Rik Mayall: Rik’s Heart of Darkness

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

The Independant, 28th February 2005

He’s back, but this time it’s serious. Rik Mayall tells James Rampton why he’s glad not to be laughing

Rik Mayall has made a career out of the sort of violent antics that would not look out of place in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Over the past three decades, in shows such as The Young Ones, Filthy, Rich and Catflap and, of course, Bottom, he and his long-term comedy partner Adrian Edmondson have knocked seven bells out of each other. Once, after a live show in Liverpool, both of them ended up in casualty.

In person, Mayall is a manic ball of energy. He is always on. “I like applause more than most,” he grins. “I love accepting pants being thrown at me!” Even though he has flu, Mayall still exudes a Tigger-ish enthusiasm for life. He is able to sit down in his armchair for only a moment before leaping up to act out another story.

He starts by explaining why, in his act, he has always shown such relish for mindless violence. “Why is it so fascinating?” Mayall asks. “Because it’s a great equaliser; it’s a challenge to authority. It’s that attitude of, ‘Yeah, they can give you parking-tickets, but they can’t stop you setting fire to the traffic warden!'” On stage, Mayall throws himself into acts of wanton violence with gleeful abandon – as soon as a large frying-pan appears in Bottom, you know full well what it’s going to be used for.

Looking trim in a black T-shirt and trousers, Mayall argues that his and Edmondson’s slapstick assaults are “everything everyone has always wanted to do to other people. Our stage characters are acting out the way we’d all like to behave, if only we were allowed to.”

So, Mayall seems the perfect choice to front Violent Nation. The series, which begins on the Discovery Channel on 6 March, charts the history of violence in Britain. In one instalment, Mayall explores the ways the state has exploited brutality to suppress its citizens. He revels, for instance, in the details of 16th-century instruments of torture such as the boot. This dastardly metal contraption was strapped to the feet of alleged miscreants. If they refused to confess to a crime, the boot would be boiled until flesh started dropping off the feet. Yuk!

Mayall recalls what drew him to this “smorgasbord of the history of British violence”. “When Discovery first asked me, I initially said, ‘No, I’ll look like an intellectual or a has-been or, worse still, both at the same time!’ Then they said, ‘Go on – it’s about violence’, and I replied, ‘OK, you know my penchant!’ But the biggest incentive was that they didn’t want me to be funny. They said, ‘We just want you to tell us stuff.’ The idea of not having to be funny really attracted me. This shows another side to me. It sounds a horrible thing to say, but it gives me the freedom to be more grown-up. It’s important to emphasise that this is not a comedy show. I just like telling stories.”

He goes on to give an example, recounting it with lip-smacking enjoyment. “In Anglo-Saxon times, the only way to settle a dispute was through a ‘blood feud’. This meant that if you were related to a murder victim, it was your duty to go and kill the murderer. But then you became a murderer, and the killing went on ad infinitum. You can see why I was attracted to this subject matter – it’s so absurd and surreal!”

Evidently, life is sweet for Mayall, but it was not ever thus. In 1998, he suffered life-threatening injuries when he fell off his quad bike at his home in Devon. He suffered a brain haemorrhage and a fractured skull. He lay in a coma for a week, and doctors rated his chances of completely recovering at only 50 per cent.

Now, of course, he is in rude health – “rude” being the operative word. But Mayall readily acknowledges that he has been changed fundamentally by the accident – not least because he is no longer allowed to drink alcohol. “Your twenties are when you go outraging. It was nice of God to smack me when I was 40 and say, ‘That’s enough being young; no more outraging.’

“I am aware that I’ve got another chance, so I value stuff more. I could have been dead, but someone up there said, ‘OK, you can have an extension.’ It’s like being allowed to stay in the pub after hours! Before the accident, half the day was spent drinking and half was spent hungover, but now I can’t drink, I’ve got a lot more time.”

Over the years, Mayall has been on the receiving end of flak from critics who view his humour as puerile. He accepts, with a sigh, that he and Edmondson “have got to the stage where we realise the heavyweight press have got it in for us”. Edmondson, who is appearing in Celebrity Fame Academy for Comic Relief, recently called a halt to the apparently endless tours of Bottom. Mayall says he has no hard feelings about his partner’s decision. “It took me by surprise when Ade said in a newspaper interview, ‘That’s enough’,” admits the comedian, who has been performing with Edmondson since they met at Manchester University some 30 years ago. “But we shook hands at the end of the last tour and said, ‘We’ve done it now.'”

But Mayall does not rule out collaborating with Edmondson again in the future. “That phase is over, but I love Ade, full stop, so never say ‘never’. It’s not the end of the line for me and him. When we get together again, we’ll write The Old Ones!”

He may be 46, but Mayall has never lost touch with the adolescent rebel within. “I have always tended toward extremism – I’m Motörhead rather than REO Speedwagon,” he declares with a characteristic verbal flourish. “As I see it, there’s mainstream comedy – and then there’s me, out in the badlands. I still feel dangerous, and I still feel I’m breaking new ground. I suppose I like being in control of what I do. I’ve always had a problem with doing what I’m told.”

The archetypal Young One 23 years ago, Mayall is now showing signs of ageing. His temples are greying, and he wears glasses for reading. But he displays no inclination to repair to the fireside with his pipe and slippers. He has just signed up for the lead role in It Happens, a new ITV1 comedy drama by Mike Bullen, creator of Cold Feet. He is also trying to find the time to complete an autobiography. “Hitler was only well-known for 15 years, and I’ve been globally famous for 25 years,” he jokes. “As I’m beating Hitler by 10 years, I thought it was about time someone wrote a book about me, and it might as well be me. But you can reassure all those actresses and members of the Royal Family I was involved with that I’ll change their names!”