By Tony Cooke for The Stage, 17th January 2007
Rik Mayall insists his latest project, playing the sleaze-ridden MP Alan B’Stard from his eighties TV hit The New Statesman is not a telly spin-off but a necessary damnation of the last ten years of British politics.
“Tricky one before we start. How do I present myself? Nice guy? Crazy mad guy? Good bloke?” Rik Mayall’s opening words say a lot about him – he’s not an easy actor to pin down.
In person, Mayall is genuinely very funny. He gets excited. He lays himself bare. He mentions things he probably shouldn’t. He says ‘fuck’ a lot.
A few minutes in, any prepared questions are out the window and I’m running to keep up. He doesn’t like to be contained.
“I don’t like authority. No, that’s not fucking hard enough,” he says with a grin, “I don’t do law.”
He might be slipping in and out of screen personas but a glance down his resume tells the same story. Mayall seems to have spent the last three decades avoiding being pigeon-holed – three iconic sitcom characters, Hollywood actor, Emmy Award-winning voiceover, TV leading man, stand-up comic, national stage actor and writer.
“It’s difficult to talk about yourself without looking like you’re bigging yourself up but I like the way that I don’t belong to any stream of entertainment. I swore on all sorts of holy things that I would never repeat myself.”
That could explain the pains he goes to defending his latest choice of project to me. He’s brought Alan B’Stard, the sleaze-ridden MP from his eighties TV hit The New Statesman, to London’s Trafalgar Studios. A move that could be seen as selling out for the father of alternative comedy?
“I’m very keen that people don’t think this is a telly spin-off. It’s a play. We are doing it on Whitehall, virtually next door to Tony Blair and Alan is based in number nine Downing Street.
“Twice in my lifetime so far, this character has presented itself to me to change the establishment of the British kingdom,” he adds, with a B’Stard slur. “I brought down Thatch for my people. And now I’m bringing down ‘Bleurgh’, for my people who I love and love me.”
The original writers of the TV series Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran persuaded Mayall to pick up the role again by showing him how their new play moves B’Stard on. “It’s just a massive damnation of the last ten years of British politics,” Mayall explains. “Alan can get older, because evil is a permanent thing. Alan is who invented New Labour. He is now a very established global figure. He’s having sex with Condoleezza Rice, he’s starting wars on the mobile, things like that.”
Marks and Gran are also on hand to keep the script ultra-topical, something Mayall relishes. “Oh fuck yes. It’s lovely. We had some stuff about Pinochet leaving me various things in his will just after he died. It’s great.”
A successful regional tour in 2006 confirmed there was still a public hunger for B’Stard but Mayall believes this London run is a whole new challenge. He takes a big pause, then quietly starts explaining.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious. See, I’m always covering my arse. He doesn’t like to be himself does he Rik, always hiding away,” he slams the table and is back to boisterous again. “London is by far the hardest stage to play, without doubt. I mean I’m the best at it and this is by far the best show there’s ever been but it’s very challenging.
“The sense of humour in London always changes, just because there are so many different people and so many visitors, you just don’t know who is there. You’ve got to get out there and quickly find out who or what they are. It’s a very sensual moment.”
Helping him feel his way with the London punters, Mayall is keen to name-check his fellow cast members. In fact, he’s scarily insistent. “Helen Baker is a fucking genius. Kamaal Hussein is a fucking genius. Garry Cooper, Lysette Anthony and Alexandra Gunn are the same. I’m telling you I want this printed.
“We all react and move with the audience, there haven’t been two plays the same. It’s about genuinely entertaining those people. They’re not witnesses to the play for someone else. You start with a room of 400 strangers and you end with a seriously committed army,” he states, slamming the table once more.
Marks and Gran have known Mayall for 20 years and at the start of last year’s regional tour Gran described to me what he thought made Mayall tick: “He is a larger than life performer at his most comfortable, I think. If you asked him to do The Vicar of Dibley it would come over as a big piece of acting. I’m not saying he doesn’t do an absolutely perfect job but that’s what people like.”
Gran also explained why they’d chosen to write every line of The New Statesman, instead of farming it out. “Rik wouldn’t allow it. He needs a very close, trusting relationship. But after a while we realised it wasn’t the sort of character or style of show that could easily be subcontracted.”
Mayall moves on to talk about his heroes and his influences are surprising – not so much actors but extreme performers. “I tell you who is one of my heroes; Wilko Johnson, he was the guitarist from Dr Feelgood. I learned as much in the seventies about performance from him as from anybody. His stage presence – an absolute seizure of the audience. Power and terror.
“You’ve go to have balls to come to my theatre, because at the Trafalgar Studios you are so near to Rik.” He leans right into the tape recorder: “Don’t be frightened people.”
For someone with such a love of shock and anarchy on stage and screen, his early upbringing seems rather reserved. Richard Michael Mayall was born in 1958 in Harlow, Essex, the second of four children and when he was three his family moved to Droitwich, near Worcester.
