By Dave Dickinson for Kerrang Extra, 1984
The Bachelor Boy Rik Mayall, Kevin Turvey and Dave Dickson all discuss their latest best-sellers and explain why everyone should vote for Mrs Thatcher next time around.
Few issues of the regular, fortnightly Kerrang! back Howard Johnson dallied with the name of Friedrich Nietzsche (a decidedly dangerous course) and then added the disclaimer that he wasn’t me (a statement I can heartily endorse) and that he wasn’t about to embark on a lengthy tangential diatribe on the birthplace of Nazi philosophy.
Well, that’s as may be, but an occasional saunter along the back-alleys of rumination can unearth some interesting, hitherto unseen, facets of this dark world. Average rock’n’rollers we might well be, but that doesn’t mean we have to be ignorant cretins too, does it?
OK, brief diversion coming up: ever heard of a guy called Steven Berkoff? No? Well he’s a playwright, director and actor very much on the ‘fringe’ of British theatre. His view on life is through the eyes of extreme socialism — you might even call it Marxism — very caustic and very violent. Recently his stageplay West — again, an extreme, violent appraisal of the macho image, set in East London and delivered in a neo-Shakespearean tongue that served to intensify the drama was broadcast on Channel 4, and more recently still I watched him being interviewed on the same channel on a teatime chat-show.
What impressed me then and kept me rivetted to the screen was his obvious love and passion for his work and his cause. This man, I thought, knows what he is talking about in his curious lilting articulation and excitable mannersims. I was impressed, and few people can ever do that for me.
Ever heard of a guy called Rik Mayall? Of course you have. So where’s the connection? Rik Mayall and Steven Berkoff share a socialist vision of Britain, both are writers, both are actors; the difference is that while Berkoff may perform his bloody rites to an audience of a few thousand (even at peak Alternative TV viewing time) Mayall exacts his anarchic bufoonery before an estimated audience of six million (the viewing figures at the close of the Young Ones second series).
So who is the more effective anarchist? Steven Berkoff is doomed to eke out a voluble but diminished existence on the fringe whereas Rik Mayall is already being touted as Britain’s foremost comic, to him are slipping the rewards of fame and wealth and social status, Why? Because Rick is considered nice, relatively safe if slightly risque comedy, whereas Berkoff is obviously a raving loony leftist. When Rick announces that tonight he is going to bring down the State before some ten million people on the Terry Wogan show, everyone laughs; even my mother likes Rick.
What isn’t immediately obvious is the more serious side to Rik Mayall, the fact that an edited (read ‘censored’) part of that largely embarrassing Wogan appearance “Where I said Mrs Thatcher was a Nazi!” and that all the invectives on the Police State, rampant Fascism in the Government and the dehumanising processes of the Tory policies are born out of this kernel of true socialist belief at the core of May all’s writing.
Mayall and Berkoff’s visions may be the same, but their means to that end are worlds apart. Where Berkoffs is proselytising and confrontational, Mayall’s is altogether more subtle and therefore all the more effective.
Rik Mayall chips delicately away at the foundations of conformity hoping that one day they will collapse, Berkoff tends to storm the barricades in what is liable to be a brave but ultimately futile gesture.
For instance there came a time in the second Young Ones series where in order to foil the BBC censors (the self-appointed guardians of our morals!) “We put in a really horrible bit just before a slightly censorable bit.”
Now, bear in mind that “it was mainly ‘w* *ks’ they (the BBC) didn’t like,” so Mayall and his co-writer Lise Mayer employed a diversionary tactic. This is the scene: desperate for money, the Young Ones swallow their moral and ethical qualms and decide to enlist Neil in the Army to earn some quick money. Down at the Army Recruitment Office Neil is forcibly ejected on to the street for telling them he is a pacifist. Out on the pavement Rick, Vyvyan and Mike are thereto meet him.
This is what the original script read:
Rick: You complete w* *ker, Neil!
Rick: You complete w* *ker, Neil!
Neil: Oh, I thought that’s what you said. I didn’t know you were allowed to say w* *ker on the TV!
