For Academy, March 1992
He’s been University student Rik, ultra-right wing Tory MP Alan B’Stard and now he doesn’t exist at all outside Phoebe Cates’s imagination in this month’s rental release Drop Dead Fred. Lizo Mzimba talks to this malevolent version of Harvey.
At the start of John Landis’s An American warewolf In London, the two ill-fated American tourists enter The Slaughtered Lamb Pub, where they receive a distinctly frosty welcome from the men gathered there. One of the locals appears to be slightly familiar, and closer examination reveals that it is, in fact, a very young Rik Mayall crouched over a chess table in the pub corner, laughing at the Americans’ obvious discomfort. This first screen appearance by Mayall was quickly followed by an equally demanding role; offering Donald Sutherland a sandwich in the film The Eye Of The Needle. But it’s taken him ten years since then to graduate to his first starring role in a film.
During that time, of course, he’s become a major celebrity with The Young Ones and The New Statesman. And he’s even forged something of a musical career for himself; singing on a No. 1 single – Living Doll with Cliff Richard and The Young Ones, and fitting in an appearance at the Donington Monsters of Rock Festival as a member of the spoof band Bad News. And in the last six months, he has been more in the limelight than at any other point during his career. He showed his Bottom on BBC2, was Waiting For Godot with Adrian Edmonson in the West End, and he appeared in his first major film role in Drop Dead Fred which is released onto rental video this month.
Drop Dead Fred, a comedy in which he plays Phoebe Cates’s imaginary childhood friend, was written specifically with him in mind by New Yorkers Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton, who first spotted him performing on a Comic Relief Day special of The New Statesman.
“They saw me being whipped by Mrs Thatcher when I was wearing Union jack boxer shorts, and they thought ‘Well he looks cheap, he’ll do anything,'” he remembers. “They were sort of interested in me because of that. I think they thought it was funny that an Englishman could be so rude.
“They went away and had an idea about this imaginary friend, which gives me licence to hit Phoebe over the head with a shovel, pick my nose, and shout and scream without it seeming out of place.”
However, despite this type of role being ideally suited to his juvenile style of humour, Mayall still harbours doubts about working in film even though he has been both a successful stand-up comedian and TV performer.
“I think my main reservation about film is that there isn’t an audience there. In all my TV stuff I always have a studio audience. Obviously in the theatre I have an audience, if you can get one,” he jokes, “and that’s what I respond to best.
“Theatre and TV, I think, are performers’ mediums and I’m a performer. Film is a director’s, and an editor’s, and a producer’s medium. And I think that that lack of control did scare me, but you can gain control if you know what you’re doing, and you have to find out what it’s all about in order to gain that kind of control.”
He is a great admirer of the success that Robin Williams and Steve Martin have had in the area of screen comedy. Even so, he acknowledges that it takes most comedy performers a number of attempts to become as successful on the screen as they have been in other forums.
“You see a lot of stand-ups have two or three films which are like okey-dokey, until they really hit it and learn the medium, because it’s such a different thing, going out and feeling the excitement of people and feeding off that, than it is to be all controlled at six o’ clock in the morning, and be funny from one angle and then funny from the next.”
A great contributing factor to the humour in Drop Dead Fredis the way in which he reflects a child’s imaginative state of mind with his garish appearance. And as this visual look of Fred was very important to Mayall, he had a large input into the way he looked in the film.
“I always knew he had to have red hair, I’m still trying to get rid of it now. Tania, the hair girl, was just brilliant. She said ‘You want to have red hair for seven weeks, you’re gonna have red hair for seven weeks.’ I’ve had red hair for a year now. And then when it grew out, there were grey bits coming in it. Shows how much I was worried about the film,” he quips. “The shoes I just saw in New York, and they looked like a strange kind of Mary Poppins style. They were black when I saw them, so we went to the shoeman and got the heel and made it a lot more pointy and sticky-upy, like a kind of leprechauny kind of thing. But I knew he had to be in green with red hair. There’s just something kind of violent about that, I think.”
Mayall’s plans for the future are somewhat vague, although with his known reluctance to do more than two series of anything, and the change in the political and economic climate, it does seem unlikely that he will return to his Emmy-winning character of Alan B’Stard.
“I have a feeling about Alan that he’s an eighties figure. Certainly in that kind of Thatcherite area – cordless phones and yuppies and things. Not that Alan was about that, but he inhabited that world. It’s kind of something that’s gone away now. There’s a whole different atmosphere now. But I enjoyed playing him very much. He’s kind of grown away from that eighties thing. He’s just a classic baddie now,” says Mayall with regret.
But are we likely to see him playing the character of Drop Dead Fred again?
“I’d like to play him again, with a larger budget to do more things. Paul Webster [the producer] said to me that if it hits well, we’ll have to talk about Drop Dead Fred 2, because I think there are other areas to explore in it, plenty more jokes to be had. I wouldn’t do it if there were no more jokes to be had.”