Rik Mayall Interviews and Articles Archive

The Pan Global Phenomenon in all his verbal glory.

Tag: Waiting For Godot

Rude Health

By Martyn Palmer for The London Times,th December 1999

Rik Mayall made jokes about bottoms and became a star. Then last year he almost died. After an amazing recovery, he still refuses to take life seriously. Martyn Palmer reports.

The man just won’t keep still. Rik Mayall jumps around his hotel room giving me a graphic demonstration of exactly what happened when he came round after his “bang on the head” (as he likes to call it). It’s a one-man show. And it is very funny. It started when I happened to ask him what, exactly, following his dreadful accident on a quad bike, he remembered when he finally opened his eyes after five days in a coma. A terrible time, undoubtedly, when his life had hung in the balance. But for Mayall, even near-death experiences end up recycled as comic material.

 “I didn’t know where I was and you know what it’s like when you first come round, you do this,” he says, putting his hands down on his crotch, “and it’s like, ‘Yep, that’s OK.’ So rather than Barbara [his wife] weeping and hugging me, the first thing I do is check that out and discover that there is this tube coming out of my knob.

“And I’m like, ‘What the hell is that? Oh God, I don’t remember doing that!’ And so I’m trying to pull it out and there is some kind of umbrella deal that is right in the middle of my knob and it wouldn’t come out. Suddenly there’s about three or four nurses on me, fighting with me, wrestling me and trying to keep this thing in my knob and I’m trying to get it out. And that’s my first memory of coming to. Surrounded by nurses who are trying to shove this thing back up my knob. Still, it could have been worse…”

Mayall, as anyone familiar with “The Young Ones” or “Bottom” or “The Comic Strip Presents” will know, is a very physical comedian. He can bounce off the walls with the best of them — as he does in his new film “Guest House Paradiso” — and this anecdote is delivered with appropriate hand gestures and much flailing about. And at the pay-off, there is that manic Rik Mayall grin, the big horrible leery one.

He can’t resist the chance to make you laugh, even when he’s telling you about the worst, most traumatic period of his life. The accident happened at Easter 1998, while Mayall, Barbara, and their three children — Rose, 13, Sid, 11, and four-year-old Bonnie — were at their country home in Devon.

Mayall was riding a quad bike, without a crash helmet, over sloping fields when it hit a bump, flipped over and sent him sprawling, head first, on to a stretch of concrete. For the next few days it was touch and go. He had suffered a fractured skull and two haemorrhages, one deep inside the brain, and doctors feared that if he did pull through, he could emerge with brain damage.

As did Ade Edmondson, who Mayall has been best friends with for more than 20 years, and who also has a house in Devon. He was one of the first to be at Mayall’s bedside and remained there almost constantly. Edmondson chooses his words carefully when discussing his friend’s accident, and admits that it has forced him to re-evaluate their friendship and to appreciate exactly how much he cares for him. “Most blokes don’t really show much feeling for each other, do they?” he observes. “And when Rik had his accident it was very upsetting. It was horrible, really, really horrible. It made me realise how much I like him and it was a very frightening time.

“It was terrible in those first few days, watching him and wondering if he would live. And, in a way, it was even worse when he came round and he was like a baby for about a week or two and then he was like an eight-year-old. And you begin to wonder whether the eight-year-old stage will last forever.”

Mayall has made an astonishing recovery and is now back to being a 41-year-old. I’d met him a few years before, but the only perceptible change in his behaviour is that, if anything, he seems even more manic than ever. But, of course, he has to be careful with his health now. After he was finally discharged from hospital, doctors prescribed a course of phenytoin, an anti-epilepsy drug, which is given to patients who have suffered severe head traumas.

“With a severe head injury it takes a couple of years before you can be sure that there is no threat of epilepsy and then you can stop taking these pills,” he explains. “But because my recovery was so remarkable, at least I believed it was remarkable, in the new year I thought I’d stop taking them. And I had a bit of an epilepsy attack. Actually, it was quite funny . . .”

At this point, Mayall is off again. And the hand gestures are back. “The thing was I felt very tired, incredibly tired,” he recalls, “and I can remember lying down on our daughter Rosie’s bed. This was in the middle of the morning. And Barbie comes home from taking the kids to school and she can hear this noise in Rosie’s room. She has a look inside and can see me lying there like this [shakes his body] and she thinks ‘Oh no! What am I going to do? He’s lying on our daughter’s bed having a w***!’ It’s true! And she told me later she was thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to say something.’ Then she walks back into the room and realises what’s happening. And goes, ‘Oh thank God, it’s epilepsy!’ ”

He laughs, we both do, and then he sits back down. And in a quieter voice he adds, “Actually, I did bite my tongue and ended up back in hospital. So I’m back on the pills. But you know, I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not. But sometimes when I go to sleep I think, ‘Will I wake up again?’ ”

At the time of the accident Mayall and Edmondson had almost finished writing “Guest House Paradiso” and had planned to start filming that summer. It had to be delayed, of course, and they finally went to work this summer, with Edmondson directing and both of them acting alongside Bill Nighy, Fenella Fielding, Kate Ashfield and French actors Vincent Cassel and Helene Mahieu.

Edmondson was worried that some of their slapstick, knockabout routines might be dangerous for Mayall and even took advice from his friend’s consultant. “He did recover quite quickly really,” he says. “Especially when you compare it to other similar accidents you hear about. He is still slightly odd, though. Not odd, but his memory is not the same and he finds it very difficult to concentrate if there is more than one stimulus in the room. You can’t talk to him and have the radio on at the same time.

“I remember asking his consultant whether it was all right to hit him during filming because you know what we’re like, there’s always a lot of physical stuff. But the consultant said it would take an enormous traumatic blow to cause any damage. But it is perhaps a feature of this film that I get hit more than he does. All the violence happens to my head.”

Edmondson, the director, also felt the need to cut one scene, where Mayall’s character takes a tumble down a flight of stairs. “I thought it was stupid to risk it because every trick you do like that, you have to do at least part of it yourself. And you can’t get away with not banging your head at all.”

“Guest House Paradiso” is a real treat for fans of Richie and Eddie, the comedy alter egos of Mayall and Edmondson. Richie (Mayall) and Eddie (Edmondson) run the worst hotel in the world. The chef is a drunk (and can’t cook), the waiter needs psychiatric help and there’s a nuclear power station near by. Their guests, when they are fortunate to have some, are a motley band of eccentrics and a few poor souls who are stupid enough not to realise what they are letting themselves in for.

Into their midst wanders Gina Carbonara (Helene Mahieu), a glamorous starlet on the run who has just dumped her boyfriend, Gino Bolognese, and needs a place to hide out. When she arrives, Richie, for reasons far too complicated to go into here, happens to be clad in some rather exotic rubber underwear and desperate to avoid shaming embarrassment in front of an internationally renowned actress, hides in the oven.

What follows is the kind of romp that only Mayall and Edmondson are capable of. There is one spectacular scene involving hundreds of gallons of lurid green vomit (something to do with the guests being served toxic fish) which took days to film and of which the boys are especially proud.

“I love that scene,” says Mayall, grinning. “But we had an awful lot of trouble with that vomit. It kept drying up overnight and we had to keep making more. But it looks great, don’t you think?”

“Guest House Paradiso” is the first time Mayall and Edmondson have worked together for the cinema, but it is a natural progression of a double act that has proved so successful on stage and the small screen. Mayall was born in Harlow, Essex, but grew up in Droitwich, Worcestershire. He is the third child of two drama teachers and went to King’s, a direct grant school, in Worcester. His parents were liberal for the time, and he describes his childhood as fun “full of laughs and banter”. He was always the joker of the family. His older brother Anthony is a civil engineer. One younger sister, Libby, works in the music industry, while the other, Kate, is a Doctor of Psychology at Birmingham University.

He and Bradford-born Edmondson were both on the drama course at Manchester University, and starting hanging out together in the second year. In 1976 they formed an act called 20th Century Coyote, with fellow students, which would perform at lunchtimes in a Manchester club called The Band in the Wall. After university, they went their separate ways for a while — both doing “civilian” jobs to pay the rent – but kept in touch. And then they re-formed 20th Century Coyote as a duo under the name The Dangerous Brothers — and took the bluntly monikered Death on the Toilet to the Edinburgh Festival in 1979.

Their big break came with “The Young Ones” in 1982, with Mayall playing nerdy Rick and Edmondson as lunatic skinhead Vyvyan. It was a hit with audiences and the younger critics at least and they were established at the forefront of the “alternative” comedy movement.

Over the years, even though each has enjoyed success on his own — Mayall has done feature films such as “Drop Dead Fred” (1991), and “Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis” (1997) and television including “The New Statesman” and Edmondson has directed promos and written a book — they have consistently been drawn back into working together. They appeared as the tramps in the West End production of “Waiting for Godot” in 1991-92, and in television series including “Filthy Rich and Catflap” (BBC2), “The Comic Strip Presents” (Channel 4 then BBC2) and Bottom (BBC2).

“It’s the longest relationship I’ve had with anyone apart from my parents,” says Mayall. “And, in a way, it is like a marriage. We met in 1975 and we’ve been together ever since. Things that he can’t do, I can do and things that I can’t do, he can do. We spark something off in each other. We fit together.” When Edmondson is directing Mayall feels safe in the knowledge that his partner knows him, as a performer, better than anyone. “It’s less nerve-racking. I can sense from the way he says ‘cut’ whether it’s good or not. And sometimes he’s like, ‘Rik… that was s***…’ And I’ll shout back, ‘How s*** was it? Will clever people like me notice or just a***holes like you …?’ ”

They write together most days — but never during school holidays — between 11 and 3.30pm “with lunch in between…” And both will tell you that it is the best time because they make each other laugh so much. In fact, they are already at work on a new film and the partnership seems set to endure. “We’ve had a loyal bunch of fans,” says Mayall. “I think people have followed us through the years but we also seem to have gathered a lot of new kids as well… they seem to have discovered ‘Bottom’ and even ‘The Young Ones’.”

As have Mayall’s own children — at least his older two, Rosie and Sid. “Sid really loves the ‘Young Ones’ stuff and Rosie does too, but in a quieter way. She says things like, ‘Oh, Dad, look at you then you were so sweet…’ And I’m going, ‘No, Rosie, that’s the wrong idea… I wasn’t meant to be sweet…’ But they are great, they really are. And I know how lucky I am.”

