Rik Mayall is in the uncomfortably double-edged position of being well-known enough to make a living, but too well-known to be credible as his creations Kevin Turvey and Rik the Poet. SIMON GARFIELD spoke to him in Edinburgh during the run of Standup Comedy with Ben Elton and Andy de la Tour. Photographs by STEVE SHIPMAN (this page) and ANGUS ROBERTSON (over).
ADE EDMONDSON – better known as Vivian in The Young Ones – died in Edinburgh eight weeks ago. And it was festival time as well. Rik Mayall broke the news at a sell-out fringe venue for three weeks. His act was billed as Twentieth Century Coyote, he said, the name he and Ade had performed as together for six years since they left Manchester University. But now Ade was dead. Knocked down by a bus
As Mayall announced the tragedy, and the fact that a lot of people would already have read about it in the morning’s papers, most of the audience felt queasy, chilly, and generally pretty awful. This was a comedian after all, and they had paid £3 to be entertained.
A handful of people actually laughed, thinking it was some sort of ludicrous joke, and Mayall glared up at them to tell them they were wrong. For a few seconds that hall was the most uncomfortable place in the world. Mayall seemed close to tears. Then, after a few seconds more, he said that it was a joke after all. A joke. After all, it was only a joke. And you fell for it!
RIK MAYALL is the most fashionable, most original comic actor in the country. When he’s on form, he’s also by far the funniest. He was the biggest hit at The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip in London two years ago as a feeble feminist poet. He convinced millions that there actually was a nit-picking, ear-picking Brummie private investigator called Kevin Turvey who stood out as the unlikely highlight on the Beeb’s A Kick up the Eighties. He impressed widely as a character actor in The Comic Strip Presents series on Channel 4 and he became a teenage hero as the lefty, anti-activist student in The Young Ones.
But having still not put a foot wrong, he now faces a sizeable and largely predictable professional and personal dilemma. He’s well known; so much so that he can no longer pose credibly as Turvey or Rik the poet; he’s under considerable pressure to finish filming the second Comic Strip Presents TV series while at the same time writing six new episodes of The Young Ones before production starts at the beginning of January; and he talks of having problems with his private ‘persona’. He’s wary of doing interviews, and he’s very conscious of the imminent personal turmoil of the star/pressure/drink/drugs/lack of privacy syndrome. It hasn’t yet reached uncontrollable proportions, but Mayall senses it building.
He went up to the Edinburgh Festival in August to develop his live routine and “to work out a character that I can use until I’m 60 – to work on ‘Rik Mayall'”. His show at the fashionable Assembly Rooms, the most comfortable and best-run venue on the fringe circuit, was a sell-out virtually before it opened.
On the bill with Mayall were Ben Elton and Andy de la Tour, who, although preceding him in the running order, are far from warm-ups in the conventional sense. Both Elton (co-writer of The Young Ones, writer and performer in Alfresco, ex-Comedy Store compare) and de la Tour (hardened Belt and Braces campaigner from the West End cast of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, member of the original Alternative Cabaret circuit) are accomplished stand-ups in their own right.
It’s significant that even Brian Wenham, Director of Programmes for BBC TV, had immense difficulty getting a ticket, such was the demand to see each of them do their bit. Says Mayall: “People have heard a lot about us but haven’t seen that much, and certainly not that much live. I feel a certain pressure, that people are coming along with the view ‘Okay, let’s see how good you really are'”.
Undoubtedly there’s a marked difference in material; de la Tour has honest aggression edged with a sharp stab at common vices and tested political – Tory and Liberal – targets; Elton is the genial Jack-the-lad boozer with sound advice on how to keep your seat on a train and a routine that questions the need for that perennial sit-com favourite – the woman behind the bar with big tits.
Mayall is Mayall, or rather would like to be. Well over a year a go he said that he’d give Kevin Turvey the boot as he’d already outlived his purpose. But at the tail end of ’83 Turvey is still perhaps his hottest property, and still a 15 minute opener for his 40 minute act. Mayall’s just finished filming a new Comic Strip episode called Eddie Monsoon (and his Talking Penis) in which, he says, Turvey bows out for good. We’ll see. He’s a hard character to shake off.
