By Steve Taylor for The Face, January 1982.
Television is such a carefully premeditated medium, all the messy possibilities of risk and danger bleached out beforehand, that it’s rare to catch a genuinely nervy moment of contingent live action. One of these infrequent eruptions recently disturbed the usually genteel ambience of the Russell Harty Show: not the notorious occasion on which Grace Jones cuffed the hapless Harty and scored a neat round of gratis publicity in the following morning’s papers, but on a later show on which comedian Rik Mayall anarchically upstaged the habitually reclusive Elvis Costello.
Mayall was billed as “Kevin Turvey”, the quintessential Brummie bore who migrated from a section in the stage act of Twentieth Century Coyote – one of the more pokey turns to have emerged from the Comic Strip stable of “alternative comedy”-into the utterly unlikely context of the TV programme A Kick Up The Eighties, a lukewarm satire conducted by the fawning Richard Stilgoe.
At the juncture of the Harty show Turvey almost looked like becoming a minor national comedy cult figure. Almost. He subjected a noticeably nervous Harty to one of Turvey’s exquisitely banal ramblings, replete with gawping eyes, twisted hand gestures and a visual nightmare of suburban bad taste clothing. Later in the programme Mayall reappeared in the middle of Harty’s chat with Costello to let him know that if he was driving a bus through the desert and came across a stranded Harty, he’s — wait for it! — take him to the wrong bus station!
“Kevin’s quite hot property in the business sense,” Mayall admits, “could sell the idea, do videos and all that, but I’m not interested. In fact I’m going to knock Kevin on the head, once I’ve done a half-hour documentary about him. As far as money goes I’ve been quite settled for the last year or so; long as I’ve got enough for my rent, fags, a few beers.”
In statements like these and in his unKevin-like outfit of leather jacket, jeans, l-shirt and two jumpers, Mayall is very much the perennial student type, though the impression is underlaid with a forceful work ethic. “I like the Chuck Berry thing that he won’t go on stage until he’s got the money in his pocket- I like it to be a job, I like to work.”
Not that Mayall hails Tom any struggling working-class background. Both his parents went to London’s Central School Of Speech and Drama: a cousin in the circus and another in professional theatre in Australia make it a thoroughgoing theatrical family. His father, who was a lecturer in drama, now sells CB gear in the wake of redundancy from college cuts; his mother still teaches.
Mayall’s only experience of manual work appears to be the brief spell when he worked to pay off his university debts, making sand moulds in a oundry in his home town of Droitwich, a Birmingham overspill community midway between the conurbation and rural Hereford. Doesn’t sound too tough.
If his upbringing wasn’t difficult, the young Mayall was. There’s a potent personal background to the characters he plays on stage, seething, grinning maniacs like the Dangerous Brothers, the homicial comedians who tell the gooseberry-in-a-lift joke by beginning with the punch line and ferociously attacking each other’s stupidity as they attempt to retrace the steps involved in delivering the joke properly.
Mayall’s partner, Ade Edmondson, takes the role of the victim, as always, ending up clutching his kneed testicles while a crazed Mayall triumphantly shouts the climax of the joke-which has been known from the very beginning- “a tucking goose-aberry!”.
This pathetic madman, genuflecting for applause as his partner cowers and clutches his balls in agony seems to have its origins in the infant Mayall’s yawning need for attention and ungovernable excess of energy an excess that he has tried to quell with smoking since the age of 13.
“I obviously always wanted to be looked at as a kid,” he remembers,”very, very much so. Really embarrassing, ugly things I used to do. If it was my brother or sister’s birthday I’d sulk all day. I remember being six and having my birthday party. A kid called Sid Prior was talking a lot and gaining all the attention, so I hit him over the head with the hammer from the children’s toolkit I’d just been given. He got taken home screaming, I was sent upstairs and the party was over.”
Twentieth Century Coyote was formed, when Mayall was studying drama in Manchester, essentially as a reaction to the prevailing tone of student drama. ” In the mid-70s most of it was very experimental, often punk-influenced. A lot of it wasn’t much fun, but I learnt from those guys who were experimenting their bollocks off. We wanted it to be much more humorous.”
Originally a five-piece, the group survived Mayall’s leaving Manchester, touring the States for six months with another theatre group and taking a one-man luchtime show “Death On The Toilet” to Edinburgh in ’79. With the profit he made on that show Mayall came down to London and teamed back up with one of the onginal Coyote, Edmondson.
“I was really proud that that show made money,” he comments characteristically, “making a living out of performing rather than existing on an Arts Council grant.”
For the first couple of months Mayall slept on friends’ floors and just did the sloppy student poet routine that he’d written in Edinburgh every Saturday night at the Comedy Store, the claustrophobic Soho basement where anyone could stand up and take their chance with an aggressively inebriated audience. Like fellow performer Keith Allen (FACE 19) Mayall is the kind of character who thrives on that sort of tension.
