The Sunday London Times, 7th July 2002
Rik Mayall just wanted to play Hitler. But now the row over his euro ad is obscuring a tale of triumph over tragedy, writes Richard Brooks.
The cigarette lighter is the giveaway. On it is a Union Jack motif.
Rik Mayall picks it up and lights yet another fag. He had bought the lighter because it rather tickled his fancy. Yet its symbolism is not lost on the man who is being attacked for his portrayal of Hitler in a No to the euro commercial.
Mayall’s Fuhrer, ranting: “Ein volk! Ein Reich! Ein euro!” before later whimpering: “Euro, oh, yes please”, lasts for only five seconds of the 90-second film. Yet the little episode has been roundly condemned by Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and Fred Tuckman, a former Conservative MEP and vice-president of the Anglo-Jewish Association. Even Tony Blair has added his voice of concern.
Yet Mayall is unrepentant. “Actually, I only did it because I’d always wanted to play Hitler,” he says, before smiling that alarming, manic trademark grin we’ve grown used to over the years.
No, Mayall does not think playing Hitler is offensive. “It’s satire. Look, I’m saying what I say because if Hitler tells people to support the euro then surely they won’t. That’s the point of it.”
And as for it being anti-semitic, Mayall points out that his wife Barbara is Jewish. “So my children are Jewish, too, as the Jewish race goes through the mother’s line. And I suppose that if the SS were to march in, I’d be in the concentration camp, too, for collaboration simply for marrying Barbara.”
But apart from “always wanting to play Hitler”, why did Mayall decide to take part in the No campaign along with other entertainers such as Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, John Sessions and Bob Geldof? Was he really opposed to the euro?
His reply is somewhat equivocal. “I’m not a joiner. So that means no to joining the euro. In fact, I shouldn’t really tell you this but for years I used to go to the Groucho club. But I’d never actually joined. God, I’m going to be in trouble now.
“So on the euro it’s really that I’m an independent sort of person. If we join the euro then the people in Brussels will take even more decisions on our behalf. I don’t trust the financiers of Europe. Look, Britain resisted the Armada and, yes, Hitler too. I like this distance we in Britain have. A little island between mainland Europe and America.”
So does his support for the pound make Mayall a Little Englander? “Um, I’m British, not really English.” He was initially brought up in Essex (the village of Matching Tye, though Tie would have been funnier) before moving to the Midlands.
“In fact, I’ve got bits of Irish and Scottish blood in me from way back. When I was in Edinburgh last year I went into a kilt shop and told them my name was originally Meall, not Mayall. The shop assistant looked up Meall and told me my family had come from Angus. He found the right kilt.”
The furore over Mayall’s portrayal of Hitler has obfuscated his return to the limelight after a forced four-year absence. In 1998 Mayall, then at the height of his career thanks to starring roles in The Young Ones, The New Statesman and Bottom, nearly died. At Easter he had gone to his new farmhouse home in Devon. He was riding a quad bike when it fell on its side. Mayall, who was not wearing a crash helmet, was thrown out. He suffered serious head injuries with two life threatening haematomas and a fractured skull. He was rushed by police helicopter to a hospital in Devon. The next few weeks were a living hell for Mayall’s wife and three children.
He was unconscious for five days. Then, on regaining consciousness, he tried and failed to break out of the hospital. He was transferred, after another five weeks, to a private one in London. This time he escaped successfully within hours of his arrival.
Wearing a jacket and some tracksuit bottoms, he reached the front door unnoticed, hailed a cab and was taken back to his home in Notting Hill. “I just hated the hospital,” he recalls.
Mayall does admit, though, that he was “seriously mad” at the time. “Let me tell you what I mean. I was seeing smells and smelling colours. It was like being on acid. Well, I suppose it was, though I’ve never taken LSD.”
When he arrived home Barbara had the good sense to ring their family doctor. The doctor quickly knocked Mayall out with a shot and he was taken to the Hammersmith hospital. There the medics tend to be were really concerned that 40% of his brain was still full of blood. To get rid of it, his consultant told him, he would have to cut open his skull.
