Sounds Magazine – 11th December 1982
Rik Mayall of TV’s ‘The Young Ones’. By Dave McCullough
I ASK Rik Mayall, twisted leftest-centrist-selfist, maniacal hero of Tuesday nights television The Young Ones and generally speaking, since his inception as alter-ego Kevin Turvey, a genuine TV cult figure, if people are surprised when they meet him. I certainly am.
“I don’t meet that many people. Not outside the business, you know…”
Tell me I’m naive, but from Turvey to Mayall you expect the guy to live those parts, or at least to turn up at the Sounds office looking slightly less straight then Rik Mayall (more about that name later) did on the day of our interview.
He is (now) far chubbier than in The Young Ones. In this rather disappointing ‘real-life’ guise, his hair is fairly neatly battered down, he carries a nice brief-case and overall, is an averagely handsome normal dude who could be either an electrician or a budding university don. He’s deadly rational, not at all ‘Rik’ as Rik should be.
I mention his Russell Harty appearance of last year, when he ran out on the interview. Great one, Rik!
“Em, Yes, well. I thought it might be funny…?”
It was arranged?
“Course it was! And that’s why I ought to ask you not to print it. It’s all very well – could have lied to you but that wouldn’t have been true…”
Wouldn’t it? I see it all: weeks of planning with Russell’s ghastly producers, Russel’s informed as well, everything arranged. At this rate of going, Grace Jones is probably Harty’s cousin (is that pigmentally possible?)
Even the possibility that this appearance of straightness is another Rik Mayall role and ruse doesn’t wash. There’s nobody standing behind Rik Mayall this time. I hope he carries paper tissues in that (smart, leather, smelly) brief-case; his fans will need them.
“IT DEPENDS what people at home think that’s all.”
It does Rik?
“Yes, I mean, in A Kick up the 80’s I had my name removed from the credits because I wanted people to think that Kevin Turvey was a real person. And for a long time they did; some still do.”
“I did the Glastonbury CND gig, I started off with Kevin for 20 minutes, they loved it, great reaction, then I suddenly dropped him and did other things, other characters.”
“They couldn’t believe it!”
“They all literally thought I was still Kevin but that I was having some kind of brainstorm. They felt kind of cheated.”
I know what they meant.
Instead of a latterday Spike Milligan, you get Bamber bleeding Gasgoigne! Bah.
He mentions an act called ‘Lumiere and Son’.
“I don’t want to give their trick away or their technique, but they trick the audience by telling them lies. He says he’s going to eat Brillo pads and it does appear he’s eating Brillo pads… which is fair enough and legitimate in my eyes.”
Mayall’s a prestidigitation, he’s more interested in the magical, 4D side to comedy than flat, 2D ‘loony’ characterisation. Sure it was a disappointment meeting him and he didn’t talk angry gibberish and leap out of the window, but at the root of Mayall there’s a method and a dedication, to quote Roy Castle, that have more substance, than quirky, cultist twitterings.
He come from the posher parts of the Black Country, round about Stourbridge, they have healing briney waters there.. His extra-loony voice is polite and patient. It all had to be this way if you think about it enough (quoth a worldly wise Mrs McCullough). Tread gently for you tread on what seems…
“I’m not Nigel, who’s trained and plays the hippy in The Young Ones. I find I have to slip easily into a character. You find you get one really good character a year. You start doing it in the bathroom mirror.”
“Then the audience’ll dictate what he’s like. The first time I did Kevin live people laughed at certain things and not at others.. So next time you do him, you adapt to fit that experience. It’s the audience doing him as much as you are.”
Rik’s origins lie firmly in the ‘Comic Strip’ scene, which include the likes of fellow Young One Alexei Sayle and is the breeding ground of new, young, excellent, if a mite leftily trendy comedians.
This background, you can’t help feeling, makes for a kind of a foil to the character of ‘Rik’ – someone who supports the Left and at the same time knows he’s a cliche.
There’s a tension in that that comes over in the character. I ask Mayall why he chose Cliff Richard as his character’s favourite music.
“It’s Rik getting his poses wrong, isn’t it?”
And that’s the real Rik speaking in agreement.
HOW POLITICAL is Rik?
“I first did him at the Edinburgh Festival in ’79. It was meant to take the piss out of poets and brainless Lefties. I get up and just read poems like everyone else; people thought I was an actual poet, they tries to take me seriously.”
“Then of course they began to giggle and I told them to shut up… Rik is supposed to be about what’s worse in that crowd. But, you see, once you get on the telly you’re into very dangerous areas, people think you’re lefty bashing.”
“Though I think nowadays Rik hates everything that’s not himself and not just lefties. He’s very selfish, he hates anything that’s not centred round him. I think the programmes overall is anti-selfish in that way.”
“But of course, it’s up to the other actors too, they’re all comedians, they can do what they want. But I do find that central selfishness very funny…”
Rik Mayall puts his success down to good fortune, getting alone with a producer (Paul Jackson) and receiving a surprisingly sympathetic ear from Beeb controllers (Jim somebody comes in for special praise; Rik is veritably grateful).
