Rik Mayall Interviews and Articles Archive

The Pan Global Phenomenon in all his verbal glory.

Category: 1985

Waiting for Gogol – The Rik Mayall Interview

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.

Upstaged by the Set

By Irving Wardle for The Times, 2nd February 1985

The Government Inspector Olivier Theatre

Many spectators who have been richly entertained by British revivals of this piece as a smalltown social satire must have shrugged off Gogol’s efforts to claim it as a vision of judgment. The idea does not look so farfetched in the light of Richard Eyre’s production, which amounts to our first acknowledgment of the play’s epic status in mainland Europe.

The enlarged scale is instantly declared in John Gunter’s amazing set: a recessed curtain composed of magnified documents that overflow into giant files on the side stages, with lamppost-sized pencils projecting from barrels and bloated monster flies crawling over the blanched desert of rotting paperwork.

On to this overwhelming image of Tsarist bureaucracy is projected the face of the inspector, first seen in profile, and then turning to confront the audience as a wrathful demon as curtain rises amid thunderclaps to reveal the Govenor and his cronies in a smoke-shrouded office. They have some reason to be shivering in their shoes at the announcement that the imperial official is on his way.

Fear runs through the production to a degree far beyond the call of satire; but its effect is often to intensify the comedy.

But with sheer panic driving out common sense, there is nothing improbable in the sight of Jim Broadbent and Rik Mayall outdoing each other in grovelling courtesies.

That is one early example of the grotesque style which develops to the grand scale as the evening progresses. Sometimes it is simply exhilarating, as where Khlestakov’s reveries of social glory call forth a court of resplendent mutes on the side stages in answer to his fantasy.

In the drunk scene, Khlestakov hardly touches a drop; instead he gets drunk on the idea of power, and ends up bestriding a table, on the same level as a portrait of the Tsar (whose cold eyes seem to be following the characters’ every move), while the Governor and his guests parrot his words and shrink into a cowering heap.

After the main bribery scene come the petitioning merchants, and Khlestakov’s moment of triumph turns to nightmare (a malignant echo of his previous dream) as a ragged emblem of starving Russia appears on the threshhold, to a background of mass lamentation, to be cast out into the night.

When the awful truth of the fraud finally comes out, the Governor and his fellow rogues are impaled on David Hersey’s stabbing side-lights, guilty creatures awaiting a sentence of damnation.

The production has run into a dilemma which is more common on the continental stage than it is over here: namely the tendency for a bold concept and epic design to make actors look small.

Performances, on the whole, arc entirely overshadowed by the production. The women are particularly weak: and even Ron Pember (Osip) and Peter Blvthe (as the charity commissioner) show little of their usual comic flair.

There is a great deal of inventive group business, this being a highly-drilled show anyway. But the sight of Mr Broadbent cramming on a hat box instead of a hat, and sending up a prayer as if gripped by constipation, is offset by his strain and over-deliberation elsewhere.

Normally I deplore the practice of importing television stars into permanent companies, but must admit that Rik Mayall’s Khlestakov salvages the acting honours on this occasion. A toothy playboy at first glance, performing preening little dance steps in his pegtop trousers, lie also has reserves of ruthless appetite that take him from lightweight comedy to the heights of the grotesque with no discernible break. Listen to that cackling laugh changing into a homicidal bark. He is fast, funny, and half deranged. He also supplies a vital link between the sombre vision of the production and the life of its individual characters: a comic performance on the heroic scale.

 

Theatre

By Clive Hirschhorn, February 1985

On entering the vast open spaces of the Olivier Theatre your eye is assailed by a gigantic back-cloth covered in larger-than-life bills, receipts and routine paper work of the kind you would expect to find in a local government inspector’s office.

It is an overwhelming image and, although brilliantly conceived by designer John Gunter, more appropriate to a panto than Gogol’s deeply cynical farce The Government Inspector newly translated by Adrian Mitchell.

Indeed, Gunter’s eye catching designs dominate the play to such an extent that this famous tale of a lowly clerk from St. Petersburg who draws mileage from being mistaken for the Czar’s government inspector by a corrupt local governor and his equally corrupt officials, is forced to stand on its head and pull faces to be noticed.

