Soundmaker – 12th March 1983
Fears of a Clown
Joe Hosken goes rock and road funning with Kevin Turvey, The Young Ones and The Bastard Squad….
After the noise and cramped bustle subsides in a hot Cardiff University dressing room, the tired participants of the ensemble briefly attempt to gather their thoughts before the inevitable onslaught of autograph hunters, a de-wigged Nigel Planer (Neil from The Young Ones) gazes down at me to question, “Can you understand it all? I don’t mean the show or the size of the crowds, but the reaction. We just didn’t anticipate that type of response.” The celebratory football style clamour of the audience had proved bewildering and unexpected.
It’s not surprising. In fact the whole Kevin Turvey, Bastard Squad and Young Ones tour had begun in a style better suited to their own Comic Strip parody of the failures and foibles of a heavy metal band on the road in ‘The Bad News Tour’ screened by the BBC [it was actually screened on Channel 4] a few months back. Arriving in Sheffield they were greeted with the incredulous, “but you’re not booked to play here for another month!” and only hasty local radio broadcasters drummed up an audience for the opening night of the twenty date tour.
So, a little warily I travelled to Nottingham hoping that it was the correct venue to join up with this bunch of troubadours and get a glimpse of the method of their madness enjoying myself at the same time.
Arriving early at a plush and rather sterile Sherwood Rooms, a crowd of hopeful people had already gathered outside in the cold. As I searched for the door one of them informed me, “You’ll be lucky to get a ticket. They’ve had nine thousand applications.”
Inside, I meet up with the multi-jobbed sound man, Geoff, and after a brief chat, am ushered backstage to meet up with three people who in characterisation have become indelibly enshrined in British comedy.
Nigel Planer welcomes me in, puts me at ease and gets me some coffee. Rik Mayall (Rick of The Young Ones, and ace reporter Kevin Turvey) squats crossed-legged, runs his hands through his slicked back hair, as he quickly jumps through the changes to be made from the previous nights show. Ade Edmondson (Vyvyan) appears to be the quietest of the group. Bespectacled, he sits in the corner, ruminating on how he’s to change from new character, Adrian Bastard, to punk extremist, Vyvyan. “How can I stick these spikes on my head” he puzzles. “Do you have any glue?”
Nervous college interviewers appear, and jerky local journalists run through a set list of questions (all addressed to Rik), so I act as beer boy and disappear to collect some much needed after-show refreshments.
On returning laden, to the dressing room Rik, Nigel and Ade are feverishly running through a segment from the Young Ones section of the show, each sparring ideas and alterations from the other. Nigel appears concerned that his new character, the grossly inept and sickly cabaret performer, Mortimer Vaughn, “isn’t working” and asks me not to take any photographs during Mortimer’s burst upon the stage. Rik shuffles off to psyche himself up for the ensuing performance. However though poor organisation and a management policy that aims to screw the last penny out of the beer drinking public, the show doesn’t start until after 11 o’clock, by which time the trios’ backing group, The Ken Bishop Nice Twelve – Damian Pew, Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron – complain that their adrenaline has slowly dribbled away even though the packed crowd are baying like starving wolves for the show to begin.
With little time to talk, I descend the stairs and take my place with everyone else, the beery expectancy and constant shouting being better suited to the confines of a rock gig than a theatre.
So what do they get? Well, the two and a half hour show is a racy mix of old and new figures and formats, enacting barbed, hilarious and occasionally surreal parodies through music, monologues and group sketches. It serves the purpose of satisfying the expectations of the audience and yet at the same time contains enough surprises and inventions to ignite any flagging attention.
Soberly taking the stage, bedecked in tacky cabaret suits, dark glasses and sombre expressions, the Ken Bishop Nice Twelve are greeted with the expected hoots of surprise, derision and “Who the hell are they?” as they plunge into the theme tune from Alan Freeman’s radio programme Pick of the Pops. Did they notice the irony? This is quickly supplanted by the voice of Kevin Turvey, announcing his arrival ‘at the airport’ and then describing his journey to the theatre until he finally bounds onto the stage and flies straight into a high speed monologue, that sees him supposedly struck by dreaded V.D through accidental and unhygienic contact with his kitchen table, which has previously been used as a toilet by burglars “because it had a groove”.
