For Arena, Summer 1991
Celebrated early in his career for shouting a lot and falling over, the clown prince of alternative comedy is now on the brink of Hollywood stardom. Will success spoil Rik Mayall?
Hair, of course, is always amusing in its own right. This has long been appreciated by pioneers of the comic tradition. Smoothed down, acrylic, removable, yellow. Put on the right hair and you’ve got a laugh straight off. Eric Idle always appreciated this, so do French and Saunders. Robbie Coltrane has never bothered with hair because he is fat and an Actor. Rowan Atkinson doesn’t need it much because he has a Face. Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd, who arranged theirs to look like two beadlet anemones fighting for territory at the bottom of the sea, saw themselves imitated in that strange phenomenon whereby comedians do impersonations of other comedians. Sometimes one wishes, with the less droll performers, that the hair would appear alone, leaving its owner in the wings chatting to backstage boys.
Rik Mayall’s hair, like Rik Mayall, has had a career of variable hilarity. It was very funny in The young Ones (plaits © Tears for Fears) and quite funny in The New Statesman (squiggly © pony club dressage competitions). In his new film, Drop Dead Fred, it is vertical and dyed bright red; inspired, according to producer Paul Webster, by Johnny Rotten, whose hair was always a scream, though it wasn’t meant to be.
Today, in real life, Rik Mayall’s do is very interesting indeed, for it is nearly shoulder length and bleached with the blonde streaks more commonly spotted down on Muscle Beach, LA. It is regularly swept back off a wide forehead by those fingers we expect to see poked into the face of Piers Fletcher-Dervish. This is the action of a vain man, and Mayall has the grace (he has a lot of grace) to admit that he is a vain man. Vain and frightened of failure. When accused, unaggressively, of being sexy, he says that this is a nice thing, a flattering thing, but any arousal for which he is responsible is involuntary, because he doesn’t really know what this indefinable quality is. Also, he is easily embarrassed, and the thought of trying to be physically alluring, and failing, would be a nightmare for him. John Lloyd tried to persuade him to be sexy as Flasheart in Blackadder. “I got this blonde wig and things,” says Mayall, “and was quite pleased with the way I looked – but I was still an arsehole, a sort of good-looking arsehole.”
Rik Mayall very much doesn’t want to be just a good-looking arsehole. His characters, he says, are partly created as a way of avoiding this. By unleashing the more unpleasant sides of his nature on the public, he exorcises them and can proceed upon his way, a better person for it. He is lucky in this, for most of us would like to be ruder and more violent than we are. Mayall is paid to be.
Yes. Hair. Very important to the British joke. So, too, are shouting and falling over. Those academic dignitaries in charge of the Manchester University drama department probably never imagined that some of their students, primed in the history of the Commedia dell’Arte and au fait with the point of Beckett’s pointlessness, would leave campus (with a 2.2 degree in the case of Mayall) to entertain a career of shouting and falling over.
So it comes as an enormous relief that Rik Mayall, the normal person behind the show-biz Mr Stentor, does not shout at all. His voice is even and serious and the product, appropriately, since that is what it is, of an affectionate and sensible middle-class background in which both his parents were drama teachers and he was encouraged to show off a lot. When young, he appeared in his father’s school productions — as the boy in Waiting For Godot, in the crowd scenes of The Good Woman Of Setzuan. He liked this, and anything was better than getting bored (there wasn’t much to do in Droitwich). Public school mores (King’s School, Worcester) prevented Mayall from becoming involved with glam rock and he was disappointed to discover that he was too old (20) to be a punk. Nevertheless, he did appreciate a concert in Malvern where the lead singer of the Cortinas, Jeremy Valentine, announced: “We don’t fucking like you so get a load of this.” He then stuck a finger down his throat in order to be sick — and found he couldn’t.
It was licensed showing off, one might surmise, that endowed Mayall with the ‘presence’ that is indispensable to the successful comedian, or ‘comic-actor’ as he is more often called nowadays. Girls who were with him at Manchester University remember this ‘presence’. They also remember how he used to enter a room, slam the door back off its hinges, pause for a minute as if in an invisible spot-light, and says things like, “It’s Rik Mayall. The Great Star.” Some girls thought he was a prat. Many, however, couldn’t help believing him.
