For Options, July 1994
Can you be a bit of a sex god and an overgrown schoolboy with a taste for toilet humour at the same time? Tim Carroll ponders the two faces of Rik Mayall.
At public school, Rik Mayall and his friends spent mid-morning coffee breaks lounging in the graveyard of a derelict church, defiantly puffing away on Embassy No. 6 fags. Factory workers from the nearby Worcester Porcelain Works cast doleful glances in the direction of the privileged boys who pondered the meaning of life and casually flicked ash over the remains of those who might be expected to have a better insight.
One of these unlikely Midlands public schoolboys was set to become Britain’s leading exponent of toilet humour. Rik was in the vanguard of ‘alternative’ talent which burst on to our TV screens in the early Eighties with a shameless salvo of burps, farts and other bodily emissions aimed at the beneficiaries of Thatcher’s revolution. He has few rivals as a purveyor of puerile wit. ‘He is naturally funny,’ says Ben Elton, ‘whereas I have to work hard at it.’ ‘I really like Rik because his humour is just so utterly stupid,’ admits Harry Enfield.
‘Rik makes me laugh more than anyone or anything,’ says long-term comic partner Ade Edmondson. ‘Our relationship is like a marriage, I suppose. That’s why it’s so difficult.’ During their most recent TV collaboration in Bottom, Ade said, ‘We still have the facility to amuse each other in a way that no one else can. Bottom is the projection of the kind of people we knew we could be if circumstances failed us. We have always had a vision of what we would be like in old age: sitting at home, drinking pints of mild, and pinching people’s bottoms.’
Old age was the last thing on Rik’s mind during those midmorning sessions in the Worcester graveyard. The ‘smoking den’ generally included Rik’s soul mate Mike Redfern, along with several sporty types, a couple of hardened drug addicts and stiff-upper-lipped Peter Vyvyan-Robinson, the fuddyduddy of the group who resolutely kept his red hair neatly trimmed, unlike his peers. His reward, many years later, was a name check as the pimply-faced punk Vyvyan in The Young Ones. Unlike his namesake, Peter is a rugby-playing City highflier and a member of many distinguished clubs.
‘Rik might have taken the occasional drag on a joint if it came around, but he would never go out of his way for it,’ says Peter. ‘But he was clever enough to know that the drug culture was not about drugs; it was about posing and posturing. The smoking den was a great source of fun and games for him. It’s that sort of company, and that sort of wickedness that Rik thrived on. But it was the association with naughtiness that he liked most, not the actual involvement in it.’
The observation is confirmed by Rik’s teachers. ‘I’d love to tell you that Rik was a riot in class,’ says English teacher Peter Diamond, ‘but it was a marked trait of his character that he was a conformist. He was a warm and pleasant boy who happened to be very funny. I visited him backstage when he was starring in The Government Inspector many years later. He was kind and considerate, and treated me like an old friend.
‘`There were other boys who I felt were more likely to have a future in drama. Rik could be killingly funny in rehearsals, but he was rarely very funny in front of an audience.’
Peter Vyvyan-Robinson has his own theory about Rik’s need for recognition: ‘Rik grew up on an undistinguished street in Droitwich, the ultimate in charmless, nondescript Midlands suburbia. He had a 10-mile bus journey to school, and when he got there, there were boys like me who lived in manor houses. It was a frustrating life. So he broke out of the drab mediocrity of his world, but remained protective towards it.
On the other hand, Mike Redfern paints an idyllic portrait of an unruffed upbringing in distinctly rural surroundings that were far from drab and charmless. When Mike’s parents moved abroad to work, he spent two years sharing Rik’s bedroom in Tagwell Road.
‘`We had a record player to ourselves, and the room was stuffed with good books: great literature, poetry and plays. It overlooked a flat roof where we would sit and chat in the summer. We would make a Friday night pilgrimage down to the Farrier’s Arms near school, and we’d crawl out of bed the next day with thumping hangovers. Rik’s mum and dad were fantastic, and Rik got on really well with his brother and sisters.’
