Rik Mayall Interviews and Articles Archive

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Category: 2010

The Comic Strip: 30 Years On

By Nigel Farndale for The Telegraph, 27th October 2010

When Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders joined the Comic Strip in 1980, a new   genre of comedy was born. There were already two other double acts in the   ensemble – Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, and Peter Richardson and Nigel   Planer – with Alexei Sayle as compère. Their regular venue was a spare stage   at Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar, a strip club in Soho. The group also   toured and, two years later, they made a half-hour film, Five Go Mad in   Dorset, a parody of the Enid Blyton story which was shown on the opening   night of Channel 4 on November 2. It was to be the first of 41 such   self-contained films, including a satire about the miners’ strike, which won   the Golden Rose of Montreux, and the ‘rockumentary’ Bad News.   Most were written and directed by Peter Richardson and, over the years, the   line-up was to include such comic luminaries as Robbie Coltrane, Keith Allen   and Lenny Henry. On the 30th anniversary of that first fateful meeting in   Soho, Nigel Farndale talks to some of the cast.

Six go mad in a Soho strip club

Jennifer Saunders: ‘Dawn and I had had a double act at college and we had a   dream of becoming cruise ship entertainers. But I was out of work and she   was teaching so we answered an advert in The Stage. The Comic Strip   was boys only when we arrived and, being politically correct, they needed   some girls in the line up, but it didn’t feel like we were token women   because we did think we were funny enough. I don’t know why it didn’t seem   strange working above a strip club, but it didn’t. Soho was different in   those days, it was much less crowded.’

Dawn French: ‘The Raymond Revue Bar as a venue was a happy accident. Someone   knew someone who knew Paul Raymond and he had this spare theatre. The group   was already called the Comic Strip when Jen and I joined. So essentially it   was three double acts, Jennifer and me, Ade and Rik, Nigel and Pete.’

Rowland Rivron: ‘Bunch of stuck up gits, weren’t they?’

Nigel Planer: ‘Alexei Sayle was the main star when we were there and the rest   of us were B team to him.’

Peter Richardson: ‘It started as a club, a group who had this energy and   I think there was a feeling that if we got together the collective force of   this group would make it work.’

Planer: ‘The Raymond Revue Bar was a strange place because in the interval our   non-racist, non-sexist audience would walk into the bar where there were   soft-porn videos playing. A most paradoxical venue.’

Saunders: ‘We had two separate changing rooms, one for the girls and one for   the boys. Theirs stank because they never washed their costumes.’

French: ‘The audience was hip, that was the great thing. You looked out and   there were all these floaty, New Romantics and among them people like Robin   Williams, Bianca Jagger and Jack Nicholson.’

Head of BBC entertainment Paul Jackson: ‘In a way the Comic Strip became the   new punk because there was an anger. Keith Allen once threw beer over an   Evening Standard critic.’

Saunders: ‘All the rumours about Dawn and I were true. We were pretty crap   back then. We’d change our act every night. It took us a long time to   realise the boys were using the same material every night because the   audiences changed every night. Having two years to work together as an   ensemble before the first TV film was very useful. We had the same   sensibility.’

‘We’ll have those six and the fat one!’

Mayall: ‘It was Pete who was the driving force, he got us round a table and we   signed something on a menu.’

Planer: ‘Pete did the deal with Channel 4 without telling us.’

Commissioning editor for Channel 4 Mike Bolland: ‘They came to us with six   ideas, all elaborate pastiches. Having seen the acts in the Comic Strip I   thought it was a really exciting prospect for television. The cheek of   taking on an icon like Enid Blyton appalled some people.’

Edmondson: ‘Channel 4 was being born, and it was pure luck for them and us   because we provided them with something on a plate. “We’ll have those six   and the fat one!”’

Sayle: ‘Pete was very determined and possibly Machiavellian in a way an auteur   has to be. Initially, we had a meeting at his house where it was agreed that   everything would be decided by a single, non-transferable vote based on the   parliamentary system of Finland. A few weeks later we get these pay cheques   from Peter Richardson Ltd.’

Richardson: ‘I tried to be as democratic as I could be, given the fascist   state I lived in. We all took the same money and still do. As for warring   egos, mine was probably bigger than any of theirs. They were all quite   reasonable.’

Lenny Henry: ‘The first one was completely anarchic and irreverent to the Enid   Blyton stories, but also strangely quaint and true to the form.’