It’s not difficult to see why. He exudes personal strength. This is something to do with self-assurance, and something to do with the fact that, physically, he is wider than one might imagine. And he is certainly more endearing than he appears on television (where he has always been intentionally repulsive).
That Alan B’Stard, for example, would make live yoghurt reach for an EXIT pamphlet. Mayall is very proud of his Right Honorable member, he is one of his more successful characters, he thinks. And, as an effective prime-time reminder of the ghastliness of Tory MPs, The New Statesman has also served to advertise his own beliefs. Indeed, he was so pleased the day Margaret Thatcher resigned that, dancing up and down on the stairs, he fell down them and broke his shoulder. It’s still quite stiff, actually.
He touches his shoulder as if to make sure that, unlike Mrs Thatcher, it is still there, and says he is pleased his new BBC series (co-written with Ade Edmondson) is called Bottom because it means everyone involved has to say “Bottom” when important people ring them up. The title started as a joke, then Alan Yentob (the head of BBC2) hated it so much they decided it was a good idea.
Is it about bottoms?
“Not at all. It’s about two guys at the bottom of the heap. But obviously we called it Bottom to make people think we were doing bottom jokes.”
Richard and Eddie, the characters, are a couple of “unemployed survivors”. “I think Bottom is what could have happened to us if everything had gone wrong.”
Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson have been a double-act since they were at Manchester together and they remain close. “I think Ade thinks I’m a complete git really,” says Mayall. “He is one of the few people who can make me blush. He knows when I’m telling lies to try and impress people.”
It was at university that they formed 20th Century Coyote and wrote plays like Dead Funny (in which a corpse turned into a policeman) and other dramas inspired by the morose irony in works such as Waiting For Godot:
“Estragon: You stink of garlic.
Vladimir: It’s for the kidneys. (Silence: Estragon looks attentively at the tree.) What do we do now?
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting?
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Mmmm. It’d give us an erection.”
Although Beckett had the last laugh in 1966 with Breath (30 seconds long, featuring one cry and a pile of rubbish), in the hands of 20th Century Coyote the-Theatre of the Absurd became the Theatre of the Very Silly and Occasionally Intoxicated. Eventually, by way of the Edinburgh Festival and the Woolwich Tramshed, the Comedy Store in Dean Street and the Comic Strip in Brewer Street, Vladimir and Estragon evolved into the Dangerous Brothers, who shouted and fell over more than you would believe.
“Ade: What is green and hairy and goes up and down? A gooseberry in a lift.
Rik: Gooseberries don’t go in a lift.
Ade: Yes they do.
Rik: Oh? How many gooseberries do we know?
Ade: Three Rik: All right, let’s have their names.
Ade: Derek Gooseberry
Rik: That’s a lie. All right, if Derek Gooseberry exists go and get him.
Ade: He’s not well.”
Cue enormous punch-up followed by sound of loud laughing and clapping.
Yes. Everyone knew that Rik Mayall would make it.
Now he is 33 and unworried, it seems, by the law that says comedians, like mangoes, do not age gracefully. Sometimes they do not age at all (Lenny Bruce 41, Tony Hancock, 44). He is married (in 1985, to make-up artist Barbara Robbin), has two children (Rosemary, 4, and Sid, 2) and lives in west London.
“During Drop Dead Fred he bounced a lot of ideas off me and the writers,” says producer Paul Webster. “But he works mostly with his wife. That is the key. God knows what they do with each other, but she is very important to him. She and the children were on the set the whole time.”
Mayall’s reluctance to give interviews leads the Hello! reader in all of us to speculate about the unseen decor that is the interior of his life and wonder whether he is comfortable with the responsibility of ministering to the nation’s mental health. This is a burden that has debilitated many of his predecessors. “Comedy needs a vast spectrum of emotion,” said Spike Milligan, who knew. The court requires its jesters to be funny peculiar as well as funny ha ha. Certainly, during his early success, Mayall went through something of a wild child phase. I once saw him break a glass over a man’s head at a party. And then there were the tales of the perfunctoriness of his departure from a long-term girlfriend. “He went out for a packet of cigarettes and never came back,” ran the legend.