Richard Mayall was born on March 7, 1958, the second child of Gillian and John Mayall, in a village with the suitably Wodehousian name of Matching Tye, on the outskirts of Harlow New Town in Essex. There was one elder boy, Anthony, and later, two sisters, Libby and Kate. Anthony went on to become a civil engineer responsible, Rik insists, for all the chaos on the A40. Unlike his elder brother, Rik was an exhibitionist from the start. Subject to tantrums, he showed off and got generally overexcited. But at heart he was, by his own account, a cherubic little boy who always wanted to be naughty but was too scared. ‘So I used to stand next to the naughty kid and encourage him to be bad,’ he says.
The family moved to Droitwich when Rik was three. Gillian and John were drama teachers, and their love of theatre was to have some effect on their second son. ‘Rik was brilliant at working out riddles from a very early age; I suppose we should have realised then that he would be a comedian,’ recalls Gillian. ‘But the most important thing to all of the children was that they had a nice, safe, secure family background.’ Solidly middle-class, they were in Rik’s words ‘beatniky CND’, accounting, perhaps, for his ardent hatred of ‘Thatch’, yet his enviable Thatcherite ability to capitalise on his talents.
His first theatrical appearance, aged five or six, was as a little peasant in his father’s production of Brecht’s The Good Woman Of Setzuan. His role involved climbing into a dustbin and eating as much of the chocolate at the bottom as possible. Sometime between then and winning a day-boy’s scholarship to King’s School, he did the appropriate theatrical thing and changed Richard to Rik. Rik says it was after a comic-strip hero, Erik the Viking, but Peter Vyvyan-Robinson claims that it was after a boy called Rick who inspired jealousy because of his success with girls.
Rik scraped his way into the drama department at Manchester University after poor A level results, and it was there that he met Ade Edmondson. Like many others of his type, he made a desperate effort to be wacky and insane, growing his hair and allowing a suitable layer of grease to form, while friends like Lloyd Peters strove for zaniness by wearing the same pair of purple underpants day after day. Lloyd was a founder member of the 20th Century Coyote comedy group which included Rik and Ade. They performed at the Band on the Wall club in Manchester in an effort to get Equity cards.
Ade was the actor of the group, held in awe by the rest. Sporting long blond hair, John Lennon glasses and worn jeans with strategically placed rips, Edmondson cast a spell over Rik. On one memorable occasion, Ade turned up at Rik’s student digs – later immortalised in The Young Ones- and, as legend has had it, drove his envied MZ150 motorbike up the staircase.
Well, not quite. ‘Ade never drove his bike up the stairs,’ chortles Lloyd Peters. ‘We tried to get a bike through the door once, but it wouldn’t go. We’d all had too many lagers.’ Mike Redfern dispels the myth further: ‘Rik’s lodgings were nothing like The Young Ones. It was a nice converted stable block called Lime Cottage in a lovely part of East Didsbury, surrounded by trees and lawns.’
Nevertheless, Rik and Ade’s meeting was to lead to a longterm comic relationship embracing shows at the Edinburgh Festival, and TV success in The Young Ones, Filthy, Rich and Catflap, The Comic Strip et al. Rik has been branded a ‘leftie’, but he purposely avoided politics at Manchester. He recalls students selling the left-wing paper, shouting out ‘Morning Star!’. ‘Morning, love!’ he would reply.
Besides Ade, the other meaningful relationship Rik struck up was with his tutor David Mayer’s daughter Lise, a comedy scriptwriter. After a short lull post-university, Rik was soon a leading light of the new ‘alternative’ comics, appearing mainly at Soho’s Comedy Store. This led to his big breakthrough – The Young Ones- co-written by Lise Mayer and Ben Elton, another prolific talent of Manchester’s drama department.
David Mayer is happy to talk about Rik’s dramatic accomplishments. These days he is head of drama at Manchester, and proud of the talent his department has produced: ‘Rik was a phenomenally gifted student. He was serious, focused, dedicated and accomplished. Towards the end of his degree, he was absolutely single-minded. Of course, his humour was always pretty puerile.’ But there’s one aspect of his former student’s life that he’s not prepared to expand upon, and that’s Rik’s relationship with his daughter. It remains one of the most tantalising Rik Mayall stories never told, despite furious attempts to uncover the truth. One version has it that Lise, who lived with Rik for five years, was pregnant when she discovered he was having an affair with make-up assistant Barbara Robbin, also pregnant, who is now his wife. But nobody has ever spoken about what really happened. ‘Lise and I lived together for five years,’ Rik has said. ‘We are still good friends.’
