The Elder Statesman

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

Daily Mail Weekend, 8th april 2006

Rik Mayall, the comic genius behind The Young Ones and The New Statesman, is about to bring the loathsome Alan B’Stard back. But it’s not all laughs. David Jones discovers he’s still overshadowed by his near-fatal quad bike accident and his recent split from long-time comedy partner Adrian Edmondson.

Just when Tony Blair thought things couldn’t get worse, the sleazy, amoral figure of Alan B’ Stard reemerges as his arch ally. At the height of the recent cash-for-peerages scandal, the old B’Stard even appeared on TV news channels, posturing with a red rosette in his lapel outside the Houses of Parliament.

When last we saw the sitcom The New Statesman on TV, 14 years ago, B’Stard was a young, thrusting Tory backbencher who epitomised the worst excesses of Yuppie-era politics in the Thatcher-Major years. He would stoop to any depths for money, sex and power, and demanded the mass deportation of all ‘filthy socialists’ to Russia.

Radical comedian Rik Mayall is so disillusioned with Blair, however, that he has brought B’ Stard out of retirement to torment him. In a forthcoming nationwide theatre tour, audiences will be filled in on B’Stard’s missing years: discovering how the shameless opportunist defected in the early 1990s, when the Conservatives’ fortunes began to wane, and invented New Labour in his own loathsome image.

He now lives at Number 9 Downing Street, and Mayall gleefully describes him as ‘a cross between Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson’, only far more powerful. He is having a secret affair with Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State for the U.S.; he has increased his already vast fortune (from oil deals in Iraq, naturally); and he, alone, knows where those elusive weapons of mass destruction are buried.

Mayall is clearly consumed by his latest project. The day before our interview, he had been overseeing auditions for the part of Condoleezza. ‘We haven’t cast her yet, but I want Halle Berry, possibly, or Jennifer Lopez,’ he says affecting the faux grandeur of a big-shot Broadway director. ‘Then again, maybe Salma Hayek… or Penelope Cruz.’

But aren’t these international stars just a trifle expensive for a provincial stage production, I ask, indulging his jocular fantasy. ‘Yes, yes, but they all fancy me so much, that they’ll do it for nothing. Catherine Tate’s very talented. She might be good. Do you think it would be racist to have a white Condoleezza?’

When The New Statesman’s scriptwriters Laurence Marks (a card carrying Labour Party member) and Maurice Gran first approached Mayall, saying the political climate was ripe for B’Stard’s resurrection, he was sceptical. However, they argued that New Labour had sunk so low that it was now B’Stard’s natural home; and when he studied their explosive new plot he became convinced they were right.

‘It was just before Christmas that the boys sent me the script,’ he says. ‘I said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” But then I read the script, and I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t fantastic. When Thatcher lost her throne, we did another series, which was good, but there wasn’t so much to attack with John Major.’ Now, he says, there is plenty. He lets slip a few more tantalising morsels of the storyline: before crossing the floor of the Commons to help form New Labour, B’Stard engineers Major’s downfall by sabotaging the pound and causing Black Wednesday. His reward is a seat at Blair’s right hand. ‘Alan is New Labour. He is the prime minister’s extra-special adviser, and very high up in the government.’ A cabinet minister? ‘No, much higher up than that. He chose Campbell and Mandelson to work with him.

‘The boys [Marks and Gran] have told me that this play is on stage because the public want to know what happened to the weapons of mass destruction. Did John Prescott eat them, perhaps? A lot of other questions need to be answered, too, such as “What the hell is Tony doing with Cherie?” I’m afraid you’ll find that Alan is responsible for an awful lot. For example, he created the millennium bug.’

We meet in a small theatre cocktail bar in London’s West End, much too cramped to contain a personality of Mayall’s size. Dressed all in black with huge, unblinking eyes, a bulky frame and a booming voice, he seems to fill every inch of space, pacing the floor, making sudden, sweeping gestures and banging the table to hammer home his points. Since I’ve always sniggered at Mayall’s juvenile humour, and we both lived in grotty student houses in south Manchester in the 1970s, I had been looking forward to our encounter. As things transpired, however, it proved uncomfortable.

