By Nigel Farndale for The Sunday Telegraph, st November 1999
Rik Mayall has always found violence funny, and now that he’s survived a horrible accident he finds it even funnier – as his new film shows. Nigel Farndale meets a modern prince of slapstick, and wonders if, at bottom, he might be a serious actor.
Goodness, how Rik Mayall can talk. In the St James’s Club, Piccadilly, on a cloudless autumn afternoon, he talks so much his voice hoarsens. He pulls faces when he’s in full flow, grimacing, gurning, subverting his fine handsome features. He has bulging blue eyes, one of which wanders. And though his smile is infectious and wide, he bares his teeth so much it could pass for a snarl. He fidgets constantly, playing with the zipper on his fleece, combing his shoulder-length hair with his fingers. The nervous energy is palpable. Mayall is a sturdily built 5ft 11in and, as he alternates between lying flat on his back on a chaise-longue and pacing the room, he seems to fill every molecule of the place. He has presence. He’s full on. He is excited and showing off. There is, indeed, something of the sixth-former trying too hard about his manner: swearing too much, out one cigarette after another, putting his boots on the coffee-table. When he has a memory lapse he falls silent for as long as ten seconds before clicking his fingers in agitation and shouting ‘F-! I can’t remember!’ He has no volume control. When the ringing of the phone interrupts him he picks it up and bellows, ‘Yes!’ Then slams it down when he discovers it’s a wrong number.
I wish I’d met Rik Mayall before his accident with a quad bike in April last year. I’d like to know whether his mood-swings – from dark and demoniacal, to sonsy, light and airily disconnected – are a long-standing condition. Perhaps he was always like this. But serious accidents do change people, perhaps especially when they occur at an age associated with mid-life crisis. Mayall is 41 and, in interviews he had given before the accident he came across as being more subdued. Smaller in life than his comic personas. Shy even.
His wife Barbara found him underneath his four-wheeled 600lb motorbike in the field outside his house in Devon. Dark blood was pouring from his head, ears and nose. He was airlifted to hospital where he remained in a coma for five days. His wife, parents and Adrian Edmondson, his comedy partner of 25 years’ standing, were at his bedside when he came round. All were crying. Mayall couldn’t understand what was going on. For the next six weeks his brain was scanned for further signs of haemorrhaging. He escaped from the hospital and had to be brought back. He suffered the odd fit, insomnia bout and hearing difficulty, then made a full recovery.
But you can’t help noticing the chunky silver ring on his finger. It’s cast in the shape of a skull and crossbones. Mayall looks sheepish when asked about it. ‘It’s to do with me bashing my head. A private thing between my son and me. Cheating death.’
Rik met Barbara when she was working in make-up at BBC Scotland; she never worked on him but when he saw her walking down the corridor one day he just thought, ‘There she is.’ They were married 13 years ago and have three children, Rosie, Sid and Bonnie. But Mayall would rather not talk about them in case their mates read this article at school. ‘They have their own lives to lead. But, yes, they are very quick. Subtle. When I’m halfway through a joke they will pull a disdainful face and say, “Oh pul-ease Daddy.” One of their great hobbies is not finding Daddy funny. When I get to a big finish there will be a pause and Sid will say, “Sorry, what was that, Dad?” Without me even doing anything Rosie will say, “Oh Daddy, please don’t.” But I’m blushing now.’
He is, too. He thinks his accident affected his relationship with his family. ‘It improved things until they realised I was going to live. When I came round there was a lot of weeping – “But we’ve bought this f-ing box! Now we have to take it back.” No. If anything, it has made us all tougher, more resilient. We were pretty lucky never to have had to face anything like this before. And this wasn’t bad.’
Wasn’t it? I’d like to know what he considers bad. ‘Yeah, but it had a happy ending. It made us all, it bonded us.’
Serious accidents have been known to change people’s perceptions of themselves. Some become fearless, others develop a heightened awareness of their own mortality, of the ephemerality of things, of the preciousness of time. Mayall was always superstitious – never performing unless wearing his lucky underpants – so he would seem to have the right temperament to be affected in this way. He doesn’t see it. Looks blank. ‘I’m very aware of’ He sighs. ‘Of wanting everyone to think I’m great! So I’ll just say that I’m very grateful to be alive.’ He laughs at his mock-magnanimity.