Even though his rhythm is constantly interrupted by hecklers Kevin/Rik carrys on weaving a complex tale for nigh on twenty minutes. If the problem facing anyone involved with The Young Ones is that the characters have supplanted the actors in the minds of the audience, it was highlighted by the appearance of Nigel Planer as the absurd but strangely realistic Mortimer Vaughn, a mocking pastiche of the cabaret/working men’s club entertainer, a teller of tasteless jokes and singalong melodies.
The success of the parody lies in the ability to seduce the audience into believing that Mortimer Vaughn, or any other character for that matter, could actually exist. His actions and mannerisms are taken to an extreme, but then tempered so that to appreciate the humour, it’s necessary to have an understanding of the conventions on which it is based.
Mortimer enters complete with slicked down hair, tasteless red shirt and dark glasses to murmurings of ‘It’s Neil’, emphasising of course, the success of his notorious characterisation, but also making it all the more difficult for this one to stand on his own two feet, (which Mortimer literally, doesn’t manage very well anyway).
Mortimer fails tonight, basically, because he’s not that funny, even though the ideas behind the character are. The ending of his skit with Mort collapsing to the floor, the recipient of a cruel heart attack, seems like a cliched attempt to get him off stage. The still noisy crowd appears a little perturbed at this follow up to the onslaught of Turvey’s illogical logic.
The subsequent reappearance of Nigel, this time as the hapless Neil, complete with great coat and canvas shoulder bag, see people crying out his name as if it was some recently established deity with lentils supplanting wine and bread. He shuffles, appears startled, shuffles again hesitantly to the microphone to offer his greeting. “He-l-l-o, I’m Ne-i-l” as if in apology for his presence. It’s an entrance that draws cries of greeting and sighs of sympathy from the now smiling rows of faces some shouting out ‘LENTILS’ in the hope that he will bless them with recognition.
His monologue is excellent, mixing one-liners, toilet humour and parody in a way that never appears tasteless or crass nor thankfully, predictable.
Nigel Planer has developed his character to an art; to most of the people gathered here tonight he is Neil and although this means the inevitable desire for catchphrases and set scenarios, his skill lies in his ability as an actor to update and improvise around set guidlines.
“Someone says there’s some re-a-l-l-y bad lentils here tonight so keep off them”, he begins as a gentle put down to those crying out for the magic health food. His monologue manages to evoke sympathy and a degree of revulsion as he describes at one stage how he found himself to be washing his hair in someone’s urine.
“It was probably my brother’s, he drawls, “because he suffers from yellow jaundice. If you don’t aim properly in the toilet, it goes down into the kitchen and that is r-ea-l-l-y hea-vy. Like when my friends were going East to get a higher state of consciousness, all I managed to smuggle through the customs was a tropical disease.”
He then performs his old folk singer routine and ably demonstrates the analogy between his inadequate guitar playing and his love making to his “steady chick”. When the sketch was originally performed in The Comedy Store people believed that he was a folk singer but were too embarrassed to laugh. A few hours later and out of disguise he tells me:
“The whole thing is based in reality, apart from the physical mannerisms and way of behaving. But I know that a lot of people would say that I’m similar. It’s a time to show the hippy image and it’s faults, and a good way to do that is to portray someone that takes it all so seriously.”
“That’s not to say that it’s all a totally flawed philosophy. I’m not saying I reject all sixties philosophies but there is a lot of bullshit in it. You see, there is confusion nowadays. Most of the people that you see with long hair – and there were some at the show – don’t want change, whereas at the time when Neil would have grown his hair long it was done by people who wanted change. Neil is a throwback character – he’s been stuck in a time warp around 1969-72. He’s not at all heavy metal.”
“To some extent I’m stuck in Neil. They believe you really are the person, and they want you only to appear as him.”
