Rik Mayall Interviews and Articles Archive

The Pan Global Phenomenon in all his verbal glory.

Category: 1983

The Comic Strip Presents

By Martyn Auty, for Time Out, 8 – 14 September 1983

At last, a comedy group has its hands on Monty Python’s holy grail. They are The Comic Strip and, despite appearances to the contrary, are heavily into clean living, steady relationships and hatchbacks.

Scene: The Channel 4 executive boardroom. Sitting at a king-size desk is C4 chief Jeremy Isaacs. Enter Eddie Monsoon, once famous TV presenter, demanding to know why Isaacs has banned his show. At the end of a stormy interview, Eddie, grovelling for a reprieve, crawls obsequiously under the desk to give Isaacs a blow job…

This autumn The Comic Strip returns to coat your TV screens with dope, jissom and delirious bad taste. Irreverent, irresponsible, insulting but always gleefully inventive, their new seven-film package for C4 will be the comedy high point of the coming TV season – and the most controversial.

Two stories last year in the pop press handed them their reputation as comedy’s Sex Pistols. One was the notorious Sun leader attacking C4 on its opening night: ‘A send-up of Enid Blyton with Crossroads star Ronald Allen playing a homosexual – is that supposed to be funny?’ It was, but the sequel, Five Go Mad on Mescalin, is funnier and far more likely to wind up the Whitehouse mob. This time Ronnie Allen camps his role way over the top (‘Not only am I an outrageous homosexual, but I’m an incurable drug addict as well’).

The second story concerned the banning by C4 of The Comic Strip episode titled Back To Normal With Eddie Monsoon. First time around Channel 4 found the central character hard to take at what was a memorably sensitive time. Eddie’s insatiable violence towards animals, fellow humans and himself coupled with his unstoppable flow of obscenities was a media caricature that seemed too close to the bone. His pathetic cry of ‘Love me, you bastards’ will ring long and loud in many a media skull. After the ban Ade Edmondson took his script away and rewrote it to include the Jeremy Isaacs blow job. (When the new scene was brought to Isaacs’ attention, he wondered if perhaps they hadn’t meant Jeremy Irons.)

The scene remains in the latest script, albeit with impresario Michael White, Comic Strip’s executive producer, standing in for ‘Jeremy’. None of the six group members gives in without a fight; they’ve each had too much experience dishing it out under pressure when the Comic Strip was a stand-up cabaret act only two years ago.

I caught up with the Comic Strip one muggy afternoon outside the Ewell ABC where they were shooting an episode appropriately titled Dirty Movie. Despite their screen personae, they are an amiable bunch: no showbiz aura, no phoney modesty, no coked-out wackiness. Several have steady, long-term relationships and one is married with a nine-month-old daughter. They drive hatchbacks rather than customised Chevys, and if they do any drugs it must be very discreet. Outside the cinema they were sitting around a trestle table quietly playing a kids card game based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

The Comic Strip is the result of the fusion of three double acts that were thrown up by the post-punk ‘alternative comedy’ explosion back in 1978. The first act, ’20th Century Coyote’, was comprised of the now famous Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, a Bradford boy with pretentions towards serious acting. ‘Coyote’ was formed in the summer of 1978, played Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 4 while Mayall and Edmondson were touring the act around the club circuit.

Meanwhile another duo, ‘The Outer Limits’, featuring Nigel Planer (better known as Neil the Hippy from last season’s hit The Young Ones) and Peter Richardson, had also become a regular double act on the bill at London’s Comedy Store.

Richardson and Planer are the senior members of The Comic Strip, and Richardson in particular is the group’s dynamo. A wiry, energetic figure, his naked ambition and obsessive perfectionism can make him difficult to work with, though the same qualities have come to guarantee the quality control on each Comic Strip show. His early career was as a straight actor. After Bristol Old Vic theatre school, he had a string of West End appearances before teaming up with Planer to present Rank at the Roundhouse in 1977.

For a while Peter and Nigel, who’d played Che in Evita and already done some telly (Shine on Harvey Moon), shared a Young Ones-style flat in West Kensington where they wrote much of the material for ‘The Outer Limits’.

It was movies and TV that provided the inspiration for the best of their sketches – ‘The Hard Porn Airline Disaster Movie’ and a memorable sit-com piss-take, ‘Are You Being Severed?’. (Ironically, one of the directors Peter chose when they came to do their TV series was Bob Spiers, who’d done Are You Being Served? for the Beeb.)