Earlier this year, there were reports that Mayall had pulled out of a solo project, “Dirty Work” — written by the New Statesman writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran — because of fears about his health. He is cross about this and also rather angry with the BBC, or at least the people there he calls “the suits”.

“The Beeb is different now. It’s just an office. It’s got no special effects, no make up. Every department was fantastic except for one — the suits. And while everyone was busy being creative, the suits sacked them all.”

The only reason he didn’t make “Dirty Work” (playing a bent policeman) for the BBC is that he felt they were imposing a ridiculous schedule on the film-makers. “It was nothing to do with my health and nothing to do with Laurence and Maurice, who are great. At first it was like, ‘We will do three hour-long episodes before Christmas and that’s tight. And then the suits wanted six before Christmas and that is crazy. It’s not physically possible and the quality will suffer. I mean, I believe in rehearsal time, preparation, you know. I said, ‘Three before and three after Christmas.’ ‘No,’ said the suits, ‘we want all six before’ I’m a little bit hurt about that but I know Maurice and Laurence will understand.”

There will be other opportunities, of course. And in the meantime, he can focus on promoting “Guest House Paradiso” — there are premieres to attend in Belgium, Holland and France — and spending time with his family. Which, perhaps, he values now more than ever. He is devoted to his wife Barbara, whom he married 13 years ago. They met when she was working in make-up at the BBC in Scotland. He saw her walking down a corridor one day and recalls: “I just knew she was the woman I wanted to marry. I just thought, ‘This is it!'”

He has lived through a life-threatening accident and can now joke about it. And he has sensed a change of attitude in the people he meets on the streets — and was overwhelmed by the host of get-well messages he received.

“Before, I’d get people, you know builders or whatever, shout at me on the street ‘Oi, Rik Mayall! You w*****!’ But that’s changed since the bang on the head. It’s been ‘Hello Rik, are you all right mate?’ There’s been a genuine concern. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but it’s really quite sweet.” And although they won’t actually say this to each other, he knows just how much he means to those closest to him. To his wife and children, and of course, to Ade, his lifelong partner in crime and the best mate a bloke could ever wish for.


Rogue Mayall

By Nigel Farndale for The Sunday Telegraph, st November 1999

Rik Mayall has always found violence funny, and now that he’s survived a horrible accident he finds it even funnier – as his new film shows. Nigel Farndale meets a modern prince of slapstick, and wonders if, at bottom, he might be a serious actor.

Goodness, how Rik Mayall can talk. In the St James’s Club, Piccadilly, on a cloudless autumn afternoon, he talks so much his voice hoarsens. He pulls faces when he’s in full flow, grimacing, gurning, subverting his fine handsome features. He has bulging blue eyes, one of which wanders. And though his smile is infectious and wide, he bares his teeth so much it could pass for a snarl. He fidgets constantly, playing with the zipper on his fleece, combing his shoulder-length hair with his fingers. The nervous energy is palpable. Mayall is a sturdily built 5ft 11in and, as he alternates between lying flat on his back on a chaise-longue and pacing the room, he seems to fill every molecule of the place. He has presence. He’s full on. He is excited and showing off. There is, indeed, something of the sixth-former trying too hard about his manner: swearing too much, out one cigarette after another, putting his boots on the coffee-table. When he has a memory lapse he falls silent for as long as ten seconds before clicking his fingers in agitation and shouting ‘F-! I can’t remember!’ He has no volume control. When the ringing of the phone interrupts him he picks it up and bellows, ‘Yes!’ Then slams it down when he discovers it’s a wrong number.

I wish I’d met Rik Mayall before his accident with a quad bike in April last year. I’d like to know whether his mood-swings – from dark and demoniacal, to sonsy, light and airily disconnected – are a long-standing condition. Perhaps he was always like this. But serious accidents do change people, perhaps especially when they occur at an age associated with mid-life crisis. Mayall is 41 and, in interviews he had given before the accident he came across as being more subdued. Smaller in life than his comic personas. Shy even.

His wife Barbara found him underneath his four-wheeled 600lb motorbike in the field outside his house in Devon. Dark blood was pouring from his head, ears and nose. He was airlifted to hospital where he remained in a coma for five days. His wife, parents and Adrian Edmondson, his comedy partner of 25 years’ standing, were at his bedside when he came round. All were crying. Mayall couldn’t understand what was going on. For the next six weeks his brain was scanned for further signs of haemorrhaging. He escaped from the hospital and had to be brought back. He suffered the odd fit, insomnia bout and hearing difficulty, then made a full recovery.

But you can’t help noticing the chunky silver ring on his finger. It’s cast in the shape of a skull and crossbones. Mayall looks sheepish when asked about it. ‘It’s to do with me bashing my head. A private thing between my son and me. Cheating death.’

Rik met Barbara when she was working in make-up at BBC Scotland; she never worked on him but when he saw her walking down the corridor one day he just thought, ‘There she is.’ They were married 13 years ago and have three children, Rosie, Sid and Bonnie. But Mayall would rather not talk about them in case their mates read this article at school. ‘They have their own lives to lead. But, yes, they are very quick. Subtle. When I’m halfway through a joke they will pull a disdainful face and say, “Oh pul-ease Daddy.” One of their great hobbies is not finding Daddy funny. When I get to a big finish there will be a pause and Sid will say, “Sorry, what was that, Dad?” Without me even doing anything Rosie will say, “Oh Daddy, please don’t.” But I’m blushing now.’

He is, too. He thinks his accident affected his relationship with his family. ‘It improved things until they realised I was going to live. When I came round there was a lot of weeping – “But we’ve bought this f-ing box! Now we have to take it back.” No. If anything, it has made us all tougher, more resilient. We were pretty lucky never to have had to face anything like this before. And this wasn’t bad.’

Wasn’t it? I’d like to know what he considers bad. ‘Yeah, but it had a happy ending. It made us all, it bonded us.’

Serious accidents have been known to change people’s perceptions of themselves. Some become fearless, others develop a heightened awareness of their own mortality, of the ephemerality of things, of the preciousness of time. Mayall was always superstitious – never performing unless wearing his lucky underpants – so he would seem to have the right temperament to be affected in this way. He doesn’t see it. Looks blank. ‘I’m very aware of’ He sighs. ‘Of wanting everyone to think I’m great! So I’ll just say that I’m very grateful to be alive.’ He laughs at his mock-magnanimity.

‘I’m not maniacally running around trying to do stuff. Though I do annoy the kids a bit because, since the accident, I’m always dancing and singing.’

He’s happier, then? ‘I was happy before but now I’m happier because I’m not dead or crippled. The problems I had before I recovered, in my brain, have gone and this ring is something to do with spitting in fate’s eye. It was meant to get me and it didn’t. So f- knows what’s going to happen to me later, behind the gates. But it makes me a bit swaggery. And I don’t want to waste any time. And it’s fantastic.’

Clearly, the accident has galvanised him. He has thrown himself into work, making advertisements and supplying narration for children’s television, and, with Adrian Edmondson, he has made a feature film, Guest House Paradiso, which is about to go on general release. (The two play Richie Twat and Eddie Elizabeth Ndingombaba respectively, proprietors of the worst hotel in the world. The film is full of their usual cartoon violence and scatological humour, and the gist of the plot is that when the chef eats all the food they have to resort to feeding their guests fish contaminated by the nuclear power station next door.)

The accident hasn’t made Mayall squeamish about violence. His film is full of it. ‘I love the fight in the kitchen,’ he says croakily. ‘When I hit Ade with that jug, he took the punch so well. The editor cut it perfectly. There’s something about his pace and timing. But I shouldn’t try to intellectualise about why I think the comedy works. One of the reasons Ade is attracted to me is that I am a twat and I do try to intellectualise about these things, and then he is able to turn round to me and say, “Oh, shut up, you twat.” He can puncture me so easily.’

Go on, just a little intellectualising. ‘Well, all right. I do think the nearer you are to frightening your audience – the rush of energy you get from witnessing violence, especially if it is more filmic than theatrical – the more unsettling it is. The release comes out in laughter.’

There is a knock at the door. A voice calls, ‘Room service.’

‘No!’ Mayall screams back. There is a look of exasperation in his eyes. His nostrils are flaring. He is probably doing it to get a laugh but — maybe he isn’t. ‘F-, where was I? Yes, the bigger the fear the bigger the laugh, that’s why we’ve always tried to avoid jokey violence. Vic and Bob’s frying-pans are wobbly and that’s a mortal mistake. I know they’ve got an ironic joke going on but you watch Cleese when he slaps someone. It seems real and so it’s really funny.’

In Guest House Paradiso the fight scenes are convincing, and funny, if you like slapstick. Mayall says he had a genuine rush of adrenaline when he was filming them. ‘I had to simmer down afterwards. There had been a release of some sort. But there’s also great control. Ade and I have never actually hit each other. He’s terribly accurate. Deft. It’s better to under-rehearse for film fighting so that it doesn’t look too prepared.’ The phone rings again. ‘F-!’ He looks at me, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. Is he acting now? I don’t know any more. ‘I’m sorry.’ He answers it. ‘Yes? Have who? Not on this number, matey.’ He slams the phone down. ‘F- this!

I keep getting near to an important pointÉ Yes, if you see my head move as his fist comes up, it’s bogus. It’s crap. It’s not going to work.’

Mayall doesn’t think that there is an innate violence in him that he is able to tap into for his comedy roles. ‘No, not usually. No. There’s something.’ Long pause. ‘The best characters I’ve played are the ones that are nearest to me, because I can play them more realistically. And very often I’m using it as a way of expunging something I’m frightened of.’ He gives examples. His first success on television came at the age of 22 with the character of Kevin Turvey – the inane tedious investigative reporter he played on the sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties. It was inspired by his fear that he himself was a boring person from the Midlands. ‘Kevin was from Redditch, which is only seven years, sorry, miles, excuse my head, from where I was brought up, Droitwich.’ And the character of Rick in The Young Ones, the anarchic comedy series Mayall co-wrote in the early Eighties with his then girlfriend Lise Meyer and Ben Elton (with whom he had been at Manchester University), was even closer to home, he says, because it was based on his own embarrassment at being selfish. Rick was a collection of all the things Rik didn’t like about himself, even down to his difficulty in pronouncing the letter ‘r’. Playing Rick was like an exorcism for Rik. ‘There was a lot of the teenager in me worried about not being groovy and popular enough or about being ugly, or spotty, or being caught masturbating.’