Vyvyan: No, it’s ‘Stop f * * king that dead dog up the arse and come over here and eat my s* *t, Mrs Thatcher!’, that you can’t say on the television!
Subtle eh? But remember, this is just the decoy, the real catch came over the page. “And so they said, ‘Well, that’s OUT!’ and of course they missed the ‘w* *k’ on the next page ‘cos they were too busy tearing out that page!”
And that is the art of getting past the BBC censors and slipping in another snippet of anarchy on to the TV screens, another small battle won in the war against TV censorship.
But this was as a mere nothing compared to the wars raged over the screening of the Comic Strip’s Eddie Monsoon. Eddie Monsoon was scripted by Ade Edmondson and was “a pretty wild swipe” at the whole TV industry, based very loosely around the career of sixties BBC TV whiz-kid Simon Dee (a kind of smutty Terry Wogan, for all you too young to remember).
“The first (version) was banned! explains Mayall, “the one you saw was well toned down!”
The revised script had Eddie (Ade Edmondson) giving Jeremy Isaacs (Channel 4’s chief executive) a blow-job but in the final screened version his part was taken by Michael White, C4’s executive producer.
Monsoon’s tirade of obscenities, too, came under the hammer as well as his more explicit acts of violence. But the second series of the Comic Strip lacked the discipline of either its own first series or either of the two Young Ones series. Only the Mayall/Edmondson-penned Dirty Movie scaled the comic heights of the wildly hilarious pilot, Five Go Mad In Dorset, or the perversity and blackness of War.
Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall have been writing and performing together since 1978 when they teamed up under the morucker ’20th Century Coyote’ and unleashed their cataclysmic act on the world at the Edinburgh Festival (at least, the ‘Fringe’ part of the Festival). It was there that Rick was first born.
“In ’79 I was in a play with Ade called Death On The Toilet and we used to go on in Fringe club cabaret (at the Festival) in the evening and there were a lot of poets there who weren’t very good. So I put some poems together and pretended to be a real person, a real poet reading this crap poetry. And then when people started to laugh I shouted at them to shut up! I just wanted to be as w* *ky as I could, so the character just developed over that run. And then I did him at the Comedy Store (a club in Soho that spawned many of the so-called ‘alternative’ comedians around the turn of the decade) as well and gradually various aspects of him developed.”
Like his obsessions: “He used to be obsessed with Vanessa Redgrave!”
But why? “Because I was moving in much more theatrical circles then, whereas now it’s more cabaret.” And now Vanessa Redgrave has become Cliff Richard, because: “The character has to have an obsession, that kind of person, and Cliff Richard wasn’t very fashionable amongst the congnoscenti at the time, and still isn’t. And that’s how you make people laugh.”
The object with the Young Ones was always to make people laugh by giving the audience “the kind of stuff we’d really like to see on the telly, the kind of stuff that made us laugh.”
According to Mayall, Fringe Theatre (the stuff of Steven Berkoff, remember him?) died because it became too ‘Agitprop’ (short for Agitation & Propaganda) cutting its own throat by becoming more interested in experimentation than entertainment. And that Mayall has always tried to avoid.
Neither the Young Ones nor the Comic Strip, according to Mayall, set out to be ‘violent or disgusting’ (of which they were often accused) but rather they were trying “to make people laugh.” And in that they certainly succeeded, mainly because “the idea was funny!” And that funny idea a lot of people then took to their hearts. “It’s very funny, isn’t it?” quips Lise Mayer, “we tried to make the characters as unpleasant as possible and people still liked them! There’s something in people that they try and see their good qualities no matter how awful you make someone.”
“I think that says a lot for humanity,” offers Mayall.
Whether the mums and dads who took their six year old Ricks and Vyvyans to see the Kevin Turvey And The bastard Squad tour (essentially the Young Ones on the road) thought Rik Mayall and friends were doing a lot for humanity is rather more open to doubt.
