By Alison Roberts for Evening Standard, 9th February 1995
Rik Mayall puts his finger on it neatly. ‘There’s a quality about me, I think, that you don’t quite trust… one of the things I can get laughs off is dissembling badly.’
This is said with such honesty and such screwed-up concentration that Mayall almost defeats his point. He’s a very polite man; he makes it seem as though every thought extracted by his interviewer is brand new and had never before occurred to him. Which is very clever dissembling.
Rik Mayall is a big fish in a medium-sized pond, a senior British comic with an expanding line in ‘serious’ drama – a new trilogy of Rik Mayall Presents dramas are currently appearing on ITV and he co-stars in a new Simon Gray play in the West End from next week.
But his characters are a bit shifty. Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman (based on just one real-life Tory politician, although he won’t say which one) Richie in Bottom and, of course, Rick in The Young Ones, all share this guile, a sort of crafty streak rooted in arrogance and selfishness. Art, I can confirm, does not appear to imitate life.
As far as the television-watching public is concerned, it all began with Rrrrrick, the definition of uncool turned revolutionary poet in The Young Ones – set in the student house-share from hell. Mayall will always be possessed by Rick’s compulsively juvenile spirit.
Take Mayall’s portrayal of Sean Bourke, the Irish ex-con who rescues the spy and ‘traitor’ George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs in Cell Mates, which opens next week at the Albery Theatre. There’s a cack-handed wiggle of the hips, a jiggle of the knees and a silly laugh – all pure Rick. ‘I enjoy putting little bits in to say, ‘look, I’m still here!’,’ he says. ‘It’s completely illegitimate, of course.’
But it’s good fun, too. There’s a sort of consistency to Mayall which is endearing, as though you’ve grown up with him. He’s a crucial part of the video collection – like the Duran Duran In Concert tapes, or the copy of This is Spinal Tap. They are all household gods, living in their shrine next to the telly.
Mayall admits that Rick is an undeniable presence, largely because his nerdishness was based on real-life traits. When Mayall and Ade Edmondson – aninseparable duo; Edmondson was Vyvyan in The Young Ones and Eddie in Bottom – got on stage for the first time at Manchester University, they simply exaggerated their actual characters.
‘Ade has always been a maniac and I’ve always been such a twat. We were drawing the laughter onto ourselves.
‘When we came to the Comedy Store in London, certain people were already established, Alexei Sayle, Keith Allen, Andy de la Tour and then Ade and I came along. They were all big grown-ups, being really cool and very dangerous and telling jokes about Mrs Thatcher. We were the ones saying, ‘hello, we’re arseholes.’ And Rick was my on-stage persona.’
The character was cathartic in that sense; the audience laughed at those bits of Mayall which he himself disliked, or found embarrassing. Which, he agrees, is a lot cheaper than therapy. It was also a relatively new ploy, this crassness – Mayall’s contribution to ‘alternative’ comedy, if you like. Mayall has come straight from the stage at Richmond’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, where Cell Mates is playing before its three-month run in London. There was a bit of a crisis mid-way through the matinee performance when an alarm clock prop suddenly, and randomly, started to ring. Stephen Fry, who plays a thoroughly nasty Blake, coped magnificently by making up a piece of business to cover the interruption. That’s because he’s got two brains, says Mayall – Fry learns his lines faster than anyone else too: ‘He’s very patient with me.’ They are both, now, elder statesmen of British comedy and exist in that rather cosy world where all the gangs – the Cambridge footlights sets (Fry, Laurie, Emma Thompson, Tony Slattery) and the Manchester University clique (Ade, Rik, Ben Elton, Lise Mayer) overlap and, you know, create together.
Fry and Mayall are old hands at Simon Gray, too. They were both in his play The Common Pursuit, at the Pheonix in 1989. Mayall is not a limelight-seeking luvvie, but he gets rather too close for comfort when he talks about this comedic scene.
‘Stephen sent me the script and said, Simon is thinking of doing this, and we’re such great pals, you know. I read it and I thought, this is just lovely, really sweet and an opportunity to do lots of things . . . and part of the decision was me thinking, I’ll do this because I can see Stephen for a few months.’
This is a bit distracting because Mayall is also a regular bloke. He talks a lot, drinks a lot (Edmondson’s office, where they both write, is next door to a pub) effs and blinds a bit. He’s concerned about his public persona, probably over-concerned about it. Filthy, Rich and Catflap, Mayall and Edmondson’s flawed second sitcom-cum-satire, drew terrible reviews and an up-in-arms reaction from the moral majority.
‘Because Filthy was slagged so badly,’ he says, ‘I just had a couple of days where I didn’t want to go out of the house at all, in case I saw someone and they thought, there’s that bloke who thinks he’s funny and, in fact, he’s crap.’
Perhaps they just didn’t get the joke, the one about bashing someone’s head in with a frying pan and then telling lots of toilet gags?
‘I’m glad you said that, because it’s true, they don’t get it. I got over it all in the end by watching the show and laughing at it – because I think it’s good.’
Mayall has always been a populist. When he and Edmondson toured a stage version of Bottom, he attracted the thirtysomethings. They came in groups, got baby-sitters, had a big laugh and then went out for a meal. ‘It was great,’ says Mayall, and then laughs at his immodesty. ‘It was great. The kids loved it. We had such a mixed reaction to Bottom. Intellectuals can’t abide it. It embarrasses them, I think.’
Mayall is very keen that the First Night audience in London should like Cell Mates. He knows that his friends will help him by laughing too much, too often, right in front of the ‘intellectual’ theatre critics. He’s also deeply upset about a Guardian article which labelled him ‘the once-talented Rik Mayall’.
‘I don’t know who wrote it, although I’ve got his initials – and the word, well the contract, is out…’ he says. Theatre reviewers beware – he’s only just joking.
Cell Mates opens at the Albery Theatre on 16 February.