But if there’s any danger of The Young Ones message being diffused. It’s brought into focus during their cataclysmic version of ‘My Generation’, a song suggested by drummer Rowland Rivron, with Neil, Rick and Vyvyan thrashing through a parody of the music, lyrics and styles – the hippie, the middle class revolutionary and the nihilistic punk – each putting their off the mark claim to the world and lyrically reducing it to a group of gags.
Rick: “People try to put me down.”
Vyvyan: Just because you never buy a round.”
With Neil offering the sobering “It’s not my fucking generation anyway!” and illiciting massed shouts of praise for doing so. ‘My Generation’ hammers itself home and gets the biggest laughs, creating a frenzy that is not repeated during the rest of the show.
Backstage the trio are already in animated discussion, ‘Why didn’t Mortimer work?’ ‘The set’s too long’. Each topic never appears to be taken with any real sense of disillusionment. There appears to be a sense of calm and confidence that pervades their off stage work. Quietly assured, without being arrogant.
Within an hour we’re ready to go, and as yet I’ve had little time to talk with any of the cast apart from singer Amanda Symonds. Drifting out onto a now empty stage, Rik asks me my opinion of the show. I tell him I felt it needed tightening up in places and that ‘My Generation’ was excellent. He appears a little unsure in his response.
“It didn’t quite get there. When we started this tour we just wanted to get back on the road and do some live work, to entertain. I know it’s usual to construct a show with a dominant theme, but for us it was an excuse to get out.”
Rik Mayall manages to look slightly distanced when talking to me. Carefully choosing his words, he continues,
“I’m not saying that the show is undefined but it hasn’t really come together yet, I’m just a little unsure about what it’s aiming towards.”
A cry from the bus and there’s no more time for talk, and we are soon back at the night’s appointed hotel. It’s into Geoff’s bedroom for a brief post-mortem with Rik, Lise and Dave the busdriver. As the conversation gets hazy, or as I did, I decided to go to bed, and get my money’s worth from the hotel’s over the top charges.
Morning comes too quickly but bleary eyed we assemble into the expansive foyer with Rik being quickly recognised by a receptionist and asked “to do that face”. He obliges. A middle-aged fusty woman enquires whether we were an orchestra? “No” come the reply. “A string quartet perhaps?” she persists, nodding towards the instruments in the coach parked outside. “Well we were,” replies Ade “But the rest of our group were killed in a plane crash last week”. For a moment she takes this in, an aghast expression spreading across her face, before everyone splutters out the truth. We decline her invitation to a drink tasting session and board the coach for Cardiff University.
The trip down the motorway, and through the confusing, endless outskirts of Birmingham, is made through fog. Countless diversions with policemen and accidents populating the central reservations occur at seemingly regular intervals. The atmosphere aboard is relaxed, a time to talk of amendments and to run through updated routines. Each member helps and advises the other but essentially the responsibility lies with the person who portrays the character. It also gives me a chance to talk at some length with Nigel and Rik.
Sitting in the front seat of a coach with out being able to look at the person you’re talking to isn’t the easiest of ways to have a conversation but it gives me the chance to pose the question as to whether the ‘hero’ treatment received by Neil made the charater at all restricting?
“No” comes the quick reply, “it’s very, very good. It’s like whenever theatres have been banned they’ve used puppets (when it was a political thing). It’s a similar thing, you can get away with a lot more and rush back into the characterisation when it goes too dangerous. You can do more by not having your name put to it. If you’re Alexei Sayle you have to stick by what you’ve said. Admittedly, it’s a braver thing to do but I can do sneakier things especially when the character is in disguise. Rik is half way between the two, he doesn’t disguise that much.”
Basically, the only physical difference between Nigel and Neil is the long hair. In conversation he is devoid of the painful manner in which Neil delivers his lines (and doesn’t wave his arms about). He is affable and acutely aware of the figure he has created, and the expectations to which he is supposed to conform.
“The original idea was that Neil was nasty, that he would be a real pain in the arse. That’s the thing that’s most worrying. If Neil turns into a vehicle for sympathy that’s a bore and it’s not so funny. We’ve got to be careful to keep him moaning and to always have that annoying edge, and do selfish things like cheat someone.”