As a result there is a desperation about Richard Eyre’s direction which, while occasionally yielding moments of inspired lunacy, I found extremely tiresome. It would all have worked so much better confined to the smaller, more intimate Cottesloe Theatre next door.

Apart from the sets the production is dominated by two equally larger-than-life performances: Jim Broadbent as the blustery governor, and Rik Mayall as the charlatan inspector.

Mayall, with his tacky line in ersatz dandyism and his blatantly shallow attempts to impress as a St. Petersburg sophisticate, gives a performance rich in idiosyncratic touches. He is very funny, and because he does not strain for laughs they are consistently forthcoming.

All the same, more money than artistic sense is in evidence-to the detriment of a popular classic.

Rik’s Progress

For The Observer, 27 January 1985

Rik Mayall – loved and hated by millions of TV viewers as the maniacal student Rick in The Young Ones – takes on a different audience at the National Theatre on Thursday as the hero of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Stephen Fay met him.

Rik Mayall has a memorable face. His eyes are set wide apart, he has high cheekbones, big ears and good teeth. He is about to open in the starring role in the National Theatre’s new production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Yet a large number of the National Theatre’s audience might not recognise Rik Mayall’s memorable face, or know his name.

Those who do recognise him will have seen him in The Young Ones on television, playing a spotty, maniacal, squirming student called Rick who asserts that things he likes, Cliff Richard, for example, are brilliant, the ‘r’ fading into a ‘w’. Mayall has also appeared as Kevin Turvey, an investigative reporter from Birmingham, in another BBC series, A Kick Up the Eighties. The Turvey character is about 23, slender, rather gormless – which is how Nikolai Gogol, in his notes for the actors, described Khlestakov, the hero of The Government Inspector, his bitter comedy of bureaucratic manners.

This conjunction seemed irresistible to Richard Eyre, the play’s director, and Rik Mayall did not resist. It will be his third appearance on the legitimate stage, though he is sure enough of himself and his skills to have turned down the National’s earlier offer of the part of Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer because he didn’t think it was quite right for him.

Mayall provokes the most astonishing burst of hyperbole from Eyre, who is not normally given to it. ‘Rik is prodigiously gifted, intelligent and extraordinarily unaffected by his phenomenal success,’ he says. Eyre cast Mayall as Khlestakov because he believes that the classics should be viewed from the vantage point of the present. ‘With him you have an instant contemporary link. He is modern man.’

Eyre’s praise is so extravagant that a suspicious individual might think he was trying to rationalise a gimmick: after all, Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys Jones tend to play their television personalities on the West End stage. But an examination of Mayall’s brief life so far helps dispel such charges.

Mayall was born in 1958 in Droitwich, near Worcester. He went to King’s School, Worcester, and Manchester University. Since then he has made a living as a comedian, mostly using material he has written himself. His father taught drama at a college in Bromsgrove, and his mother was also a teacher. Both were involved in local theatre clubs, and Mayall’s first stage performances were in Waiting for Godot and Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan when he was still a child. At school he acted all the time, and loved it: ‘There was something inevitable about me becoming an actor.’

For the whole of his adult life, he notes, Mrs Thatcher has been Prime Minister and he recalls the time before her accession as though it were a golden age: ‘Those were better days. We were free to go to university and study as scholars rather than prepare for a job.’ Even then he thought maybe he ought to study English, but what he wanted to do was drama. His parents told him to go ahead. At Manchester he spent more time writing gags and acting in short plays performed in a pub than he did on academic work. ‘Eventually it became very Commedia’ (as in dell’arte). Gogol was on the syllabus, but Mayall was on stage during the relevant lectures.

At the National Student Drama Festival in 1978 the Guardian awarded him the Boris Karloff award for the most outrageous ham. While at the Festival he auditioned for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company’s American tour and got a part in The Comedy of Errors. As soon as he had graduated, he was working in the States. The only trace of Rick, the Young Ones student, in Rik Mayall’s private personality is the repetitive use of one word, and the tour of the United States was, he says, ‘brilliant. I’ve never had so much fun.’ He still loves touring: it’s like getting paid for going to a party.

