Rik Mayall: Return of a Political Animal

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

The Independant, 26th March 2006

The unspeakable Tory MP Alan B’Stard has crossed the floor of the House and joined New Labour. As Rik Mayall prepares to take his (and Marks and Gran’s) creation on a four-month national theatre tour, Julian Hall meets the comedian who hopes to assist in the removal of Tony Blair from 10 Downing Street

Seven years ago I stood in the same small function room at The Dorchester Hotel as Margaret and Dennis Thatcher, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and what seemed like most of the Government of my youth. Today I’m in a slightly smaller room above the Duke of York’s Theatre with Rik Mayall, an icon of my youth who mercilessly and grotesquely parodied that very same government. As on the first occasion, I am suitably amused.

“Alan B’Stard is a national treasure because he always comes to the nation’s health when the nation needs cleansing. Alan B’Stard got rid of Margaret Thatcher and will get rid of Tony Blair,” Mayall announces grandly, trumpeting his imminent stage portrayal of the character he played nearly 20 years ago on television.

The lascivious, scheming, immoral Tory MP created by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran in the ITV sitcom The New Statesman is clearly dear to the heart of the 48-year-old Essex-born, Worcester-bred comedian. When he speaks he switches between his own persona and that of Alan B’Stard’s almost without you noticing. We are also occasionally visited by The Young Ones’Rik, but all this occurs without Mayall appearing as erratic as he has in other interviews – particularly ones published within a few years of his near-fatal accident in 1998.

“Alan loves Tony, of course, he loves everything he does,” Mayall continues. “Was it yesterday, yes it was, when Tony arranged it that nice middle-class children didn’t have to go to school with the working-class children any more so they won’t get rickets? That’s what Tony wants, thank God.”

B’Stard hit our screens when Margaret Thatcher was beginning to look ever more like her Spitting Image puppet. Now, B’Stard’s opportunistic re-invention in The New Statesman – Episode 2006: The Blair B’Stard Project, inevitably as a New Labour MP, comes during the current prime minister’s twilight years, wounded by loss of public trust over Iraq, pursuing ever more right-wing policies and, a bit like Mayall, looking greyer than he once was.

“Alan has always known the correct way that society should be,” Mayall continues. “I won’t go as far as to say the master race, but I think you know what I am talking about – it’s what Margaret always knew, it’s what Tony has known… I’ve gone off on one there but this is why it’s so fantastic…”

One of the reasons that Mayall so relishes re-inventing the role is that The New Statesman generated rich material that directly made fun of ministers then in power. This contrasts with what he believes is the current climate of fear: “There’s very little opposition to Tony [Blair] on telly now, there’s so much censorship. Everyone’s very scared, it’s very litigious these days – people are told not to say things. I had a slightly rough time with Laurence [Marks] and Maurice [Gran] when we were doing Believe Nothing[their ITV sitcom of 2002] – they kept cutting lines.” I ask Mayall why he thinks such a cautious climate prevails: “I ought to be groovy and be able to say the enemy is this and the enemy is that… but I’ve never been very good at … I don’t want to have to answer questions I don’t know the answer to properly. I have an opinion.”

He is nevertheless undeterred by this inexplicably censorious climate, and has enjoyed the shocked reaction of actors auditioning for parts in the play to lines that he presumably thinks might not have been permitted on television. (The stage version, The New Statesman – Episode 2006, is also scripted by Marks and Gran.) Though perhaps reticent on the current political climate, he is not shy about admonishing the state of television, which he describes as “dull”, “restrictive”, awash with “the ordinaries” (by which he means reality-TV shows). Television is, he believes, ultimately a “20th-century art form”, with theatre stepping into the breach for the 21st century. However, with a trademark Terry Thomas twinkle, he adds that he is currently available for TV work, eager to add to a canon that has included superb cameos in Blackadder and his own Rik Mayall Presents…series, which saw stellar casts including Helena Bonham Carter and Saffron Burrows.

The experience of theatre holds great allure for Mayall who has never lost touch with his live roots since coming onto the alternative comedy scene in the late Seventies. This four-month tour will feel more akin to Mayall’s West End forays (a poster for one of them, Common Pursuitby Simon Gray at the Phoenix Theatre in 1988, adorns the wall behind him) than his rock-venue outings with Ben Elton in the Eighties or with long-term double-act partner Ade Edmondson. “With 1,000-seater venues, rather than 5,000-seaters, there are richer opportunities for sucking the audience in.” That said Mayall can’t resist some nostalgia for the rock ‘n’ roll years; “Many people know what it is like to get 5,000 people laughing – it’s better than sex, a deeply sensual experience when you are intellectually and emotionally that open, having intercourse with the audience, moving with them in a kind of dance.”