Do you individually and as a team have to make that many concessions to perform on the television?
“I’m not that sure how much fighting went on to preserve certain pieces, but the producer, Paul Jackson, worked hard to check if we were being censored. You know not to say really obscene things not to stab people in the eye or go baby killing, but we still managed to push it. Some of the ‘Tampax’ scene was edited where it was dipped into a glass of wine and taken out all swollen up. That shot had to be edited.
“As each episode came out we thought ‘this is stronger than we thought’. Mostly the gross things get cut, but it was never savaged like we thought it was going to be at one time. If it had, people would have said, ‘those comedians can’t make T.V programmes.”
Nigel has already shown his worth as a character actor in ‘Shine on Harvey Moon’ (Central), and is at present working on a new series for that company. He’s aware of the need to diversify.
“It’s a shame when you’ve got a nice idea like Mortimer Vaughn and half the audience say, ‘that’s Neil isn’t it?’ It would have been nice with Mortimer because he looks the part and they hadn’t recognised me, I could’ve just walked off. We’re playing too intimate places. The crowd can always see your face.”
Neil is based in reality, so is Mortimer based on the working men’s club type entertainer?
“Yeah, definitely. Not that it’s original an idea to have him come on and die, but the idea of him constantly making sexist comments is used to show him up. So many comedians on TV are doing that kind of thing. Like we saw this husband and wife team in Windsor and she’d go, ‘I’m leaving’ and he’s reply ‘Is that a promise?’ The basis of the whole routine was that she was an idiot and he was ‘Mister Funny’.
With ITV in particular, throwing countless production line sit-coms at it’s audience, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ have given a much needed shot of adrenaline to comedy, easily surpassing the occasional smugness of ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and it’s vain self-conscious attempts to shock and titillate. Is it a case of good actors being used by unscrupulous producers and hack script writers to make quick money? Nigel’s reply is characteristically blunt.
“Some of those actors are useless. Of course they’ve got alternatives – being out of work is one of them. The sit-com is about fast turnover so that everyone – actors included – can make a lot of money. There has been a movement to make ‘smilers’ where the plots are slightly funny, but also portray an unusual domestic situation. It’s more interesting, and it’s something that doesn’t look as if it’s trying to be funny and failing. It’s trying to be drama and ending up being quite funny.”
One of the criticisms levelled at the Comic Strip series is that it appealed only to those people who already had a considerable understanding of heavy metal, the Beat generation or the making of TV documentaries. There are times when their humour on television appears cleaver rather than genuinely funny. Does this subtlety ostracise sections of the public?
“Well on ‘The Bad News Tour’ anyone who’s been on tour would obviously find that amusing. But mum and dad found it funny. It gave them an insight into something they didn’t know about. Someone once said to Rik, that to understand the Beat generation you have to have read Kerouac. It’s rubbish, it would help if you saw ten minutes of a sixties art film but beyond that you don’t need to know anything. It’s giving you an impression of Kerouac times through which you can communicate information, accuracy, thoughts and ideas as well as making people laugh.”
With this final summary Nigel is called back to ‘the table’ to run through part of the show and feeling slightly like a production line tester myself Rik slips alongside to continue the discussion.
Yesterday I hadn’t recognised him at first, his manic characterisations contorting his fine profile with his overbearing and irritating personas, light years away from his own deliberate replies, slowly cautious at first, then firing off at a tangent when some topic interests him or some thought comes to the surface. Although on tour he’s been working through his ‘old’ characters their routines are largely new, needing constantly to be up-date to keep the figure alive within Rik Mayall as well as for the audience.
“When I’m doing Kevin I’ve got an improvising style so I’m able to adapt if necessary” he begins. “But with the first monologue I do I know every inflection. It’s necessary to have a degree of freedom. Things like catch phrases are a real trap, the lowest of the low. It’s not funny, it’s rabble rousing. That’s when you get the distinction between comedy being something that is surprising, new, uplifting and a new discovery and something that becomes a wank and celebration of what you are.”