For all his insecurities, Rik Mayall’s own teens were, he says, fairly happy and carefree. His parents, John and Gillian, were drama teachers at a college in Bromsgrove and it was thanks to them, he says, that he got a free place at public school.

‘I remember my first day in the refectory at King’s, Worcester: 600 boys and a huge statue of Jesus at the back. Thirty foot high with huge holes in it because when Cromwell won the battle of Worcester he brought a cannon in to shoot it. There were all these older boys, monitors, with stubble and long hair and I thought “F-. I want to be you so much.” He laughs. ‘Why am I telling you this?’

Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall wrote and performed their first cabaret act together in 1976, at Manchester, where they were both studying for a degree in drama. Mayall remembers the moment they met. ‘It was our first lecture and the professor swept in with his flowing hair and gown and I stood up because that’s what I’d been taught at school. No one else did. And this one bloke – with long hair and John Lennon glasses and a fag in his hand and his f-ing feet on the table – just laughed at me and said, “Tosser!” That was Ade. Maybe I always wanted to be as cool as him. Maybe that’s why I took great satisfaction in him going bald. He was always so strong and quick and self-assured. I wanted him to be my friend. I got a 2:2 in the end, which Ade won’t f-ing shut up about because he got a 2:1.’

The double act were called 20th Century Coyote but later, when they began performing at the Comedy Store in London, they changed the name to The Dangerous Brothers. In a typical sketch they would play the part of God’s testicles, or Mayall would recite a poem about Vanessa Redgrave and Edmondson would walk on and beat him up. Over the years they have usually played characters with names – and personalities – similar to their own. Richie, Rick or Rik is always neurotic and pretentious, Eddie is always bullish and blasé.

Mayall and Edmondson consolidated the success of The Young Ones on the BBC by simultaneously performing in The Comic Strip – which they set up with Peter Richardson, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (Edmondson’s wife) – on Channel 4. Their one real television flop as a partnership came in 1987 with Filthy Rich & Catflap. This rattled Mayall’s confidence for a while. He didn’t leave the house for three weeks for fear of being pointed at by people saying, ‘That’s the bloke who isn’t funny any more.’ Their fortunes revived with Bottom, the long-running comedy series which, although deemed deeply unfunny by some critics, achieves high viewing figures.

Touchingly, Mayall compares his friendship with Edmondson to a marriage — the longest relationship he has had with anyone, apart from his parents, with all the attendant sulks and tiffs. He is the wife, Edmondson the husband. ‘We are like yin and yang,’ he says. ‘We click.’ This was never more apparent than when they played the two tramps in the West End production of Waiting for Godot in 1992. When I mention that I had never really appreciated the comic elements in the play before seeing their performance, Mayall grins. ‘Yeah, it was more intellectually stimulating than the normal things we do. Because it was so enigmatic. My daddy put me in the play — as The Boy — when I was an eight-year-old. It’s so beautiful and the words are so clever. “Makes a noise like leaves, like dust.” And there are some great gags in it, too. We were criticised at the time for making it funny. We didn’t even put any extra jokes in and we actually took out the hat routine — sorry Sam — because it wasn’t going to work. I would love to make a film of it. Love to. Me as Vladimir, Ade as Estragon.’

But Rik Mayall has performed some of his most memorable roles without Adrian Edmondson by his side. The amoral Tory MP Alan B’Stard in the Emmy and Bafta award-winning New Statesman being one. Another was Mickey Love, the paranoid alcoholic gameshow host – created for the Rik Mayall Presents series in 1993 – who came to believe his programme was being axed when actually his colleagues were planning to feature him in This is Your Life. ‘That series was very dark,’ Mayall recalls. ‘There is an area where I like to perform where the audience isn’t quite sure about Rik. Is he being funny or cruel? Is he a goody or baddy? It is more exciting to watch.’

The biggest frustration in Mayall’s career came in 1994 when he was cast opposite Stephen Fry in Cell Mates, Simon Gray’s play about the British spies Blake and Burke who once shared a cell. Fry, famously, disappeared shortly after the opening night and Gray was furious but Mayall was, he says, just cross, and then only after he had found out that Fry was safe and well. ‘And I’d loved playing with Stephen, yeah. There was something about me in there and maybe something about Stephen. I worked opposite him and there was a lot of hidden sadness in his eyes in there.’ He believes that he was born to play the part; indeed, it represented something of a familial rite of passage for Mayall. ‘My daddy, now 74, recognised in my performance the masculine side of my grandfather. There was a lonely bravado to my character. I’m a quarter Irish and so was Burke. And I had my hair cut short and Brylcreemed and my daddy came to the first night and afterwards everyone was drinking champagne and saying, “Marvellous, marvellous,” except for my daddy who was sitting quietly. I asked him what he thought and he said I was just like his daddy who had died when my daddy was 11 or 12. It was kind of.’ He trails off, shivers and mimes wiping away a tear.

I ask Rik Mayall if his father has ever felt embarrassed by the vulgarity of some of his sketches. ‘Nooo. A little maybe. One or two jokes which are a little close to the edge. Medical stuff. Sodomy jokes. My parents were another generation. Very liberal, being drama teachers, but not permissive. They weren’t as extrovert as me. There was lots of banter and laughs and singing and stupidness at home. But I was the naughty boy. I made them laugh.’

Mayall has an older brother, Anthony, who never shared his taste for performing. ‘He’s a civil engineer now. Very successful. Making bridges. That’s what he likes to do. Not what I’d call straight. He’s a dad. He’s funny. He’s cool.’ Is Anthony jealous of his younger brother’s fame? ‘Not in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact. You always know what your brother is thinking. I don’t think he weeps himself to sleep at night. He likes making bridges and tunnels. That’s what he loves.’ Mayall also has two younger sisters. One, Libby, looks after rock bands. The other, Kate, is a doctor of philosophy at Birmingham University. ‘She does research and lecturing. Very brainy. Very nice. Very quiet. She’s the youngest. Not frightening. But she doesn’t jabber as much as me. I’m blushing again.’

To his credit, Mayall knows what he is good at. He knows why his comedy works and he has enough self-awareness to realise what motives lie behind his need to make people laugh: feeling good ‘and healthy’ about himself. Unlike Ade Edmondson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton, David Baddiel, Robert Newman, Charlie Higson and Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall is that rare thing: an Eighties comedian who hasn’t written a novel. And he has no intention of trying to. He is not a frustrated intellectual, yet you do sense a frustrated actor in him – a serious and subtle one, as seen in his performance in Gogol’s The Government Inspector in 1991 – and, because he has spent so many years being mocked by Edmondson for his pretentiousness, one he dare not let out.

Indeed you can tell that the soul of a Stanislavskian Method actor lurks within Mayall by a comment he makes about being his own hobby. ‘One of my preoccupations is playing with myself,’ he says with a deadpan expression. ‘Like playing a piano. You know, I think I’ll try to be this today. I’ll go into a newsagent’s I’ve never been into before and pretend to be a foreigner who is lost.’

Is this what he has been doing throughout the interview – playing with himself, but also with me? Is the whiff of post-accident madness about him genuine or contrived for his own amusement? Is he, as he puts it, performing in that area where the audience isn’t really sure about Rik? I admit I am left confused. He is, after all, a professional performer, the naughty boy brought up in a home full of banter, singing and stupidness.

While I’m mulling this over he stubs out a cigarette, lights another and offers one to me. ‘Go on! Have a faaag! Have a faaag.’ He waves the packet under my nose. ‘Enjoy yourself. Life is too short. Go ooon. Just one.’ It’s a funny moment.

It makes me laugh. It also, I think, answers my question.

Pass Notes No 307: Rik Mayall

For The Guardian, 16th December 1993


Comic actor.

Beatnik intellectual

Born in a village with the unlikely name of Matching Tye; went to public school and only just managed to get into Manchester University (“I was too busy snogging”). Awarded the Boris Karloff award for Most Outrageous Ham at a student drama festival. Met Adrian Edmondson and went around with him shouting “We’re going to be stars!”

Apparently to irritate the “right-on-worthies”. Alexei Sayle thinks he’s “an empty-headed bimbo”.

Has he won any awards lately?
Funny you should ask. He won the British Comedy Awards prize for Best TV comic actor, but may have to return it amid allegations that the ballot was rigged because the other contenders — David Jason, Richard Wilson, Chris Barrie, Michael Williams and Neil Pearson — were not considered good enough.

Does he have the comic qualifications to win?
He does. He was part of the original Comic Strip team with Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, starred in the cult series The Young Ones (based, apparently, on student life at Manchester), appeared in The Government Inspector and Waiting For Godot, and played odious Tory MP Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman.

Did be have anyone particular in mind?
He and Ade Edmondson interviewed Michael Portillo as part of the research.

Wasn’t he quite good-looking in The New Statesman?
“I didn’t realise Rik Mayall was so attractive,” wrote one critic. “There are some people who think Michael Heseltine attractive,” Mayall replied cryptically.

Didn’t the series prompt a scandal?
Mayall incited national outrage when he suggested that Prince Charles might be having an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Perish the thought . . .

So what’s with the serious stage stuff?
He felt the need to prove he could do it — “Oh! I can cry. I’m brilliant . . . but I don’t want to belittle waving your bottom about on stage.”

That, after all, is what he’s famous for?
True. “Really. I’m not trying to do anything spectacular except to change the fabric of our society and bring down the Government.”

Not to be confused with:
John Mayall, Alan Rickman.

Most likely to say:
Bum. fart, toilet, bollocks, tits. ****, ****, ****.

