Rik Mayall Interviews and Articles Archive

The Pan Global Phenomenon in all his verbal glory.

Category: 1982

Talking Turvey with Rik Mayall

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.”

Let’s Hear it For Rik Mayall

By Jeremy Pascall for Company Magazine, June 1982.

A joke: What’s yellow and lies on the bottom of the sea? Sand! Why aren’t you laughing? All right, biting political satire: What do Lech Walesa and Menachem Begin have in common? They’ve both got foreign names! What do you mean, it’s not funny?

People fell about when Rik Mayall told those gags. Or, to be accurate, Kevin Turvey told them. They’re rotten jokes. In fact, they’re not jokes at all. But Kevin Turvey doesn’t know that, he thinks they’re corkers. Mind you, Kevin’s a complete berk. That’s what Rik Mayall says and he should know because he is Kevin Turvey …

Did you see a BBC2 series called A Kick Up The Eighties? Do you remember this Brummie who sat in a chair delivering a monologue about burning issues of the day? Well, actually, he was supposed to talk about unemployment and law and order and stuff, but mostly he rambled on about not spotting Noele Gordon in Tesco and how many cornflakes he’d eaten for breakfast (‘fifteen or perhaps sixteen’) and his girlfriend, Teresa, who cancelled their date because she had to take her dog for a walk. But she couldn’t fool Kevin, he knew it was an excuse because her dog died three years ago! Yes, he’s a complete berk.

Now, the thing is, you see, that Kevin Turvey wasn’t really Kevin Turvey, despite what the programme’s credits said. He was Rik Mayall pretending to be Kevin …

It’s quite simple. Rik Mayall is sometimes Kevin Turvey. And sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he’s Wick, the angwy poet who spouts weally tewwible poetwy. And sometimes he’s Mitch, a committed male feminist – honest – who finds that being a feminist is the best way to get his leg over a different bint each night. And quite often he’s half of 20th Century Coyote; then he might be Richard (or is it Adrian?), one of the Dangerous Brothers.

In addition, of course, Rik Mayall is one of the Comic Strip group of comics – along with Alexei Sayle (also of OTT and Whoops Apocalypse) and Nigel Planer (also of Shine On Harvey Moon) and others – which means he’s an ‘alternative’ comedian.

To some of his fellow comics ‘alternative’ equates with ‘political’ but Mayall doesn’t define his humour so narrowly. ‘Alternative comedy is about exploring different areas, not just trying to bring down western civilisation. It’s not only a political alternative but, hopefully (and without sounding too pretentious), an artistic alternative.’

Behind Richard (or is it Adrian?) Dangerous, behind the apoplectic outrage of Wick the poet when the audience snigger at his pathetic angwy verse, behind Kevin’s manically staring eyes, tightly clenched fists, fretful snorts and Brummagen accent is Rik Mayall. Born in Harlow, raised in Droitwich. a graduate in drama from Manchester University, sometime Shakespearian actor, at twenty-four his command as a performer who takes risks with his experiments in humour seems precocious. His stagecraft and technique are delectably more accomplished than most of his fellow members of the ‘alternative comedy movement’.

Off-stage he appears less self-assured, suspicious of the fame that threatens to engulf him, very, very wary of being interviewed. We talked at a ‘wind-down’ party after his appearance at Wit’s End, Brighton (one of the few venues outside London to specialise in ‘alternative’ humour). Rather than being interrogated, he prefers to contribute to a conversation which includes fellow performers – Ronnie Golden (who used to be one of the pop group the Fabulous Poodles before going solo) and Simon Fanshawe, a comic who uses his homosexuality as material (‘a gay is a poof with A-levels’). Not far away his girlfriend Lise Mayer (‘she thought up the Walesa/Begin joke’) and the professionally lugubrious Nigel Planer watch OTT.

Although he’s diffident, Rik displays none of the spiky belligerence his characters exhibit. For a comic he’s unusually self-effacing, speaking quietly without obvious ego and generously deferring the conversation to others. He’s at his most animated when discussing the techniques of his difficult trade.

‘The idea behind Kevin was to take the most boring man in the world, being as boring as possible, and make it funny. Kevin Turvey emerged as a complete surprise, an entirely new kind of comedy character (even though Rik admits the influence of Peter Cook’s cretinous philosopher, E L Wisty). ‘Part of my intention with Kevin was to waste ten minutes of television time. What’s funny about Kevin is that he thinks he knows what he’s doing. He’s patronising; here’s someone more stupid than you trying to explain things:

Trying to explain, for example, why he won’t join the SAS. Not for any pacifist or political reasons but because members of the SAS wear black clothes. Kevin doesn’t own any black clothes. To dye his clothes black he’d have to colour them in with biro. And that would take how long? About seven hours? And require at least five biros. Wait a minute, though … he’d also have to have a change of clothing which means a total of fourteen hours work with ten biros . . . it’s not worth it.

Within a few weeks of his first appearance on A Kick Up The Eighties, Kevin Turvey became a cult. Kevin did, not Rik; Mayall’s name never appeared in association with the show. Absolutely intentional. ‘A lot of people think Kevin exists; it’s very important that they are never sure about him. Is he real? Or is there a comedian called Kevin Turvey who pretends to be like that? It’s the edge, the edge of wondering whether he’s real or not.’

