20th March 1983
Oh that Rik Mayall
When he was only six, Rik Mayall had terrible tantrums, showed off and got over-excited. Now he uses all these childhood faults in his angry, manic and “alternative” comedy routines. He reveals almost all to Stephen Pile. Photograph by Snowden.
Forget everything you have read about Rik Mayall. That was all lies. He has never breathed one single word of truth to an interviewer, preferring to make up want they thought he wanted to hear. And so he recently informed the News of The World that his real name was not Rik Mayall, that he hated chat shows, loathed interviews and did not want to be rich. All untrue. “But it never worked out, so I’ve stopped doing that. This is the real version.”
There will be some among you who will want to know who exactly he is. Well, he is the 24-year-old comedian, vaguely described as “alternative”, who played the angry, manic, squat-dwelling Rick in The Young Ones on BBC2.
He’s the one who did Kevin Turvey and The Turvey Report. You know the disgruntled Brummie investigator (“Good evening – I suppose”) whose investigations generally uncover nothing. Once, while investigating leisure he went into a pub in his pyjamas and ordered a pint of Pernod. He then fell asleep in the park and dreamed that he was flying over Turkey, where all the Turks cried “Give us a banana you bastard!” At which point he woke up, covered in sick, having been speared through the forehead by a litter gathering park attendant.
He is the one who appears as the angry young poet, reciting portentous drivel: “Whenever I’m near t’ the Theatre, I ask myself this question: I don’t know. Perhaps I should ask Vanessa Redgrave”. And when the audience titters, he shouts a petulant “shut up”. And if they clap he shouts “don’t clap. It’s so hypocritical”. He leaves the stage with an ungracious “I hoped you learned something.”
Yes, that’s Rik Mayall. It is all the more confusing because he never plays himself, but always a range of deeply unlikable characters. What unites them is a kind of punk comedy about modern, urban, paranoid, nihilistic, ungracious, violent, bored, self-important youth. And here comes the shock. His manic stage and television performances in no way prepare you for the man you meet. Rik Mayall is a calm, quiet, thoughtful, intelligent and rather serious figure, who talks about “making statements” in his work without actually sounding pretentious.
His real life story emerges as rather humdrum. Although he is related to the man who captained The Victory before Nelson, his own story has quiet origins.
He was born at Harlow New Town on March 7, 1958. His parents were drama teachers who met at the Central School of Speech and Drama, supported CND and were vaguely beatnicky. Not much happened in Harlow then, except that his brother fed him worms and went on to become a civil engineer “responsible for the state of the A40”! Then Rik moved to Droitwich and it a started happening. While singing in the carol concert, at Rashwood County Primary School, Mayall began pulling faces at the audience. This proved so distracting that the headmaster got up from his seat, mounted the stage and slapped him twice rounf the head. It was his first theatrical act. “I was showing off,” says Mayall, who claims that this is still the mainspring of his work. “I was always a show-off and liable to get over-excited. But I have got it under control. I now find people who can’t control their energy very funny.”
His father’s enthusiasm for fringe theatre led to Mayall’s stage debut at six “wandering about in crowd scenes” during dad’s production of The Good Woman of Setzuan at Shenstone teacher training college. He then played the boy in Waiting for Godot, which even at nine Rik knew was a good play. By the forth form of King’s School, Worcester, he was quite experienced at showing off. “I wrote little plays and performed them. Drama was the only thing I wanted to do.
Perhaps for this reason he “hashed up” his A-levels (two Cs and an E). However he got into Manchester University on the clearing system to read drama. At University he blossomed, performing at a pub down the road with a comedy group called Twentieth-Century Coyote. When Rik appeared in Sherlock’s Last Case at the National Student Drama Festival, the Guardian theatre critic gave him the Boris Karloff Award for the most outrageous ham on view.
Then cam a miserable year working in factories, getting drunk with Ade Edmondson (later his partner at the Comic Strip) and writing two 40-minute plays. One was called Death on the Toilet in which “I played Death and God and Ade played Edwin, the guy it all happened to.” They took it to the Edinburgh Festival and made enough money to move to London. Here they wrote and performed a show called The Wart – “it satirised Ken Campbell’s play The Warp which nobody had ever seen.” It was watched by only 20 people during its 10-day tour. In the audience at the Tramshed in Woolwich was James Fenton, the drama critic of The Sunday Times. He described Mayall as “a very talented young maniac.” Television producers began to take interest.