Least likely to say:
“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause…”

Direct Mayall

For GQ, June 1993

He made farting funny and took the wind out of the Tories. But what lurks behind the anarchy and arsing around? Phillip Watson gets to the bottom of Rik Mayall

It’s a cold, crisp, early spring morning in Bury and Rik Mayall isn’t wearing any trousers. Filming Dancing Queen, the third of one-hour comedy dramas to be shown this month, he is pacing around the ticket hall of a railway station, trying to keep warm. Apart from his lower half, he is dressed impeccably in a dinner suit as Neil, an upper-class twit who finds himself stranded after a stag-night prank. On the director’s cue, he crosses to the station office to buy a ticket back to London, changes his mind, walks slowly out of the station into the bright sunshine. A small crowd of mothers and schoolchildren has gathered outside to watch the filming and, still trouserless, he begins to sign autographs. As one of the kids scurries sway clutching his prize, he says: “He’s great, that Rik Mayall. Dead funny.”

The atmosphere on location seems much the same. It’s true that Mayall is taking a risk with these films, if only because they demand the ability to create characters more believable and rounded than he has achieved on television before. Collectively entitled Rik Mayall Presents, he is more exposed than usual. And he is in the company of genuine acting talent – Amanda Donohoe, Eleanor Bron, Alan Cumming, Peter Capaldi, Michael Maloney and in the romantic comedy shooting today, Helena Bonham Carter, who plays a northern working-class stripper. Yet as you might expect from a man with a gift for making people laugh, on set Mayall seems relaxed, open, on form.

Away from it, he is suspicious and evasive. When we first meet, he insists on going for a walk, talking, mid-step, unsettling me, dancing around me on Platform 3. He delivers his sentences with his usual good timing, but slowly, deliberately, with a touch of the menace he can bring to his roles. “I’m a difficult person to interview,” he warns. “Everything I have to say is in my performance. I don’t like to give too much away.”

Later, however, when a very cautious interview begins between takes, it is clear he enjoys and feeds off the energy of giving two separate performances; one to the camera, the other into the tape recorder. “I’ve got to go, but I’ll think about that one,” he says when he is called, or “Nasty question! I’ll be back.” At one point, he continues an answer while remaining upside-down, spread-eagled on a British Rail trolley, his feet over the handlebar. “These three films are anecdotes about mistakes or jokes gone wrong” he says, clearly enjoying the absurdity of the situation. “But they are also about loneliness. When I think about it, all of my characters, especially the ones I’ve created myself, are about loneliness or an inability to communicate” Then he is off, the trolley wheeled down the walkway and back to the camera by fellow actors Nathaniel Parker and Martin Clunes. “take Alan B’Stard…” he calls out, giggling, as his voice trails off into the distance.

A week later, being interviewed in London’s Groucho Club, Mayall remains on the move. Edgy and hyperactive, he is a nucleus of nervous energy. Parts of his body seem to have a life of their own. His movements are involuntary and unruly. He can only stay caged and chairbound for a few minutes before he is up pacing the room, gesticulating, projecting, performing. His hands flap awkwardly, flying continually from his pockets to his head to, characteristically , a position just behind his hips. Even when seated, the rest of his body refuses to relax. He crosses and uncrosses his legs incessantly. He shuffles around in his chair. He will fidget and flay about to adopt an air that is at first extrovert and frenetic, then with two fingers pressed to his temple, thoughtful and sincere.

And if his body does reach some approximation of stillness. Mayall’s face gives him away every time. Ever expressive and mobile, is full of frowns, smirks, boyish giggles and leers. The total effect is that of a shark; if Rik Mayall stops moving, he dies.

While this supercharged electricity is to be expected, everything else comes as a surprise. For a comic actor who has made a virtue out of being barking an d stentorian, in person he is quiet and thoughtful. Though his quick-fire range of gestures and accents invite laughter, and he is appealingly witty, he is the first to admit that he lacks the natural gift for comedy that, say, Robbie Coltrane or Ben Elton possess. “Much of my comedy is performance or character led, not gag led,” he says, almost apologetically. “It’s always a disappointment to people who meet me for the first time that I’m not as funny as they expected.”

If there seems little outright comedy in his real life, there is also little tragedy. Not for Rik Mayall the complexities, insecurities and occasional paranoia of some of his contemporaries. Not the childhood kleptomania and celebrated of Stephen Fry. Nor the debilitating self-doubts and cautiousness of Hugh Laurie. And although he has been compared (inappropriately) to Tony Hancock, there are certainly not the flickers of dark insanity that have unhinged comedians such as Spike Milligan and Harry H. Corbett. Rik Mayall, resolutely, does not display any neuroses, any tears.

“What does he have to be worried about?” asks Maurice Gran, who is the co-writer of The New Statesman “He is extremely handsome, he has a lovely family, and he could knob anyone he wanted.”

In fact, what Mayall is at pains to stress is not just his normality, but his ordinariness. This is disingenuous, of course, and a well-worn celebrity gambit, but Mayall does it more convincingly than most. He’ll tell you he’s taken the tube to the interview rather than ride in the car that was offered to him. He talks fondly, if guardedly, of his family life at home in Shepherd’s Bush with Barbara, his wife, and his two children — Rosemary, six and Sidney, four. And pacing around the room in a navy blue suit and sensible brogues, he certainly looks ordinary. If you can put to one side the fatty childishness an d extraordinary lunacy that he brings to may on his roles, he can look disarmingly like a second-rate adman with his top button undone and M&S tie at half mast. It’s just that this adman is trying to sell you Rik Mayall, “an ordinary bloke who happens to act.”

“I’m very defensive because I want to keep my life ordinary,” he says. “That’s a very important word in my life – ordinary. My ordinary upbringing, my ordinary family life. I have a yearning for excitement, which is satisfied by my job, but I also have a yearning to be ordinary.”

Even his friends and colleagues emphasize it, unprompted, as one of the first things to note about him. “I thought, as a comic, he would be exhausting and completely off the wall,” says Helena Bonham Carter. “But he’s just very, very straightforward and completely normal.” Maurice Gran agrees, if reluctantly: “I’d much rather say he was nasty and depraved and does a lot of drugs paid for by gun-running. But he’s just a well-brought-up, middle-class boy with good manners.”

What Mayall is best at, thought, is keeping himself hidden. Part of his is masked by a very actorly, showbizzy, self-consciousness. He is vain (but has the grace to admit it), and pleased with himself. For someone who confesses to being fascinated by the humour inherent in the human condition, he makes few jokes about himself. Rik Mayall is almost completely unself-deprecatory.

Part of his enigma is also explained by the fact that he rarely gives interviews, in order, he says, to maintain the mystery and illusion of his comedy. “Interviews are really damaging to me,” he says. “I don’t want people to see me as I really am because the work loses half its power. If people know too much about me, they will be less surprised by the jokes.”

He is also reluctant to appear on chat shows. Recently, for example, he declined and offer of 10,000 to be a guest on Jonathan Ross’ Saturday Zoo with the excuse that he was “too busy”. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he has refused to walk into the very open and lucrative arms of advertising. Not for him the high-profile joys of Persil, Mercury and Alliance & Leicester. “I did do a commercial for a chocolate bar called 54321 when I first started, but I don’t do them now,” he says. “To be honest, it makes me feel a bit unclean. I feel I always need to be able to communicate immediately with an audience. If they see me telling a lie for money, I lose a lot to their trust.”

Most of all, he remains hidden behind the panoply of paranoid, weak, lonely and nasty characters he has played. He has said his characters come from inside — that they are exorcisms of parts of his personality that he dislikes or feels insecure about. Kevin Turvey, the gormless Brummie investigative reporter from A Kick Up The Eighties, was about “acting out my obsession with myself and showbusiness.” And Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman is “just a completely sneaky bastard”.

It is tempting to see Mayall as B’Stard incarnate. He will admit to being unforgiving and “occasionally lethal is people fuck about with me”. Certainly, during an early wild child period, he was seen to smash a glass over a man’s head as a drunken party joke. And most controversially, there are the tabloid tales of his messy break-up seven years ago with pregnant girlfriend and fellow Young Ones writer Lise Mayer. He will not discuss it, not even to put the record straight, but he has been criticized for the seemingly perfunctory way he left her to marry Barbara Robbin, also pregnant at the time.

But Rik Mayall is not quite the desperado that his characters and occasional miscreances might have you believe. “I don’t know why I’m attracted to failed, horrible sociopaths. You could say that’s what I’m really like, but with my hand on my heart, that’s not true. You could say in order to socialise myself, I have to repress these nasty things in me, so they come out on stage. You could say, probably more accurately, that my style of performance is very revealing – you see the hidden secrets of my characters. It makes the audience think they’re in the know.”

In many ways his ability to play Ordinary Rik is a function of his stable upbringing. Born in the wonderfully named village Matching Tye, just outside Harlow in Essex, on March 7, 1958, Mayall had a childhood that could not have been more conducive to an acting career. Both his parents were drama teachers who met at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. When Rik was three, the family moved to Droitwich and his father took up a lecturing post at the nearby Shenstone College, where he taught until he retired in 1980. (Rik has a two-year older brother, Anthony, and two younger sisters, Libby, 30 who works for a record company, and Kate, 25, who is studying for a Ph.D. in psychology.)

Rik made his stage debut at the age of six playing an urchin in his father’s production of Brecht’s The Good Woman Of Setzuan at the local theatre. “I had to put on raggedy old clothes and it didn’t matter how messy I got — in fact the messier the better. I had to go on stage, open a dustbin, ruffle through the rubbish, find a bar of chocolate, eat it, get as much chocolate over my face as possible, show my face to the audience, and get a big laugh. And I just thought, this is paradise – this is what I want for the rest of my life.”

There was little to distract him. “There was lots of countryside, lots of getting on my bike and going off for the day and lots of climbing trees with my mates, but mostly we were a family family, we were just all together, all the time. We enjoyed each other’s company and didn’t really need outsiders.”

Even though he “hashed up” his A-Levels, getting two C’s and an E, he went to Manchester University on clearing to read drama. Once there he performed lunchtimes at The Band On The Wall club with a comedy group called Twentieth-Century Coyote which included long-standing sidekick Ade Edmondson), he appeared at the 1978 National Student Drama Festival, where he picked up the Boris Karloff award for the most outrageous ham; and he lived in a student house (now demolished) in East Didsbury that would form part of the inspiration for The Young Ones, written by two university friends — Lise Mayer and Ben Elton.

