E-Motion, November-December 2003
From the day he made a hash of his A levels to the life changing “Crap Thursday”, comedian Rik Mayall has always kept a smile on his face. Rebecca Gooch finds him savouring his life in his south-west hideaway
When Rik Mayall wakes each morning at his Devon farmhouse, the first thing he sees is a tiny reminder of how lucky he is to be alive. Perched on a V-shaped piece of wood by his bed is a chunky silver ring in the shape of a skull and crossbones, given to him by his son Sidney.
“We call it my cheating-death ring,” says the actor best known for his sneery, leery comedy creations—uncharacteristically subdued for a moment.
A few minutes earlier, he had bounded cheerily into the room, looking glowing and healthy in jeans and brogues. His dark hair, with the odd tell-tale streak of grey, flops over a lightly tanned and frequently smiling face that manages to be both scary and seductive.
But get him alone and ask him about the aftermath of what he calls his “smack from God”, and the 45-year-old rogue mellows into a softer, more sensitive beast.
Rewind to the Thursday before Easter 1998—or “Crap Thursday”, as he now refers to it—and you would have found Rik arriving at his seven-acre farm at East Allington, near Kingsbridge, to find his wife Barbara busily making curtains and his three children, Rosie, now 17, Sidney, 15, and Bonnie, eight, happily playing around her.
Itching to get out into the countryside after an intensive burst of filming in London, he decided to go for a trundle over the fields on the quad bike that Barbara had given him for Christmas. Bonnie and her three-year-old cousin Red asked if they could come for the ride but, as Rik pulled the 600lb bike out of the garage, spots of rain fell on his arm.
“I pulled them on to the fuel tank in front of me, then I thought, ‘Whoa, this is stupid, Rik, you don’t want the kids getting soaked.’ So I sent them back inside,” he remembers, dragging a hand through his hair. “But I’d just got down to Devon after a lot of work and I wanted to get some fresh air into my lungs. I knew the rain wouldn’t hurt me…”
He shudders as he thinks how those few spots of rain probably saved the two little girls’ lives. Because, as everyone now knows, the quad bike somehow toppled on to Rik, leaving him with such severe head injuries that newspapers rushed to prepare his obituary.
His wife found him lying on his back staring sightlessly at a stormy sky, blood seeping from his ears, nose and mouth. He was taken by air ambulance to Derriford hospital in Plymouth, where he dipped in and out of a coma for a week. He suffered two brain haemorrhages and the slightest movement could have proved fatal. But even though he survived, the battle wasn’t done. He may have been alive, but would he be brain damaged?
When he came round, he could only grunt. Rik’s acting partner Ade Edmonson, who was by his bed, tried to mask his shock by joking that he needn’t worry, they’d set the next series of Bottom in the Stone Age, so they could both just grunt.
In hospital he experienced bouts of bizarre behaviour and memory loss, which he now refers to as his Mr Loony phase. He muddled words—asking for a bike when he wanted a biscuit, and requesting lesbians, instead of paper, to write on. He couldn’t work for five months. Anxiously he eased back into the water with a voice-over for an animated children’s film. Then came the film Guest House Paradiso with Ade, several spells in the theatre and a new TV series.
At the beginning of October this year he packed his cheating-death ring and 25-year-old lucky blue underpants, and went on the road with Ade for a massive 40-date national Bottom: Weapons Grade Y-Fronts tour.
Audiences should brace themselves for the usual Bottom cocktail: slapstick violence and humour so lavatorial it should come with a complementary squirt of Domestos.
“It’s been 28 years since our first fart joke and I think we’re writing better than ever now,” Rik says proudly. “We may go off and do other little things elsewhere, but we keep coming back to this partnership.
“Ade really is my best mate, and our relationship is the longest one I’ve had apart from with my parents. It’s like a kind of marriage, I suppose. We’re Yin and Yang. Chi-Chi and what was the other one? An-An? But I have to keep telling him, Chi-Chi, sorry, but I will not have sex with you.”
There he goes again—he simply can’t resist it. Just when you think he’s being serious, he can’t help topping it with something outrageous. He’s on the go constantly, a restless fidget whose hands move, body twists and eyes roll dramatically to add visual emphasis to everything he says.
Next to him, Ade seems positively Zen-like.
The anarchic duo met at Manchester University in 1975, after Rik had managed to scrape a place reading Drama. “I made a hash of my A levels with two Cs and an E, because of trouble with my hormones,” he reveals with a sad nod. “Ade had long straggly hair, little John Lennon glasses and really ripped trousers, and I thought he was totally cool and wanted to be his pal.”
But Rik—who was christened Richard and then changed his name in homage to the comic-strip character Erik the Viking—confesses that Ade’s inital impression of him was not so cool.