‘I’m not maniacally running around trying to do stuff. Though I do annoy the kids a bit because, since the accident, I’m always dancing and singing.’
He’s happier, then? ‘I was happy before but now I’m happier because I’m not dead or crippled. The problems I had before I recovered, in my brain, have gone and this ring is something to do with spitting in fate’s eye. It was meant to get me and it didn’t. So f- knows what’s going to happen to me later, behind the gates. But it makes me a bit swaggery. And I don’t want to waste any time. And it’s fantastic.’
Clearly, the accident has galvanised him. He has thrown himself into work, making advertisements and supplying narration for children’s television, and, with Adrian Edmondson, he has made a feature film, Guest House Paradiso, which is about to go on general release. (The two play Richie Twat and Eddie Elizabeth Ndingombaba respectively, proprietors of the worst hotel in the world. The film is full of their usual cartoon violence and scatological humour, and the gist of the plot is that when the chef eats all the food they have to resort to feeding their guests fish contaminated by the nuclear power station next door.)
The accident hasn’t made Mayall squeamish about violence. His film is full of it. ‘I love the fight in the kitchen,’ he says croakily. ‘When I hit Ade with that jug, he took the punch so well. The editor cut it perfectly. There’s something about his pace and timing. But I shouldn’t try to intellectualise about why I think the comedy works. One of the reasons Ade is attracted to me is that I am a twat and I do try to intellectualise about these things, and then he is able to turn round to me and say, “Oh, shut up, you twat.” He can puncture me so easily.’
Go on, just a little intellectualising. ‘Well, all right. I do think the nearer you are to frightening your audience – the rush of energy you get from witnessing violence, especially if it is more filmic than theatrical – the more unsettling it is. The release comes out in laughter.’
There is a knock at the door. A voice calls, ‘Room service.’
‘No!’ Mayall screams back. There is a look of exasperation in his eyes. His nostrils are flaring. He is probably doing it to get a laugh but — maybe he isn’t. ‘F-, where was I? Yes, the bigger the fear the bigger the laugh, that’s why we’ve always tried to avoid jokey violence. Vic and Bob’s frying-pans are wobbly and that’s a mortal mistake. I know they’ve got an ironic joke going on but you watch Cleese when he slaps someone. It seems real and so it’s really funny.’
In Guest House Paradiso the fight scenes are convincing, and funny, if you like slapstick. Mayall says he had a genuine rush of adrenaline when he was filming them. ‘I had to simmer down afterwards. There had been a release of some sort. But there’s also great control. Ade and I have never actually hit each other. He’s terribly accurate. Deft. It’s better to under-rehearse for film fighting so that it doesn’t look too prepared.’ The phone rings again. ‘F-!’ He looks at me, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. Is he acting now? I don’t know any more. ‘I’m sorry.’ He answers it. ‘Yes? Have who? Not on this number, matey.’ He slams the phone down. ‘F- this!
I keep getting near to an important pointÉ Yes, if you see my head move as his fist comes up, it’s bogus. It’s crap. It’s not going to work.’
Mayall doesn’t think that there is an innate violence in him that he is able to tap into for his comedy roles. ‘No, not usually. No. There’s something.’ Long pause. ‘The best characters I’ve played are the ones that are nearest to me, because I can play them more realistically. And very often I’m using it as a way of expunging something I’m frightened of.’ He gives examples. His first success on television came at the age of 22 with the character of Kevin Turvey – the inane tedious investigative reporter he played on the sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties. It was inspired by his fear that he himself was a boring person from the Midlands. ‘Kevin was from Redditch, which is only seven years, sorry, miles, excuse my head, from where I was brought up, Droitwich.’ And the character of Rick in The Young Ones, the anarchic comedy series Mayall co-wrote in the early Eighties with his then girlfriend Lise Meyer and Ben Elton (with whom he had been at Manchester University), was even closer to home, he says, because it was based on his own embarrassment at being selfish. Rick was a collection of all the things Rik didn’t like about himself, even down to his difficulty in pronouncing the letter ‘r’. Playing Rick was like an exorcism for Rik. ‘There was a lot of the teenager in me worried about not being groovy and popular enough or about being ugly, or spotty, or being caught masturbating.’