Lise has since been the subject of an unflattering account portraying her as a femme fatale who has had relationships with no less than seven eligible members of Britain’s comedy clique, including Harry Enfield, Hugh Laurie and Angus Deayton. ‘Lise has a thing about comedians… They can be funny and need their egos stroking rather more than most men,’ said an anonymous source from the Daily Mail.
‘So much has been written about this which is wrong, I wouldn’t like to add anything to it,’ explains David Mayer, echoing Rik, who branded media coverage ‘obscene’. Lise has never said a word about the episode. The nearest Rik has come to commenting on his difficult domestic situation was: ‘A lot of money had to go in two different directions.’
Rik’s long-standing friends are resolutely loyal to him. Mike Redfern, now a training development officer, won’t hear a word against him. Lloyd Peters says, ‘He’s been described as single-minded. But that’s what all performers are. But although performance is an egotistical business, it is also a giving business.’ Rik spared valuable time to appear in two of Lloyd’s independent films.
Significantly, several familiar names who are rumoured to have had bust-ups with Rik, declined to be interviewed for this piece, and even the row about vote-rigging over his British Comedy Award for Top TV Comedy Actor failed to elicit much criticism. Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton were once said to be furious that The New Statesman effectively usurped a planned series of Blackadder in Parliament; neither went on the record.
The truth is that Rik Mayall started out a pleasant middleclass boy, managed to make a career out of nauseating adolescent twitches the rest of us got over years ago, and is now a pleasant middle-class family man living in west London with his wife and their children, Rosie, seven, and Sidney, five. He takes the tube to interviews. And despite the glamorous swept-back hair and seductive blue eyes, he looks breathtakingly normal. ‘One of my colleagues saw him on the train long after he became famous,’ says his old teacher Colin Gray, ‘He was wearing a normal suit and carrying a briefcase. He looked like every other commuter. And he was wearing brogues.’
Rik is conscious of the disparity between his image and the everyday reality. ‘Angry young anarchist turns into a silly old git with carpet slippers,’ he says, adding, ‘I still go out and rave occasionally if I want to, but more often than not I just go to the pub.’ While colleagues say he works hard, Rik says, ‘I’m a dead lazy git who hasn’t been found out yet.’ He’s similarly dismissive of hero worship, not least when his debut as Alan B’Stard MP prompted one critic to say how sexy he was. ‘I never thought I looked suave; I thought I looked a dickhead. How can a man with a bouffant hairstyle look sexy? But then there are people who think Michael Heseltine is sexy…’
His main hobbies are his work and the family. ‘Being a father makes you more responsible,’ he says. ‘Once I would never run when I crossed the road, even if a car was accelerating towards me. Now I’d run. I’m also more careful careerwise. I keep thinking: “I mustn’t mess this up because I need to earn money now.”‘ This desire to become less selfish is something he’s long been conscious of. ‘I can be very sulky and moody and in love with myself. And very selfish. There has been a selfish quality in all my characters. I put it there deliberately to try and exorcise it. I hope it means I’m less selfish in real life.’
Real life for Rik is Barbara, Rosie and Sidney. By all accounts, home life in their four-bedroom Shepherds Bush house is pretty normal. Mum and Dad go out to the local for an occasional drink, and sometimes have dinner at a nearby restaurant. Mike Redfern says, ‘There was never any doubt that he’d be a good dad. Even in our student days, he was a responsible lad.’ There are cynical suggestions that Rik’s relationship with Barbara is more traditional than he cares to admit. Barbara gave up her job after they married, but Rik puts it down to common sense: he earns the most, and he’d be happy to be a homebody if positions were reversed. And he’s quick to point out that he cooks and cleans.
There is a scene in The Young Ones in which Rik says something like, ‘Let’s be really bad. Let’s sneak out late and not tell our parents when we’re coming back!’ A decade later, Rik Mayall the family man sounds as if his definitions of daring are not far removed from this. When Mike Redfern asked him to be best man at his wedding in May 1987, the stag night was a sedate drink or two at a pub in Covent Garden.
The wedding itself was in North Wales. Mike says, ‘He was very nervous before his speech. I wasn’t surprised – he always got extremely nervous before performances. But there were no below-the-belt asides and no sexual innuendo. Rik simply said that he realised he wasn’t there as a performer, but as a friend to be with friends. I was moved.