It’s a pity, thinks Rik, that Kevin appeared in a comedy show. The joke would have been even better if he popped up on a current affairs programme like Newsnight. ‘I originally intended him to appear as a real reporter giving a round-up a of the week’s events. That would have been very exciting; people not knowing whether he’s real – this bloke rambling completely y off the point, totally screwing it up.’

Kevin’s next enterprise is a television documentary about his home town, Redditch. ‘I’ve never seen anybody take the piss out of documentaries yet. The ones I’ve seen have been very well presented and quite interesting. To see one that’s completely off the point, that doesn’t know where it’s going, that is appallingly filmed and edited should be very funny.’

Also very disorientating for those who still don’t realise that Kevin is a figment. Rik likes to knock people slightly offcentre: ‘One of the purposes of being alternative is to present people with something new and different. I don’t mind throwing the audience off; it’s very entertaining. It’s so much more exciting to see something you don’t expect.’

Watching Rik Mayall perform you are never sure whether he’s being serious or not. He likes to keep the audience guessing or, as one of his colleagues aptly expressed it, to trip up your expectations. The night we met he performed solo, explaining the absence of his partner in 20th Century Coyote, Ade Edmondson, thus: ‘Ade couldn’t be here tonight because he was killed … (pause) …Actually, he wasn’t killed … (pause) … I killed him … (pause) … No, that was justa joke … (pause) … He was run over.’ His comic philosophy is ‘surprise people’. Although enviably dominant on stage,

Rik avoids the spotlight off it. ‘I don’t like being recognised. I don’t like the way people treat you as if you’re more important. I’d rather not be interviewed and I wouldn’t want to go on Parkinson. There’s no point in telling people my favourite food or what I do with my life. It’s none of their business and it’s not entertaining. I don’t want people to be interested in me as me.’

Simon Fanshawe breaks in, ‘You did Russell Harty…’

‘No. I didn’t – Kevin did.’

The two are separate. He admits to hiding behind his creations. Any comedian has to put some kind of character over; some do it with facets of their own personality – Alexei does and perhaps Bernard Manning (maybe he’s not really like that in true life). Some people only work in character – look at Australians like Barry Humphries and Garry McDonald who plays Norman Gunston. I pretend to be different people.’

Becoming Kevin (and the others) is an actor’s job. ‘I can’t just turn it on, I have to get into the character. I have to sit on my own for a while, I can’t even talk to Lise. I have to think my way into Kevin, there’s a transformation in the dressing room.’

I suggest there’s a common strain of inadequacy running through his characters. A nervous laugh. Ronnie Golden points out Rik is ‘fiddling with his ear again’. (He can do unusual things with his ear, folding it in on itself and making it pop out. ‘I do loads of tricks like that. All over my body.’)

Is the ear-fiddling becoming an obsessional habit? ‘Since I had my hair cut. A friend of mine went to an acupuncturist because she was very anxious. They put a stud in the top of her ear and told her to fiddle with it whenever she felt worried. Apparently it’s a special part of the ear. Maybe I only do it when I feel nervous. Maybe it calms me down.’

I ask again: isn’t there a strain of inadequacy running through your characters?

Rik thinks. ‘It’s horrible….’ Thinks again. ‘Maybe that’s what I find most embarrassing about myself … these traits… On stage I ridicule the bad parts of myself, the things I don’t like about myself. It’s a way of coping. Laughing at these things does help.’

Humour can be therapeutic; it can also be used as propaganda. Rik isn’t solely concerned with getting a laugh. The selfstyled feminist, Mitch, who has found a contemporary way of exploiting women, is a reptile. ‘He isn’t supposed to be very funny. I wasn’t looking for a laugh but for people to react with “yeuch”.’

Again the twist, always attempting to trip up our expectations. Mayall presented Mitch out of context, performing him on Victoria Wood’s TV show, Wood & Walters. ‘Just as I wanted Kevin to appear on a serious show, I wanted Mitch to do something serious on a comedy show.’ He was upset that the producers lost their nerve and dubbed laughter over the monologue.

Mitch, he acknowledges, ‘was a bit of agitprop but I don’t feel I have to make people recognise truth. I don’t know that there’s a purpose for comedians, no-one has specified what their job is. I would never tell a comedian what he ought to be doing but one of the things he can do is make people think for a moment.’

Kevin Turvey views the world through an oblique mental chink and as he describes his tunnel vision in tortuous detail our own perception is fractionally altered. Rik doesn’t know how long he can live with Kevin – there will be no more Kick Up The Eighties. ‘It went well, it’s been done. On the cynical side, it’s not good for business to be seen too much. Also it’s not as exciting for me or the audience. Keep moving on, doing different things.’

In the meantime a new character, Harold, is evolving. ‘It’s difficult to create new characters; you’ve got to wait until they come along and they’re good in their own right. You can’t just say that next week you’ll pretend to be an East Ender. It’s nice when you find an instinctive character inside yourself who works and you don’t know why. Harold’s a beaut.’

He’s not ready to talk about Harold. ‘I can’t do him yet. It’s a sensitive stage, if you don’t laugh I may never do him again.’

Humour, be it ‘new wave’ and apparently aggressive, is ever fragile.