The movies still exert a strong influence on Comic Strip material, as reflected by several of the episodes in the forthcoming series. Blade Runner was a key inspiration behind Slags, a mayhem-in-the-21stCentury number; spaghetti westerns are the starting point for the package-tour parody A Fistful of Travellers Cheques; and Dirty Movie is a bizarre Bunuelian tale of a cinema manager who screens skinflicks to himself in an empty theatre. In fact, Dirty Movie is a film version of an old ’20th Century Coyote’ act Ade and Rik Mayall used to perform. ‘Like a silent movie that speaks now and then’ is how Nigel describes it.

With such emphasis on film, they must surely be drawn to making a feature soon? ‘We’ve talked about it,’ says Peter, ‘but most of us feel right now we’re better off doing more well-crafted, half-hour comedies than chucking everything into a 90-minute feature. We’re currently making six half-hour films for £600,000 – less than it would cost to make one feature. And with no hassle from the backers.’

Nigel reckons a big movie could also provoke problems within the group, yoking them together for a year. ‘When the Pythons make a feature they expend so much time and energy collating ideas and often end up with a fragmented, patchy film like The Meaning of Life, whereas working on their own they produce coherent, engrossing films like The Missionary. In The Comic Strip we work collectively on short films that come from various people in the group writing independently.’

So does everyone get a crack of the whip? Nigel grimaces like his Neil character: ‘Well, I’m pissed off because the group didn’t want to do my script, which was about a rock festival with hippies and all that. We don’t have anything in this series that covers the rock scene the way that Bad News Tour did last time and I think it’s a shame.’

The previous week Nigel had done a solo gig at Glastonbury Festival as Neil. In the context of hippies, ageing acid rockers, flat-earthers and ley-line followers, Neil is an ironic comic mirror for the audience, but there’s something in his personality that retains links with the hippie ethos: the long hair, wholefood diet and his enthusiasm to keep Comic Strip on the road. ‘I keep trying to get us gigs around the country, but the others aren’t so keen.’

Two weeks later with three scripts shot and four to go, the location and story have changed beyond recognition from Ewell ABC to rural Norfolk for Susie, a tale of sexual betrayal among the inhabitants of a quiet village. Leaving the train at Norwich, I cycle 15 miles in the punishing heat to find The Comic Strip shooting in Heydon, a picture postcard English village almost hidden behind fields of high-stacked corn.

Outside the impossibly quaint village pub is Peter Richardson, savouring the surroundings: ‘This location is perfect. Very English, Thomas Hardy and HE Bates – they filmed some of The Go Between across the green here – and yet our film should have a slight French feel to it too. A touch of Chabrol maybe amid the Mills and Boon. Passion and murder, it’s going to be very funny.’

Susie, played by Dawn French, is a country schoolmistress who lays all the local lads before finally scoring with an eccentric rock star who’s recently purchased the manor house and village. ‘She’s not really a slag,’ explains French. ‘She’s just after a good time.’

Dawn French is the other half of French and Saunders, the third double act in The Comic Strip. She met Jennifer Saunders at the Central School of Drama where they were both studying to be teachers.

Jennifer came from a quiet, nonshowbiz background in Cheshire and had flatshared with a bunch of Sloane Rangers during her London student days (‘The worst year of my life’). Dawn, the more ebullient of the two, was chafing at the bit during her spell as a drama teacher, working nights in cabaret, anxious to break through and turn pro. Eventually she quit teaching in September 1981, by which time the Comic Strip was a major hit on the cabaret scene and French and Saunders were well established as a double act. They weren’t the only female comedy duo by any means – Wood and Walters had already made it big enough to have a TV show – but they were the loudest, lewdest and best-loved. On the group’s only foreign tour to date (two months in Australia in 1982) it was French and Saunders who drew the longest applause from Fosters-soaked crowds in Adelaide and Sydney.

French and Saunders continue to work as a cabaret duo, and have just finished a week on the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘It’s a whole different way of working on the films,’ says Dawn, ‘with a tight eight-day shooting schedule, you can’t go mucking around with the scripts or changing bits of business. So from time to time Jennifer and I like to get back to the flexibility of live cabaret.’ During the daytime when they’re not shooting or rehearsing, Dawn and Jennifer are working up a new sit-com in which they’ll be joined by Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman in a. female answer to The Young Ones.

On The Comic Strip set they’re often referred to as ‘the girls’, but they invariably get the upper hand in the banter:

‘Fetch me a tea please, Dawn.’

‘Is it because I’m a woman you’re asking me to get your tea, Nigel?’

‘Yes. I don’t even want it. I just want to abuse you.’

(She returns and holds a scalding mug over his head.)

‘Repeat after me, “Give it to me, Sex Goddess”.’

In Slags, written by Jennifer, ‘the girls’, laced into bondage gear and girdled with weapons, really crack the whip: it’s an end-of-civilisation scenario out of West Side Story and Clockwork Orange and comes across as the most excoriating script of the series, conjuring a spectacular vision of gang warfare between vicious, vengeful girls just out of jail and smirking softie boys in Hawaiian shirts who’ve taken over their patch. On the fringes of this sex-rift live several of the most bizarre characters Comic Strip has invented to date: a filthy flasher on an obscene ‘sex bike’ called Arch Crippledick, and the crazed scientist Boy Madness.