French: ‘For the films that followed that first one, the boys took every   opportunity to play guitars, throw grenades or shag girls.’

Saunders: ‘Half wanted to be rock stars, the other [half] Clint Eastwood.’

Mayall: ‘I got blisters on my fingers from cocking guns and my ankles swelled   up from wearing spurs, and my hat kept blowing off and I couldn’t chase it   because my ankles were swollen.’

French: ‘It was a group that fell into working together with guidance from   Pete, who was ambitious, not to be famous but to make films. A lot of the   Comic Strips are parodies of film genres.’

Coltrane: ‘I had to sleep with Peter Richardson to land the role, but we all   did once. He used to write with Pete Richens. Their shooting was just   something that interrupted their writing. When I phoned them I was always   told they were out in the shed writing, at least it was assumed they were   writing.’

Pete Richens: ‘Peter was the boss, I was just a mechanic who helped make his   ideas work. We write either side of the same table. More grown-up writers   work separately then get together. But we just slog it out.’

French: ‘Peter and Pete wrote the most, mainly because they were   megalomaniacs. The rest of us would get what was left over.’

Saunders: ‘Also they could write, that was the other thing.’

French: ‘On location we were prepared to work all the hours God sent and we   slept on the set sometimes. It was a halcyon time. Getting paid the same   meant you could write a film with someone in mind for the role without   worrying that someone else in the group would miss out on the pay.’

Keith Allen: ‘No one had done that format before. You didn’t shoot half-hour   comedies with an ensemble team. Before it was the Oxbridge axis of Monty   Python and Not the Nine O’Clock News. So this was new.’

Planer: ‘The documentary feel tied in with what we were doing in the clubs.   Later, Steve Coogan and Mrs Merton used that technique, inventing a   character and putting it in seemingly real contexts.’

Henry: ‘Peter didn’t want studio audiences, he preferred locations. Comedies   like Little Britain and The Fast Show wouldn’t have had   the look they had, were it not for the Comic Strip.’

Coltrane: ‘The viewing figures were never very good, I think three and a half   million was the most. But having said that, most of those three and a half   million could recite the whole show the next week. They were a dedicated   following.’

Pete Richens: ‘You would get kids in the playground saying: “Blah blah blah   Atom bomb blah blah blah Third World War.”’

Edmondson: ‘Bad News was based on my experience of school rock   bands. Everyone thinks it was stolen from Spinal Tap but it actually   predated Spinal Tap by six months.’

Stand-offs, tussles and ‘Mad Pete’

Richardson: ‘Somewhere there is a lot of footage of us arguing on the Bad   News tour bus. You could stick it in a Bad Newsepisode and you   wouldn’t know, apart from we were more intelligent and didn’t have the wigs   on. EMI gave us a recording contract and we played live at Castle Donington   in front of 60,000 people. It was eight in the morning and the crowd was   throwing bottles at us. It was like four comedians going out into   the Coliseum.’

Mayall: ‘When Bad News played Donington was when life began imitating art.   Nigel and I had such a row over sound levels on stage.’

French: ‘Ade was funny, complex and profound; Rik was not only hilarious but   also quite beautiful with the clearest, hugest eyes. Nigel was the most   fastidious, employing proper techniques to find the right character and   actually learning the bloody lines! Mad Pete was our Clint Eastwood,   brooding, lip-chewing, anxious and utterly committed to making film. We once   got into a stand-off about a line I was supposed to deliver in Susie in   1984, which we all agreed should be changed because it was lame. He agreed   but on the day he hadn’t changed it and I refused to say it. It ended in   full-on squaddie style screams of obscenities from both of us, then we began   prodding each other, then a tussle ensued. The episode served to confirm to   me Pete’s complex passion for our films. He is one of those people who is   nine parts genius to one part knob, and I say this as one of his closest   friends!’

Saunders: ‘Sometimes they looked like an art film, sometimes a sitcom. There   was a lot of diversity.’

‘I once played Meryl Streep playing Mrs Scargill’

French: ‘Jen and I were always made to wear short skirts, fishnets and high   heels by Peter, even if we were playing a lumberjack.’

Planer: ‘I played the bums, the hippies, the ageing perverts and strange   agents, and anally retentive people in wigs. Pete has a strange take on the   world. You found yourself giving a quirky, odd performance.’