“You get left wing plays getting put on for left wing people with everyone agreeing with what you say. There is no catharsis. In The Young Ones we’re trying to be really exciting so that people don’t know what to expect. If you don’t create excitement you just reaffirm what people think and it becomes boring theatre. If you’ve already won over the audience then you should try to take them even higher.”
The difficulty arises when the audience feels they already know the characters on stage and therefore want their expectations reaffirmed. So, what’s the alternative?
“I Wonder what would happen if the whole show broke down and we spoke as ourselves? ‘I’m sorry I can’t go on, this is just a complete lie’. If I came on as Kevin Turvey and then broke down and then said ‘this is pathetic, Kevin Turvey’s dead’ or started to cry, it would become really dangerous.”
“It would level down every expectation so that you’re in control. You could then create something out of it, some excitement.” Rik warms to his topic. ” You have to destroy that posey atmosphere before you can create anything original.”
The closest analogy would be to compare Rik’s aims to those of any ‘rock’ groups of integrity. It’s a yearning for challenge, questioning and eventual achievement.
“A whole generation has grown up in this era. I was born in ’58 when the whole thing was starting off. The Young Ones, for example, are products of a society that has been dominated by rock and roll. Kids are given rolls to play and this movement whereby you have people like poets, dancers, ranting and dub, is all connected to rock and roll. People want to get up behind a microphone but not necessarily to sing. The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll; rock and roll had a baby and they called it cabaret. There, you can quote me on that.”
The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll; rock and roll had a baby and they called it cabaret.Rik Mayall
So I did. Timing it to perfection we broke for coffee, more travel through the fog and then into a majestic Cardiff centre, a red brick university and into a large hall/gym for a soundcheck. With the show looming near the momentum grows, and during a hasty meal Rik tells myself and Anna Rochford the prop supervisor, that he is hoping to appear in a film playing a soccer fan driving to Spain with a vegetarian feminist after being the sole applicant to her advertisement in Time Out.
Before the nine o’clock start a short ‘jam’ session ensues in the dressing room with Nigel playing guitar and Ade accompanying him on a versatile Casio. Although I didn’t get the time to talk at length with Ade it gave me a chance to ask him about the beer glass throwing that had greeted his arrival as Vyvyan the previous night.
“It’s ridiculous. The only other time I’ve had that reaction was when I was at the Woolwich Tramshed judging this Battle Of The Bands contest. They hated me for some reason.”
By now the hall was full, outside two hundred people were begging to be let in, so in the crush I decided to try and secure a reasonable vantage point amongst the noisy and expectant crowd.
A muted cheer greets the Ken Bishop Nice Twelve, each of the three Kens appearing to emit a certain ‘come on let’s get the job done’ attitude, a perfect comic foil to the dilemmas enacted in front of them.
After much discussion, it was decided to drop Mortimer Vaughn to shorten the show and to aid continuity. It also means that the new Ade Edmondson character, Adrian Bastard, complete with erect quiff hair style comes on after the opening Turvey monologue. Adrian Bastard is a performer of low key and unusual tricks. He eats toilet cleaner, walks on drawing pins and ‘goes to the edge of the stage without his glasses’. Yet his main claim to fame is Raymond the talking penis, “Raymond, are you there? he asks as he stuffs the mike down his trousers. “Where the fuck do you think I am” comes the gruff reply, then, “Oh fuck, I’ve dribbled”, to which Adrian B. tried to restore a sense of cabaret normality with a smarmy “It’s all happening in my trousers”.
Not a particularly subtle section and not as amusing as Ade’s qawky Keith Marshall performing the worlds premier “of my first electro-spacial synthesiser opera”, all played on a portable Casio. Keith’s sense of aghast wonderment at his own clumsy skill makes it one of the nights more bizarre occurrences.
The show seems tighter, particularly the apocalyptic sub-Hawkwind duet between Neil and Vyvyan on ‘Lentil Nightmare’. Neil had previously been acoustically running through a song about “sitting by a babbling brook full of the joyous overflowing” only to be shell-shocked by the discordant crash of Vyvyan’s guitar screech as he arrogantly struts onto the stage. After a few gags they thunder into the number, Neil’s arms floating windmill like, Vyvyan spitting with the venom of a revived Rotten.