“I think it would be dodgy to get known for doing just one thing,” says Mayall. “I think you could succeed at it – I mean make money – but for a start I wouldn’t like to be known as ‘Oh, he’s that comedian and he’s only good at doing such and such…’, anymore than I’d like to be known as ‘Oh, he’s that comedian…’. This is why I don’t do many interviews either, because the more you give away, and the more of the skeleton and mechanics you show of what you’re doing, then the less exciting it is for the audience, and then the less funny it is.
“Maybe that’s one pull that I’ve got when I perform live – hopefully people will come along thinking ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m going to see’, and there’s an element of danger there which is quite exciting.
‘Tension is important. When you’re telling a joke there has to be a moment of complete belief, of complete trust, between the performer and the audience. That moment of complete concentration is as satisfying as the laugh itself. You’re in another world. If I tell a joke, for you to laugh really well at you’ve got to completely forget about everything else and believe it’s true, and then I get to the punchline and say ‘No, it’s not true’. But I’m only just exploring this area now.
Performing live, Mayall has a peculiar habit/talent for both offending his audience by hurling unprovoked insults and conning them into believing characters or events which are completely untrue. There’s rumour circulating that he is becoming genuinely schizophrenic – cracking up under the pressure.
“Great. Great!! I’m not trying to make any serious points, but I’ve found myself in quite an interesting area over the last year or so. This is going to sound very pretentious, but we seem to be moving into an area of behaving very strangely towards each other – the idea of people being called ‘stars’ and ‘famous’, and of people who are more important than other people – maybe it’s something that’s just struck home to me. Maybe the plan is to talk about that, and to wreck that a bit.
“But it’s a very fair criticism when someone says ‘You’re just abusing the audience, you’re just pissing around’. I mean we were in Brighton – we did a terrible gig in Brighton, and if anyone in Brighton is reading this then I’m sorry about the gig! Me and Ade and Nigel [Planer, Neil the hippie in The Young Ones] weren’t prepared at all for it, and people had come along expecting to see The Young Ones. It was okay, but it was going up and down and was a bit queasy. At the very end we did this gag, and as we went to go off, the very last thing I said was ‘Goodnight…and oh, thanks for the money!’ I thought it would be funny, but it was just dead quiet. You could hear our footsteps as we walked off!
“And that’s a very interesting area – it’s like going round to your granny’s and getting your knob out. Something you just don’t mention on stage is that relationship between the performer and the audience. It’s funny, because you can go onstage and say ‘fuck’, and you can get your knob out like Ade did on The Young Ones tour – and it’s very funny. But you don’t say things like ‘Thanks for giving us all this money’ or ‘I think you’re wankers!'”
Some of the audience in Edinburgh seemed to take the abuse personally, as if Mayall really meant it. ‘That’s perhaps because I haven’t got used to that area yet where I can do it so that they know it’s tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think it’s sufficient to be dangerous and create a lot of tension just for its own sake. You’ve got to undercut it – that’s what a joke is. Once I’m more used to performing it, it’ll be an easier show to watch – I’ll be more in control of the situation.”
IN DECEMBER Mayall takes a professional break from his normal work to appear in Brecht’s Man Equals Man at Manchester University’s Umbrella Theatre. Apart from his debut as a Wise King in his Droitwich school’s nativity play, Mayall began his performing life as a drama student at Manchester. The original Twentieth Century Coyote was formed with Edmondson and three others, experimenting with improvised plays at a pub called The Band on the Wall until after a bust up after about a year. Mayall continued working with Edmondson on improvised half-hour shows.
Coyote came up to Edinburgh with two shows – the first in ’77 when all five of them touted My Lungs don’t Work – and then, with the depleted line-up, in a show called Death on the Toilet. Improbable or not, Death on the Toilet became one of the Fringe’s cult hits – even now someone must be saying ‘Of course, my dears, I saw Mr Mayall when he was in DOTT…’ The show brought in enough cash to enable Rik and Ade to move south.
