First-Class Mayall

By Michael Owen for Evening Standard, 16th January 1998

RIK MAYALL was signing autographs as we approached our destination. He certainly has no problem with public recognition and has a healthy sense of his own ego – he uses his own name to discuss himself in the third person – but as the king of rock-and-roll comedy he assumes a contemporary droit de seigneur.

He has brought both his vivid style of humour and taste for r’n’r together in the new film that opens today called Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, in which he plays the devious manager of a pop phenomenon (Jane Horrocks) whom he considers a more valuable property dead than alive.

But Mayall has other influences. He has played Samuel Beckett and Simon Gray in the West End; you might have caught him visiting an exceptional episode of The Bill; he turns up on Jack-anory; and, on the day we met, he had just spent the morning providing voiceovers of a frog for an LWT children’s series. “A lot more complicated technically than you might think.”

Mayall is bigger and bulkier than anticipated, perhaps because of the well-seasoned raincoat he had thrown over a sweater and jeans, but was in genial mood when his normal attitude to media attention is questioning going on hostile.

We were sitting in a foyer at the National Theatre, where he might well have been appearing on stage after Patrick Marber’s invitation to be part of the original cast of Closer. “I read it and it was just brilliant, but I had a clash of dates. Perhaps if they transfer to the West End and need a celeb actor I might get another chance.”

For all his wild-man antics with Ade Edmondson, he is the son of a theatre-fixated father who introduced him to Becket and Brecht during his Worcestershire schooldays. He played children in The Good Woman of Szechwan and Waiting for Godot, albeit unknowingly as a prelude to the West End Waiting for Godot he most winningly shared with Edmondson two years ago.

“We didn’t quite break even but, God, I was proud of it.”

The new film also brings him back to his early days, when he went to school with a plastic bag of albums and a guitar slung over his shoulder. “We all wanted to be in bands. It was only the guys like me who couldn’t cut it who turned out as stand-up comedians or actors.”

He had his revenge later when he and his Young Ones colleagues formed the heavy-metal group Bad News and played to thousands at Castle Donington and elsewhere. “Ade is really good on guitar, Nigel (Planer) can do it and Peter Richardson is a brilliant drummer. I was crap so they put me on bass guitar.”

From The Young Ones to The New Statesman (inspired) and the scatalogical Bottom (bathetic), he has forged ahead as a youth comedy hero but now finds himself on the brink of his 40th birthday and beckoning maturity. Will he change his act? “No, the more decrepit we become, the funnier the trousers-down routines will be.”

He and Edmondson will shortly embark on a new film called Grand Hotel Paradiso, which seems to guarantee full vent (if that is the word) to their farty-bottom humour.

“We’re running a foul hotel next door to a nuclear power station and Ade’s going to direct it. Should be fun.”

But he does admit some of the future has gone fuzzy.

“I’m in a period of flux at the moment. It’s the first time I haven’t had a long-term character in mind. Alan B’Stard is dead despite some interesting political changes recently, and Bottom is dormant though not quite dead. I don’t know.”

I wondered if the younger generation did not find this once cutting-edge comic a shade deja vu? “I don’t think so. I don’t want to be Jesuitical about it – give me a child of five and I’ll give you a Rik Mayall fan for life – but I think they are coming with us.”

His capacity for playing manic desperation (as he certainly does in Mavis Davis) remains unchallenged. “It’s not me but I see it in others. The straighter stuff I do is about people who are solitary as opposed to lonely.

They are secretive, don’t trust anyone, never share anything and prefer to tell lies.”

Mayall’s own life is a family affair shared with his wife, Barbara, and three children, between his Notting Hill townhouse and a seven-acre farm in Devon.

“That’s my only indulgence. Every time I earn a bit more money we build a new wall.”

He is at ease with the recognition that goes with his high profile. “Les Dawson said that people like actors but they love comedians. People generally come up and say very nice things. Privately, I don’t find I’m expected to be funny. My friends know my wife is Scottish and her relations from Glasgow are much more amusing than I am.”