Voice Over: Boy Madness. The scientist, the engineer. He was totally unsafe. He was a quiet boy who loved his mother. Few knew him well… (BOY MADNESS points flamethrower at victim with quiet fascination. We see a flash of fire.)

…Not many knew him long.

‘We never claimed The Comic Strip wouldn’t be a sex and violence show,’ shrugs Dawn happily.

Unlike Beyond the Fringe and Python, when The Comic Strip enlarges its cast for a show they’re not finding odd jobs for old college chums from Oxbridge. Because, thank God, none of them ever went there. Backer Michael White rates that a major plus. He believes The Comic Strip is definitely coming up Big, but doesn’t intend to drive them. ‘I take a backseat role. Everything will happen in its own time: there will be more shows, books, records and so on. I think they’re ready to have a crack at America, but I’ll wait till they come with a proposal. Likewise with the West End show we’re discussing, it’s for them to decide when they’re ready.’

White doesn’t believe in shaping careers. Except his own. From his office in St James’s, surrounded by Richard Hamilton prints and snapshots of himself with Bowie, White has phone-wrangled and financed a string of stage hits and, more recently, an impressive roster of films (plus, it must be said, a clutch of turkeys). So what’s distinctive about The Comic Strip?

‘Their humour is primarily to do with people and social types. I’m bored with class jokes and clever political skits. Comic Strip are tough – some of the jokes hurt. And if you read the scripts of the new series you’ll find them not only more matured but darker and sometimes more tragic. Wait until you see Gino and Eddie Monsoon.’

White says he hasn’t made any money out of The Comic Strip yet, so it’s in his (business) interest to see them stay together. But it’s in theirs too, for although each has a separate career of their own and three of them are in The Young Ones, the cult is collecting around Comic Strip. My own explanation is that these films are more permanent than TV sit-com; they target the whole of British society, getting laughs at the expense of the young, the middle-aged and the elderly, sparing no stereotypes but also creating original comic characters of literary stature; they take humour into increasingly dangerous areas.

This bunch will outlive The Young Ones and Alfresco, not because they’re intrinsically funnier, but because they control their own destiny and retain a strong emotional attachment to the group they formed three years ago. Ever since TV executives discovered ‘alternative comedy’ (as recently as last year), The Comic Strip have been working to make their material distinctive enough to survive the flavour-of-the-month attitude of TV light entertainment bosses. They know that if the wind changes direction they’ll have to change tack too: go back to live theatre, make a feature movie, come up with something else. Comic Strip are nothing if not adaptable; they’ve been sniffing the wind and taking chances from the start.

Now that television is finally loosening up and opening its doors to independent companies who want to mount and run their own shows, fronted by new faces instead of the dreary roster of middle-aged timeservers, we can expect to see performers like The Comic Strip popping up all over the box. So far, only Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer have experienced fame on the streets. I for one will be very surprised if, by the end of this series, the rest of The Comic Strip haven’t joined them.

A short film, The Comic Strip directed by Julien Temple, is currently on release with Porkys II. See Film listings for details. The Comic Strip returns to Channel 4 in November.

 

Advertisements

Oh that Rik Mayall

For The Sunday Times Magazine, 20th March 1983

When he was only six, Rik Mayall had terrible tantrums, showed off and got over-excited. Now he uses all these childhood faults in his angry, manic and “alternative” comedy routines. He reveals almost all to Stephen Pile.

Forget everything that you have read about Rik Mayall. That was all lies. He has never breathed one single word of truth to an interviewer, preferring to make up what he thought they wanted to hear. And so he recently informed the News of The World that his real name was not Rik Mayall, that he hated chat shows, loathed interviews and did not want to be rich. All untrue. “But it never worked out, so I’ve stopped doing that. This is the real version.”

There will be some among you who will want to know who exactly he is. Well, he is the 24-year-old comedian, vaguely described as “alternative”, who played the angry, manic, squat-dwelling Rick in The Young Ones on BBC2.

He’s the one who did Kevin Turvey and The Turvey Report. You know, the disgruntled Brummie investigator (“Good evening – I suppose”) whose investigations generally uncovered nothing. Once, while investigating leisure he went into a pub in his pyjamas and ordered a pint of Pernod. He then fell asleep in the park and dreamed that he was flying over Turkey, where all the Turks cried “Give us a banana, you bastard!” At which point he woke up, covered in sick, having been speared through the forehead by a litter gathering park attendant.