Mayall’s working partner for the best part of 30 years has been Ade Edmondson. Inevitably, after Edmondson suddenly announced that tours of Bottom, the live spin-off of their knockabout BBC2 sitcom, would cease in 2004, people have asked whether and when they will collaborate again. It’s only a matter of time: “Yes, me and Ade love each other; yes, we’re going to work together. We match each other, I still maintain it is like a marriage – I’m one half and he’s the other, I’m the feed line and he’s the punchline, a rhythm that works beautifully together.”

Throughout their careers, the duo have been locked into what seems like an eternal run of Waiting for Godot(indeed, they attempted Beckett’s most famous play on the West End in 1991), and their signature act of vaudevillian violence has pleased crowds at the same time as drawing criticism of puerility. However, according to an apocryphal quote attributed to Edmondson, the characters they both play are always the same, it’s just the setting that changes. When I mention the quote to Mayall and ask him if he feels it is representative, he’s keen to shrug it off: “It’s very difficult… How do I have a debate about something so artistically important in public rather than in a sealed room with Adrian? It’s like if you’ve got Picasso slagging off Chagall because he always uses the same colour. Would Stan say that about Ollie?”

Mayall, enthusiastic and expansive throughout the interview, expresses caution on occasion. Each one of these moments is about how his spoken word will look on the page. He is careful in his answer to my question about how he felt that his life changed after his quad-bike accident in 1998. “It’s difficult for me, to look into eyes of a journalist and trust him to present it as you say. Words on the page don’t have the same impact as somebody saying the words to you.”

This is interesting because it echoes my thoughts about his recent autobiography, which comes out in paperback next month. Though it is by and large entertaining, I’m with those who believe that Mayall’s stylised story, the deliberately immodest Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ, is a good example of how words on a page and spoken words are different beasts; the book is something you would want to hear rather than read.

When Mayall does summon the words to encapsulate the new lease of life he felt after surviving a brain haemorrhage and five days in a coma he elaborates: “I’m wary of looking pretentious and arty and soft and gentle and stuff like that, but I was a very happy man before that happened and I’m a happier man now. All I’ve got to complain about is that I can’t drink [he is on anti-epilepsy medication], but if you look at it the correct way, I haven’t had a hangover now for about eight years.”

Now in the flow, Mayall becomes quite effusive and almost falls into the trap that he was hoping to avoid: “Because I’m loved more by the Almighty God than anyone else on this planet, bless him, for various reasons I don’t know… I couldn’t claim to be a vain person, but is one of the reasons the Lord put me back on Earth the fact that the first night of the tour is exactly eight years to the day that I came back? Is this the reason God put me back, and what is the significance of the number eight that’s what I’d really like to know!”

At the end of his musing about the number eight, I think I can hear the sound of his tongue coming out of his cheek. But when I remind him of John Lennon’s obsession with the number nine we both, for a moment, ponder the plausibility of fate by numbers.

After the initial caution, this recollection of difficult times prompts Mayall to dig a little deeper: “I loved what The Young Ones did, Kevin Turvey… The Comic Striphadn’t quite kicked off. It was somewhere around ’84, before Barbara and I met and got married, there was a period then when I was thinking, ‘Is that it then? Have I had my fun? Have I had my fame, glamour and all that, have I had it?'”

It was The Young Onesproducer and alternative comedy’s representative at the BBC, Paul Jackson (now director of entertainment and comedy at the BBC) who inadvertently came to the jaded comic’s rescue by taking him to a TV festival where he met Marks and Gran. There they bonded over political persuasion and the desire to write and perform a show about someone who was, well, a complete B’Stard.

It wasn’t the only wobble. Later in the Eighties, after poor reviews for the sitcom Filthy, Rich and Catflap, in which he performed and Ben Elton wrote, he contemplated leaving showbusiness behind him and becoming a teacher, following in his parents’ footsteps. Luckily, The New Statesmanstarted later in the same year, 1987, and spawned a monster. Alan B’Stard’s oily charm proved to be enduring, providing Mayall with what he calls a new “canvas” to paint upon.

The painting analogies have punctuated the interview at regular intervals and Mayall decides to bring proceedings to a close with a final brush stroke, hinting at his future intentions and covering over past problems: “I’m not the sort of man who is going to retire, this is my art form. I’ll keep on going till the day I die; like a painter, as long as I can hold a paint brush, I can’t see any other way of being.”

No matter how many colours he uses there’s no reason to doubt him.