Enter the revolutionary Rick, complete with red beret, obligatory anarchy sign painted on his blazer, the archetypal “Stoke Newington poetry contest finalist and founder of the Ross-On-Wye folk and dance society.” He bursts into self-celebratory ‘Congratulations’ (the old Cliff Richard song) only to be cut short by the Ken Bishop trio stopping dead.
After blowing a tantrum he turns to the audience to shut up some hecklers “I bet you’ve never been unemployed Sir Oswald Moseley” then “Good God, whose farted?”
Neil: “It’s not me it’s too meaty.”
Rick: (turning to Vyvyan) What’ve you been eating?”
Vyvyan: “Yeah I did it as a bet. I thought, I bet that tastes discussing. And it did.”
The egocentric and petulant Rick then veers off into a selection of his poetry, ‘An Ode To Henry-Pubes Cooper Smythe’ and ‘THATCHER’, and then stopping, a subtle stab at the political ranters who are strong on emotion and very little else.
A discourse follows on Rick’s ‘working class’ upbringing, “we lived in a small cottage, 14 up, 14 down” and then it’s back to the triumphant ‘My Generation’ followed by a second spot by Amanda Symonds in which she performs rousing versions of ‘Money’ and ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’, a move that carries on the musical impetus.
A Turvey monologue ends the show only for the trio to return and completely destroy ‘Climb Every Mountain’, ripping the song and their vocal chords to shreds as the Bishop Twelve rise patriotically to the occasion.
Backstage people are drifting past the security guards to try and obtain autographs and to pose, causing Nigel to dryly comment “At least theatres have stage doors” as two cloying girls ask him why he’s not eating a lentil flavoured chocolate bar.
The threesome change and it’s time to head off for a late night curry. A time for talk and larger. The show had been shorter and more to the point, all the new spots gradually being hones into shape. By the end of the tour it will certainly deserve to be filmed. Perhaps it already has.
The last series of The Young Ones cost half a million pounds to make. Repeats are scheduled for July, but will there be a new series? Back to Rik.
“Everybody wants to do it but I’ll wait until the end of the tour to see if we’re capable. See, you’re talking about getting predictable.”
“The fact that The Young Ones got through on television shows that the BBC are still awake. Most comedy today is about a character that lives in the real world but is slightly abnormal it’s the comedy of recognition.”
“There ought to be some form of abstract comedy on the screen but you have to get it away from being realistic or naturalistic and that’s where Spike Milligan was, and perhaps still is, brilliant. He could do things that were purely funny, that can’t be defined. It’s a comedy not based on understanding.”
“The best laugh is when you’re laughing and you don’t know why. I talk like this but I don’t practice what I preach. I’ll do anything to get a laugh. There’s an awful confusion about confronting an audience and changing its opinions.”
Confrontation seems to be a good thing in art but it now seems to be seen only in terms of changing peoples political or religious beliefs, when it should really be giving a glimpse of what it is to look at life in a different way.
“I’m talking about high art and the thing is that it contrasts with the show. Remember the dogshit gag?”
So what do you aim through the show?
“We ought to be able to harness the energy of people wanting to see all the characters and lift it up into something really moving. I think we’re a bit intimidated by our audience, as they’re basically a rock ‘n’ roll crowd, and when they start shouting, we don’t have the rig to blow them away.”
Onto the bus and back to a Cardiff hotel, strongly reminiscent of Crossroads, where Ade quickly disappears into the night, while Rik, Nigel, Roland, Damian and Lise run through new ideas for Mortimer Vaughn.
“He should just go on and die.”
“Do a medley of crap songs.”
“Say a few words and then puke up all over himself.”
And so it goes on.
By now it could be a blend of all three, the discussions having reached their logical conclusion on stage.
Whatever happens in the next few months this is possibly the Young Ones’ finest hour, buoyed along on a tide of enthusiasm, ideas and publicity, it’s their moment and they’ve grabbed it.
Wearily I bid my farewells and head for my room.
As someone else once said, “To laugh means to be malicious but with a clear conscience.”
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