I did remark though that The Young Ones, which as you read should have two episodes to go, started off surreal and is getting gradually but indubitably straighter (our key work, clearly, today). I was implying possible Beeb sanctions against weirdness, but he didn’t get the point (?).
“The first episode’s very exciting but you couldn’t sustain that pitch. It’s not just the material, it’s the concept of it that makes it exciting I think. It isn’t the same when you see it for a second time the next week…”
“The second episode was a little disappointing for me. It looked great in the cutting room, just about nothing, you know; anything coming from anywhere.”
“What we’ve tried not to do is to degenerate into The Goodies, which was just taking any idea and letting the prop guys do the rest: You want a giant rabbit? Then here it is! They’d stay up all night making it if you wanted them to.”
“We tried to make The Young Ones…”
“Yeah, and irrelevant. But not wastefully irrelevant. If you get a strong central theme, like I think ‘Boring’ was, then you can do lots of things beside it. In fact the last three episodes are strongest in that respect.”
It’s tempting to think this kind of adventurous, could-say-Kafkaesque, but let’s-be-blunt-and-say exciting TV is a new thing. But then you recall (and see again on , on 4) the likes of The Avengers…
Mayall takes the point, but he’s very loyal-seeming to TV. Per se; tempting to say it’s the BBC influence working, but I don’t know enough about it…
“Sure the 60’s were great. You had The Prisoner, even though it’s so trendy now. The Beatles films too, which were a bit odd…”
“The 70’s were maybe a time of taking stock, though even then you had the Pythons. Even things like Up Pompeii!, that was a weird format with a guy talking to the camera and to the audience while he’s surrounded by 2D characters who can’t see all this…”
“Of course, you’ve always had your ‘well done sit coms’, your Steptoes and Dads Army, which were good for what they are, but not too weird. You’re just recognising traits of behaviour really.”
He mentions later taking part in a weird (?) production of Waiting for Godot at University, wherein the weirdness of the play was itself sent up (pails of piss over heads etc). He talks about it in terms of ’78 and punk rock (we were affected in that sense being stroppy and that.”)
You can’t help feeling throughout all this that TV is even more a tale of suppression and stagnation than rock ‘n’ roll is. But, just as the constrictions are tighter, the stakes are higher and more and more better stuff gets through (The Black Stuff, The Comic Strip Presents… as well as Mayall’s madness).
It’s what McLaren last week called ‘rock ‘n’ roll. Lot of it about on telly.
SPEAKING OF which (as sadly, we must), Rik Mayall’s entrance into r ‘n’ r is imminent. He’s on the verge of signing to WEA; a live album is planned, to be culled rom a brace of tours the Young Ones team are to do in early ’83.
Rik also wants to do a single himself of ‘Downtown’, one of the all time great shouting songs. Let’s hope in that direction as opposed to a regurgitated, trendy Max Boyce (I can see it!).
“It’s fabulous at the moment, it’s like every door is open to me. I’m writing for these live dates at the present. Then there’s a radio show coming up, Kevin’s Top Fifty! and also two books.”
The live show will be a cabaret style performance, including the ‘Bastard Squad’ and with, naturally, top of the bill.
There’s a moral to the madness, overall, too. He reports low viewing figures for Young Ones simply because they didn’t go for the publicity at the beginning.
“The way Kevin sort of slipped into people’s lives was good. We wanted the same with the Young Ones, we didn’t want critics telling people it was good. Then it wouldn’t have belonged to them or to us.”
“It’s a great feeling if you allow people to discover something for themselves…”
“We cut back on the satirical side of Young Ones , because that’s not that important anymore. It’s his energy and his rhythm that matters. It’s more important seeing him leaping about than it is hearing him make a satirical, badge gag or something. And it’s not the time anyway to be hammering CND, whatever. Leave that to Not The Nine O’Clock News.”
Which is, in your opinion, Rik…?
“Good, but… you never seem to get a belly laugh out of shouting and hitting things, I think.”
He loves WC Fields (“He kicks dogs, drills people’s heads through!”) but says it wouldn’t be funny sawing a baby in half. He despises The Professionals because of it’s violence. We agree comedy is an important commodity these days; seriousness is difficult.
“My professor at University taught me about ‘the civilised snarl’ – a pack of dogs will show their teeth to a sick dog in their pack. Today we still show our teeth, but it’s not in growling, it’s in laughing. People are very conscious of what groups they’re in, which kind of behaviour they should show. There’s humour in all that.”
(T) RIK MAYALL talks finally about the “sectioning of TV: This is for pensioners, This is for young adults, This is for mother and father…”
Which in many ways is what the Young Ones is all about: by half-way verging towards stereotyping it debunks the idea completely, riotously, rigorously. Mayall quotes the dismal-but-‘good’ Channel 4 (love the adverts!) as a symptom of this; he has little fondness of 4.
I ask him finally what newspaper he reads.
“The Guardian, of course.”
Upside down one hopes.
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