“He is very balanced in his personal life,” says Paul Webster, “but obsessive in his work. He will go to extraordinary lengths. He spent months working out the character of Drop Dead Fred.”
Mayall’s evasiveness is, in fact, connected with a fear of destroying the illusion: if he is selling unpredictability, then talking about the mechanics of a performance can spoil it. It is with this same canny eye on his constituency that he refuses to feed any of his carefully created personas to the gaping maws of advertising. “I would rather my audience knew that when I was speaking to them I was telling the truth. This seems odd when comedy is all about lying, but at least they know that I am not going to abuse our relationship in order to trick money out of them for somebody else.”
The character of Drop Dead Fred, if we’re talking mechanics, is basically Rick from The Young Ones in a pair of green trousers. As the imaginary childhood friend of Phoebe Cates (an actress who has the slightly sinister physiological ability to be anywhere between 12 and 39), his vocation is to cause extreme chaos, helped by the fact that he is invisible to everyone except Cates. And us.
So there is much flinging of yellow paint over granny, looking up women’s skirts (particularly the rather tight one of Bridget Fonda) and jokes about being sick. Lovers of Rick and Rik may roll along with the film’s adherence to the Warhol maxim “Always leave them wanting less”, but will baulk, no doubt, at the made-for-Midwest finale which involves the unexplained transformation of Drop Dead Fred from pestilential to pious. He becomes, as he himself would probably describe it, `girly’.
“Enough nose-picking infantilism to shame Benny Hill,” moaned Rolling Stone, airing the viewpoint of a nation whose attitude towards hygiene has always been somewhat unrelaxed. Mayall says he had a premonition that the film might be too disgusting for the Americans — and too sentimental for the Brits. But then, he argues, there are about 250 million people out there who like that kind of thing, and you have to relate to them in order to be allowed to “flick snot about the place”.
So is the Dangerous Brother, in his maturity, becoming a Safe Brother?
“I don’t think I’m getting soft. If anything, I am getting sicker. It doesn’t have to be pulling faces all the time. As I get older I’m not quite so energetic anyway, and there are other ways of communicating.”
Despite popular appearances in the Comic Strip outings, he is wary of working in film. He does not want to air his limitations in public. “I’m too loud and shouty for most cinema things,” he says. His roles have always been chosen with great care. “I think I have a body of work which will allow the audience to say, ‘Well maybe Rik will fuck up this time, but that’s OK because we know that sometimes he doesn’t.’ This might make me more lazy, but it also makes me a little less scared and able to say, ‘Well all right, I’ll have a go at this project.’ I did enjoy making the film, but my home is in telly and theatre.”
Following the West End success of Silly Cow, Mayall believes Ben Elton has accomplished an interesting feat in attracting people to the theatre who don’t normally go.
“I think British theatre is as open as British telly was in the early Eighties, when we came in with The Young Ones,” says Mayall. “There was a large mass of people who were not represented. The same is true of theatre now. They have got videos and they can go out whenever they want. Rock’n’roll is very dull at the moment. There is the cabaret scene and they go to that, but why not have four of five people onstage at the same time? And a set? It’s a natural extension — and for me it’s the perfect art form because I’m a reactive performer.”
So, later this year, he plans to venture back to the stage. He and Edmondson will become Vladimir and Estragon in a production of Waiting For Godot. One hears the creak of the wheel turning full circle, and the more optimistic may breathe a sigh of relief. The Comic Strip may have murdered the mother-in-law joke and resuscitated the cabaret scene (ten events of multicoloured wackiness on any one night in London), but, by smoothing the transfer from an obscure stage in Deptford to jumping up and down in front of BBC cameras, it was also partly responsible for the impasse at which comedy finds itself today. Comedy needs to be kept on its toes. It finds it difficult to regenerate in a land where the only reaction is the unseen flick of the remote-control button. Inventors need to stand up and face the front row and, if they have not been deafened by the sound of mutual back-slapping, they might even hear a ripple of applause. Rik Mayall wishes he and Edmondson had the affront to go the whole way and perform a play they had written themselves, but he does not feel that the world is quite ready for The Dungeon Of Madness.
Drop Dead Fred goes out ors general release in September