By Neil Gairman for Knave, 1985
Half of Twentieth Century Coyote in his Comedy Store and Comic Strip days, then Kevin Turvey and Rick in A Kick Up The 80s and The Young Ones — Rik Mayall has a lot to answer for. Nell Gaiman asks the questions…
Rik Mayall looks nothing like either of his best-known creations, Kevin Turvey (outlandish non-sequitur merchant of ‘A Kick up the 80s’) or Rick of ‘The Young Ones’. He has an amiable, good-looking face; yet place him in front of a camera and the eyes bulge and the lips curl, and Rik is replaced by Rick (super-wimp, anarchist poet, and Cliff Richard fan).
‘The Young Ones’ was a phenomenally successful show, and compulsive viewing for millions of people. The wild sitcom, co-created and -scripted by Rik Mayall, starred Nigel Planer as Neil, (hippie, loser, and lentil fan); Adrian Edmondson as Vyv, (destructive punk/ heavy-metal loonie supreme); Chris Ryan as Mike, (the-cool-person); Rik as Rick; Alexei Sayle as their landlord and his enormous family; and a supporting cast of hamsters, inflatable dolls, atomic bombs, famous rock-bands in the bath room, etc. It surprised a number of people when Rik killed off the series at the height of its popularity, the four stars vanishing over a cliff in a red London bus.
Why kill it off?
“A mixture of reasons. One was I felt that we’d explored everything in that situation. Another one was I don’t want the whole thing going stale. I think the statement was made very coherently and very clearly. There’s a throughline from the first programme of the first series to the last episode of the last series there’s a whole statement there that’s made. There’s nothing more to say. There are a few jokes that could be done, but I think the best ones have been told… besides, if you can do things like that then there’s no reason why you can’t do more. The only thing stopping you is if you carry on doing that same thing — I didn’t want to turn it into another ‘Are you Being Served?’ which would get flabby after three or four series.
“Like Bill Oddie – he got caught in the trap. Towards the end I don’t think The Goodies were that funny, but I used to love the Goodies. We got a letter from him, a really nice supportive letter, and I wish he’d get back to doing some stuff. I don’t think anyone ever loses it, I think they just lose faith in themselves.
‘We are all very lucky, ‘cos if any of us ever get depressed or pissed off or out of work there’s such a huge group of us now, about twenty of us, that we can all support each other. That’s probably open to criticism, that we operate in a kind of Mafia way, but to my mind that’s the only way you can get on; the only way I did it at school or at university: you got a group of people together, who all thought the same – and you do your stuff.”
How did he become a comic?
“In the beginning, I suppose it was at school. I was never much good at anything except going on stage. My Dad and Mum were both Drama teachers, and whenever they were putting on plays I was in them. Dad used to do a Brecht play he liked every Christmas and I was always the kid in it. And as it was the only thing I was good at I used to put on plays at school… and it just so happened that I wasn’t the kind of actor who was able to be straight; I was always getting laughs, and I enjoyed getting laughs, so I used to play towards that, and that’s how it happened. A lot of other comics go on about always entertaining other kids in the playground. I was never like that. I was ‘cool’.” He laughed.
Rik studied Drama at university, and stayed in a house that he claims was the inspiration for the one in the Young Ones. He teamed up with Ade Edmondson and formed a two-man comedy team called Twentieth Century Coyote, and together they went to the Edinburgh Festival. It was there that the character of Rick was created, in response to the poetry afternoons, at which some fairly awful poets inflicted themselves on the public. Rik wrote Rick some poems, gave him an inability to pronounce his Rs and set him loose.
He and Ade came down to London, appeared at The Comedy Store, and then set up The Comic Strip. “We wanted to set up our own thing instead of working for someone else. We were working with The Outer Limits (Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson) and Alexei, and I wanted some kind of TV vehicle for all of us, and I thought I’d make us all students and make Alexei the landlord. The characters were all the characters that we do best. Vyvian was based very much on Adrian Dangerous, which was the character that Ade played in the Dangerous Brothers set we did. Peter Richardson was the Mike character, but he had a disagreement with the producer, and in the end Chris did it… there was a kind of worrying split between the Comic Strip and the Young Ones, which I was worried about for a while. I thought it might turn into a feud, but it never did, so that was all right.”
Was he surprised at the popularity of the series
“Yes. I was. I didn’t know what to expect at all. Except, before the first programme went out and there was any critical response at all, I loved it and I was really proud of it. I really didn’t give a shit what anybody felt, ‘cos I thought it was really good. It was the best we could do, and fuck the critics if they didn’t like it. We were used to them not liking us we’d had all the papers coming down to The Comic Strip and slagging us off. One of the papers called me a ‘fourletter gag merchant’. (I was going to put that in my passport as Occupation Four Letter Gag Merchant.) And then it was broadcast, and they liked it – even the ones who didn’t like it were nice about it. No one ever said ‘This is shit and I hate it.’ Not to my face, anyway.”
Nigel Planer, in his alter-ego as Neil, had a minor best-seller with Neil’s Book Of The Dead, and a chart-topping hit last year with Hole In My Shoe. How did Rik feel about this? “I didn’t like the single. I didn’t think it was funny. The Book Of The Dead I… I didn’t mind, I’ll thought it was Nigel’s business. It was a shame that the single wasn’t funny. It was beautifully produced, and the kids all think it’s great, but I think that part of its success was that a lot of people thought that, as there would be no more Young Ones , it would be the last Young Ones object they could lay their hands on before it disappeared completely. Which depresses me slightly. But,” he picks up a copy of Bachelor Boys (er, Sphere Books £2.95) “this is the momento of the show. And it stands up as a book in its own right.”
