybe I scared myself better.’

But Mayall’s bizarre behaviour pattern was giving everyone concern. ‘I couldn’t remember anything about the accident, couldn’t find the right words for anything and I couldn’t even talk to my wife, Barbara, about anything because I kept forgetting her name.’

‘I tried several times to escape from the hospital because I was convinced that there was a conspiracy to hold me prisoner against my will, and that, er… What’s her name? Oh, Barbara! Yes, Barbara was a victim too. The trouble was, I was always weird, so nobody really knew if this was the old Rik or a scary new one.’

The accident happened on the day before Good Friday. He says his children- Rosie nearly 17, Sid, 14, and Bonnie, 9, – have renamed that period ‘Cr*p Thursday and Worse Friday’.

‘Five minutes before the accident, Bonnie, who was only four at the time, and her little cousin were riding on the bike with me. I felt a spot of rain on my arm so I sent them indoors. Just imagine what might have happened….’ His voice trails off and the serious Rik stares at his hands. ‘Thank God they were safe. But I went through a bleak dark period. My brain wanted to do one thing, my body another. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t coordinate.

‘When I talked about the accident I called my bike a biscuit, I was so confused. When I wanted a pencil I kept asking for a lesbian and I got very frustrated because no-one could understand what I meant. Asparagus came out as Apririlla.’

Once, young Sid, found his father in the street, trying to sweep up blossom because he thought it looked untidy. The more he swept, the more fell from the trees, and he flew into a rage of frustration. Barbara led him away and put him to bed.

‘Now, he says, he’s recovered. ‘I have to say that incase somebody wants me to play Hamlet because, if casting directors think I’m still ill, I won’t get any work.’ Since the accident he has weaned himself back into films, television shows and stage shows, and next month he begins a tour version of his new cult Bottom show characters, Richie and Eddie, with his long-time working partner Ade Edmondson.

‘I can handle the pressure, but the truth is, I do get flashbacks. And there are after effects. I can hear colours. I can see noise. Shapes come at me. Not all the time, but I never know when it’s going to happen. I might be walking down the street and suddenly find I’ve touched another word. Something is playing around in my brain and I’m not scared of it, but, yes, I’m interested and I’d like to know more about it. It’s as if there is a hum behind everything I see; as if there is a wall around everything and beyond that there is a mysterious other world that I know is there.’

‘I reckon I had a near death experience with that accident, but look, the bottom line is that I’m not dead. It is tempting to try and scale the wall of this invisible parallel world but I won’t because I can’t. Anyway it’s best that I don’t even try.’ He adds, ‘ When that feeling comes on I sit down and wait for it to go away. I don’t know if it is controllable because I’ve never had to try, and anyway, it passes.

‘If anything, the whole experience has liberated my imagination, unleashed something that tells me anything is possible. I’m braver now, more creative. That’s got to be good hasn’t it? Anyway I take my medication and get on with the rest of my life.’

His comedians eye and ear for the absurdities of nature take over. ‘People ask me about the accident. I tell them all the terrible details- brain haemorrhages, fractured skull, coma, almost died and they mutter ‘oh dear that’s a shame.’ Then I tell them about weird things still going on inside my head and the medication I’m on and  it’s like, ‘Never mind old boy.’ Then I say I’m not allowed alcohol ever again and the reaction is, ‘Oh my God, Rik! You poor man. That’s terrible, how awful for you!’ Puts the whole thing into perspective doesn’t it?’

Although he emphasises that the bleak moments are rare, he says Ade Edmondson helps him to overcome them. ‘We have been friends ever since we were students at Manchester University. We know each other inside out and- although he’ll be embarrassed that I’m saying this and he’ll try to deflect it with a put down- he helped pull me through. Ade, Barbara and the kids. Ade wept when he saw me in a coma. I didn’t know he was there, but people told me afterwards. He’s a great softie, but he likes his psychotic hard-man image and he hates anyone knowing he’s a really good man.’

