Rik Does it Coward’s Way

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

BBC.co.uk, February 2003

Katy Lewis just about managed to suppress her helpless giggles enough to ask Rik Mayall about his latest role in Present Laughter(at the Wycombe Swan this week) and why he’ll take theatre over TV anytime.

I answered my phone with my usual office greeting. It was Rik Mayall.

“Ahh Haaa Beds, Herts and Bucks. That just about sums me up” he replied. “I like bedding girls, stealing their hearts and getting lots of bucks – and by that I mean cash – not male deer!” he explained in a tone that was pure Captain Flashheart!

And this just about set the tone for the whole interview. Him simply oozing charm and innuendo and me giggling like a demented hyena. Rik as ‘Rik’ in The Young Ones– a typical pose!

Ever since I was casually flicking channels in 1983, and came across Rik Mayall being beaten around the head with a cricket bat by Alexi Sayle in The Young Ones, he had been a man who could be doing something as mundane as making a cup of tea and I would be helpless with laughter.

I never dreamed that they same thing would happen during an interview but he is so genuinely funny (OK – I confess I’m a bit of a fan!) that I couldn’t help myself. But despite losing my drift on a number of occasions, I managed to pull myself together enough to ask him about his latest role as Garry Essendine in Coward’s Present Laughter.

Coward admitted that he wrote this comedy as a vehicle for his own talent, with a lead role in Garry Essendine that was very close to the autobiographical. Rik now stars as the charismatic charmer, and as the conversation continues it becomes obvious that the part is just made for him. With a mixture of wit and charm, he puts you under his spell immediately.

The character of Essendine is described as “an egotistical charmer fearing the onset of middle age” which just begs the question, “Is Garry like Rik Mayall?”

“I’ve been playing it for two weeks now and it’s me” says Rik. “In fact, when I read the script I thought this is uncanny, I AM Garry Essendine. A man in his early 40s, he thinks he’s funny, good looking and very horny!”

“It’s also alluded to in the script that young boys like him so he’s a bit of a gay icon as well” he adds.

‘So there’s something for everyone then’ I ventured. “Yes – come and get it Beds, Herts and Bucks” he responded, effortlessly slipping into Flashheart again.

“It’s also a snogathon” he continues, “I’m actually snogging for cash” he laughs. For some reason I attempt a joke and say that I tried that once too. There’s just something about this man that draws out the comedian (however weak) in you, or maybe I was just flirting. “Were you a kissogram then?” he fires back.

Dragging myself back to the job in hand, I try to find out where his latest character sits in comparison to some of his other roles. In a theatrical career lasting well over 20 years, Rik Mayall is famed for playing characters that are loud, brash and often quite violent, not exactly Cowardesque. So while Rik Mayall is like Garry, is Essendine like any of the other characters that he is famous for.

“The character is about self obsession, using other people and being very horny” he says (I get the feeling that the ‘horny’ bit is important!). “In that way he is probably closest to Richie Rich in Filthy Rich and Catflap” he adds. “Whereas the Young Ones was about destroying rock and roll, that [Filthy Rich and Catflap] was about destroying fame and love and sex” he says.

In this way he introduces the whole theme of the play and reveals that last year he left a TV series that dealt with the same topic, but just didn’t compare.

“Last year I did a couple of weeks of rehearsals for Celeb” he says, talking about the comedy starring Harry Enfield and Amanda Holden, “but I gave it up because the scripts weren’t up to it. That was supposed to be about the nature of fame, about being famous and abusing your fans and Present Laughter is too, it’s just better.”

He is also keen to highlight the glamour and style of the production that is set in 1937. “Girls will love it” he says, “and the more discerning men. It’s very stylish. The costumes are wonderful. The girls wear absolutely beautiful dresses.”

“I don’t though” he reveals. “But I wear a beautiful dressing gown. I’m very sexy in my pyjamas” he continues suggestively. “Yes, just wait until you see me in my jim jams pulled up to my nipples!” Already I can’t wait.

Almost off the topic again, I continue to ask about the play. Coward was seen as the 20th century’s supreme wit, and while his work may be surrounded with comic frills, he was as serious a dramatist as any this country has known.

Present Laughter has a serious side too and there are darker elements within it. Set in the late 30s there are hints towards the threat of an imminent war, which makes it only too relevant to today’s audiences. But Rik feels that it will also appeal to a modern audience because of its humour.

“It is just very, very funny” he says. Coward was a witty verbal writer and this play is full of fantastic one liners.”

Ever the master of the bon mot, Rik knows the importance of a live audience for comedy. Even when filming a television series, it is something he insists on.

“It’s the nature of the performer that I am” he explains. “I’ve always had live audiences” citing The Young Ones, Bottom and Filthy Rich and Catflapto name but a few.

“When you are doing a film there’s a lot of cutting up – and waiting! You spend a lot of time waiting to walk round a corner and say one line.”

“With an audience it’s NOW, there are no editors around. It’s just me and the audience and it’s what I like best. You perform for a different audience each night. People who don’t understand just think that you go out there every night and do the same thing but you don’t – you have to find out who they are and give it to them.”

‘A bit like life’ – I volunteer, instantly realising that I have given him another excuse for more innuendo! “Yes” he says, “the theatre is very sexual. After all, you end up panting, covered in sweat and bending over at the end. That’s the bowing” he explains quickly.

“People have been throwing pants at me too” he says proudly, as I make a mental note to pack my best smalls in my handbag for my visit to the Swan!

I ask if he will answer a few questions about himself. “12 inches” he says. The man is incorrigible!

Normally when I ask performers if they prefer theatre or TV, they reply with something suitably vague along the lines of them being ‘different but it’s good to do both because everything’s a challenge’. Rik however, is much clearer on that point. He loves the theatre.

“I prefer theatre. It’s always been live theatre” he says. But does he think that being so very well known for certain key roles is a help or a hindrance when promoting a run in a play such as this?

“Well, those who know Rik, those who grew up with Rik in The Young Ones want to see what Rik is doing next. It’s like waiting for your favourite band to bring out a new song. If you liked Jumping Jack Flash it doesn’t mean you won’t like Gimme Shelter.”

And in this way, Rik is perfectly placed to encourage people to do something that they might not have done before – go to the theatre!

“It’s an aesthetic campaign of mine” he reveals. “TV is so bad these days. It’s patronising, slight and badly thought out. There’s no good comedy.”

“But if you go to the theatre – well, people don’t realise what fun you can have. You can go with a group of friends and have a great time. Whereas if you go to the cinema, it’s very insular, there’s no intercourse.”

It takes him back to what he really loves about the theatre, being able to connect with your audience, whereas a film is always the same film, it stays the same whoever the audience are.

“Yes” he says, “in the theatre they [the audience] are being entertained, you can adapt to what they want and play certain aspects up.”

So, in a career that has spanned TV, theatre and film, what is he most proud of? Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t go for a specific project. “Survival” he replies without hesitation. “Plus being honest, not compromising, not surrendering, being true to myself. And if I want something I go out and try to get it.”

And what’s been the most fun? Again, he doesn’t have to think. “Performing – and shagging…” he says.

Of course it hasn’t all been laughs. In 1998 he had a quad biking accident which nearly killed him and which left him in a coma. A result of this is that he now has to take epilepsy pills, which means he can’t drink anymore. The thought is horrifying, how does he cope? “Well it’s not a matter of coping, I just can’t or I’ll collapse.”

So does he see life differently since he stopped drinking?

“Yes – it’s a lot less blurred” he replies, quick as a flash. See I’m even feeding him lines now. Rik – if you ever fall out with Ade – give me another call!