He is the one who appears as the angry young poet, reciting portentous drivel: “Whenever I’m near t’ the Theatre, I ask myself this question: I don’t know. Perhaps I should ask Vanessa Redgrave. But I don’t know Vanessa Redgrave”. And when the audience titters, he shouts a petulant “shut up”. And if they clap he shouts “don’t clap. It’s so hypocritical”. He leaves the stage with an ungracious “I hope you learned something.”

Yes, that’s Rik Mayall. It is all the more confusing because he never plays himself, but always a range of deeply unlikeable characters. What unites them is a kind of punk comedy about modern, urban, paranoid, nihilistic, ungracious, violent, bored, self-important youth. And here comes the shock. His manic stage and television performances in no way prepare you for the man you meet. Rik Mayall is a calm, quiet, thoughtful, intelligent and rather serious figure, who talks about “making statements” in his work without actually sounding pretentious.

His real life story emerges as rather humdrum. Although he is related to the man who captained The Victory before Nelson, his own story has quiet origins.

He was born at Harlow New Town on March 7, 1958. His parents were drama teachers who met at the Central School of Speech and Drama, supported CND and were vaguely beatnicky. Not much happened in Harlow then, except that his brother fed him worms and went on to become a civil engineer “responsible for the state of the A40”! Then Rik moved to Droitwich and it all started happening. While singing in the carol concert, at Rashwood County Primary School, Mayall began pulling faces at the audience. This proved so distracting that the headmaster got up from his seat, mounted the stage and slapped him twice round the head. It was his first theatrical act. “I was showing off,” says Mayall, who claims that this is still the mainspring of his work. “I was always a show-off and liable to get over-excited. But I have got it under control. I now find people who can’t control their energy very funny.”

His father’s enthusiasm for fringe theatre led to Mayall’s stage debut at six “wandering about in crowd scenes” during dad’s production of The Good Woman of Setzuan at Shenstone teacher training college. He then played the boy in Waiting for Godot, which even at nine Rik knew was a good play. By the fourth form of King’s School, Worcester, he was quite experienced at showing off. “I wrote little plays and performed them. Drama was the only thing I wanted to do.”

Perhaps for this reason he “hashed up” his A-levels (two Cs and an E). However, he got into Manchester University on the clearing system to read drama. At university, he blossomed, performing at a pub down the road with a comedy group called Twentieth-Century Coyote. When Rik appeared in Sherlock’s Last Case at the National Student Drama Festival, The Guardian theatre critic gave him the Boris Karloff Award for the most outrageous ham on view.

Then came a miserable year working in factories, getting drunk with Ade Edmundson (later his partner at the Comic Strip) and writing two 40-minute plays. One was called Death on the Toilet in which “I played Death and God and Ade played Edwin, the guy it all happened to.”

They took it to the Edinburgh Festival and made enough money to move to London. Here they wrote and performed a show called The Wart – “it satirized Ken Campbell’s play The Warp which nobody had ever seen.” It was watched by only 20 people during its 10-day tour. In the audience at the Tramshed in Woolwich was James Fenton, the drama critic of The Sunday Times. He described Mayall as “a very talented young maniac”. Television producers began to take interest.

Throughout he was performing at the Comedy Store in Soho, where anyone could stand up and do a turn, knowing that they would be gonged off stage if their material was predictable. It is Mayall’s proudest boast that he was never once gonged. Then he transferred to the Comic Strip, a new venue of alternative comedians, where he built up a regular following who still talk about his gooseberry sketch. His partner, Ade Edmundson, would ask: “What is green and hairy and goes up and down? … A gooseberry in a lift.” At this point Mayall would move in with violent unpredictability: “Gooseberries don’t go in a lift.” “Yes, they do.” “Oh, how many gooseberries do we know?” “Three.” “All right, if we know three gooseberries, let’s have their names.” “Derek Gooseberry … ” “That’s a lie. All right, if Derek Gooseberry exists, go and get him.” “He’s not well.” An angry row ensues during which Mayall crushes his partner’s genitals, a comic ploy that would not have occurred to either Flanagan or Allen.

At this stage Mayall was well and truly spotted.  He did the Turvey Reports and The Young Ones for the BBC and by 1980, his bank balance was in the black for the first time ever. In the past two years “it has all become a blur,” but he has ventured modestly into films. In The Eye of the Needle he played a sailor who offers Donald Sutherland a sandwich. And in An American Werewolf in London he appeared as. ‘a complete crazy, playing chess with Brian Glover.” In all of his work the key to Mayall is that he is an actor first and foremost. (An actor, by the way, who dislikes the star system and believes in equality of theatre workers). Like many of the new generation of comedians, he does not come from the Oxbridge revue tradition, but from drama school. He does not stand up and tell jokes so much as create characters, and allow the humour to arise from them.