For all his insecurities, Rik Mayall’s own teens were, he says, fairly happy and carefree. His parents, John and Gillian, were drama teachers at a college in Bromsgrove and it was thanks to them, he says, that he got a free place at public school.
‘I remember my first day in the refectory at King’s, Worcester: 600 boys and a huge statue of Jesus at the back. Thirty foot high with huge holes in it because when Cromwell won the battle of Worcester he brought a cannon in to shoot it. There were all these older boys, monitors, with stubble and long hair and I thought “F-. I want to be you so much.” He laughs. ‘Why am I telling you this?’
Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall wrote and performed their first cabaret act together in 1976, at Manchester, where they were both studying for a degree in drama. Mayall remembers the moment they met. ‘It was our first lecture and the professor swept in with his flowing hair and gown and I stood up because that’s what I’d been taught at school. No one else did. And this one bloke – with long hair and John Lennon glasses and a fag in his hand and his f-ing feet on the table – just laughed at me and said, “Tosser!” That was Ade. Maybe I always wanted to be as cool as him. Maybe that’s why I took great satisfaction in him going bald. He was always so strong and quick and self-assured. I wanted him to be my friend. I got a 2:2 in the end, which Ade won’t f-ing shut up about because he got a 2:1.’
The double act were called 20th Century Coyote but later, when they began performing at the Comedy Store in London, they changed the name to The Dangerous Brothers. In a typical sketch they would play the part of God’s testicles, or Mayall would recite a poem about Vanessa Redgrave and Edmondson would walk on and beat him up. Over the years they have usually played characters with names – and personalities – similar to their own. Richie, Rick or Rik is always neurotic and pretentious, Eddie is always bullish and blasé.
Mayall and Edmondson consolidated the success of The Young Ones on the BBC by simultaneously performing in The Comic Strip – which they set up with Peter Richardson, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (Edmondson’s wife) – on Channel 4. Their one real television flop as a partnership came in 1987 with Filthy Rich & Catflap. This rattled Mayall’s confidence for a while. He didn’t leave the house for three weeks for fear of being pointed at by people saying, ‘That’s the bloke who isn’t funny any more.’ Their fortunes revived with Bottom, the long-running comedy series which, although deemed deeply unfunny by some critics, achieves high viewing figures.
Touchingly, Mayall compares his friendship with Edmondson to a marriage — the longest relationship he has had with anyone, apart from his parents, with all the attendant sulks and tiffs. He is the wife, Edmondson the husband. ‘We are like yin and yang,’ he says. ‘We click.’ This was never more apparent than when they played the two tramps in the West End production of Waiting for Godot in 1992. When I mention that I had never really appreciated the comic elements in the play before seeing their performance, Mayall grins. ‘Yeah, it was more intellectually stimulating than the normal things we do. Because it was so enigmatic. My daddy put me in the play — as The Boy — when I was an eight-year-old. It’s so beautiful and the words are so clever. “Makes a noise like leaves, like dust.” And there are some great gags in it, too. We were criticised at the time for making it funny. We didn’t even put any extra jokes in and we actually took out the hat routine — sorry Sam — because it wasn’t going to work. I would love to make a film of it. Love to. Me as Vladimir, Ade as Estragon.’
But Rik Mayall has performed some of his most memorable roles without Adrian Edmondson by his side. The amoral Tory MP Alan B’Stard in the Emmy and Bafta award-winning New Statesman being one. Another was Mickey Love, the paranoid alcoholic gameshow host – created for the Rik Mayall Presents series in 1993 – who came to believe his programme was being axed when actually his colleagues were planning to feature him in This is Your Life. ‘That series was very dark,’ Mayall recalls. ‘There is an area where I like to perform where the audience isn’t quite sure about Rik. Is he being funny or cruel? Is he a goody or baddy? It is more exciting to watch.’