“At our first lecture, when the professor walked in, I stood up, because that’s what we’d done at school when the teacher entered. But I was the only one who did. The other 30 laughed their pants off. I felt a total prat.”
Maybe Rik’s respect for teachers came from his parents, who both taught drama and encouraged him to act. The bug bit when he was eight and his father cast him as an urchin in Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan. “I had to rummage in a dustbin and find a bar of chocolate, then smear it around my face before turning to the audience. I got a big laugh and thought, ‘This is paradise—this is what I want for the rest of my life!’” he chirrups. “I’ve always been a show-off. I always had to be the centre of attention.”
Attention seeking is something he later went on to parody in the characters he created. “My keynote has always been my ego, I’ve always played the self-obsessional,” he growls. “If you look at the links between the characters I’ve made, whether it’s Alan B’Stard, Kevin Turvey, Ritchie from Bottom or Rik from The Young Ones, it’s about self, self, self.”
Is that because he dislikes that side of his own personality, perhaps? “One always plays against type and I’m terribly modest, don’tcha know,” he sighs theatrically. “I often mix among ordinary people. I have taken the tube and I love to meet poor people. And I talk to them occasionally too, and sometimes give my autograph for free. I’m terribly lovely and terribly good-looking. Although tragically my hairline is receding a little…but lah-di-dah!”
He tosses his head back with such a flourish, I fear whiplash. It is not only interviews that Rik treats as just another opportunity to perform—he treats life the same way. He is a compulsive entertainer, usually swaying between unjustified self-deprecation—“Please tell the world I’m not a sad, fat, old has-been”—to outrageous self-love—“If I did have time to relax I would probably sit talking about myself until I pass out”.
“Making people laugh is still a thrill for me,” he says. “It’s got to be the best job in the world—after Kylie Minogue’s thong adjuster,” he grins.
Ade Edmonson felt the same and, inspired by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Goons, Tommy Cooper, and Morecambe and Wise, they formed the 20th Century Coyote Group, and began writing and performing a comedy show that they took to the Edinburgh Festival. One of their favourite larks at university was to wind up the left wingers selling copies of the Morning Star on the Student Union steps. “They’d call ‘Morning Star’, and we’d shout ‘Morning Darling!’” he hoots.
Together they would sit and drink enormous amounts of Colt 45 long into the night, cook chips and work on ideas by talking into a tape recorder. It was their shared student house in Manchester, where Ade used to like driving his motorbike up the stairs, that spawned the cult hit The Young Ones and launched their careers.
Then came The Comic Strip Presents… series, which was largely filmed around Exeter and Devon. Co-founder Peter Richardson was born in Devon, where his parents ran a summer camp for schoolchildren, so he knew just where to go to get the best location shots.
As a result of their happy experiences filming in the south-west, Rik and fellow strippers Ade and his wife Jennifer Saunders now live there. “Jennifer has bought North Devon for him,” Rik explains. “I own South Devon. I think Ade was a bit misguided. He thought it was Hampstead. I don’t know what Jennifer is doing—there aren’t any shops! She’s probably wandering the moors in the rain, looking for Miss Selfridge or something.”
Rik bought the farm near Kingsbridge in 1997 and now finds himself spending more time there than at his London house. “It’s my only indulgence,” he says. “Every time I earn a bit more money, we build a new wall.”
Meanwhile Ade and Jennifer live in a 400-year-old farmhouse near Exeter, with four cows and a flock of rare-breed sheep grazing on their 45 acres. “He’s into bestiality,” says Rik, waving his hand dismissively. So does he have any livestock himself?
“Yes, dear. They’re called children,” he snorts, then instantly softens as he describes how he fell in love at first sight with his wife Barbara. She was a make-up artist called in to paint on the acne that helped transform him into super-nerd Kevin Turvey, the boring Brummie character in sketch show A Kick up the Eighties.
“It sounds very romantic, but it’s absolutely true. She walked past me in the corridor while I was dressed as this little scruff in an anorak and I thought, ‘Oh, there she is!’ That honestly was the feeling I had inside, like some kind of recognition. But I think she fell in love with Kevin Turvey, and thought he was cute and made her laugh. Then she met me and was disappointed.”
They got married on a cliff-top in Barbados, and he now calls her the kindest, wisest, strongest person he knows. “She was always telling me to live more in the moment and, after Crap Thursday, I do appreciate life more now. I look to the sky sometimes and wonder why I’m still here. I know I’m incredibly lucky.
“The ring Sid bought me is something to do with spitting in fate’s eye. It was meant to get me and it didn’t—and now I thank God for every day. When I wear the ring I put it on my left hand because I’m a left-hander. So it’s on my punching fist. Nothing dare touch me now…”