French: ‘Explosions happened a lot, usually to finish the story because   we didn’t have any endings.’

Saunders: ‘I was always in awe of the proper actors who came into it because   they would concentrate and learn their lines. I would be thinking: “What’s   for lunch?”’

Coltrane: ‘We wouldn’t do anything for a year then all come together again and   it was like a family reunion, on location in some hotel, catching up and   getting p—-d for a week.’

Richardson: ‘There was a point where each of them had their own series and   getting them together for the Comic Strip became harder.’

Mayall: ‘You’d get a call from Peter saying: “Do you want to be in a film?”   and you would say yes and he would say:“Right, come round this afternoon   we’re shooting” and I would say: “But I can’t, I’m doing The New   Statesman.”’

Coltrane: ‘Peter always got really hurt if you said you were working on   something else like Cracker.’

French: ‘It became a little complicated when we got other careers. They made   it messier because Peter wanted us to be available to start for whenever he   had put the money together. It was very slapdash in that way, we never knew   dates. It was up in the air, so I had to drop in my bread and butter work,   and just hope I would be available for Peter. Whatever else we were doing,   we would always come back to do films with Peter. He is very persuasive, by   fair means or foul.’

Saunders: ‘We would go and sleep in Peter’s mum’s farmhouse in Devon or share   bunk beds in cottages. It was a real collaboration, a family feeling. Often   they were weirder roles, rather than comic roles. I had no idea what The   Beat Generationwas about when we were filming it. Like I said, I was   more interested in the catering. Free food! There wasn’t a sense back then   that you had to fit in with what a committee of executives wanted, which is   what the BBC is like now. You were creatively left to your own devices.’

French: ‘It could get very bizarre, I once played Cher playing Joan Ruddock.’

Saunders: ‘So many weird layers. The peeling of the orange when I was playing   Meryl Streep playing Mrs Scargill was based on something I read about   Streep, that she had this knack for pulling focus, even when she didn’t have   a line in the scene.’

French: ‘It was great being in a minority of girls. If Peter had anything to   do with it you would either be an old bag with hairy moles or you were in   fishnet tights with stilettos. No one was saying you were the wrong shape or   height or age. It was an adult version of being let loose with the dressing   up box.’

Saunders: ‘It was the happiest, happiest time. We would film ridiculous hours,   finish at two in the morning then back filming at six, but you were young   and you didn’t mind. It was a great learning curve. With the Comic Strip you   got to learn how it was made. You were hanging around with the director and   sitting in on script meetings. Sometimes Peter could be a hard taskmaster   because he writes in a particular way but there was always scope to put in   other jokes. There was one called War, I never really did work out   what that was about.’

Richardson: ‘We tried to cast against type. In Five Go Mad we   asked Ronald Allen, who was famous for Crossroads, to play Uncle   Quentin as a “screaming homosexual”. I remember asking him and he said he   would do it so long as he could carry a cane and I said: “You have a deal.”’

Family ties (and a bit of snogging)

Saunders: ‘There was a great sense of family, really, although I wasn’t   married to Ade until the Comic Strip was almost finished. During the making   of Comic Strip we weren’t really an item, that wasn’t until Supergrass,   the feature film. We were constantly having to snog the other members of the   cast, which was delightful. I think Dawn got more snogging in than me. She   always had the raunchier parts. A lot of Peter’s women were larger than   life, lot of red lipstick. When he mimed the woman he wanted you to play it   was all hand on hip and applying lipstick.’

Richardson: ‘Four Men in a Plane in 2000 was one of our better   ones, I don’t think that’s aged. We showed a couple at a comedy festival a   couple of months ago, The Crying Game, about a gay footballer, and Detectives   on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, and they got huge laughs.’

Edmondson: ‘At the beginning there was a poster calling us “guerrillas of   humour”, and there was an idea that we were fighting against Thatcher and   this dreadful oppression and people thought we were having an effect, and   sure enough, just 17 years later we got rid of her, just as our careers were   beginning to wane.’

Richardson: ‘I do get people saying: “The Comic Strip is the reason I got into   comedy.” We’re still going, about to do an anniversary series. Six very   different films again, we’re going to bring some younger people in Five   Go Mad 30 years on, and another political satire like The Strike.’