‘We are the raving mad characters in Bottom, me Richie Rich, him Eddie Hitler. They are our alter egos. On the last tour I forgot my lines and he showed me no mercy. “You’ve missed your cue,” he shouted. “You can’t remember the next bloody line can you?” The audience tensed up, expecting a row to break out on stage. Then he said, “Next time I’ll properly sabotage the brakes on your bike,” and that brought the house down. No rehearsal, it just came out.’

Although Rik and Edmondson worked together in a five-man group called Twentieth Century Coyote, and did a shoe called Death on the Toilet, their partnership really took off in their anarchic TV sitcom he The Young Ones in which they played students sharing a house. It ran for just two series and became cult viewing, with their characters later forming the basis of Bottom. ‘We set out to destroy show business in The Young Ones, but actually we were relieved when it finished.

‘All modesty aside, I knew we couldn’t improve on the episodes we had done and it was best to leave people wanting more. I was conscious of The Goodies, who were great when they started, almost as good when they carried on, not quite as good when they continued abd then it came to Stop! Now! Don’t spoil what you’ve done. But they did.’

He jokes that he and Ade have stayed together because they have different tastes in women. ‘His wife, Jennifer Saunders is a blonde-haired, blue-green eyed goddess. Barbara is a raven haired temptress. So no clash there then!’  He met Barbara when he was playing his character Kevin Turvey, the pizza-faced investigative reporter for a BBC Scotland show called A Kick Up The Eighties. ‘I was sitting in a corridor, waiting to be made up, when Barbara, who was a make-up artist, walked past me. I had never seen her before, didn’t have the faintest idea who she was, but I distinctively remember saying to myself, ‘Ah here she is at last.’ Can’t explain it.’

‘And when we started going out, there was a bit of awkwardness because I was with Lise Mayer (now Angus Deayton’s long- suffering girlfriend) at the time. Things got a bit complicated.’ In one of the messier episodes of Mayall’s life, both women became pregnant at the same time. Halfway through a TV awards dinner, Mayall told the unsuspecting Mayer he had to pop to the lavatory. Instead he took a taxi to Heathrow, where he was due to meet Barbara at the check-in desk for a flight to Barbados, where they married. (Mayer lost the baby and Barbara gave birth to Rosie.)

‘Barbara is an enormously wise, instinctive person. She is my wife and friend, and she has a great sense of humour, which is good because I’m mad.’ They live in a huge house in west London, which Rik has named Nintendo towers, because it was bought with the money he earned from the TV commercials he did for the computer games.

The family spend weekends and holidays at the scene of Rik’s accident, Pasture Farm, in East Allington. Devon. ‘The quad bike was a Christmas present from Barbara. Now it sits in the barn and I go in and look at it, and it looks at me. Maybe I’ll keep it or maybe I’ll do something spectacular with it, like setting fire to it and pushing it off a cliff. It’s a bit spooky really.’

‘Before the accident I had been living a schizoid existence, pretending to be a wild man when really I was Mr. Mortgage. Everyone thought I was taking on the establishment but the reality of my life was that I’d get up, play with the kids, make their school sandwiches and feed the cats. Then I’d go round to Ade’s house and write filthy juvenile jokes for a living.’

Now, he says, he’s more aware of his own morality and just thankful to have been able to pull back from the brink. ‘I looked over and I didn’t like what I saw. I don’t have a routine anymore because I appreciate life to much.

‘Ade and I used to scoff at the Rolling Stones for being sad, old men, drinking nothing but water, but it has caught up with us now. When we are on tour ­ and this is really sad- we choose hotels with a gym and a spa. One morning I went down to use the rowing machine and Ade was already on the step. I thought, ‘whatever happened to us? We used to be the guerrilla warriors of British comedy.’ Then I realised: I’m alive and it’s a whole lot better than being dead. At least, that’s what I will believe until I know for sure.’