Perhaps my big mistake was to remark that he has always seemed very guarded when talking to journalists, and express the hope that he would be more forthcoming with me. ‘Are you saying all my interviews are dull?’ he snaps belligerently, convincing himself that I have arrived with the intention of making him sound played-out and boring.

I spend the next half-hour probing for the origins of his comic genius, but Mayall is only interested in playing it for laughs. When I attempt to discover more about Richard Michael Mayall, from Droitwich, Worcestershire, the real man behind B’Stard, Rick from The Young Ones and Richie from Bottom, he adopts various evasion tactics. Sometimes he is confrontational and aggressive, at others he mocks me, feigns ignorance, or claims to be offended. ‘I hate being out of character,’ he says plaintively. It is one of the few heartfelt remarks he makes.

Invariably, any audience with Mayall focuses heavily on his 1998 quad bike accident, which caused a serious brain haemorrhage and very nearly killed him. But his eye-watering anecdotes about nurses and rubber tubes have become a touch repetitive; a convenient mask, perhaps, for genuine emotions and feelings.

We know, too, that he is a devoted family man, married for 20 years to Barbara, a former make-up artist who famously fell pregnant while he was expecting a baby with another girlfriend. He once described her as his ‘rock’, and they are evidently idyllically happy.

But inquire, even in the most innocuous terms, about his home life in London and Devon, and you meet another brick wall. ‘I don’t talk about the kids, it’s not fair,’ he says, – then suddenly adopting the expression of a fretful father, once more takes refuge in fantasy, ‘All right, Penny is through the heroin thing, but she wants to have a sex change. Tommy hanged himself, but you know about that. And Micky is still inside for the rape… but that’s their business.’ In fact, Rosie, 19, Sydney, 18, and Bonnie, 11, are, by all accounts, his pride and joy – and perfectly well-adjusted.

It crosses my mind that Mayall’s defensiveness and apparent mood swings may have something to do with his accident. He is still taking anti-epilepsy tablets, after all, and admitted recently that he continues to suffer weird, debilitating flashbacks in which he can ‘taste colours’ and ‘smell sounds’.

In a rare moment of candour, he also tells me that, although he will never again ride the massive quad bike that crushed his skull, he still keeps it in his barn, as a constant reminder of his good fortune.

Having recently celebrated his 48th birthday, Mayall tries a little too hard to make light of his advancing years, insisting repeatedly that he is a decade younger. If he really is feeling prickly about his age, it’s quite understandable. After all, for the architect of ‘lad comedy’ – and a Young One to boot – approaching one’s half century can’t be easy. When I press him on this point, though, he gives a dismissive wave. ‘I’m beyond wanting to be young. I’m beyond wanting to wake up outside a pub in the morning.

‘I take the kids to school, and I don’t envy them their life. Five days a week of hard work, then having to work at home and the weekends. I think if I ever had a male menopause, I feel, er… a better word than middle-aged now. Or whatever you and I are.’

There is another reason why he may be lamenting the passing of time. Recently, his fabled partnership with Adrian Edmondson ended in discord. Having met in the drama department at Manchester University, they shared a neglected dosshouse in east Didsbury that gave rise to The Young Ones. Later, they co-starred in a string of TV comedies, and have battered the living daylights out of one another in violent slapstick stage shows such as Bottom for the past 25 years.

If it had been up to Mayall, they would have fought on into their dotage, with walking sticks as weapons. But at the end of their last tour, Edmondson – whom Mayall has likened both to a husband and a brother – abruptly called time on their long association.

He had grown out of toilet jokes and being smashed in the face with frying pans, he explained. At 40-something, it all felt ‘undignified’. He wanted to retreat to his remote Devon farmhouse with his wife, Jennifer Saunders, and their three teenage daughters, and enjoy cooking and collecting fine wines.