Throughout he was performing at the Comedy Store in Soho, where anyone could stand up and do a turn, knowing that they would be gonged offstage if their material was predictable. It is Mayall’s proudest boast that he was never once gonged. Then he transferred to the Comic Strip , a new venue of alternative comedians, where he built up a regular following who still talk about his gooseberry sketch. His partner, Ade Edmondson, would ask: ” What is green and hairy and goes up and down?… A gooseberry in a lift.” At this point Mayall would move in with violent unpredictability: “Gooseberries don’t go in a lift.” “Yes they do.” “Oh how many gooseberries do we know?” “Three.” “All right, if we know three gooseberries, let’s have their names.” “Derek Goosberry…” “That’s a lie”. All right, if Derek Gooseberry exists, go and get him.” “He’s not well.” An angry row ensues during which Mayall crushes his partner’s genitals, a comic ploy that would not have occurred to either Flanagan or Allen.
At this stage Mayall was well and truly spotted. He did the Turvey reports and The Young Ones for the BBC and by 1980, his bank balance was in the black for the first time ever. In the past two years “it has all become a blur,” but he has ventured modestly into films. In The Eye of the Needle he played a sailor who offers Donald Sutherland a sandwich. And in An American Werewolf in London he appeared as a complete crazy, playing chess with Brian Glover.” In all of his work the key to Mayall is that he is an actor first and foremost. (An actor, by the way, who dislikes the star system and believes in equality of theatre workers). Like many of the new generation of comedians, he does not come from the Oxbridge review tradition, but from drama school. He does not stand up and tell jokes so much as create characters, and allow the humour to arise from them.
Like many of our present comic crop (from Basil Fawlty to Alexei Sayle), his style is manic. “It may be because they all come from steady backgrounds and life is never quite exciting enough. Also coming from good homes everything has been sublimated and they are a bit screwed up. So their performances tend to be a bit wild.” In his own case, Mayall used to have terrible tantrums as a child. “I’ve learned to control it now, but the potential to be self-centred is still there.” To exorcise this he needs the regular release of energy and frustration that only live performance can bring. After a prolonged spell of television work, he is touring University cities until the end of March.
In practice, Mayall tries not to analyse his work “But my characters come up from inside. Kevin Turvey comes from seeing myself talk too much and being boring. With the angry poet, I just gave him all the embarrassing qualities I have got. I suppose a lot of the things you find funny are things you don’t like about yourself. I write about self-centred people who are weak inside, but think they are more important than anyone else.” The character upon which he is working now is a “complete bastard.”
Mayall is a polite, likeable, utterly civilised, modest, unaffected, leftish humanitarian about whom no one can find a bad word to say. And yet he is obsessed with the most unpleasant gallery of characters in recent comic history. He will give a charity performance to help any branch of suffering humanity and yet he homes in on anything ugly and unattractive about the human race. When he sees an unpleasant mannerism he gleefully incorporates.
If Mayall works in characters, it is partly because he is wary about showing who he really is. “I will do it at home, with friends in a controlled environment.” Before any performance he spends 15 minutes ceasing to be himself and working up his replacement identity. These are so convincing that BBC doormen think he is Kevin Turvey and fans are always disappointed to meet him.
It was to protect his private identity that Mayall invented answers to interviewers’ questions. This is why he will still not talk about his girlfriend and why he would not be photographed in his Camberwell council flat (“That isn’t a statement or anything. I just happen to live there. My ambition is to live in Hereford and Worcester.” He is shrewd enough, even in the early years of his growing fame, to keep a private space in which he can paint (abstract work) and try his hand at writing a serious TV play (his next project) and cook and be domestic. “I am a homely sort of person really.” His privacy also gives him room to change completely.
Mayall walked up and down giving each word serious thought. He then broke into a rare smile and revealed that last year someone in Birmingham went around impersonating him and running up restaurant bills. “He still hasn’t been brought to justice.” The irony of this is not lost on one who impersonates others to disguise himself.
Nonetheless, there is only one Rik Mayall and you now have in you possession all the relevant facts. However, this is not a final portrait, more a brief sketch drawn on the wing. Mayall will be different next year. Let us call it “Rik at 24”.
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