Like many of our present a crop (from Basil Fawlty to Alexei Sayle), his style is manic. “It may be because they all come from steady backgrounds and life is never quite exciting enough. Also, coming from good homes everything has sublimated and they are a bit screwed up. So their performances tend to be a bit wild.” In his own case, Mayall used to have terrible tantrums as a child. “I’ve learned to control it now, but the potential to be self-centered is still there.” To exorcise this he needs the regular release of energy and frustration that only live performance can bring. After a prolonged spell of television work, he is touring university cities until the end of March.

In practice, Mayall tries not to analyse his work “But my characters come up from inside. Kevin Turvey comes from seeing myself talk much and being boring. With the angry poet, I just gave him all embarrassing qualities I have got. I suppose a lot of the things you funny are things you don’t like about yourself. I write about self centred people who are weak inside, but who think they are more important than anyone else.” The character upon which he is working now is a “complete bastard.”

Mayall is a polite, likeable, utterly civilized, modest, unaffected, leftish humanitarian about whom no one can find a bad word to say. And yet he is obsessed with the most unpleasant gallery of characters in recent comic history. He will give a charity performance to help any branch of suffering humanity and yet he homes in on anything ugly and unattractive about the human race. When he sees an unpleasant mannerism, he gleefully incorporates.

If Mayall works in characters, it is partly because he is wary about showing who he really is. “I will do it at home, with friends in a controlled environment.” Before any performance he spends 15 minutes ceasing to be himself and working up his replacement identity. These are so convincing that BBC doormen think he is Kevin Turvey and fans are always disappointed to meet him.

It was to protect his private identity that Mayall invented answers to interviewers’ questions. This is why he will still not talk about his girlfriend and why he would not be photographed in his Camberwell council flat (“That isn’t a statement or anything. I just happen to live there. My ambition is to live in Hereford and Worcester.” He is shrewd enough, even in the early years of his growing fame, to keep a private space in which he can paint (abstract work) and try his hand at writing a serious TV play (his next project) and cook and be domestic. “I am a homely sort of person really.” His privacy also gives him room to change completely.

Mayall walked up and down giving each word serious thought. He then broke into a rare smile and revealed that last year someone in Birmingham went around impersonating him and running up restaurant bills. “He still hasn’t been brought to justice.” The irony of this is not lost on one who impersonates others to disguise himself.

Nonetheless, there is only one Rik Mayall and you now have in your possession all the relevant facts. However, this is not a final portrait, more a brief sketch drawn on the wing. Mayall will be different next year. Let us call it “Rik at 24”

 

Character Assassination

For Blitz, November 1983

Rik Mayall is in the uncomfortably double-edged position of being well known enough to make a living, but too well-known to be credible as his creations Kevin Turvey and Rik the Poet. Simon Garfield spoke to him in Edinburgh during the run of Standup Comedy with Ben Elton and Andy de la Tour.

Ade Edmondson – better known as Vivian in The Young Ones – died in Edinburgh eight weeks ago. And it was Festival time as well. Rik Mayall broke the news at a sell-out fringe venue for three weeks. His act was billed as Twentieth Century Coyote, he said, the name he and Ade had performed as together for six years since they left Manchester University. But now Ade was dead, knocked down by a bus.

As Mayall announced the tragedy, and the fact that a lot of people would already have read about it in the morning’s papers, most of the audience felt queasy, chilly, and generally pretty awful. This was a comedian after all, and they had paid £3 to be entertained.

A handful of people actually laughed, thinking it was some sort of ludicrous joke, and Mayall glared up at them to tell them they were wrong. For a few seconds that hall was the most uncomfortable place in the world. Mayall seemed close to tears. Then, after a few seconds more, he said that it was a joke after all. A joke. After all, it was only a joke. And you fell for it!

Rik Mayall is the most fashionable, most original comic actor in the country. When he’s on form, he’s also by far the funniest. He was the biggest hit at The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip in London two years ago as a feeble feminist poet. He convinced millions that there actually was a nit-picking, ear-picking Brummie private investigator called Kevin Turvey who stood out as the unlikely highlight on the Beeb’s A Kick up the Eighties. He impressed widely as a character actor in The Comic Strip Presents series on Channel 4 and he became a teenage hero as the lefty, antiactivist student in The Young Ones.

But having still not put a foot wrong, he now faces a sizeable and largely predictable professional and personal dilemma. He’s well known; so much so that he can no longer pose credibly as Turvey or Rik the poet; he’s under considerable pressure to finish filming the second Comic Strip Presents TV series while at the same time co-writing six new episodes of The Young Ones before production starts at the beginning of January; and he talks of having problems with his private ‘persona’. He’s wary of doing interviews, and he’s very conscious of the imminent personal turmoil of the star/pressure/drink/drugs/lack of privacy syndrome. It hasn’t yet reached uncontrollable proportions, but Mayall senses it’s building.