It is at this point in his narrative that Mayall leaps up from his seat and rushes towards. For a second I fear he is going to manhandle me. Instead, he puts both his hands on my head, as if to play-act reprise the the skull operation. It’s an unsettling experience.
In the end Mayall never had the operation. “Somehow the blood began to go. Maybe it was the threat of having my skull opened,” he says.
Slowly Mayall began to improve. By September 1998 he was ready to try a bit of work — a recording for children’s television. He was terrified. “What really worried me beforehand was not knowing whether I could still pretend to be somebody else. I can’t tell you how happy I was to find out I could.”
Gradually he has done more and more work. He had a little part in the first Harry Potter movie, though it was cut out. “At least I got this phone call from the producer warning me.” His character is also in the second Potter film, although Mayall was not asked to reprise the role.
Last year he did a road show around Britain with his best friend Ade Edmondson, whom he first met when they were studying drama at Manchester University in the late 1970s. The two have starred together in the Comic Strip series, Bottom and, most famously, The Young Ones.
On the latter Lise Mayer, now the lover of errant Angus Deayton, was a scriptwriter and Mayall’s girlfriend. By the mid-1980s he was double-dating both Mayer and Barbara. But the Mayer relationship came to a dramatic end. Halfway through a television awards bash, Mayall told Mayer he had to pop to the loo. In fact, he had a taxi waiting to take him to Heathrow where Barbara was waiting. They eloped to Barbados and married.
The legacies of Mayall’s accidents are with him still. He has to take tablets, cannot consume alcohol and confesses to having had a couple of epileptic fits. He admits, too, that while performing with Edmondson last year he had trouble remembering his lines. “Ade would joke about it on stage,” he says.
Though work has become more challenging, Mayall is not, however, avoiding it. Ten days ago he finished recording his next series, Believe Nothing. Each of the six half-hour episodes took 2½ hours to shoot before a live audience. Not surprisingly, the work took its toll on Mayall. He encountered some difficulty in not only remembering his lines, but also in the process of learning them.
Still, the series – in which he plays Adonis Cnut, pronounced like King Canute, the cleverest man in Britain – works a treat. A bold satire, it pokes some fun at new Labour and, as it title suggests, adopts a healthy cynicism about the modern world.
Believe Nothing is written by his old pals Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who in the late 1980s also created Alan B’stard, the obnoxious Tory MP of The New Statesman for Mayall.
I wonder if he has any party allegiances? His breakthrough Young Ones character was, after all, a middle-class student anarchist and surely B’stard was enough to put anybody off voting Conservative? Mayall points out, however, that New Statesman scripts sold at Tory party conferences. The assumption was that Tories could laugh at themselves, though, it would, on reflection, have been even more alarming if they had bought the scripts because they admired B’stard.
“The New Statesman was my way of destroying Thatcher,” he says. “She’d destroyed Daddy’s college.” Mayall explains that his father’s further education college near Bromsgrove had been shut by Thatcher through local authority cuts. “Daddy had really become a big name in the area for the theatre he had there.” It is both odd and rather endearing that Mayall, a 44-year-old man, should talk so unselfconsciously of “Daddy”.
Mayall eventually goes on to try to explain his political philosophy. “I’m an anarcho-surrealist,” he says. My puzzlement must show. “Yes, I don’t know what it means either,” adds Mayall, though by the end of our interview I’ve come to the conclusion that his description is accurate.
Mayall clearly has a lot to live for. Like many with an earthshattering experience, he has refocused his life. He keeps fit by running (“I’m unbearably lively at breakfast time”) and never has hangovers now that he no longer drinks.
His 17-year marriage to Barbara is a happy one. “Look, life is good now,” he beams. “I’m lucky with family and friends. But I’ve now been to the very edge and looked over. I can tell you what it was like. It made me realise just how mortal we are.”