Although Mayall would shortly become associated with the new vanguard of alternative, left-wing comics who were to break the British comedy mould in the late Seventies, his time at Manchester was closer to Bacchus than Marx. “There was a big split in my year between the right-on worthies and the good time gits,” he says. “I was a good time git. There were an awful lot of Red Spanner, Red Trousers, Red Ladder-type theatre companies doing Marxism for three-year-olds which was not sexy and not fun to watch. So we just avoided that because it was dull. Basically we used to take the piss. They’d be on the steps of the union shouting ‘Morning Star’ and we’d shout back ‘Morning, love!”

He toured England and America with the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company playing Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy Of Errors, went to Edinburgh Festival to perform Death On The Toilet, a 40-minute play he had written with Edmondson, and by the end of 1979 was in London performing regularly at the newly formed comedy hothouse, Soho’s Comedy Store. By the time he had moved on to the nearby Comic Strip, Mayall had been seriously spotted, and the TV offers followed. A Kick Up The Eighties, The Comic Strip Presents… and, crucially, two series of The Young Ones.

 It is difficult now to appreciate the impact The Young Ones had on a whole TV generation. It was wild, anarchic, loud and low. Teenagers adopted the foursome’s accent, mannerisms and catch phrases, “Hippie” became a universal term of abuse. It predated Piz and downgraded Python. The great British sitcom has never quite recovered.

Mayall had never left behind this desire to get over-excitable and misbehave, continuing it (with darker and more desperate undertones) in Bottom, written again with Edmondson, but he has been careful to develop other sides to his character-based comedy. Most importantly, he has played the worringly popular Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman. “I love fart jokes and all the stupid trousers-down stuff,” he says, “but they don’t actually give me the range to project everything I’m experiencing. I need something else.”

Not that Mayall hasn’t made mistakes. Drop Dead Fred, written expressly for him and trumpeted as his big Hollywood break, may have made money all over the world, but to many it was simply Manic Mayall writ large. And while contemporaries like Robbie Coltrane and French & Saunders laughed off offers to appear in the lamentable Carry On Columbus, Mayall sailed blithely on, steered by a laudable if cavalier desire to be a part of a great British comedy tradition. “Sure I wasn’t at my best, and I sort of knew it would be crap, but I thought, fuck it, I want to be in a Carry On — there might not be any more.”

His theatre performances have also met with mixed reviews. While he was praised for his comic, cackling interpretation of Khlestakov in Gogol’s The Government Inspector at the National and his very desperate, yet very funny, portrait of would-be TV star Nick in Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit, he has also been accused of having a self-indulgent acting style and a limited technique. The harshest criticism was left for his most ambitious project to date: Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. While few critics could find fault in Mayall and Edmondson’s vaudevillian reading of the play, many argued it was at the expense of its contrapuntal bleakness, pain and existential desolation. The Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker even ventured “This is not acting, it is showing off.”

“The critics were wrong, that’s all,” Mayall responds, bullishly. “I say, fuck them, really. Because it was the best production of Godot there has ever been.” What, ever? “Well, I didn’t see the original production , because I wasn’t alive, but yes.”

The confidence of mania and mainstream brings him to an interesting stage in his career. While his current ten-week, 43-date regional tour of Bottom both reaffirms his “marriage made in the lav” with Edmondson and keeps his slapstick traditions alive, his most challenging roles lie within the Rik Mayall Presents trilogy, which feature Mayall in much straighter TV roles than we have seen before. In Mickey Love, for example, the best of the three, he’s a bit bungling but benign northern game show host grappling with alcoholism and rumours that he’s about to be axed.

“There will be people who will be disappointed because they, are not out and out comedies,” he says, “but I hope they will get as much pleasure from the stories as from the laughs. This is the most exciting aspect of my career at present. I realize now I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can do.”

In the meantime, Rik Mayall seems to have other things on his mind. Still up on his feet at the Groucho Club, he is smoking his twelfth cigarette. He is at the window now, motionless for a moment, looking down at the street. “I hop e I’m a good person, but I’d like to know what it’s all about.”

He begins pacing the room again, hands in pockets. “A lot of comedy is about passing the time in the waiting room. I don’t know what we’re waiting for, and I don’t know what’s on the other side, but what do we do while we’re all sitting around bored and feeling slightly nervous? We may as well have a good time and entertain people. I enjoy entertaining them, they enjoy being entertained.” He moves forward, faces me, and lets out a stifled snigger. “What I like best in all the world is hearing the sound of laughter.”

Who’s Laughing Now?

For Arena, Summer 1991

Celebrated early in his career for shouting a lot and falling over, the clown prince of alternative comedy is now on the brink of Hollywood stardom. Will success spoil Rik Mayall?

Hair, of course, is always amusing in its own right. This has long been appreciated by pioneers of the comic tradition. Smoothed down, acrylic, removable, yellow. Put on the right hair and you’ve got a laugh straight off. Eric Idle always appreciated this, so do French and Saunders. Robbie Coltrane has never bothered with hair because he is fat and an Actor. Rowan Atkinson doesn’t need it much because he has a Face. Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd, who arranged theirs to look like two beadlet anemones fighting for territory at the bottom of the sea, saw themselves imitated in that strange phenomenon whereby comedians do impersonations of other comedians. Sometimes one wishes, with the less droll performers, that the hair would appear alone, leaving its owner in the wings chatting to backstage boys.

Rik Mayall’s hair, like Rik Mayall, has had a career of variable hilarity. It was very funny in The young Ones (plaits © Tears for Fears) and quite funny in The New Statesman (squiggly © pony club dressage competitions). In his new film, Drop Dead Fred, it is vertical and dyed bright red; inspired, according to producer Paul Webster, by Johnny Rotten, whose hair was always a scream, though it wasn’t meant to be.

Today, in real life, Rik Mayall’s do is very interesting indeed, for it is nearly shoulder length and bleached with the blonde streaks more commonly spotted down on Muscle Beach, LA. It is regularly swept back off a wide forehead by those fingers we expect to see poked into the face of Piers Fletcher-Dervish. This is the action of a vain man, and Mayall has the grace (he has a lot of grace) to admit that he is a vain man. Vain and frightened of failure. When accused, unaggressively, of being sexy, he says that this is a nice thing, a flattering thing, but any arousal for which he is responsible is involuntary, because he doesn’t really know what this indefinable quality is. Also, he is easily embarrassed, and the thought of trying to be physically alluring, and failing, would be a nightmare for him. John Lloyd tried to persuade him to be sexy as Flasheart in Blackadder. “I got this blonde wig and things,” says Mayall, “and was quite pleased with the way I looked – but I was still an arsehole, a sort of good-looking arsehole.”

Rik Mayall very much doesn’t want to be just a good-looking arsehole. His characters, he says, are partly created as a way of avoiding this. By unleashing the more unpleasant sides of his nature on the public, he exorcises them and can proceed upon his way, a better person for it. He is lucky in this, for most of us would like to be ruder and more violent than we are. Mayall is paid to be.

Yes. Hair. Very important to the British joke. So, too, are shouting and falling over. Those academic dignitaries in charge of the Manchester University drama department probably never imagined that some of their students, primed in the history of the Commedia dell’Arte and au fait with the point of Beckett’s pointlessness, would leave campus (with a 2.2 degree in the case of Mayall) to entertain a career of shouting and falling over.

So it comes as an enormous relief that Rik Mayall, the normal person behind the show-biz Mr Stentor, does not shout at all. His voice is even and serious and the product, appropriately, since that is what it is, of an affectionate and sensible middle-class background in which both his parents were drama teachers and he was encouraged to show off a lot. When young, he appeared in his father’s school productions — as the boy in Waiting For Godot, in the crowd scenes of The Good Woman Of Setzuan. He liked this, and anything was better than getting bored (there wasn’t much to do in Droitwich). Public school mores (King’s School, Worcester) prevented Mayall from becoming involved with glam rock and he was disappointed to discover that he was too old (20) to be a punk. Nevertheless, he did appreciate a concert in Malvern where the lead singer of the Cortinas, Jeremy Valentine, announced: “We don’t fucking like you so get a load of this.” He then stuck a finger down his throat in order to be sick — and found he couldn’t.

It was licensed showing off, one might surmise, that endowed Mayall with the ‘presence’ that is indispensable to the successful comedian, or ‘comic-actor’ as he is more often called nowadays. Girls who were with him at Manchester University remember this ‘presence’. They also remember how he used to enter a room, slam the door back off its hinges, pause for a minute as if in an invisible spot-light, and says things like, “It’s Rik Mayall. The Great Star.” Some girls thought he was a prat. Many, however, couldn’t help believing him.

It’s not difficult to see why. He exudes personal strength. This is something to do with self-assurance, and something to do with the fact that, physically, he is wider than one might imagine. And he is certainly more endearing than he appears on television (where he has always been intentionally repulsive).

That Alan B’Stard, for example, would make live yoghurt reach for an EXIT pamphlet. Mayall is very proud of his Right Honorable member, he is one of his more successful characters, he thinks. And, as an effective prime-time reminder of the ghastliness of Tory MPs, The New Statesman has also served to advertise his own beliefs. Indeed, he was so pleased the day Margaret Thatcher resigned that, dancing up and down on the stairs, he fell down them and broke his shoulder. It’s still quite stiff, actually.

He touches his shoulder as if to make sure that, unlike Mrs Thatcher, it is still there, and says he is pleased his new BBC series (co-written with Ade Edmondson) is called Bottom because it means everyone involved has to say “Bottom” when important people ring them up. The title started as a joke, then Alan Yentob (the head of BBC2) hated it so much they decided it was a good idea.

Is it about bottoms?

“Not at all. It’s about two guys at the bottom of the heap. But obviously we called it Bottom to make people think we were doing bottom jokes.”

Richard and Eddie, the characters, are a couple of “unemployed survivors”. “I think Bottom is what could have happened to us if everything had gone wrong.”

Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson have been a double-act since they were at Manchester together and they remain close. “I think Ade thinks I’m a complete git really,” says Mayall. “He is one of the few people who can make me blush. He knows when I’m telling lies to try and impress people.”

It was at university that they formed 20th Century Coyote and wrote plays like Dead Funny (in which a corpse turned into a policeman) and other dramas inspired by the morose irony in works such as Waiting For Godot:

“Estragon: You stink of garlic.

Vladimir: It’s for the kidneys. (Silence: Estragon looks attentively at the tree.) What do we do now?