“We used to tour two shows, just the two of us in Ade’s car. We got one called The Wart together – a pisstake of Ken Campbell’s [23-hour production] The Warp. It was a disaster. No one came to see us. We performed in little village halls, and we did about sixteen shows, but no more than ten people came to see us. We were putting them on at half-past five in the afternoon, with no posters or anything, and nobody would know about it.” One of the audience one half-past five was Sunday Times drama critic, James Fenton. He called Mayall “a very talented young maniac”.
Mayall’s popular ‘hopeless poet’ act, so well honed at the Comedy Store, grew directly out of a character in The Wart. “I began doing those poems up in Edinburgh, because they had all these poets down at the Fringe Club, and I fancied pretending to be one. I began reading crap poems like they were doing. I did it and people laughed, and I shouted at them to shut up, and that’s where it all came from.
“People thought there’s an actual bloke making a twat of himself, and that’s when it got really funny because they are giggling and trying to stop themselves, and you glare at them and they can’t stop, and they start thinking ‘Oh God, this is awful!’ and they have a wonderful time.
“It’s the same with Kevin Turvey. That’s why I had my name removed from the credits when Kevin was on the telly. There are a lot of people who still think he actually exists. Kevin’s maybe outlived his live because now that The Young Ones has happened people think ‘That bloke looks like him – oh, he’s an actor’. But when it first happens it’s wonderful.
“That’s why what I’m doing now is me as Rik Mayall – that’s the one card left up my sleeve. I can’t pretend to be anyone else because my face is known, but I can still pretend to be me. I need to invent a character who is as good as Rik the poet or Kevin, but that I can call me. I need a character who I can stick with for life, because there is nowhere I can go after that.
“My act with Ade was always a crossover between acting and comedy. We’ve just done one of the Comic Strip films for the new series called Dirty Movie which I’m very pleased with because it’s just exactly what we used to do in the early days. It’s got a real absurdist feel to it. It’s the first one hopefully of a huge crop – it looks odd and it looks good. It’s just about a bloke who gets a dirty movie through the post and happens to own a cinema, and he’s got to get everyone out so that he can watch it. Perhaps it’s not yet quite absurdist enough for my taste…”
MAYALL’S personal tastes are kept in check, on The Young Ones at least, by his co-writers Lise Mayer (also his longstanding girlfriend) and Ben Elton. And if Mayall is more concerned with character, then perhaps Elton’s writing interests lie as much or more with situation and (often implicitly political) content.
Says Elton: “I’ve become very worried that we’re passing through a deeply reactionary phase in Britain – and it’s far more of a reactionary phase than people realise. To a certain extent Andy and I both believe that periods of reaction produce good live entertainment – look at Germany in the Thirties – people get very angry.
“In a live act humour can be a very good way of getting your political concerns across – but I’m first and foremost a performer. My first principle is to be funny, because of course if you’re not funny you do a disservice to your principles. If I don’t get laughs it infuriates me, and I go for them. That means that a great deal of my act has nothing to do with politics – it’s about beer, and coming from Guildford…”
How does it feel stepping out into a spotlight with 300 people in front of you all having paid their money and waiting to be either entertained or to heckle and pull you to the ground?
“Before the act I wander around backstage getting… not mentally nervous – but I have a terrific problem with my stomach. I seem to have no nerves anywhere but there – I just sort of feel sick and have to run to the bog. My mind is clear and my stomach’s a raging turmoil, and I suppose it’s at least better that way round. But I know that I can do it. Compering at the Comedy Store taught me that I can handle just about any audience – in fact I’m at my best if there’s trouble.
“But once I’m onstage for a minute I feel good. i think the microphone is a terrific image – I like looking at them and I feel powerful – maybe there’s something phallic in it. A bad gig affects me right up until the next one, and I spend the rest of the evening worrying about it and apologising to the people in the audience that I knew. But my definition of a bad gig is pretty strict – I mean I don’t die onstage, but there are obviously gigs where people don’t go ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! at the end. But if it’s a good gig I forget about it in about two minutes. a stormer might keep me going for two hours maximum.
