8-14 September 1983
Mayall Man Cometh
From ‘Waiting for Godot’ to ‘Five Go Mad On Mescalin’, Frank Barrett examines the extremely rich tapestry that makes up Kevin Turvey’s or Young One Rick’s or even Rik Mayall’s life.
The audience assembled at the BBC’s Glasgow studios in August for the recording of ‘A Kick up the Eighties’ was well within the grand tradition of dour Scots. The warm-up man spieled through an increasingly desperate ten-minute routine which went down as well as Richard Pryor at a Klux Klux Klan social.
Yet as soon as Rik Mayall stepped out onto the studio floor to do his ‘Kevin Turvey Investigates’ spot, the audience went wild. The two pieces he did that evening were rapturously received – when he left he was cheered to the echo. Mrs Mayall’s little boy from Droitwich has become a star.
Backstage after the show a 12-year-old boy stood at the dressing room door nervously toying with a piece of paper. ‘Could I… er… have your autograph please Mr Mayall?’ he eventually managed to ask in a soft Scottish lilt. Mayall exchanges an embarrassed glance with his girlfriend – and co-writer of ‘The Young Ones’ – Lise Mayer.
Further evidence of Mayall newly found star status lurks nearby in the shape of reporters from the Sun and Daily Star who have flown up from London. Their interest is not so much what we can expect in the next series of ‘The Young Ones’ but when Rik and Lise will be getting married and why he’s moved from Peckham to trendy Islington.
Later that evening in the BBC Club, Mayall sips orange juice and reflects on the helter skelter life of the last 12 months in which ‘The Young Ones’ has launched him at just 25 as the best-known comedian of his generation – a position consolidated with work on Channel Four’s ‘Comic Strip Presents’, and a 26-date ‘Young Ones’ tour which proved a sell-out everywhere in the country (except, curiously, Aberystwyth).
Mayall’s acting career began when he was five and stared in a Nativity play as one of the three kings: ‘I didn’t play it for laughs,’ he recalls. With his father a drama lecturer at a Worcestershire college of education, there were opportunities for more serious acting. One of the parts he had when he was seven was as the boy in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’.
Given his background, it was natural perhaps that he would eventually go on to study drama at Manchester University. And given his admiration for comedians like Tommy Cooper, Laurel and Hardy, Peter Cook and Bobby Ball, it was also natural that he would want to progress from university to the comedy fringe of the Edinburgh Festival and participate in the alternative cabaret of the Comic Strip where he teamed with Ade Edmondson to form ‘Twetieth Century Coyote’. Mayall met BBC producer Paul Jackson during the making og ‘Boom Boom Out Go the Lights’, a showcase for Comic Strip talent.
It was to Jackson that Mayall took the idea for ‘The Young Ones’. ‘It was a very good idea, although it’s very easy to say that with hindsight,’ says Jackson. Contrary to popular belief the BBC weren’t against idea because of its anarchic form and sometimes tasteless content – according to Jackson, any hesitancy was due to the expensiveness of the series which required a large number of special effects.
In order to convince the then head of light entertainment Jimmy Gilbert, Jackson sat down with the three writers one Sunday afternoon and recorded it on an audio cassette which was then performed to the powers that be. ‘Hearing it performed only moderately well persuaded them to go ahead.’
When the first series of ‘The Young Ones’ went out at the end of last autumn, it proved to be immensely popular, particularly with younger people who were looking for more challenging TV comedy than the standard fare of marriage/divorce sit-coms. The Mayall character of Rick, the spineless, lisping, posturing pseudo-liberal (‘the sort of anarchist who goes to the police when his house id broken into’) helped attract a deluge of fan letters.
Mayall says he deliberately developed Rick as an exact opposite to the endearingly enept Kevin Turvey – he wanted Rick to have every horrible characteristic he could imagine, someone for whom the audience would feel ‘irredeemable hatred’.
The Fan mail keeps coming – even now he gets 70 letters a day – and his life by degrees is totally transformed. His new place in Islington (which is rented – ‘People in this business find it hard to get mortgages’) is not the immodest step one associates with fast-rising super stars.
Mayall’s main concern isn’t Persian carpets or heated swimming pools but his work. It worries him that he does too much writing rather than performing: ‘The last year has been a strain for me – I’m having to produce too much for my own good.’
His desire to stretch his ability as a performer has persuaded him to take a two-month break at the end of the year to appear in a new production of Brecht’s play ‘Man Equals Man’ in Manchester. Before that he will have appeared in the Edinburgh Festival in a show with Ade Edmondson and Andy de la Tour, worked on three episodes of ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ and written the second series of ‘The Young Ones with Mayer and Elton.
Paul Jackson, who is producing the new series (which goes into production on January 2 – write now for studio audience tickets to the BBC Ticket Unit), suspects that given Mayall’s constant desire to innovate, the second series of ‘The Young Ones’ will probably be the last. Mayall has also made it clear that he intends to drop the Kevin Turvey character.
Jackson believes that Mayall, like Python’s Michael Palin, will become a comedian of major stature with a career that will embrace TV, stage and film; like Palin, Mayall will have the ability to investigate any projects he finds interesting. ‘Almost certainly he will be a major star for at least the next 30 years,’ says Jackson.
Mayall has found the last year of whirlwind success occasionally disconcerting, especially the demands of a public who expect to see him as Kevin Turvey or Young Ones’ Rick: ‘People expect you to be something else – I’m having trouble with my off-stage persona.’ He gratefully admits that he is less often recognised in the street than others in the series because of all the faces he pull on camera.
In a show business world of gross superficiality and unlimited egomania, Mayall is extraordinarily unaffected and modest; Jackson describes him as a person of ‘tremendous moral integrity – he gets extremely embarrassed when I say that’.
Mayall acknowledges that an important part in preserving his sanity in an otherwise insane industry is his relationship with Lise. In their writing of ‘The Young Ones’ (Mayall and Mayer work initially as a team separate from Ben Elton) Mayall says that Lise is adept at establishing a different dimension of humour. ‘She discovers different things: the comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness – she draws out the cheating and stealing that goes on in the house.’
If the future continues prosperous, Mayall’s ambition is to live in Hereford. Hereford? Is red-neck Hereford the sort of place for a self-confessed ‘heavyweight leftie’? Mayall seems slightly shocked: ‘It’s got an art school, there are a lot of groovy people there, a lot of punks…’ Another project that interests him is setting up a performance art R&B band with ex-Squeeze man Jools Holland. ‘The band would play R&B while I fried eggs or something.’
But at the moment he’s not making plans much beyond the next series of ‘The Young Ones’. Anything that Jackson would particularly like to do? ‘Yeah, Rik Mayall on Ice – for Harvey Goldsmith. Yes, that would be good…’ I can imagine what Young Ones’ Rick would say to that: ‘Right on, Vivian, very adult, very left-wing…’
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