Estragon: Wait.

Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting?

Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?

Vladimir: Mmmm. It’d give us an erection.”

Although Beckett had the last laugh in 1966 with Breath (30 seconds long, featuring one cry and a pile of rubbish), in the hands of 20th Century Coyote the-Theatre of the Absurd became the Theatre of the Very Silly and Occasionally Intoxicated. Eventually, by way of the Edinburgh Festival and the Woolwich Tramshed, the Comedy Store in Dean Street and the Comic Strip in Brewer Street, Vladimir and Estragon evolved into the Dangerous Brothers, who shouted and fell over more than you would believe.

“Ade: What is green and hairy and goes up and down? A gooseberry in a lift.

Rik: Gooseberries don’t go in a lift.

Ade: Yes they do.

Rik: Oh? How many gooseberries do we know?

Ade: Three Rik: All right, let’s have their names.

Ade: Derek Gooseberry

Rik: That’s a lie. All right, if Derek Gooseberry exists go and get him.

Ade: He’s not well.”

Cue enormous punch-up followed by sound of loud laughing and clapping.

Yes. Everyone knew that Rik Mayall would make it.

Now he is 33 and unworried, it seems, by the law that says comedians, like mangoes, do not age gracefully. Sometimes they do not age at all (Lenny Bruce 41, Tony Hancock, 44). He is married (in 1985, to make-up artist Barbara Robbin), has two children (Rosemary, 4, and Sid, 2) and lives in west London.

“During Drop Dead Fred he bounced a lot of ideas off me and the writers,” says producer Paul Webster. “But he works mostly with his wife. That is the key. God knows what they do with each other, but she is very important to him. She and the children were on the set the whole time.”

Mayall’s reluctance to give interviews leads the Hello! reader in all of us to speculate about the unseen decor that is the interior of his life and wonder whether he is comfortable with the responsibility of ministering to the nation’s mental health. This is a burden that has debilitated many of his predecessors. “Comedy needs a vast spectrum of emotion,” said Spike Milligan, who knew. The court requires its jesters to be funny peculiar as well as funny ha ha. Certainly, during his early success, Mayall went through something of a wild child phase. I once saw him break a glass over a man’s head at a party. And then there were the tales of the perfunctoriness of his departure from a long-term girlfriend. “He went out for a packet of cigarettes and never came back,” ran the legend.

“He is very balanced in his personal life,” says Paul Webster, “but obsessive in his work. He will go to extraordinary lengths. He spent months working out the character of Drop Dead Fred.”

Mayall’s evasiveness is, in fact, connected with a fear of destroying the illusion: if he is selling unpredictability, then talking about the mechanics of a performance can spoil it. It is with this same canny eye on his constituency that he refuses to feed any of his carefully created personas to the gaping maws of advertising. “I would rather my audience knew that when I was speaking to them I was telling the truth. This seems odd when comedy is all about lying, but at least they know that I am not going to abuse our relationship in order to trick money out of them for somebody else.”

The character of Drop Dead Fred, if we’re talking mechanics, is basically Rick from The Young Ones in a pair of green trousers. As the imaginary childhood friend of Phoebe Cates (an actress who has the slightly sinister physiological ability to be anywhere between 12 and 39), his vocation is to cause extreme chaos, helped by the fact that he is invisible to everyone except Cates. And us.

So there is much flinging of yellow paint over granny, looking up women’s skirts (particularly the rather tight one of Bridget Fonda) and jokes about being sick. Lovers of Rick and Rik may roll along with the film’s adherence to the Warhol maxim “Always leave them wanting less”, but will baulk, no doubt, at the made-for-Midwest finale which involves the unexplained transformation of Drop Dead Fred from pestilential to pious. He becomes, as he himself would probably describe it, `girly’.

“Enough nose-picking infantilism to shame Benny Hill,” moaned Rolling Stone, airing the viewpoint of a nation whose attitude towards hygiene has always been somewhat unrelaxed. Mayall says he had a premonition that the film might be too disgusting for the Americans — and too sentimental for the Brits. But then, he argues, there are about 250 million people out there who like that kind of thing, and you have to relate to them in order to be allowed to “flick snot about the place”.

So is the Dangerous Brother, in his maturity, becoming a Safe Brother?

“I don’t think I’m getting soft. If anything, I am getting sicker. It doesn’t have to be pulling faces all the time. As I get older I’m not quite so energetic anyway, and there are other ways of communicating.”

Despite popular appearances in the Comic Strip outings, he is wary of working in film. He does not want to air his limitations in public. “I’m too loud and shouty for most cinema things,” he says. His roles have always been chosen with great care. “I think I have a body of work which will allow the audience to say, ‘Well maybe Rik will fuck up this time, but that’s OK because we know that sometimes he doesn’t.’ This might make me more lazy, but it also makes me a little less scared and able to say, ‘Well all right, I’ll have a go at this project.’ I did enjoy making the film, but my home is in telly and theatre.”

Following the West End success of Silly Cow, Mayall believes Ben Elton has accomplished an interesting feat in attracting people to the theatre who don’t normally go.

“I think British theatre is as open as British telly was in the early Eighties, when we came in with The Young Ones,” says Mayall. “There was a large mass of people who were not represented. The same is true of theatre now. They have got videos and they can go out whenever they want. Rock’n’roll is very dull at the moment. There is the cabaret scene and they go to that, but why not have four of five people onstage at the same time? And a set? It’s a natural extension — and for me it’s the perfect art form because I’m a reactive performer.”

So, later this year, he plans to venture back to the stage. He and Edmondson will become Vladimir and Estragon in a production of Waiting For Godot. One hears the creak of the wheel turning full circle, and the more optimistic may breathe a sigh of relief. The Comic Strip may have murdered the mother-in-law joke and resuscitated the cabaret scene (ten events of multicoloured wackiness on any one night in London), but, by smoothing the transfer from an obscure stage in Deptford to jumping up and down in front of BBC cameras, it was also partly responsible for the impasse at which comedy finds itself today. Comedy needs to be kept on its toes. It finds it difficult to regenerate in a land where the only reaction is the unseen flick of the remote-control button. Inventors need to stand up and face the front row and, if they have not been deafened by the sound of mutual back-slapping, they might even hear a ripple of applause. Rik Mayall wishes he and Edmondson had the affront to go the whole way and perform a play they had written themselves, but he does not feel that the world is quite ready for The Dungeon Of Madness.

Drop Dead Fred goes out ors general release in September

One Old Double Act Deserves Another

By Zoe Heller for The Independant, 22nd September 1991

Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, the rude boys of television sitcom, are about to star in Waiting for Godot. They told Zoe Heller why this is not as funny as it seems

”It is already clear,” a critic wrote of Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall in 1987, ”that what they seem to see as defiantly juvenile, and we see as embarrassingly childish, is not the outcome of a particular series but part and parcel of these particular comedians. Farting, references to genitalia and extreme violence are their stock-in-trade and so – regardless of the format – their most appreciative audience will continue to be drunk teenagers.”

However unfair and inaccurate, this rebarbative judgment neatly summarises the comic style with which Mayall and Edmondson have become associated. They form part of the coterie (Dawn French, her husband Lenny Henry, Edmondson’s wife Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer, Ben Elton) that emerged at the end of the Seventies and went on to dominate the comedy scene in the Eighties. But within this group, Mayall and Edmondson have made a certain brand of maniacal comedy their own. Which is why their latest undertaking strikes the onlooker as so brave. Or foolhardy.

From this week, the princelings of fart gags will be in residence at the Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, playing Vladimir (Mayall) and Estragon (Edmondson) in Waiting for Godot. It is the first West End production of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy in 35 years. Les Blair is directing; Derek Jarman has designed the set. None of this, however, is likely to distract attention from the casting.

In their rehearsal room at Sadler’s Wells, the two men anticipate the likely objections with a fretful mix of optimism and irritation. Edmondson, dour in thick-rimmed spectacles and cropped hair, insists they will get a ”hammering” from the Press. ”We always do. And this time, we’ll get an even worse hammering because it’ll be seen as two vulgar, horrible little comedians taking on some great dramatic classic. But we’ll make a success of it – and then they’ll be really cross.”

Mayall, the more glamorous, actory side of the partnership, swishes his blond hair and puts on a silly voice. ”We both went to drama school. So we know what we’re doing, OK?”

Mayall and Edmondson have been together since their student days at Manchester University in the Seventies. After their degrees, they started doing cabaret and short, lunatic plays. They eventually landed at the Comedy Store in London, where they were picked up by television. The Young Ones, their manic piss-take of student life, broke up the sofa-centred chunter of traditional sit-com with explosions of grotesque slapstick and a-thousand-and-one bogey and bottom jokes. It was high-volume, low- taste, occasionally brilliant stuff.

Since then, both men have done plenty of solo work, which has often had a subtler comic hue. Edmondson has written and directed episodes of Comic Strip and acted in a couple of films (including a straight role as a tabloid journalist in Les Blair’s News Hounds). Mayall, more famously, has done some theatre (lead roles in The Government Inspector and The Common Pursuit), some television (The New Statesman), and has made his first foray into Hollywood, starring in the forthcoming Drop Dead Fred. Yet Mayall and Edmondson have managed to fit in plenty of work together and their tendency, whenever they reunite, is to return to Young Ones mode – two snarling wallies exercising their loathing for one another in squalid circumstances.

As The Dangerous Brothers, they offered what were essentially abstracted Young Ones sketches with heightened violence. In Filthy Rich and Catflap, (with Nigel Planer, another of the Young Ones), they did much the same thing, but in a domestic setting. And clips from their new series, Bottom (in which they play two penniless, violent flatmates who are always arguing), suggest business is still as usual.

So reservations about the new Godot are perhaps less unreasonable than the two comedians care to admit. They say they have always wanted to ”do Godot”, and this year, after one of their own compositions proved unstageable (Mayall: ”It involved wrecking the theatre every night – the level of destruction was just too extensive”), they decided to give Beckett a bash. But can Beckett’s text, with its delicate balance of humour and anguish, survive the sausage-grinder of their frenzied style? Will Vladimir and Estragon be squeezed into the ready-made shapes of Rik ‘n’ Ade?

Mayall and Edmondson respond grumpily to these enquiries. They don’t think they have been repeating themselves for the last decade, and if the critics cannot distinguish between their finely wrought characterisations, then that is the critics’ problem.