He went up to the Edinburgh Festival in August to develop his live routine and “to work out a character that I can use until I’m 60 – to work on ‘Rik Mayall”‘. His show at the fashionable Assembly Rooms, the most comfortable and best-run venue on the fringe circuit, was a sell-out virtually before it opened.

On the bill with Mayall were Ben Elton and Andy de la Tour, who, although preceding him in ie running order, are far from warm-ups in the conventional sense. Both Elton (co-writer of The Young Ones, writer and performer in Alfresco, ex-comedy Store compere) and de la Tour (hardened Belt and Braces campaigner from the West End cast of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, member the original Alternative Cabaret circuit) are accomplished stand-ups in their own right.

It’s significant that even Brian Wenham, director of Programmes for BBC TV, had immense difficulty getting a ticket, such was the demand to see each of them do their bit. Says Mayall: “People have heard a lot about us but haven’t seen that much, and certainly not that much live. I feel a certain pressure, that people are coming along with the view ‘Okay, let’s see how good you really are'”

Undoubtedly there’s a marked difference in material; de la Tour has honest aggression edged with a sharp stab at common vices and tested political – Tory and Liberal – targets; Elton is the genial Jack-the-lad boozer with sound advice on how to keep your seat on a train and a routine that questions the need for that perennial sitcom vourite – the woman behind the bar with big tits.

Mayall is Mayall, or rather would like to be. Well over a year ago he said that he’d give Kevin Turvey the boot as he’d already outlived his purpose. But the tail end of ’83 Turvey is still perhaps his hottest property, and still a 15 minute opener for his 40 minute act. Mayall’s just finished filming a new Comic Strip episode called Eddie Monsoon (and his Talking Penis) in which, he says, Turvey bows out for good. We’ll see. He’s a hard character shake off.

“I think it would be dodgy to get known for just doing one thing,” says Mayall. “I think you could succeed at it – I mean make money – but for a start I wouldn’t like to be known as ‘Oh, he’s that comedian and he’s only good at doing such and such…’, anymore than I’d like to be known as ‘Oh, he’s that comedian…’. This is why I don’t do many interviews either, because the more you give away, and the more of the skeleton and mechanics you low of what you’re doing, then the less exciting it for the audience, and then the less funny it is.

“Maybe that’s one pull that I’ve got when I perform live – hopefully people will come along thinking ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m going to see’,  and there’s an element of danger there which is quite exciting.

‘Tension is important. When you’re telling a joke there has to be a moment of complete belief, of  complete trust, between the performer and the audience. That moment of complete concentration as satisfying as the laugh itself. You’re in another world. If I tell a joke, for you to laugh really well at it you’ve got to completely forget about everything else and believe it’s true, and then I get to the punchline and say ‘No, it’s not true’. But I’m only just exploring this area now.

Performing live, Mayall has a peculiar habit/talent for both offending his audience by hurling unprovoked insults and conning them into believing characters or events which are completely untrue. There’s a rumour circulating that is becoming genuinely schizophrenic – cracking up under the pressure.

“Great. Great!! I’m not trying to make any serious points, but I’ve found myself in quite an interesting area over the last year or so. This is going to sound very pretentious, but we seem to be moving into an area of behaving very strangely towards each other – the idea of people being called ‘stars’ and ‘famous’, and of people who are then more important than other people – maybe it’s something that’s just struck home to me. Maybe the plan is to talk about that, and to wreck that a bit.

“But it’s a very fair criticism when someone says ‘You’re just abusing the audience, you’re just pissing around’. I mean we were in Brighton – we did a terrible gig in Brighton, and if anyone in Brighton is reading this then I’m sorry about the gig! Me and Ade and Nigel [Planer, Neil the hippie in The Young Ones] weren’t prepared at all for it, and people had come along expecting to see The Young Ones. It was okay, but it was going up and down and was a bit queasy. At the very end we did this gag, and as we went to go off, the very last thing I said was ‘Goodnight … and oh, thanks for the money!’ I thought it would be funny, but it was just dead quiet. You could hear our footsteps as we walked off!

“And that’s a very interesting area – it’s like going round to your granny’s and getting your knob out. Something you just don’t mention on stage is that relationship between the performer and the audience. It’s funny, because you can go onstage and say ‘fuck’, and you can get your knob out like Ade did on The Young Ones tour – and it’s very funny. But you don’t say things like Thanks for giving us all this money’ or ‘I think you’re wankers!'”