“Everywhere on that tour was packed!” exclaims Mayall. Hardly surprising coming hot on the heels of the Young Ones’ initial success, but: “There were a lot of really young people, kids coming with their parents! And Ade does this bit with ‘Adrian Bastard And His Talking Penis’ where I’m offstage with this microphone and he’s putting a mike down his trousers… and it’s just like horrible, dirty gags! And little six year old kids are going: ‘What’s a knob, Mum?”‘
The audience, it transpires, was very much a rock audience, “particularly when Ade came on playing guitar, it was like going to see a band. He comes on as Vyv: ‘Wooargh!!’ And he just shouts, F* *K OFF, YOU BASTARDS!!’ and they all go: ‘Yeaahh!!”‘
But what was odd,” remembers Ms Mayer, “was all the little 13 year old Vyvyans! You know, do they realise that the studs are stuck on his head with glue? You can imagine these kids trying to hammer them in!!”
But rock obviously plays an important part in the Young Ones’ comedy (Neil is a hippy, Vyvyan a punk, Rick a Cliff Richard fan!) — indeed Lise and Rik had attended the W.A.S.P. gig at the Lyceum a few weeks before the interview.
“I thought it had a slightly sexist slant, the act, slightly male-orientated,” Rik comments with much understatement, but then adds, “but I like that kind of thing, I enjoyed it.”
Remember, this is the man who also has the fetish (and who can blame him?) about Felicity Kendall — one of the features of the show being the regular appearance of a rock band. The point of all this was to “combine the three elements of TV comedy that had worked best in the past: sit-com, revue shows and variety. The sit-com was represented by the boys living in the house and the plot; revue was represented by the sketches that we’d just fly off; and the variety element was provided by Alexei (Sayle) doing a stand-up comic’s piece every week, and a band.” Those bands were chosen either for a particular song, as in the case of Motorhead and the Damned, or because they just liked them.
“Motorhead we wanted for their single, Ace Of Spades, ‘cos there’s great lines in it: ‘That’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t wanna live forever!’ And that contrasts quite nicely with four twatty students going on University Challenge — which is hardly gambling for your life!”
“And we wanted the Damned in it,” continues Lise, “so everyone was trying to reach them but they hadn’t got a label or a management or anything so no-one could find them. Then there was this call to the production office saying, ‘Hello, we’ve heard you’re looking for The Damned!’ That’s right. ‘This is RAT!!’ Err, hello Mr Scabies!
“And they wrote a song specially for us!” The song, incidentally, appears on the B-side of the Thanks For The Night single and is titled after the show, Nasty, the one about video-nasties which also starred Python’s Terry Jones and was probably the best episode of the second series as a whole.
The Pythons not surprisingly, have proved major influences on Rik Mayall, and in particular John Cleese. “I’ve got tremendous respect for him because he pulled out of the Pythons when he thought they weren’t being as sharp as they should. And the last series of Python lacked Cleese (as an essential ingredient). And again with Fawlty Towers he didn’t rush into a second series, and that’s been an inspiration, seeing him being cool about wanted to do stuff at its best.”
And now Rik Mayall has applied that same philosophy to the Young Ones. The BBC, naturally, wanted a third series but Rik has declined because, “I think all the jokes have been told in that context, all the things we wanted to say have been said and, like you said earlier (I did, honest!), the second series wasn’t as effective as the first because you’d seen (it done already). I think, inevitably, you’d keep going down levels if you kept on doing more episodes. And we want to give ourselves the time to write something new… and probably come up with better work.”
By way of consolation we have The Young Ones, the book of the TV series (kind of), whereby “the basic joke is that the four boys have been given a book by Sphere (the publishers) to write. So it’s a lot of different books in one and they keep starting different things so it has the effect, in the end, of being a different gag on every page. You’ve got Vyv’s ‘History Of The World’, which breaks down in the end — it’s basically the history of HM anyway! — ‘How To Swear Properly’, a photostory where you’ve got to spot who farted!, Rick’s ‘Great Games To Play In The Lavatory’, ‘How To Write Poetry’…”
And how does Rick write poetry?
“Well, he’s got his rhyming dictionary,” explains Lise, “you know, what rhymes with ‘socialism? What rhymes with ‘Trotskyism’? And you see his work in action; he’s written a poem to Felicity Kendall and he shows it through all the stages, all the corrections. It starts out quite obscene but he tones it down.”