Mayall: ”People go on about the similarities in what we do…”

Edmondson: ”But it’s a bit like saying to an artist, ‘Well, a lot of your paintings have blue paint in them; why aren’t you advancing and using more red paint?'”

Insofar as they will admit to a fixed set of comic manners, they will not, they say, be changing them for the purposes of this play. ”There’s no need to,” Mayall explains. ”Our comedy actually developed through a love of Beckett – of Godot in particular – and a lot of our early stuff was Beckett piss-takes. I have always been drawn to Beckett. I like the simplicity. I like the honesty. I like the vulgarity, the violence. I like the uniqueness of it – the way it doesn’t fit in and it annoys people. Our style is actually very Beckettian.”

”Estragon and Vladimir are two halves of the same person – they are a double act,” says Edmondson. ”And the two halves are much the same as the two halves we’ve developed: Rik plays the vain, conceited one and I play the boorish, stupid, down-to-earth one.”

None of which means, apparently, that they will be playing simply for laughs, or lapsing into extra-textual routines. Three years ago Robin Williams appeared as Vladimir in Mike Nichols’s Broadway Godot, and ruffled critical feathers by ad-lib bing. Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the first London production, lamented that the multiple repetition of lines like ”Why don’t we go?” made it ”astonishingly easy” to miss out great chunks of the play. In these circumstances, it must be a terrible temptation to improvise. Mayall and Edmondson, however, shrink at the idea.They have merely tinkered with a few stage directions andreturned to the French text in places ”to sort of re-translate it”.

Edmondson: ”Normally when we’re rehearsing something, it’s a constant process of editing. But with this, it’s actually been a relief to get to grips with a text that doesn’t change.”

Mayall: ”We’re actually doing a very traditional version. I hope people won’t be disappointed that we’re not being groovier . . .”

Edmondson:”That it’s not the ‘Allo ‘Allo team doing Godot…”

Both men say they feel ”reverent” about the play’s ”philosophical bits”. But they express their reverence in sharply differing ways. Edmondson sniffs and says it’s ”nice to have jokes where the double entendre is about important philosophical topics rather than someone’s bottom”. Mayall is more fervent. ”I think the best comedians share the philosophical vision expressed in this play. ‘They give birth astride of a grave….’ – that’s why you get into comedy – because you have that vision of life, that desperation, and you are telling jokes to avoid thinking about death…”

As he goes on, a note of cod-Beckettian bleakness enters his tone. ”If you have no religion and you know you’re going to die, you know there’ll be nothing else, and you try somehow to avoid that truth…”

Edmondson looks bewildered. Mayall continues: ”That’s what Vladimir and Estragon are doing – passing the time so they don’t have to hear all the dead voices.”

Suddenly Edmondson waves his sandwich, ”Oh bollocks Richie.”

Mayall smiles. ”That’s why I’m drawn to Ade,” he explains. ”None of these things seem to bother him.”

Waiting for Godot’ previews at the Queen’s from tomorrow; opens 30 Sept.

Dead from the Bottom Up

For NME, 12th October 1991

Ten years after The Young Ones, Rik Mayall is busy selling toilet humour to Americans in Drop Dead Fred, where he plays, oddly enough, an annoying twat in the mould of, erm, Rick from The Young Ones. Plus ça change exclaims Roger Morton

“They gave me a limo to come here, and the guy driving it said he’d just been driving Mel Gibson around and he was saying he just didn’t have any privacy or private life. If that’s what being a big film star means, then I don’t want that. I don’t want to be taken away from my audience and I don’t want to have to think each film would be so important. Plus, you’d spend your whole life being interviewed and doing chat shows.”

Rik Mayall is a busy man these days. America has fallen for the bogey routine and Rik’s star is on the rise. In its first week of release the almost star vehicle for Mayall, Drop Dead Fred, went to Number Six in the US movie charts. It stayed in the Top 30 for 15 weeks. For an eccentric, British produced, American written film whose under-12 kiddy appeal relies largely on the charm of a little known Brit actor flicking bogies, smashing windows and looking up girl’s skirts, this is quite an achievement.

The signs are that Mayall is posed on the toilet brim between grubby British comedy certainties and the scary but luxuriant shagpile expanses of Tracey Ullman-style US fame. At home he and Comic Strip partner Adrian Edmondson have enough pulling power to stage a humour-highlighted West End production of Waiting For Godot, coppying the idea from a New York production that featured Steve Martin and Robin Williams. They also have the current Young-Ones-meets-thirtysomething TV series Bottom up and running. But for Mayall the offers are coming in from the States. Which way will he swing?

“It’s nice to go to America to make a film ’cause the actual process is fun and it’s a chance to explore myself a bit,” says Mayall. “But it was never a burning ambition. I never wanted to go and ‘crack America’, like Cliff tried to… and didn’t.

“It would take an awful lot for me to go back. It’s got nothing to do with my experiences of America, which were very, very good. But I like having a good time, which is why I’ve designed my life like this, and making a movie involves going to the gym for six months, and if you’re going to do it you’ve got to be really serious about it. I’d like film to be a part of my life so I could go and do it every couple of years. When I’m happy with the role.”

Clearly Mayall took his role as destructive ‘imaginary friend’ Fred pretty seriously. Prior to Drop Dead Fred’s filming he spent months in the gym getting his energy level up to hyperactive brat standards, and until he fell down a flight of stairs celebrating Thatcher’s resignation he was still fit. An ironic accident, considering that Mayall was given the Fred part after being spotted as Alan B’Stard getting whipped by Thatcher on a Red Nose charity broadcast.

“I just thought ‘Yeah, I can do that’,” says Mayall on his decision to take the Fred part. “Most good film actors worth their salt can break your heart and make you cry just by raising an eyebrow. That’s not really my discipline, that’s too small for me. But Fred isn’t constricted like that and that’s one of the reasons I went for it.”

Although there’s plenty of physical punch to Mayall’s Fred character (a kind of John Lydon possessed by a Gremlin) the more obscene tendencies of some of Mayall’s past creations have been removed. For those who view the Mayall-Edmondson style of puking punk slapstick as simply puerile body function flaunting, this will be no great loss, but according to Mayall, inane scatology is more than just a load of shit.

“There’s a lot of stuff that got cut out of Fred because it was a little bit too much for the Americans. There’s a long sequence in a toilet where I was watching a fat lady having a poo, which I thought was great, and they didn’t like that. I mean, we laugh at that sort of thing not ’cause we actually find it funny, it’s the stupidity of it I think that we find funny. There’s a level of irony that we have over here about things like that.

“Like we call Bottom that not because I consider bottoms to be funny, although maybe I do, but there’s a thousand different ways of looking at it, and there’s a lot of irony in there in the fact that me and Ade should call a programme Bottom. Because it’s rude, stupid and a waste of license payers’ money, and that’s the point. But yeah, the Yanks tend to be less into poo jokes and things. There’s a bit where I dribbled on Phoebe’s head just after I’d wiped the dog poo on the carpet, which I thought was very funny but they thought it was too gross.”

Mayall admits that on the whole British comedy has a long way to go before it catches up with the quick-fire Americans.

“They have housefuls of gag writers and we have one insane git called Ben Elton sitting in his garret.” But for the time being it looks like Rik will be concentrating his shit-stirring efforts within these shores. Apart from Mayall’s concern that movies would cut him off from the feedback of a live audience, there’s also the fact that as a father with a young family, he can do without the upheaval. That’s the funny thing about Mayall. For a shit-smearing, bogey-flicking, violent psycho-comic, he seems like a nice bloke.

“The kind of comedians I like are mainly people who say ‘Look! I’m an arsehole! Laugh at me!’ That tends to be the way I operate, that’s the area I’m interested in rather than someone saying ‘Hey! I’m hip! Come with me and let’s laugh at someone!’ I’m more interested in people making genuine arseholes of themselves… But it’s not me, it’s a performance. That’s why I don’t really like doing interviews. ‘Cause I don’t like people to think that I’m … normal.”

Bums The Word

By Steven Grant for Time Out, 18 – 25th September 1991

Their new TV show Bottom, is about two hopeless, thirtysomething idiots. Meanwhile, Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall are hitting the stage as Beckett’s bums in Waiting for Godot. When will the comic reprobates stop arsing around?

Since its British unveiling in a production mounted at the Arts Theatre by a then cherubic Peter Hall some 36 years ago, Samuel Beckett’s first play Waiting for Godot has become part of the language and the mythology. Many plays and playwrights enter our vocabulary but with this savage cosmic joke about men in bowler hats waiting in a barren, arid landscape for a God-like figure who never turns up, Beckett did it in considerably less time than Shakespeare, Congreve or Wilde.

Since Beckett’s death in December 1989, the play which has been performed all over the world by all kinds of people straining under all kinds of oppression convicts, Communists, South American hippies, Soweto blacks, liberal democrats – has looked in danger of turning into a star vehicle. Robin Williams and Steve Martin attacked it in America recently, and it’s now the turn of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. They turn up at the Queen’s Theatre as the expectant tramps Vladimir and Estragon in a cast that even extends the Young Ones connection to Christopher Ryan, the pint-sized member of the scrofulous quartet, playing the hapless Lucky alongside Philip Jackson’s Pozzo. Les Blair directs and, intriguingly, the set is designed by Derek Jarman.

It’s tempting to ask if Vladimir and Estragon will now be smashing each other over the head with hammers or cider bottles and screaming ‘Godot, you Bastard!!!’ across the void, but there are complications in this attitude. As Edmondson, the balder, bespectacled, more thoughtful ‘miserable cunt’ of the duo, says: ‘The play was always considered for a double act, I think, and if we want to get very wanky you could say that Vladimir and Estragon represent two halves of an Everyman which is essentially what…’ Mayall, the handsomer, chirpier, more obliging member of the duo, chips in: ‘…every double act is. Hmmm.’

It’s certainly true that much of Beckett’s early work was inspired by knockabout vaudevillians and cinema greats like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy (Beckett once said with typical waggishness that the only thing he knew for certain about his two protagonists was that ‘they wore bowler hats’). The characters in Godot owe much to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose differing cinematic personae are reflected in the characters themselves: Vladimir (Mayall/Chaplin) more optimistic, patient, paternal against the more frightened, child-like, clumsy Estragon (Edmondson/Keaton). Keaton was even offered the part of Lucky in the first American production of the play; according to Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s unofficial biographer, Keaton turned it down on the grounds that he thought the play was rubbish and hadn’t been able to finish reading it!