Elton wrote his first play when he was 15 – “at that age I got obsessed with Noel Coward” – and developed by studying drama at Stratford (not the RSC…) and as a student in Manchester with Mayall and Edmondson. At 24 he’s written a bottomless pile of comic plays, has written and performed in the dangerously over-hyped Alfresco, has compered deftly at The Comedy Store, has written a vehicle for Emma Thompson over which he’s currently negotiating with Granada, and there are plans for a writing partnership with Not the Nine O’Clock News and Black Adder writer Richard Curtis. He’s also been jointly responsible for the TV series that’s had more of a revolutionary impact on young people than any programme since Monty Python – The Young Ones.
MAYALL: “People write and say ‘I think it’s brilliant, I’ve got it on video and I watch it every night’. Everyone’s videoed it, which I’m pleased about. We were writing it for a video because hopefully it’s the kind of thing you can watch three or four times.”
The BBC has recently announced plans to package its most popular shows in video format as a direct attempt to profit from declining audience figures. It’s significant that The Young Ones is not amongst the first batch, and highlights rumours that the Beeb received a lot of hate-mail for the series, in particular letters objecting to that old shocker – bad language.
Elton: “I didn’t know about that. We got a lot of fan-mail. And I was very happy with the reaction to the Tampon scene [“What is it?…Oh, it’s a telescope! And it’s got a mouse in it!] because there was a lot of sympathy for that. I did a radio programme in which I talked about the puerile nature of censorship – the fact that we can have The Two Ronnies doing loads of gags about how funny women’s breasts are, but that we were almost not allowed to do a joke about a man not understanding what a Tampon was.
‘That’s about as obscene a bit of morality as you could possibly get. You can advertise toilet rolls, you can advertise people coughing and sneezing and taking Night Nurse, but you can’t advertise menstruation in the same way. That assumes that menstruation must be rude. So what we’re saying is that half the population have got something going on that’s a bit secret and a bit naughty that we really can’t talk about. Which why girls of thirteen run home screaming because they don’t know what’s happened to them.”
Certainly part of The Young Ones appeal lay in the examination of previously uncharted territory., at least on TV, and the fact that here, for the first time in ages, was a programme that young people could genuinely associate with. And young according to Mayall, often meant very young.
“We did a Young Ones tour which was thrown together in about two weeks because we wanted to get back to doing live stuff again, and loads of little kids came to see us. It became clear the difficulties that families must have. I mean Ade comes on and gets his knob out, and I’m talking about really disgusting things – I’m trying to be filthy and horrible – but what kind of a family show is that? You can’t bring your little kids down – they’d have nightmares after seeing me.
“But the parents come backstage afterwards and say ‘It was wonderful Rik!’ And I say ‘It was a bit dirty’, and they go ‘Oh no, don’t worry about that. You liked it, Mark didn’t you? And their kid would go ‘Yes, lots of prick!'”
TOWARDS the end of the festival stint, there’s a party to celebrate Lenny Henry’s birthday. He’s come up to Edinburgh and assembled the likes of Alexei Sayle and Andy de la Tour at Bannerman’s wine bar for a definitely swinging time. Inside, Norman Lovett – the relatively unknown but highly-admired stand-up – pushes his way through the crowd, downs a pint, and starts discussing his career prospects with Andy de la Tour:
Lovett: “I’ve got twelve minutes on London Weekend TV soon, so it’ll be interesting to see how that turns out. I really want to earn some more money as well. The last few years I’ve been really skint. I want to know when it’ll be my turn. You know, when do I get some?
“Last night i went to a party and Rik Mayall comes up to me, pissed out of his mind, and goes, ‘You’re funnier than I am! I’ve got all the TV, I’ve got more money, but I haven’t got your material.’ He came to see me twice last week because he can’t write down my stuff fast enough!”
Andy de la Tour: “I’m taking him on the golf course so I can get all his good material. I can club him to death and get rid of him. And then take his gigs!”
Meanwhile, outside the sardine-packed wine bar, there’s just somebody slumped on his own in a doorway opposite, looking dejectedly at the pavement. When it starts to rain he lifts up his head and you realise that it’s not just somebody at all. It’s Rik Mayall.
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