By Liza Mzimba for Lime Lizard, September 1991
Liza Mzimba talks to Rlk Mayall about his first lead screen role and why the future looks vely Grimm indeed.
Rik Mayall appears to be a happy man, as he sits wearing a polo neck sweater and jacket, cracking rude jokes about Kevin Costner. He doesn’t look smug, but rather satisfied and content. Mind you, if I was a successful writer, stand up comedian, performer in an BAFTA winning comedy, winner of an Emmy ‘Best Actor’ award and singer on a number one single (Living Doll) I’d be content too. He is a man who has made a career out of his particular brand of bud, brash humour — a substantial part of which has been concerned with fart and bottom jokes. His first screen lead role as the title character in the comedy Drop Dead Fred, combines elements of the Cattish Rik in The Young Ones And the obnoxious Alan B’Stard of The New Statesman. Drop Dead Fred is the frenetic, anarchic imaginary friend of Phoebe Cates, who re-enters her life after she loses her car, her job and her husband all in one day. Whilst Drop Dead Fred is not a major disaster, it’s hardly a comic masterpiece. On the other hand, neither were the first efforts of many of Rik’s favourite screen comedians, like Steve Martin Ad Robin Williams. “A lot of stand-ups have two or three films which are okayish, until they really hit it and learn the medium, because it’s such a different thing, going out and feeding off the excitement of people, than it is to be all controlled at six o’clock in the morning and be funny from one angle and then funny from the next.”
The American writers of Drop Dead Fred, Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton, first came across Rik when they saw him in a Comic Relief Day episode of The New Statesman. “They saw me being whipped by Mrs Thatcher when I was wearing union jack boxer shorts. And they thought Well, he looks cheap, he’ll do anything.” Drop Dead Fred has performed admirably in the USA where it has already recouped its production costs for Working Title Films, and is expected to do just as well when it is released here in the UK. It was literally A Kick Up The Eighties which booted the young Rik Mayall into the public eye, with his relatively restrained Kevin Turvey role — a character unique in the Mayall repertoire because he didn’t scream, shout or even make fart jokes. Instead, giving rambling, idiotic monologues, delivered in a broad Brummie accent. However, he really hit the big time as Rik in The Young Ones, which has gained a huge following, not only in Britain, but also in America. A fact which came to Rik’s attention whilst he shot Drop Dead Fred in the USA last year. “I was very pleasantly surprised by the scale of The Young Ones cult over there. We only made 12 programmes, but it was shown incessantly on MTV for about two or three years.”
When The Young Ones finished, Rik, together with Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer made Filthy, Rich and Catflap, an ill-conceived and weak comedy that appeared to rely entirely on its collection of bottom jokes. Curiously, however, this stands as Rik’s personal favourite, although he didn’t think that much of it at the time. “It was slaughtered by the critics and so I believed it was crap. But whenever I sit alone at night, eating cheeseburgers and drinking whisky, watching videos of myself, it’s always Catflap I put on.”
After this critical backlash, he limited himself to the odd, hilarious cameo as Lord Flashheut in Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, before taking on the role which really consolidated his reputation – Alan B’Stard in the The New Statesman. B’Stard was an icon of the entrepreneurial extravagance of the 1980s in Thatcherite Britain and a character in which he excelled, winning his first Emmy in 1989 as ‘Best Actor’. The series itself also won a number of awards including a BAFTA. But now that the 1990s are here, and considering that Rik has given us three series of The New Statesman, it seems unlikely that we’ll see the most right wing Tory MP in The House on our screens again. “I’d never done more than two series of anything before. I’d like to kind of stop and move onto something else. So when Yorkshire said ‘Do you want to do another series?’ I said no, but I have a good idea for a Christmas special I’d like to do. I thought that if we brought back hanging, it would be really unfestive and would be quite funny. And they said you can’t do a Christmas special unless you do another series of ten. I said, well, make it six, and they said o.k. And so we did it and I’m glad we did because that’s the one that got the BAFTA — the hanging one. Although I enjoyed playing him very much, he’s grown away from that 80s thing. He’s just a classic baddie now. The writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, I’m sure, would write more, but they’re becoming tv producers and buying franchises now.”
Recently, Rik’s other major tv appearance has been in the unlikely area of childrens’ television, where he has been narrating a number of Grimms Fairy Tales. “I don’t think of it as necessarily a childrens’programme. But they’re all actual Grimm’s Tales. There are about 270 and we’ve made 22 of the best ones. They’re not all good you know. Some of them are like The Frog Who Goes To Sleep Once upon a time there was a frog, and he went to sleep. And that’s it.’
However, doing the Grimms Tales has opened up another avenue that he is keen to pursue and he is very interested in developing Rik Mayall as the story teller, but he is painfully aware of all the pitfalls.
“Do you remember a programme called Tiswas. It was brilliant. ATV used to do it on Saturday morning. I used to watch that – on a Saturday morning of course. Grown ups used to watch it vicariously and kids used to watch it with them. It was like a family thing, although ostensibly for kids. Then they said, ok, there’s thousands of grown-ups watching this. Let’s do it on Friday night and call it OTT, and have topless women in it. And it bombed. Alexei (Sayle) was unfortunately involved, he was very embarrassed about it. I don’t want to make the same mistake with Grimm’s saying a lot of adults like this as well, so let’s make an adult one with lots of nudies and shagging in it.”
And his next project? Perhaps a documentary on Nuns in Southern Indonesia, or a focus on the farming communities of Chile.
“I’ve just finished the second draft of a show called Bottom, which me and Ade Edmondson are writing at the moment.”
He confesses to this without a hint of shame. “I think it would be fair to assume that it’s going to have perhaps the odd bottom or fart joke in it.”