Somewhat cruelly, he observed that Mayall had no interests beyond work, and implied that his old mate’s company had become a tad tedious since the quad bike accident forced him to stop drinking alcohol.

When I mention their parting of the ways, Mayall attempts to laugh it off, saying Edmondson had been ‘joking’. When that fails, he says they met up a fortnight ago, at a rock concert, and agreed to ‘give it a couple of years, then get back to work.

‘We are going to work together. We’re going to give it a rest – then start up again – probably when I’m 50. I’m very annoyed that you may think I’m going on the road with Alan B’ Stard because Adrian doesn’t want to do Bottom any more. Is that what’s going on in your head? Well, it’s not happening! It’s absolutely not the case,’ he snaps, banging the coffee table. ‘If that’s what I was doing, then I wouldn’t do it. I can see that you don’t believe me and you’re going to be nasty about it.’

Then, as quickly as it flares up, Mayall’s fury evaporates. He appears hurt, curling his lower lip downwards, like a small boy who has been denied some anticipated treat.

His expression calls to mind an episode to which he has alluded, briefly, when summarising his supposedly angst-free, unblemished childhood. It happened when he was about eight, and appearing in his first school musical production. His father, John, and mother, Gillian, both talented actors who met at London’s Central School of Speech And Drama and had three other children, were present, eagerly awaiting their son’s debut performance.

What they didn’t know, until they took their seats, was that, although little Richard would be among the chorus, his teacher had ordered him to mime rather than sing because she feared his awful voice would ruin the show. Mayall felt so awkward that, when the curtain went up, he began contorting his face in the leers that would become his trademark. The assembled parents couldn’t stop giggling.

Mayall has always referred to this incident as the night he first experienced the ‘sexual’ thrill of making an audience laugh. Maybe there’s some truth in this but, I venture, was it not also deeply humiliating to be rejected as a tuneless misfit in front of his theatrical parents? ‘Erm, yeah,’ he says awkwardly. ‘You’re making me feel very trapped.’

Eventually, after more agonised wrangling, he tells the full story for the first time. ‘I was told to just move my mouth while the other children sang, right? So I did, and I pulled lots of faces. It made the other kids laugh, and I liked that a lot. So then I was taken by the ear and made to stand outside in the corridor.’

I endeavour to explore this episode further, because, at last, we seem close to pinpointing the controlled fury which informs Mayall’s best work. Picturing that little boy, desperately using his wits in an effort to turn an appalling setback to his advantage, one understands why he created B’ Stard and Rick, both masters of survival.

At his insistence, however, we move to lighter subjects and, to my relief, spend much of the final half-hour laughing. As the interview draws to a close, I return gingerly to the school production experience. Might it not explain, at least partially, why Edmondson’s rejection had been so painful?

‘Maybe that’s what it is,’ he concedes unexpectedly. ‘When you’re being told that you can’t sing when you’re eight – and then Ade says, “We can’t do that”.’ He looks as though a light has been switched on in his head, but he is such a good performer, it may be another ruse.

We press on. Did he shed a tear when Edmondson broke the news? ‘It was very disappointing, very sad; but, you know, he was right, we had done those jokes. That phase was over. I thought we could develop it in another way. Ade didn’t agree, fair enough.

‘When you’re in such a close personal relationship, you don’t really want to discuss it in public. That’s the problem you’ve had throughout this interview. There’s a hidden man in there somewhere…’ He stops and laughs loudly. ‘But then again, maybe there isn’t.’

Oh, I’m sure there’s a hidden Rik Mayall, all right. A much more vulnerable, but warmer man than the uncomfortable amalgam of hardedged characters with whom I wrestled in the theatre bar. I think I glimpsed the real Richard briefly, as I was making ready to leave.

‘Promise me you’re not going to rip me to pieces?’ he implores as if his life depended on a favourable write-up. This ‘deal’ was so important to him that he insisted we must seal it with a handshake. B’Stard he isn’t, though he’d love us to believe otherwise.