His father taught drama at a college in Bromsgrove, his mother was also a teacher and both were involved in local theatre groups. The young Rik was soon performing, acting in shows at King’s School, Worcester, before going on to study drama at Manchester University.
It was at Manchester in 1975 where he first met Adrian Edmondson and they soon cemented their comedy partnership with the act 20th Century Coyote. Mayall denies they were cocky enough to believe they were destined for success: “We never looked at it that way, we just wanted to have a good time. We never said ‘Hey let’s get on television. Just imagine in 30 years we can both sit there in the studio for Celebrity Abortion Sniffing looking like complete and utter fucking wastes of oxygen’. No, it wasn’t like that.”
On graduating, Mayall showed the early signs of wanting a varied career, landing a dramatic role touring the USA in The Comedy of Errors for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company. But by 1980, Mayall and Edmundson’s act had been a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe and they made their debut at London’s Comedy Store, as well as at the Comic Strip Club – comedy was making stars of them both.
Mayall made his TV debut in 1981 as time-wasting investigative journalist Kevin Turvey in sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties. A year later, along with his then girlfriend Lisa Mayer and Ben Elton, he conceived and wrote a sitcom to bring together several characters he knew from the alternative comedy circuit. In late 1982, The Young Ones united Mayall and Edmondson with Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan, in a flatshare from hell. Its unpredictable, fantastically infantile, violent style shook British TV comedy to the core.
By the mid-eighties, Mayall had such popularity, even the National Theatre came knocking. He did eventually appear in The Government Inspector in 1985 but he flatly turned down the first play they offered, feeling it wasn’t right. “I feel proud to have turned that down. I wish I could remember what it was. Let’s say Hamlet. Yeah, I turned down Hamlet. Well who fucking wouldn’t? I mean how many gags are there in that?”
Mayall and Edmondson followed up The Young Ones with the unfairly panned Filthy, Rich and Catflap in 1987, before finding their feet again with Bottom in 1991. Reflecting on these series now, Mayall says they’re feeling dated. “The Young Ones, or Richie, or any characters like that, they have been of their period,” he adds.
He won’t deny that Bottom’s characters Richie and Eddie could happily return as pervy old men but for now the phenomenally successful decade of Bottom Live shows has come to an end and Mayall still seems to miss it. “We didn’t suffer from any delay with Bottom Live. You wrote the script and you didn’t have to wait for someone to approve it, cross out some of your jokes and ask for other lines.”
As well as B’Stard and Bottom, Mayall has worked the last two decades with his trademark scatter-gun approach. A burst of films, including Drop Dead Fred, Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis and Carry on Columbus. Scene-stealing turns as Flashheart in the Blackadder series. Narrating children’s show Jellikins. Playing King Herod on a DVD production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Voicing several animated characters to international acclaim.
Perhaps most critically celebrated was his run of six single ITV plays in the mid-nineties under the banner Rik Mayall Presents… The series bagged him a British Comedy Award nomination for Best Actor in 1993.
However, the most coverage surrounding him in the press in recent years was not for his work at all. “You probably know that I’ve met God, in 1998. God and I are like that,” he says, referring to his near-fatal quad bike accident at his Devon farm in front of his wife Barbara and three children. “Jesus was only dead for three days. Two thousand years later, I was technically dead for five.”
With that experience now overcome, Mayall is approaching 50 with what seems the same energy as ever, just less places than he’d like to use it. “Telly’s been very peculiar to me in the last few years. My agent will be cross with me if I say I wish I got more of a variety of scripts offered, because that’s the sort of thing one doesn’t say. I mean, I’m not desperate to appear on Casualty, I can live without that.”
Later he retracts the Casualty comment, after all Edmondson has been a Holby City regular since 2005. But you could hardly blame Mayall for having the desire to do something more challenging. “I don’t think telly is as exploratory or brave as it was,” he states. “I watched Steptoe and Son the other night. Fantastically acted, it was much more theatrically shot in those days and they were playing a studio audience all the time.”
He also isn’t about to jump on the celebrity reality TV or panel show circuits. “No! I do get offered them. Well I presume I get offered them. I probably said no emphatically a few years ago. I don’t really appear as myself.”
I start to ask what he would like to do next and suddenly he’s again less self-assured. “What do you think I should do next?” he interrupts. When I suggest a series of single plays such as Rik Mayall Presents are lacking from TV at the moment, he nods in agreement. “It’s me, that’s what’s lacking on TV at the moment.,” he laughs. “No but I appreciate that, thank you. Well let’s do that then. You write the fucking thing and we’ll just come in and destroy BBC2, or something like that.”
His appetite for shaking the establishment to the ground hasn’t waned, then, but the question is, beyond B’Stard, whether he can find a new role big enough to do it.
“I have just received the script for a lesbian vampire movie,” he adds with another B’Stard leer. “I’ve not said yes to it yet, so I’m not going to name the part but I was like, yeah! Be paid to go all the way to Hungary to watch all that. Come on!”