Manchester provided not just a degree; it created a state of mind. Mayall explains: ‘Most drama students who leave there feel they know all about the theatre, so if they want to direct plays they just form a company and direct them. They don’t join a ladder system so they know what they will be doing in 10 years’ time. When I left Manchester I was a very arrogant young man. We all wanted it now.’ He did not have long to wait.

Richard Eyre first saw Mayall at the Comic Strip Club in London, home of alternative comedy. The young comics who performed there had no aspirations to the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ type of Oxbridge-dominated humour. They can sound like a convention of coprophiliacs; ‘Thatcher’ is deployed as a swearword. A number of them appeared on television in A Kick Up the Eighties, including Mayall: ‘It was good for us, though we really had to clean up our act.’

Mayall had the idea for The Young Ones sitting at home one night with his girlfriend Lise Mayer, the daughter of his tutor at Manchester. The extended family of Manchester graduates went to work to mould the various characters they had invented for their club acts into a narrative that would fit the conventions of a BBC situation comedy. The third writer was Ben Elton, who had been a couple of years behind Mayall in the drama department. Ade Edmondson, who had written and acted in the pub plays with Mayall, joined Rick as Vyvyan, the medical student with studs in his forehead.

Cleaned up though they were, the scripts were fairly disgusting and violent. The kids loved them, perhaps because of the show’s lunatic anarchy. Mayall says he sees The Young Ones as something he did to purge himself of Manchester.

His fellow alternative comedians scrutinised the work and judged it terrific. One of them, Robbie Coltrane, compares Rik with Tony Hancock. ‘Hancock was an unpleasant character incorporating all the hypocrisy and aspirations of the lower middle classes in the Fifties. Rick is just the same in the Eighties. He wants street cred, wants to be a rebel, to care about nothing and be an anarchist. But we all know he’s a hypocrite and that he’ll be a computer analyst by the time he’s 30, the little shit.’

As television sit-com The Young Ones have been killed off. But they live on in book form, and rose high in the bestseller lists before Christmas. The book, directed mainly at the preoccupations of schoolchildren, contains some inspired, almost surreal, lunacy.

Mayall takes his comic technique seriously (as most comedians do), having learnt from Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise and the Pythons. Just before starting rehearsals for The Government Inspector at the National, Mayall went on tour with a one-man show, to prove to himself that he could perform solo for an hour. Alexei Sayle (the best comedian now, according to Mayall) and Billy Connolly can do it easily, and he thought he should be able to do it too. He wrote new material each afternoon and tried it out each night. He’s not sure where all the gags come from, but thinks there is a storage system in the back of his head where all comic ideas collect. ‘Maybe you never write gags, you just take them out of the cupboard,’ he says. The cupboard is never bare: he can now do hour-long shows.

He supposes his audience may be drawn from disillusioned pop-music fans, who no longer bother to go to live concerts where bands cannot reproduce the sound of their records or the extravaganza of their videos. Fans at cabaret behave much as they do at a pop concert, rushing to the front of the stage and screaming a bit when he appears. This form of cabaret is a profitable phenomenon too: Mayall did 21 venues in 17 days. Every one was sold out.

Though he acted in a play in Manchester last year, his National Theatre debut at the age of 26 is his first substantial role in the theatre since he played Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors when he was 20. I said I thought he was remarkably bold to be trying it, and that he seemed to be taking it very calmly.

He quoted the title of a B.B. King song – ‘You better not look down if you want to go on flying’ – as being the way he feels. ‘You can only do your best, as my Mum used to say … as my Mum still does say.’

That nonchalance may only be skin deep. As we left the room at the National Theatre where we had been talking, he looked at a seating plan for the Olivier Theatre, in which he will be performing, and asked if I knew what the seats coloured in yellow were for? I said they showed where the Fleet Street critics sat. Rik Mayall looked away. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ he said, as he made his exit, ‘this is real grown-up stuff, isn’t it?’

Interlopers From No-Man’s-Land

By John Peter for The Sunday Times, 3rd February 1985

Nikolai Gogol had the imagination of a surrealist clown and the soul of a prophet, and The Government Inspector (Olivier) was written jointly by both of them. There was a famous amateur production in Moscow in 1860 in which Dostoyevsky played the Postmaster: a fact that should alert us to the essential quality of Gogol’s genius, which was an ability to distil the grotesque from the mundane.