The biggest frustration in Mayall’s career came in 1994 when he was cast opposite Stephen Fry in Cell Mates, Simon Gray’s play about the British spies Blake and Burke who once shared a cell. Fry, famously, disappeared shortly after the opening night and Gray was furious but Mayall was, he says, just cross, and then only after he had found out that Fry was safe and well. ‘And I’d loved playing with Stephen, yeah. There was something about me in there and maybe something about Stephen. I worked opposite him and there was a lot of hidden sadness in his eyes in there.’ He believes that he was born to play the part; indeed, it represented something of a familial rite of passage for Mayall. ‘My daddy, now 74, recognised in my performance the masculine side of my grandfather. There was a lonely bravado to my character. I’m a quarter Irish and so was Burke. And I had my hair cut short and Brylcreemed and my daddy came to the first night and afterwards everyone was drinking champagne and saying, “Marvellous, marvellous,” except for my daddy who was sitting quietly. I asked him what he thought and he said I was just like his daddy who had died when my daddy was 11 or 12. It was kind of.’ He trails off, shivers and mimes wiping away a tear.
I ask Rik Mayall if his father has ever felt embarrassed by the vulgarity of some of his sketches. ‘Nooo. A little maybe. One or two jokes which are a little close to the edge. Medical stuff. Sodomy jokes. My parents were another generation. Very liberal, being drama teachers, but not permissive. They weren’t as extrovert as me. There was lots of banter and laughs and singing and stupidness at home. But I was the naughty boy. I made them laugh.’
Mayall has an older brother, Anthony, who never shared his taste for performing. ‘He’s a civil engineer now. Very successful. Making bridges. That’s what he likes to do. Not what I’d call straight. He’s a dad. He’s funny. He’s cool.’ Is Anthony jealous of his younger brother’s fame? ‘Not in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact. You always know what your brother is thinking. I don’t think he weeps himself to sleep at night. He likes making bridges and tunnels. That’s what he loves.’ Mayall also has two younger sisters. One, Libby, looks after rock bands. The other, Kate, is a doctor of philosophy at Birmingham University. ‘She does research and lecturing. Very brainy. Very nice. Very quiet. She’s the youngest. Not frightening. But she doesn’t jabber as much as me. I’m blushing again.’
To his credit, Mayall knows what he is good at. He knows why his comedy works and he has enough self-awareness to realise what motives lie behind his need to make people laugh: feeling good ‘and healthy’ about himself. Unlike Ade Edmondson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton, David Baddiel, Robert Newman, Charlie Higson and Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall is that rare thing: an Eighties comedian who hasn’t written a novel. And he has no intention of trying to. He is not a frustrated intellectual, yet you do sense a frustrated actor in him – a serious and subtle one, as seen in his performance in Gogol’s The Government Inspector in 1991 – and, because he has spent so many years being mocked by Edmondson for his pretentiousness, one he dare not let out.
Indeed you can tell that the soul of a Stanislavskian Method actor lurks within Mayall by a comment he makes about being his own hobby. ‘One of my preoccupations is playing with myself,’ he says with a deadpan expression. ‘Like playing a piano. You know, I think I’ll try to be this today. I’ll go into a newsagent’s I’ve never been into before and pretend to be a foreigner who is lost.’
Is this what he has been doing throughout the interview – playing with himself, but also with me? Is the whiff of post-accident madness about him genuine or contrived for his own amusement? Is he, as he puts it, performing in that area where the audience isn’t really sure about Rik? I admit I am left confused. He is, after all, a professional performer, the naughty boy brought up in a home full of banter, singing and stupidness.
While I’m mulling this over he stubs out a cigarette, lights another and offers one to me. ‘Go on! Have a faaag! Have a faaag.’ He waves the packet under my nose. ‘Enjoy yourself. Life is too short. Go ooon. Just one.’ It’s a funny moment.
It makes me laugh. It also, I think, answers my question.