Some of the audience in Edinburgh seemed to take the abuse personally, as if Mayall really meant it. “That’s perhaps because I haven’t got used to that area yet where I can do it so that they know it’s tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think it’s sufficient to be dangerous and create a lot of tension just for its own sake. You’ve got to undercut it – that’s what a joke is. Once I’m more used to performing it, it’ll be an easier show to watch – I’ll be more in control of the situation.”

In December Mayall takes a professional break from his normal work to appear in Brecht’s Man Equals Man at Manchester University’s Umbrella Theatre. Apart from his debut as a Wise King in his Droitwich school’s nativity play, Mayall began his performing life as a drama student at Manchester. The original Twentieth Century Coyote was formed with Edmondson and three others, experimenting with improvised plays at a pub called The Band on the Wall until a bustup after about a year. Mayall continued working with Edmondson on improvised half-hour shows.

Coyote came up to Edinburgh with two shows – the first in ’77 when all five of them touted My Lungs don’t Work – and then, with the depleted line-up, in a show called Death on the Toilet. Improbable or not, Death on the Toilet became one of the Fringe’s cult hits – even now someone must be saying ‘Of course, my dears, I saw Mr Mayall when he was in DOTT..’. The show brought in enough cash to enable Rik and Ade to move south.

“We used to tour two shows, just the two of us in Ade’s car. We got one called The Wart together – a pisstake of Ken Campbell’s [23-hour production] The Warp. It was a disaster. No one came to see us. We performed in little village halls, and we did about sixteen shows, but no more than ten people came to see us. We were putting them on at half-past five in the afternoon, with no posters or anything, and nobody would know about it.” One of the audience one half-past five was Sunday Times drama critic, James Fenton. He called Mayall “a very talented young maniac”.

Mayall’s popular ‘hopeless poet’ act, so well honed at the Comedy Store, grew directly out of a character in The Wart. “I began doing those poems up in Edinburgh, because they had all these poets down at the Fringe Club, and I fancied pretending to be one. I began reading crap poems like they were doing. I did it and people laughed, and I shouted at them to shut up, and that’s where it all came from.

“People thought there’s an actual bloke making a twat of himself, and that’s when it got really funny because they’re giggling and trying to stop themselves, and you glare at them and they can’t stop, and they start thinking ‘Oh God, this is awful!’ and they have a wonderful time.

“It’s the same with Kevin Turvey. That’s why I had my name removed from the credits when Kevin was on the telly. There are a lot of people who still think that he actually exists. Kevin’s maybe outlived his life because now that The Young Ones has happened people think That bloke looks like him – oh, he’s an actor’. But when it first happens it’s wonderful.

‘That’s why what I’m doing now is me as Rik Mayall – that’s the one card left up my sleeve. I can’t pretend to be anyone else because my face is known, but I can still pretend to be me. I need to invent a character who is as good as Rik the poet or Kevin, but that I can call me. I need a character who I can stick with for life, because there’s nowhere I can go after that.

“My act with Ade was always a crossover between acting and comedy. We’ve just done one of the Comic Strip films for the new series called Dirty Movie which I’m very pleased with because it’s just exactly what we used to do in the early days. It’s got a real absurdist feel to it. It’s the first one hopefully of a huge crop – it looks odd and it looks good. It’s just about a bloke who gets a dirty movie through the post and happens to own a cinema, and he’s got to get everyone out so that he can watch it. Perhaps it’s not yet quite absurdist enough for my taste…”

Mayall’s personal tastes are kept in check, on The Young Ones at least, by his cowriters Lise Mayer (also his longstanding girlfriend) and Ben Elton. And if Mayall is more concerned with character, then perhaps Elton’s writing interests lie as much or more with situation and (often implicitly political) content.

Says Elton: “I’ve become very worried that we’re passing through a deeply reactionary phase in Britain – and it’s far more of a reactionary phase than people realize. To a certain extent Andy and I both believe that periods of reaction produce good live entertainment – look at Germany in the Thirties – people get very angry.

“In a live act humour can be a very good way of getting your political concerns across- but I’m first and foremost a performer. My first principle is to be funny, because of course if you’re not funny you actually do a disservice to your principles. If I don’t get laughs it infuriates me, and I go for them and go for them and go for them. That means that a great deal of my act has nothing to do with politics – it’s about beer, and coming from Guildford…”

How does it feel stepping out into a spotlight with 300 people in front of you all having paid their money and waiting either to be entertained or to heckle and pull you to the ground?

“Before the act I wander around backstage getting…not mentally nervous – but I have a terrific problem with my stomach. I seem to have no nerves anywhere but there – I just sort of feel sick and have to run to the bog. My mind is clear and my stomach’s a raging turmoil, and I suppose it’s at least better that way round. But I know that I can do it. Compering at The Comedy Store taught me that I can handle just about any audience – in fact I’m at my best if there’s trouble.