Mayall and Edmondson also quote an impressive pedigree of interest; Mayall’s first attempt at writing, a mordant little number called Death on the Toilet done at Edinburgh in the late ’70s when the pair worked under the name of Twentieth Century Coyote, plus many of their early Comedy Store routines, were inspired, says Mayall, ‘by the early Beckett plays. We’re too thick to understand the later stuff because of their tone, their theatricality, their punning – all that stuff like “I can’t go on like this”, and then walking off stage and coming back with a funny walk and saying “But I can go on like this!!” that was all from Beckett.’

Mayall and Edmondson both played in Godot in their youth, Mayall as an eight year old boy-messenger in an amateur production mounted by his dad in Droitwich and, later on, as Vladimir while a student at Manchester University; Edmondson played Estragon (‘I can only learn the one part’) at the same Alma Mater, but both remember most vividly the productions that they saw rather than helped to create. Mayall: ‘At Manchester they were very into all these punk, nude, studio productions. I remember a nude Edward II and a nude Godot where this guy called Steve played the tree and when Estragon sat down at one point there was this uneasy silence and then this almighty rush that lasted for 15 minutes and Estragon was covered in piss! And this guy who played the pissing tree would train very seriously by going to the bar every night and drinking six pints of lager. But they obviously hadn’t thought out the production very clearly because when Pozzo and Lucky came on, the floor was so soaked that they skidded all over the place and the audience were walking out.’ ‘I remember,’ adds Edmondson, ‘this one very serious Stalinist woman who sat in the front because she was dead keen and she got soaked and very angry.’ Mayall: ‘Then there was another production where Pozzo was played by a woman, and when it came to the speech about “giving birth astride the grave”, she mounted this scaffolding and then unravelled about ten feet of red ribbon from you know, the girl’s place, so that was very strange. We were thinking of incorporating the idea into this production; two old has-beens with three miles of heavy industrial cable stuffed up their arses!’

Edmondson, the non-smoker of the pair and temporarily off the booze following a series of brushes with the law over drunk-driving which culminated in a three-year-ban, says that ‘despite all this, these productions were mind-numbingly boring and pretentious. Because we’re doing this then obviously the idea is that we emphasise the comedy in the piece. There’s a tendency because it’s Beckett and because the play is full of these wonderful aphorisms and philosophical insights to treat it like the Bible. The more we’ve rehearsed it the more obvious it’s become that the content is extremely funny; there are double meanings but the end-point isn’t sex or shitting or pissing, it’s usually philosophy or theology. For example, if Estragon says that Vladimir always waits until the last moment, he’s talking about him taking a leak, but the inner meaning is really about the onset of chaos, death, final despair. It’s different in that respect.’

Director Les Blair isn’t so well known for his theatre work, although Edmondson appeared in two very fine Blaire TV films, Newshounds and Honest, Decent and True, where he played respectively an obscene news editor who rapes and then sacks a female colleague, and a smugly content ad man. This wimp/scuzzball side to his performing personality contrasts heavily with the head-banging Vyvyan of the Young Ones. ‘We wanted Les,’ says Edmondson, making it clear who the bosses are, ‘simply because he’s an intelligent man who could help us make sense of it, make it into a thing.’ ‘Because,’ counters Mayall, ‘we keep finding so many specific problems; it’s such a hellish text to learn because it’s so circular, so deliberately repetitive; the words “I’m going” occur ten times. There’s one cue three pages into the play which could take you straight to the end if you fuck up, and another one three pages before the end which takes you straight back to the beginning if you mix it up! And I really don’t think it’s just a star vehicle. There was a bit of the “Rik” thing when I did The Government Inspector at the National, a few performances where people were screaming and girls threw pants on the stage, but largely I think a theatre audience is looking for something a bit different and the ones who are going because of Alan B’stard or the Comic Strip films will…’ Edmondson: ‘… probably be too intimidated by their surroundings to misbehave.’

This last 12 months have seen something of a coming together for the couple who describe their partnership as a ‘marriage made in the lav’. This week their long-awaited TV series for BBC2, Bottom, a kind of Young Ones meets Thirtysomething, starts its six-episode run; this is very much a low-rent affair – heavy on grossness and with a few strong laughs which depend, as always, on the duo’s penchant for fighting and self-destruction, notably a scene in which Edmondson attempts to remove a wart from Mayall’s hooter with a pair of pliers.

Mayall says that one scene where he’s discovered wanking caused the bigwigs at the Beeb some nerves, but not to any great extent. Edmondson says that Bottom is their way of using that period in their lives ‘after university and before regular income when there was no student hand-out, no student buddies and you were forced to walk miles to the butchers to save 20 pence or buy the supermarket brand of baked beans.’ Hardly the lifestyle both of them enjoy now, but then perhaps the meals at the Groucho, the gala balls and the first-night parties will be for later. And presumably life is a little bit tougher without the likes of Ben Elton and Lise Mayer (the girlfriend Mayall impregnated and then dumped for another) providing the material.

Mayall: ‘I don’t think we’re stepping back with this; Bottom is the first thing we’ve written together for some time, and I think it’s the best thing we’ve done; it marks a new chapter in a relationship that will hopefully last as long as we live.’ Muttered chortles from both.

Certainly, though always linked together, Mayall and Edmondson’s careers have taken different turns in the last decade; as well as the big TV series, and the stage work, Mayall has his first Hollywood movie (everyone’s doing it) Drop Dead Fred, with Phoebe Cates, out here in October after doing well in the States. He got the part after The New Statesman became a cult success in America. The last series, which at its peak attracted over eight million British viewers, saw this very ’80s monster cuckolded by his flunky Piers and stuck in a Siberian labour camp. But Mayall says: ‘He isn’t necessarily finished by a long way. I think a lot of his fans were amazed and shocked when he got stuck in the snow, they couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t turn the tables and escape.

‘Maurice (Gran) and Laurence (Marks) could be up for another series but this time I think we’d like to know the date and result of the next General Election in advance. Last year Thatcher resigned just as the series was due to be made but luckily I’d got so happy that night I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder so that gave them time to do some rewrites. Basically I can do what I want now. I don’t want that to sound arrogant, but if something doesn’t work out there’s always standup comedy or TV comedy, so I just enjoy it.’

Though Mayall has more strings to his bow and a more marketable brand of appeal  flowing locks, nudge-nudge chat-show friendliness, cute smile, funny voices – Edmondson has long been the more committed of the two when it comes to straight acting. According to Mayall, not only did Edmondson play Hamlet at public school (yes) in Pocklington, Yorks, and long regret his decision to turn down the part of Gail Tilsley’s lover in Coronation Street but, when the alternative comedy scene moved cabaret-wards in the early ’80s it was Ade ‘who wanted to move away from all that stand-up stuff and go more towards real theatre which our routines at the Comedy Store always were, much more than the rest of the performers.’

So had their primary rehearsals for Godot taught them anything about their own relationship? ‘We’ve always agreed,’ says Mayall, ‘that our relationship has worked so well since 1976 because we don’t talk about it or even consider it in each other’s presence.’ Edmondson: ‘I think that we’ve always socialised most when we’ve been working. That’s when we see most of each other.’ Mayall: ‘Yes, but you don’t socialise when you’re working. You just say, right, see you on Monday then. You don’t go and get pissed.’ Edmondson: ‘Yes, but when we’re not working we sometimes don’t see each other for months at a time.’ Mayall: ‘Hmm. I can’t remember when we last stopped working, when was it, last autumn?’

Just as this is starting to sound a little too unhealthily like very early Beckett dialogue, the conversation moves on to the Williams-Martin Godot on Broadway. Edmondson says that though he hasn’t seen it, he hears from Peter Richardson, of Comic Strip and Comedy Store notability, who met Steve Martin in London, that it was ‘pretty much a disaster. They didn’t get on with each other and Robin Williams started improvising; apparently he was going into the audience and telling jokes, can you imagine that: “Goood Moooorning Vietnammmmm” in the middle of Godot with poor old Sam spinning in his grave like a top.’

Mayall insists that Beckett will be spinning in his grave ‘with merriment and glee’ at the prospect of this latest production; it’s unlikely. During a rather brief meeting I had with the Nobel Prize winner in London some years ago, Beckett confessed that Waiting for Godot had become a millstone around his neck, a schooltext, a mantra for a Godless age that had knocked sideways all perceptions of his later work. It’s also always been, as Sam knew full well, his biggest money-spinner. Indeed, the Queen’s production has already scuppered another, much smaller one, a Japanese Festival offshoot put together for the ICA and to have been shown later this month at the Lilian Baylis theatre, by a group of actors, academics and students at the School of Oriental and African Studies. This Noh version would have used chunks from Endgame and Worstward Ho as well as Godot and the Japanese director claims that Beckett personally gave the group permission for the project. According to a spokesman for the group, Workshop Five, the production had been cancelled after pressure from both theatrical agents Curtis Brown and by the Queen’s version’s producer, Phil McIntyre, who found the ‘clash’ unacceptable.

Mayall and Edmondson seem a pair, like Vladimir and Estragon, waiting at the crossroads despite all the upcoming projects with their names attached. ‘I was the one who never wanted to be a rock star,’ says Mayall. ‘Oh yes,’ sneers Edmondson, ‘so that’s why we have to call you Little Rik, is it?’ They’re referring to their painful Bad News rock tour during which the duo were pelted continually with bottles filled ‘with puke and piss’ and Edmondson, stuck up front with the guitar, was constantly finding his ‘mouth full of other people’s spit. I’ve probably got AIDS from it.’ The tour, says Edmondson, helped to ‘exorcise the rock-star demon’, but now, well into their thirties, rich, famous, married with five kids between them, it remains to be seen how many demons are left. And just where their talents lie and how far they will continue to stretch. One day, after all, the gobbing, the brawling, the puking and the whining finally have to stop. As every father knows.

Waiting for Godot previews at the Queen’s Theatre from September 23. Bottom is on Tuesdays on BBC2.