Edmondson: ‘Peter is a very good writer. He invented a new genre of satire, a   Hollywood version of a non-Hollywood story, like Strike and GLC   and his own film, Churchill: The Hollywood Years.’

Planer: ‘In Four Men in a Plane there is a five-minute developing   shot, which is an incredible piece of film directing, compared to the crude   directing of the early episodes.’

Edmondson: ‘Four Men in a Plane, filmed on location in Spain, was   the first time Peter and I had a standup row, I kept making this line   funnier. I rebelled. He always presses you to do what he wants to do and not   think for yourself, and he is usually right!’

Planer: ‘I thought, where have I heard this row before? Then I realised it was   15 years ago and I just thought: “This is fantastic!” [Laughter] It’s the   old team still having the same old rows. I love this. I’m with my mates in a   field in Spain.’

Coltrane: ‘I think they were all very lucky to get to work with me, to be   honest. What happened to French and Saunders?’

Music: Rik Mayall rallies fans behind England

By Andrew Coleman for Birmingham Mail, 30th April 2010

CULT comic Rik Mayall has been unveiled as the England football team’s secret  weapon for this year’s World Cup.

The Young Ones and Bottom funnyman, who was brought up in Droitwich, is  rallying the country around the team by releasing a stirring soccer anthem which  he hopes will top the charts and encourage England to victory in South Africa  this summer.

On Noble England, released this week, 52-year-old Rik performs a specially  adapted speech from Act III of Shakespeare’s Henry V, urging ‘‘Once more onto  the pitch, dear friends, once more.’’

Against a background of football-style chants and a driving rock beat, he  invokes the spirit of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.

‘‘That battle was basically very few Englishmen against the rest of the  world,’’ says Rik. ‘‘When you hear the speech delivered in a gutsy way it makes  you go ‘Yeah, right, bring ‘em on, let’s do it’, rather than ‘How nice, what a  lovely piece of poetry’.

‘‘I’m trying to amass the entire nation behind England. Everyone’s club  allegiance should be put to one side. Noble England is the song that will lead  our country to victory! It’s an anthem for the British people.’’

The track, produced by Coventry-based Dave Loughran, was recorded at London’s  Brick Lane studios.

‘‘Brick Lane is also where London Calling was recorded by The Clash and where  Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody,’’ Rik says. ‘‘But most fundamentally it’s  where Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded by Bad News. So it’s the hub of British  Rock & Roll.’’

Bad News was the spoof rock band, created in 1983 by Rik, Adrian Edmondson,  Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson. Their self-titled debut album, released in  1987, was produced by Queen’s Brian May and included the single, Bohemian  Rhapsody.

‘‘I’d quite like to get a band together and write some speeches of my own and  put them to music,’’ reveals Rik, who thinks Noble England may be the first pop  single that is a speech set to music.

In the meantime, he’s writing a film, It Ends Badly, with Peter Richardson  and is considering the return of Alan B’Stard, the devious main player in  political satire The New Statesman.

‘‘Alan was a member of the Conservative Party and then he was a member of New  Labour. Whoever wins the next election, I think that Alan will raise his evil  head again.

‘‘But it’s awfully difficult to write such free, open sit-coms for television  nowadays. Telly’s got an awful lot more frightened about what you can say or  do.

‘‘People enjoy live entertainment much more than they did. The last tour that  I completed a couple of years ago with Alan B’Stard was terrific fun and there  were all sorts of jokes you couldn’t do on TV.’’

So could we see Rik on the road again, perhaps performing at Birmingham NIA  as Michael McIntyre and Ricky Gervais have done?

‘‘At huge gigs you’re a bit distant. It’s a bit like going to see the Pope.  I’m not really a big stadium player, I’ve always enjoyed 1500-3000 seaters, like  Birmingham Hippodrome, but I’ll play anywhere as long as I’ve got access to my  audience.’’

He’s also hoping to team up again with Adrian Edmondson with whom he enjoyed  success with, among other things, Bottom.

‘‘I saw Ade the other day, he’s cool. We will work together again – it won’t  be Bottom – but we’ll wait till we’re heavily into our 50s.’’

I tell Rik that Adrian recently told the Birmingham Mail they’d be Old Age  Pensioners before they worked together again.

Rik laughs: ‘‘I was trying to be a little more discreet. He only said that  because he knows I’ll be dead and he can at last have his own solo  show!’’