“But once I’m onstage for a minute I feel good. I think the microphone is a terrific image – I like looking at them and I feel powerful – maybe there’s something phallic in it. A bad gig affects me right up until the next one, and I spend the rest of the evening worrying about it and apologising to the people in the audience that I knew. But my definition of a bad gig is pretty strict – I mean I don’t die onstage, but there are obviously gigs where people don’t go ‘Yeah ! Yeah! Yeah!’ at the end. But if it’s a good gig I forget about it in about two minutes. A stormer might keep me going for two hours maximum.”

Elton wrote his first play when he was 15 – “at that age I got obsessed with Noel Coward” – and developed by studying drama at Stratford (not the RSC…) and as a student in Manchester with Mayall and Edmondson. At 24 he’s written a bottomless pile of comic plays, has written and performed in the dangerously over-hyped Alfresco, has compered deftly at The Comedy Store, has written a vehicle for Emma Thompson over which he’s currently negotiating with Granada, and there are plans for a writing partnership with Not the Nine O’clock News and BlackAdder writer Richard Curtis. He’s also been jointly responsible for the TV series that’s had more of a revolutionary impact on young people than any programme since Monty PythonThe Young Ones.

Mayall: “People write and say ‘I think it’s brilliant, I’ve got it on video and I watch it every night’. Everyone’s videoed it, which I’m pleased about. We were writing it for a video because hopefully it’s the kind of thing you can watch three or four times.”

The BBC has recently announced plans to package its most popular shows in video format as a direct attempt to profit from declining audience figures. It’s significant that The Young Ones is not amongst the first batch, and highlights rumours that the Beeb received a lot of hate-mail for the series, in particular letters objecting to that old shocker-bad language.

Elton: “I didn’t know about that. We got a lot of fan-mail. And I was very happy with the reaction to the Tampon scene [“What is it? … Oh, it’s a telescope! … And it’s got a mouse in it!”] because there was a lot of sympathy for that. I did a radio programme in which I talked about the puerile nature of censorship – the fact that we can have The Two Ronnies doing loads and loads of gags about how funny women’s breasts are, but that we were almost not allowed to do a joke about a man not understanding what a Tampon was.

‘That’s about as obscene a bit of morality as you could possibly get. You can advertise toilet rolls, you can advertise people coughing and sneezing and taking Night Nurse, but you can’t advertise menstruation in the same way. That assumes that menstruation must be rude. So what we’re saying is that half the population have got something going on that’s a bit secret and a bit naughty that we really can’t talk about. Which is why girls of thirteen run home screaming because they don’t know what’s happening to them.”

Certainly part of The Young Ones appeal lay in the examination of previously uncharted territory, at least on TV, and the fact that here, for the first time in ages, was a programme that young people could genuinely associate with. And young, according to Mayall, often meant very young.

“We did a Young Ones tour which was thrown together in about two weeks because we wanted to get back to doing live stuff again, and loads of little kids came to see us. It became clear the difficulties that families must have. I mean Ade comes on and gets his knob out, and I’m talking about really disgusting things – I’m trying to be filthy and horrible – but what kind of a family show is that? You can’t bring your little kids down – they’d have nightmares after seeing me.

“But the parents come backstage afterwards and say ‘It was wonderful, Rik!’ And I say ‘It was a bit dirty’, and they go ‘Oh no, don’t worry about that. You liked it, Mark didn’t you? And their kid would go ‘Yes, lots of prick!'”

Towards the end of the Festival stint, there’s a party thrown to celebrate Lenny Henry’s birthday. He’s come up to Edinburgh and assembled the likes of Alexei Sayle and Andy de la Tour at Bannerman’s wine bar for a definitely swinging time. Inside, Norman Lovett – the relatively unknown but highly-admired stand-up – pushes his way through the crowd, downs a pint, and starts discussing his career prospects with Andy de la Tour:

Lovett: “I’ve got twelve minutes on London Weekend TV soon, so it’ll be interesting to see how that turns out. I really want to earn some more money as well. The last few years I’ve been really skint. I want to know when it’ll be my turn. You know, when do I get some?

“Last night I went to a party and Rik Mayall comes up to me, pissed out of his mind, and goes, ‘You’re funnier than I am! I’ve got all the TV, I’ve got more money, but I haven’t got your material.’ He came to see me twice last week because he can’t write down my stuff fast enough!”

Andy de la Tour: “I’m taking him on the golf course so I can get all his good material. I can club him to death and get rid of him. And then take his gigs!”

Meanwhile, outside the sardine-packed wine bar, there’s just somebody slumped on his own in a doorway opposite, looking dejectedly at the pavement. When it starts to rain, he lifts up his head and you realise that it’s not just somebody at all. It’s Rik Mayall.