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.