When the Comedy Store’s first generation of survivors cast their eyes further aheld and split into two factions — “the agit-prop end: you tell jokes about Thatcher, basically” and the Comic Strip, housed in Raymond’s Revuebar-Coyote rapidly became the strongest act on the latter’s roster. And Mayall was clearly their single most talented commodity.
Though the Comic Strip moved out of the Revuebar’s somewhat upmarket sleaziness and has taken to the road for a rock-style national tour, Mayall says that their days of working live in that format are numbered. They’ve been commissioned by Channel Four to put together a series of six programmes for its launch next autumn. That aside, the group’s energy looks as if it will be directed in increasingly diverse directions.
Mayall insists that this is entirely in keeping with the whole basis of the Comic Strip: “It’s not a new wave, it’s not presenting one kind of comedy at all; the presentation is the point. It’s cabaret. Cabaret at the moment is comedy. That’s why the Comic Strip isn’t the follow-on to The Goons or Python. We’re not a team.”
The popularity of the Comic Strip has, though, provided Mayall with the basis for a now wide-ranging array of work: “It’s a way out of the recession. If you can get people to pay for you to do something you’d do anyway . . .”
Mayall’s acting credits to date include playing a racist policeman in Wolcott, a football hooligan in a kid’s programme about police cadets, The Squad, and several Friday Night . . . Saturday Mornings with Coyote. He’s a bit sheepish about Northern Lights, a light romantic comedy TV play shot in Glasgow: “I misread the script and said ‘Yes’. “He’s more happy about his co-lead in Couple And Robbers, a Minute feature film directed by Claire Peplow, wife of celebrated Italian director Bertollucci.
“I put a lot more into that, I was able to write a lot of my part on set because Claire was so receptive. The part I play . . . he’s such an urban wierdo. If he sees an ad that says ‘This car is yours’ he just takes it, he’s really selfish in an animal way. He’s the logical conclusion to the way we live now.” Peplow has said that she picked Mayall for his “dangerous” quality; there’s clearly an element of that running through most of the parts he’s been asked to play.
He’s determined, though, that none of this should threaten either his career in commedy, or the future of Twentieth Century Coyote. It sometimes seems as if poor Ade Edmondson is in the process of being steadily upstaged, as in Mayall’s stage version of Kevin Turvey where Edmondson is relegated to the role of a degenerate beggar who interrupts Turvey’s monologue and is rewarded with a dose of abuse and violence.
Mayall is sensitive to the danger: “I feel really good working with him: having been together for five years we’re very mutually supportive. If I shit out he can cover me with an ad-libbed line.”
“We sat down and had a long long talk about careers a couple of years ago when we did a student drama festival in Durham and got a slagging from The Guardian. We had a long chat about our responsibility to each other and decided that we should work together because we do work well together. But, we’d never hold each other back.
“Ade’s strength is small, subtle, theatre stuff, films and absurdist acting. He’s very photogenic. He’s got a part in The Young Ones, a sitcom I’m involved in preparing for ITV, and he’s got a film part coming up. Coyote will continue.”
Point taken. Meanwhile Mayall’s individual work is pulling him in two directions. One is towards the mass exposure of television, the other is the polar opposite, small cabaret-style shows in localised, clubby venues.
He gets clearly animated considering the huge audience for A Kick Up The Eighties: “You can play to five million people, would you rather do that than play to 200 people at the Comic Strip?” Paradoxically, though, his awareness of showbusiness tradition gives him a nostalgia for more immediate, more intimate kinds of performing: “I’d like to popularise the idea of cabaret as an antidote to the way Music Hall was killed by TV.”
The father of girlfriend, Lisa, was one of his drama tutors at Manchester, the owner of a collection of historical books and memorabilia about popular entertainment that deeply impressed Mayall with the overwhelming simplicity of some acts. “Say someone could dislocate their shoulder and relocate it, they’d tour that trick for years.” On that model Mayall would like to take his “poems” on the road around Britain for a year in little Comic Strip-sized venues.
There’s no discontinuity between these disparate forms of work for Mayall. “The most obvious form of theatre, ” he says, “is somebody telling a joke; there’s a whole load of people who are feeling the same way as you — that’s what’s nice about the laugh. ”
In the end, though, even the laughter gives way to a more general sense of communication, involvement. Mayall admires Keith Allen for his knack of taking performances to that point “when it stops being funny, stops being comedy. There’s maybe a new kind of art form there in just telling stories, just one person with a microphone.
“If you’re involved with it as a performer and you can draw people in it doesn’t matter if you’re not funny, it’s just good for you and them to be somewhere *else* for a while.”