There is a monstrous plausibility in this tale of corrupt provincial officials cringing in front of a penniless nobody, mistaking him for a government inspector from distant St. Petersburg. It is not a British situation: this country has always been rich, and never knew the crushing economic and spiritual burden of a large and incompetent bureaucracy. This is the privilege of poor countries which have undeveloped economies and overdeveloped national egos, together with a semi-educated middleclass who are only employable as unproductive pen-pushers.

Gogol observed these people with a lethally penetrating eye: The Government Inspector is a black and fantastical farce unfolding in a setting which is horribly real. Richard Eyre’s production bears the marks of a deeply intelligent director who can’t quite believe that such creatures can really exist. The Olivier stage is set with huge bundles of documents and pencils the size of telegraph poles; and out of a cloud of stage smoke a smaller set is wheeled forward, with a sloping floor as in an Expressionist painting. One of the figures round the governor’s table turns out to be a dummy. You could hardly do more to draw attention to the unreality of what follows: it’s like putting up a notice which reads: “Proceed with caution – imagination at work overhead!”

Meanwhile, Gogol’s characters come irrepressibly to life: Jim Broadbent’s governor, lvor Roberts’s judge and Peter Blythe’s charity commissioner are exquisitely etched little portraits of small-time crooks terrified into trying to think big. Opposite them, Rik Mayall plays the impostor as if he’d stepped out of a different nightmare: a featherbrained twit in whom natural obtuseness and phoney gentility hold an uneasy alliance.

This makes it sound as if he were giving a real performance; but that isn’t quite what happens. What we get is an agile cabaret turn, delivered with impersonal relish and the impeccable timing of a sadistic Swiss watch. Mayall is not playing Khlestakov as if he were a real man, which is how Gogol describes him in his notes, but as a tenuous collection of mannerisms: a gimlet-eyed stare, a braying silly-ass laugh, and a way of looking demented like policemen in old British film comedies. The result is that he never looks real; and we never have the feeling, essential if this play is to work, that he might at any moment get found out.

This is a remarkable debut here by someone whose straight acting experience in the theatre is virtually nil; but the role needs a virtuoso actor; and I don’t think the National is so hard up for talent that it has to cast a famous TV comic as audience bait.

 

Gogol’s Goblins

By Michael Billington for The Guardian, 2nd February 1985 (talking about The Government Inspector)

THE LAST production of The Government Inspector I saw was at the Moscow Satire Theatre where the play became a toothless farce with Khlestakov portrayed as a camp dandy. Nothing could be further from Richard Eyre’s new production at the Olivier which, with exuberant panache treats Gogol’s masterpiece as a nightmarish comedy about communal terror and individual self-delusion; and even if Rik Mayall makes the hero too much a raging psychopath his performance is still outstandingly funny.

John Gunter’s epic set, as so often, sets the mood. The Olivier stage is covered with a vast ream of yellowing bureaucratic parchment in which giant bluebottles are permanently trapped. In a lightning flash the image of Nicholas I is projected on the paper, growing ever larger until it and the document disintegrate: from behind it, in a cloud of smoke, emerges a tablefull of moth eaten provincial officials who learn that the Government Inspector is on his way.

Immediately ‘this sounds the keynote ‘Eyre’s production: we are, in a society governed by paper, fear and paranoia. As Nabokov once pointed out, Gogol’s play is not a realistic study of provincial Russia (of which the author had seen very little) it is, he said, a private nightmare peopled with Gogol’s own incomparable goblins.

Having established a mood of phantasmagoria and panic (where Jim Broadbent’s Governor sticks a tricornshaped hatbox on his head instead of the hat), Eyre pulls his next trick by introducing a Khlestakov who is young violent and batty.

In the past, Scofield and Ian Richardson have played the St Petersburg clerk dazzlingly as an ageing fop. Rik Mayall, with hair “like a rabbit on fire” and ballooning check trousers, makes him a seething nonentity suffering the wildest delusions of grandeur.