“What we were trying to do,” continues Rik, “was for the book to have the same effect as the TV show does when it’s at its best. When the plot’s absurdist you really don’t know what to expect next, which makes it exciting, so hopefully the book will be the same because it’s completely out of control. It’s like Sphere’s actually given them a lot of money and they’ve done it all nicely, they’ve made the book beautiful… but if you actually read it it’s pure bollocks!”
Mayall has taken as much care over this final Young Ones project as he did the first. He didn’t want it to be just another spin-off in the same way that the Comic Strip script books, the Python script books and the Neil output have all been, although he falls shy of outwardly criticising Nigel Planer’s milking of the Neil character for all it is worth (and then some). To my mind this has done nothing but discredit a brilliantly drawn comic character. What Planer has done through the abysmal Neil’s Book Of The Dead, those absurd singles and his continual, extremely unfunny TV appearances under the guise of Neil (I had the misfortune to see the hapless Frank Bough try to interview Neil for five minutes on Breakfast TV. After two minutes Neil had run out of things to say and was reduced to tearing up the newspapers in a desperate attempt to get laughs. Unfortunately the Breakfast TV people were too polite not to) seem, to me, akin to plundering an open grave. But Mayall will not be drawn — “Because Nigel is a good mate of mine, Nigel is a nice man!” — but it isn’t hard to scratch beneath the diplomatic veneer to reveal a tacit disapproval.
“Hopefully this book is a book in its own right (independent of the TV series), it’s a funny book. I think it’ll be tough for people who’ve never seen the show (and presumably there are some people out there who haven’t seen it!) to understand the sense of humour, I think it’s for people who enjoyed the show, so in a sense it is the third series!”
To this end he has succeeded remarkably — and, indeed, far beyond his own limited expectations for the book and the series. While I was actually conducting the interview his publicity agent came into the room to announce that the Bachelor Boys had just reached the Number One position in the Sunday Times bestseller list!
“Congratulations, Dave,” beamed Rik, thrusting out his hand, “well done!” And at this stage — well before Christmas, it’s taken the bastards up at AKE (Almighty Kerrang! Editorial) all this time run the f* *king piece but don’t worry, Rik, I’ll get them back, the complete and utter bastards! — the book hadn’t been out a fortnight!!
Alright, alright, that’s all very well and hunky dory and you’ve had your little piece of invective about socialism and Nigel Planer — BUT WHAT IS RIK MAYALL ACTUALLY LIKE??
Rik Mayall is a shy, rather serious man. He isn’t a natural comic, he simply uses comedy to mask what he might consider the inadequacies of his personal make-up. He doesn’t look like his characters — which saves him from the harassment of being recognised in public — but then he isn’t really like his charcters, they are rather more extensions of the bits of himself he doesn’t like (the pseudointellectual bore of Kevin Turvey, investigative journalist, and the wet-wimp-pansypseudo-anarchist of Rick) coupled with sharp observations of other people.
And because he’s not a ‘natural’ he is now pushing himself harder to learn his craft. I suspect Rik Mayall as performer will want to seek fame and credibility as a ‘straight’ actor and content himself with writing comedy once he has honed his acting skills — and there can be no tougher audience than around the clubs of Britain for that.
As this goes out Rik Mayall will be trying his hand at some more traditional comedy, The Government Inspector by the Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol at the National Theatre, before taking to the road again in the Spring with Young Ones co-writer and fellow stand-up comedian Ben Elton alongside Ade Edmondson’s Raw Sex!
He spent the latter part of 1984 doing a mini club tour of the UK with just himself, Ben Elton and a microphone, becoming “a proper stand-up.” And after that there’ll be more TV and more books. And as the champagne arrives to celebrate Mayall’s new stature as best-selling author isn’t this, I accuse, really becoming part of the Establishment?
“Well, that’s what I always wanted to do!” he parries. “Go and entertain the troops… be on the Royal Variety Show at the London Palladium!”
And maybe Rik Mayall will become a respected member of the Establishment… but will you or I or anyone else for that matter ever be able to honestly say we’re positive he’s not just playing at being someone else?
I very much doubt it.