Is this, I enquired, the same book that was originally announced under the title of ‘The Young Ones Good Housekeeping Guide?’
“Yes. It’s the same book. We couldn’t think of a title. In the end we settled on Bachelor Boys — if you have a ‘joke’ title then it can wear thin. Like The Young Ones. It’s a good title, not a joke…
Which reminds me; where did the fixation on Cliff Richard come from?
“Well, originally Rick had an obsession with Vanessa Redgrave — I think that he’s a character who needs an obsession. His poems were all about Vanessa Redgrave — or they’d start out about something else and then end up being about her. But when we transferred to the telly I switched the obsession to Cliff. Part of it was the anti-Rock and Roll thing, and Cliff represents R & R. His career spans Rock and Roll. It’s in the book…
“It’s one of my favourite bits,” I told him.
“The History of Rock…
“With Cliff and Tommy Steele working on a chain gang…”
“… and the evil slave overseer,” Rik continued, “and Cliff turns to Tommy and says ‘Why don’t we combine “the blues” with elements of white country music and call it ‘Rock and Roll’.’ Then There’s the stuff in the Cavern Club as well — Brian Epstein nursing the most phenomenal hard-on in the the history of Rock and Roll while Cliff discovers the Eurovision Song Contest and Lionel Blair… I suppose it’s the sort of punky elements of taking lots of trash from everywhere and mixing it all up.”
I mentioned that it reminded me less of punk than of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books…
“That’s true! They were very much an inspiration to me. I used to read them at school. The style of the books is similar to the Molesworth books — you get lots of little bits, like a play or a story or a bit of dialogue, or it diverges into how to go to the shops with your granny. The charm of the Molesworth books is that if you’re a school kid you love ’em, but if you’re anyone you love ’em, because eveyone’s been a schoolkid. Like the four Young Ones — I made them students, because I don’t see anything funny about taking the piss out of four boys sitting around on the dole, that would be sick. But everybody hates students, and they never go into lectures or anything… I suppose what I’m trying to say is that in the same way the Molesworth books appealed to everyone I think that this will as well…
“I saw Rowan Atkinson the other day, and he’d been in his local the week before, and four guys had come in dressed as the four Young Ones, and spent the whole evening behaving as the characters would… but I remember being obsessed by Python when I was at school. Terry Jones was in one Young Ones episode. I wanted Michael Palin but he was too busy. I also wanted Tommy Cooper to play Neil’s father. It couldn’t be done at the time. Cooper was my hero.”
So what’s next?
“I’m going on a tour with Ben Elton I’m trying to work up enough material for an hour and a half; at the moment I’ve got about 45 minutes. But I want to get the material together for a tour I want to do in the sping with Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton and Ade Edmondson — who’s getting a new band together called Adrian Edmondson’s Raw Sex. I want to do a big variety tour, like, say, the Crazy Gang used to do, and do it in all the old Variety theatres.
“I’ll do a certain amount of Kevin Turvey — people expect it. If you go and see a band you’ll be pissed off it it’s all from their new album. The beauty of Kevin is that I can always write a new monologue for him, so it’s familiar but it’s still new. I may do a little Rick. But I’m trying to work up a character which is funny, which people actually think is me. When I first started doing Kevin Turvey I didn’t have my name on the credits of the show, and people thought that he was a real person, and that made it twice as funny. It was the same with Rick and the poems — when I started doing them there were people who weren’t sure whether I really meant it or not, whether I was a serious poet or not. Like Tommy Cooper had a persona which was funny, and you weren’t sure whether he was really like that or not, but he could do anything within that persona, because the character is funny. He could butter a bit of bread and it would be funny. That’s something I’d like to develop through this tour. Not that it’s easier, but so that you discover something that is fundamentally funny and it isn’t just going on stage and telling jokes. It’s funny in its own right.
“Plus there’s the Gogol play at the National Theatre, called The Government Inspector– which I hope doesn’t put people off, it being a Russian play on at the National. I hope I attract the kind of people who’d come and see me in variety, to the National, as it’s a great laugh. I hope I don’t just get the sort of people who go to the National — not that there’s anything wrong with those kind of people!” he added loudly into the tape recorder.
The phone rings a couple of times. It’s for Rik. A publicity girl enters with a pile of books for him to sign. The photographer realises that none of the pictures so far have come out. Rik asks the time and discovers he should have been gone five minutes ago.
He mugs for the camera, eyes popping, lips curling, transformed in seconds from a self-assured young actor into a pitiful specimen of humanity. In between leers and smirks I squeeze in a couple more questions. Does he feel that he did change the face of comedy?
“I think we slightly changed one minor genre in comedy and that was the nature of T.V. sitcom. I don’t think anything fundamental has been done yet. But we will do that. One of the reasons for packing in the Young Ones was because I wanted to do something bigger and better and funnier. It is easily possible to do. I just hope that we keep the audience with us, because they could be pissed off if it isn’t another ‘Young Ones’. Whatever happens it’s going to be a big fight, with a lot of people disappointed and a lot of people pleased…
The photographer finishes the roll of film. Rik pulls on his coat. What’s his lifestyle?
“Busy. I’ve just bought a flat and I’m pretty well skint. I’m coming to the end of a long period of not working. I took the whole summer off ‘cos I’ve been writing for the last three summers and watching people outside sunbathing, and I was just writing jokes for other people to tell… so I took the summer off, bought the flat, went on holiday and I’m skint. The bank has just taken away my cheque-book. So we’re coming to a period where I’m going to have to start doing some more work, so I’ve been lining up lots of work, and the tour is part of that. Making money. And getting my cheque-book back… ‘
And with that he was gone.