One sees the point that Mayall and Eyre are making: a society governed by fear is ripe for appropriation by a lunatic. And Mayall is both chilling and funny in the way he shows (as Michael Chekhov apparently did in Stanislavski’s production) an insecure booby turning into a demented psychotic under the influence of flattery.

By pushing the idea of lunacy so far, however, this interpretation undercuts the other characters. When the Governor’s wife says, “He’s got that St Petersburg air – he looked so suave and sophisticated” you feel she is the one who wants locking up because what we have actually seen is a madman on the brink.

A good idea, about the fanatical Russian subservience to power, is pushed beyond the limit; and when Mr Mayall hides from Peter Blythe’s bribing Charity Commissioner and obscenely pushes his pinkies through the wainscot we are close to the realm of Spike Milligan’s Oblomov where other actors are served up as feeds to the star. Restraint, however, is not a word in Mr Mayall’s vocabulary; and even though his technique is limited he offers a memorable final image as (in a speech from Dead Souls) he floats off into the stratosphere crying, “Every country, every empire – they make way for me,”

This is one of several liberties taken by Adrian Mitchell’s excellent new version which finds distinct idioms for each character and which contains more funny lines than I remember. (“Women,” spits out of the Governor chauvinistically to his wife and daughter, “That one word sums you up”). And even if Mr Eyre’s production gives Mayall too much rope Jim Broadbent is superb as the Governor with lavatory-brush hair and quaking embonpoint; Rosemary Martin as his wife is all dowdy lust.

Though it is slightly over the top, this production actually gets closer than any version I have seen to the notion of people living out a Russian nightmare. When finally the whole petrified community is shunted into the shadows at the arrival of the real Government Inspector you feel the authentic frisson of living under a dictatorship.

 

Gogol, Still a Winner

By Milton Shulman for The Standard, 1st February 1985

Richard Eyre’s exuberant production of The Government Inspector by Gogol at the Olivier has made sure that an audience will know what it is all about.

It is played against an impressive back-drop des Wined by John Gunter displaying massive replicas of yellowing files, pencils and even somnolent flies. This is the paraphernalia of bureaucracy.

It was Gogol’s intention to ridicule the corrupt officials in Russia in 1836 and in the process he managed to produce one of the most endurable comedies ever written.

It is with deep dismay that the bureaucrats in a provicincial town learn that an Inspector from St. Petersburg will arrive incognito to investigate their affairs.

Since bribery has been the chief activity of these officials, resulting in filthy streets, incompetent schools, hopeless hospitals and chaotic accounts, they set out to fawn and flatter their way into the good books of the man they beieve is the disguised Inspector.

He happens to be an impecunious clerk with a haughty and arrogant manner, who has gambled away all his money and, with his servant, is on the verge of starvation.

Puzzled at first by the deference he is being paid by the Governor, the offer of a room in the Governor’s house, and the lavish hospitality, being showered upon him, the clerk, Ivan Khlestakov, slowly realises he is on to a good thing. He starts to invent spurious connections with the nobility and famous literary figures, while encouraging a judge, the postmaster, and various landowners to hand over money to keep him quiet about their iniquities. He is even offered the Governor’s daughter in marriage.

In its depiction of indolent, inefficient and corrupt officials galvanised into panic to protect themselves, Richard Eyre’s production provides a hilarious buzz of inept characters trying to plot themsleves out of trouble.

Jim Broadbent, as the Governor, gives a marvellous impression of booming, bungling officialdom, bullying underlings and crawling abjectly before anyone above him in the hierarchy.

Rik Mayall, tugging at his recalcitrant hair and manipulating his body into a bewildering assortment of suplicating, domineering and farcical postures, blends echoes of the impertinence of Tony Hancock with the insouciance of W.C. Fields in his occasionally over-the-top portrayal of a clerk taking advantage of the corrupt citizens grovelling at his feet.

Unfortunately, the adapter, Adrian Mitchell, has decided that some stern, oral message about the evil of society had to be imposed on Gogol’s straightforward satire and the inexplicable intrusion of the meteorological omens, cloaked figures of doom and a portentous speech from a different Gogol play, left one feeling rather guilty that one had laughed so much at Gogol’s capering caricatures.