For TV Guide, 8 – 14th April 1989
Rik Mayall, the man most likely to say “sod off”, is taking up storytelling for a new children’s television series, Grim Tales. By Andrew Panos
It’s strange, I’m sitting with the king of alternative comedy and he hasn’t made me laugh once. There are no jokes, no Lenny Henry-style outbreaks of infectious laughter, no Robbie Coltrane-style anecdotes about what happened on the way to the interview. Not even a hint of the king’s most recent screen creation, the manic, offensive Tory MP, Alan B’Stard of The New Statesman. In the flesh, Rik Mayall is thoughtful, polite, serious, surprisingly good looking-and he hasn’t a single joke to entertain a guest.
“It’s always a disappointment to people,” he says. “That’s why I don’t do many interviews. They get very depressed when they discover I’m not this mad, funny bastard.
“I don’t feel any pressure to be funny 24 hours a day. I think it would be tragic as a professional comedian to feel you had to be funny in your private life too.”
For Mayall, it’s enough to be funny in public. In the four years since shooting to fame in The Young Ones, he’s managed to invent a series of consistently funny screen characters-from the scheming Richie Rich in Filthy, Rich and Catflap to Richard Dangerous of the Dangerous Brothers. He’s come up with endless characterisations for the Comic Strip TV films and has appeared at the National Theatre as Gogol’s The Government Inspector and in the West End in Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit.
But now, after years of being known as the man most likely to say “sod off”, he will be doing a Mayallesque retelling of the fairytale stories of the Brothers Grimm — a new children’s series starting this week — aptly titled Grim Tales. The series was created for him by his old friends Bob Baldwin, director, and Rikki Finegold, associate producer, who built the show around him. In a strange luminous cavern Mayall the storyteller sits in an old chair and relates hilarious versions of favorites like Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel using some of the most innovative and unusual animation available – which adds up to another change for this consummate actor to show off his talents.
“My humour,” he explains, “is mostly to do with performance. I’m not like Ben Elton who can sit at a pub table and be brilliantly funny for 30 minutes. I’ve never really been naturally funny.”
Traditionally comics came to humour as a way to attract girls or get out of being bullied. Not Mayall. “I was always trying to be the coolest guy around, wearing the grooviest flares and the longest hair.”
In 1975, when his flares were at their widest and his hair at its longest, Mayall went to study drama an Manchester University and it was there that he met Adrian Edmondson and Ben Elton.
“I was very impressed with Adrian the first time I met him,” he remembers. “He was very cool. Adrian didn’t like Ben though. Whenever he saw him he’d chase him down the corridor shouting ‘There goes that Elton bloke!’ We all sat down one night and decided that, if we were going to achieve anything, we’d have to form our own cliquey set. It worked. Ben would write plays and Adrian and I would star in them.”
The clique continued until 1982 when aspiring to an Equity card, Mayall and Edmondson performed at Edinburgh Festival. From there they went to the Comedy Store in Soho where they met up with fellow Comic Strippers Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
“The whole set-up there was rather cliquey too” he admits, “but I don’t think it was a bad thing. We got through a lot of work that way and I think the path we carved out is one that a lot of new comedians can now try to follow”
“Alternative” comedy is booming today, with a healthy cabaret circuit that offers not only a proving ground for comics, but a showcase for TV talent scouts, as Harry Enfield and Julian Clary have discovered. The road to a fast buck has never seemed easier. Nowadays alternative comedians slot nicely between Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck. Will Mayall be televised one day sharing a pleasant round of golf with Tarby on A Round With Alliss on BBC2?
“I can’t see it somehow. I don’t think I’ve been complacent with my comedy. There’s a certain ‘pop music’ element in comedy now which says you can’t be funny if you’re over 30. I think that’s rubbish. Billy Connolly is over 30 and he’s brilliant. Steve Martin …Laurel and Hardy. ..”
So how long will people continue to call you alternative? “As long as people like Tarby and Bobby Davro are so bloody awful.
“Good comedy” he says firmly, “is anything that is well-crafted. It doesn’t really matter what position it’s coming from as long as it’s not something wildly offensive like a Jim Davidson sitcom.
“The basis of any brilliant comedy is insanity. You have to get the feeling that anything can happen. That was why the Python shows were so wonderful. The screen would take over. You just didn’t know what was going to happen next. Even something like Yes Prime Minister …whatever you think about it, it’s a brilliantly structured piece of comedy. So was Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part.”
After completing his first stand-up tour, Mayall will finish a play he’s working on with The New Statesman writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran for West End production in the autumn.
Most of his time off-stage and screen nowadays is taken up with his family- wife Barbara and two children, a daughter Rose, two-and-a-half, and a son Sidney, eight months. “I know it sounds unfashionable but I suddenly feel old and content” he says. “I realised quite recently that I’m finally free of the pressures of adolescence, wondering what clothes to wear and what music to listen to. I mean, what are Bros saying to married men of 30 like me?
“I’d much rather sit at home with my classical music and my Little Richard tapes” he says, with obvious relief.
“As long as comedy, sex and alcohol continue to stimulate me, I’ll be happy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is bring down a government and change the whole fabric of society. It’s not much to ask for, is it?”
A Man of Many Faces
Filthy Rich and Catflap
“The whole show was devised in order to take a swipe at celebrity status symbols. We were basically saying, ‘don’t look up to celebrities, most are bigger jerks than anyone else.'”
“Kevin was really all about being paranoid. He was basically insane and that’s what I was trying to put over. A lot of his character was based on the insecurities I had as a student.”
Rik of The Young Ones
“While I was playing him people would come up to me on the street and say ‘go on Rik, swear at us’. If I was in a bad mood I could say ‘oh get lost you bunch of gits’, and they’d go away content.”
The Dangerous Brothers
“This was me and Adrian attempting a sort of burlesque comedy. It was nihilistic. We based a lot of it on Laurel and Hardy because we’re both big fans of their comedy.”
Alan B’Stard of The New Statesman
“I got several books out on murderers, cheats and liars to help me with the part. That’s what I based him on. He’s baased on a specific Tory MP but I can’t tell you who it actually was.”
Colin from Bad News
“I was the baddy of Bad News really. The whole group was a bit like pantomime. I don’t think the shows we put on were the best entertainment ever but they were okay. We played the Reading Rock Festival and I came on and pretended it was a reading and started reading Madame Bovary. that didn’t go down too well with 50,000 Iron Maiden fans in the audience.”