You’ve Got Mayall

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

The Evening Standard, 2oth November 2003

Five years ago Rik Mayall almost died in a quad-bike accident. Now, as the latest instalment of Bottom comes to London, he tells Bruce Dessau how his near-death experience awakened his zest for life.

Rik Mayall is cradling my scalp from ear to ear to demonstrate how the surgeon was going to slice off his cranium, like taking the top off a boiled egg. It’s a crisp Saturday morning in the Brighton Hilton and I thought we’d be discussing Bottom his slapstick double act with Ade Edmondson rather than his head. But the conversation always returns to the near-fatal quad bike accident on his Devon farm on Thursday 9 April, 1998. ‘He had to clear out some blood that was sloshing around dangerously. Luckily, the next time I went back it had cleared by itself.’ The event even crops up in the current show, Bottom: Weapons Grade Y-Fronts, in which Mayall reprises his role as scrofulous loser Richie with Ade Edmondson as his psychopathic sidekick, Eddie. When Edmondson whacks him on the temple a dazed Mayall exclaims, ‘Quad bike flashback’.

Sometimes Edmondson ad libs by hinting that he may have cut the brake cables. In reality, when Mayall emerged from his five-day coma and couldn’t speak, his loyal partner told him they could set the next run of Bottom in prehistoric times so that he’d only have to grunt.

Of course, some critics would argue that Mayall’s work has been predominantly prehistoric. Ever since his breakthrough in The Young Ones 20 years ago, sophisticated repartee has always taken second place to puerile gags.

Both he and Edmondson have now taken scatology to its logical conclusion and relocated the action, almost entirely, to inside a toilet.

Inevitably, it will be panned by some critics, but Bottom is a true guilty pleasure. It is impossible not to laugh as Mayall’s hand is inserted into a shredder or, in a spot of speeded-up stage magic, the duo re-enact the entire first half in two minutes. Mayall, once so close to death, has never felt more alive: ‘Getting a huge laugh nourishes me.’ He likes to tease, too.

‘Occasionally, when the audience laughs at the quad-bike gag, I’ll pretend to lose my temper and say, “Oh, you think that’s funny?”‘ This gets an even bigger laugh.

Mayall, 45, is fully recovered, from both the 1998 accident and last night’s gig. He looks fit in jeans, fleece and trainers and is drinking double espresso, though he hardly seems to need a caffeine fix to be fired up. As he explains, with a slightly manic grin, ‘I’m as fine as I ever was. I think it’s God who should be pissed off. I must be the better son because Jesus died on Good Friday and came back on Monday. I went on Crap Thursday, as my kids call it, so I beat him.’ There is a definite change in him, though.

He has the air of a man with a zest for life.

He leaps around the room like a big kid, determined to make every second count, which is probably how he came to be prosecuted twice for speeding in his Mercedes earlier this year. Everything excites him, even a fan telling him that he and Edmondson are ‘the Status Quo of comedy’.

Mayall’s accident occurred when he had just turned 40 and a midlife crisis was looming.

Since then, he has made very firm career decisions. For one thing, he and Edmondson ended Bottom’s BBC run, preferring to retain control over the characters by restricting them to tours and lucrative video releases.

‘I think we had done everything we could have done in Richie and Eddie’s flat on telly.’ They have made Bottom into a franchise, which effectively enables them to do anything, set the show anywhere and flit in and out of character when the mood takes them. Which begs the question, where does Richie end and Rik begin? ‘Richie is becoming a grumpy old man and, I suppose, so am I. But then Rik in The Young Ones was all the things I hated about myself, too. I suppose Bottom is The Middle-Aged Ones.’ He pauses to light a cigarette. ‘It’s not exactly Tennessee Williams.’ Mayall admits he does, however, owe a debt to another literary great Beckett. The duo’s comic work has frequently touched on the existential bleakness of the Irish writer. In 1989 they appeared in Waiting For Godot and are currently talking about reviving Endgame.

Lucrative voiceovers (‘I’m the Andrex puppy’) have paid for a comfortable lifestyle in Devon and London for Mayall and his wife Barbara and children Rosie, 16, Sid, 14, and Bonnie, nine, leaving him free to cherry-pick other parts. He does not harbour a desire to play Hamlet, but some juicy roles have eluded him. ‘There’s always jealousy in going to see films and wishing I had a part.

I don’t want to be Tom Cruise, but I’d like to do what Alan Rickman does.’

More than 24 years after helping to create alternative comedy in a dingy Soho dive, Mayall still socialises with his Comedy Store gang when commitments allow. Edmondson and his wife, Jennifer Saunders, as well as director Peter Richardson, are all West Country neighbours. ‘It’s little Ben (Elton) who I miss the most. When he’s not working, he’s in Australia or at home changing nappies.’ They would have a reunion, if only they could find the time.

Balancing stage and screen work is the key.

He recently missed out on playing Hitler in Richardson’s forthcoming Second World War spoof Churchill: The Hollywood Years, opposite Christian Slater, because he was appearing on stage in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.

In fact, he has had a number of near-misses in recent years. His part as Peeves the poltergeist for the first Harry Potter film failed to make the finished movie. But Mayall is philosophical: ‘I’ve looked over the edge.’ he says. His biggest near-miss of all was on that quad bike. And, after you’ve been that close to death, ending up on the cutting room floor does not seem so bad.