4th August 1984
As Vyvyan said, it’s…
RIK WITH A SILENT P
Or as Ian Penman said… “he’s a bit of a boring bastard” – but which bit? And is Rik Mayall a great enough comic to become a 20th Century legend along with his own hero, Tommy Cooper? Photo Peter Anderson
Someone comes up to you in the street… they expect a funny face rather than a gag?
“Yeah, they do. They say pull a funny face. But they’re always disappointed. Which was a drag when it first started, especially when I was doing Kevin. Someone would come up and tap me on the shoulder, say Kevin!, and I’d turn round and say Hello!… and they’d go Oh, and walk off.”
RIK MAYALL doesn’t talk like someone who spent the previous night getting drunk with Alexei Sayle; nothing, that is, spills over.
As the sun pours in and I pour out more lager, and then more again, the off-duty comic conscientiously sips between two black coffees.
Not that I was expecting the velocities of performance, but Mayall is without show, without clamour – more of a reserved Alistair Sim than a cartoon Maoist. He talks in a hurry, but without the froth of agitation, never breaking into fast-talk.
As an act he hails from the region of the Comic (mimicry, fallibility, reaction) rather than the plots of the Joke. As an actor, he’s not the showbiz mouth whose static field of anecdote and wisecrack ensures the interlocutor’s words remain edgwise.
Unlike his bountiful drinking partner, Mayall has never really followed through from precipitous public license to the slaphappy streams of publicity. The undisguised rationale of Rik Mayall doesn’t seem fired – perturbed or outraged – by the detail of life so often deranged by his others, his enacted editions of Comic. Resting somewhere, held in, reserved, is “that powerful sadistic component made visible which is more or less inhibited in real life.”
Are you a violent person Rik?
“No. No, not at all, not in the slightest. Probably why it all comes out…”
THE REAL life Rik Mayall has now ticked off two series of The Young Ones (both as Rick the dickhead and Rik the writer), two series of A Kick up the Eighties (as bendy toy and sometime investigative reporter Kevin Turvey), the unjustly neglected – utterly classic – Kevin Turvey “special” Behind the Green Door, and various Comic Strips.
Our meeting is timed to coincide with the running Young Ones, but the programme is far enough away from ‘cult’ status not to need such prompting anymore. There seemed to be much doubt over the idea of a second series (especially after the decidedly mixed reaction to the Comic Strip ventures), but only students of the Comic appear to have had any difficulty in digesting the realisation.
Apart from a run-in with the BBC’s Head of Schools Programming, no one’s complaining… a Radio Times cover (unwanted and unaided, says Mayall), Adrian Edmondson in advertising, Neil the Hippy everywhere (mostly as boring as he’s supposed to be, occasionally as funny), a Young Ones book on the way, and young men up and down the country repeating the motions and metres of last night’s highlights.
“Most of the reaction we get is mainly from schoolkids, and it’s always positive stuff,” enthuses Mayall, sounding vaguely like a sociology lecturer.
The second series certainly came over as deliberately fashioned for the fifth form (no slight on the fifth form intended). Mayall is convinced they’ve done the right thing.
“We’ve tried to make it exciting and unpredictable but obviously you haven’t got the joy of seeing those characters for the first time, like you had with the first series. It was actually funny to just see Vyvyan, but now you’ve got to concentrate on him doing something funny rather than just being there. We tried to make the quality of the writing better. Everyone was much more confident as writers and performers… and we knew there was a huge expectation this time.
“Last time it was alright as no one knew what to expect… and the longer it goes back the more brilliant people think it is. So if anything we tried to change it by making sure there were many more gags, making sure the gags were better written and better shot. And if anything we tried to make it nastier, make them less cute.”
It’s certainly much more physical; more concentration of slapstick (and) violence…
“That’s largely me and Ade. I think the slapstick element is something we’ve always done, and people have kind of sneered at.”
So who’s Tom and who’s Jerry?
“It changes around. It’s more like… there aren’t really any cartoon characters who fight almost as equals. In The Young Ones there’s always something horrible happening to you like getting hit in the bollocks with a cricket bat or something like that, and that only hurting for a few seconds – which is very cartoon like. Like Tom getting a frying pan in the face…”
IN COMMON we have a love of cartoon time and a bad TV-viewing habit. The fence of our fidgety interview folds down into rapid-fire rabbiting, swapping dream moments, keeping old heroes alive. We have a shared God, or at least a Godot, to sustain us, and his name is Wile E. Coyote – that omnivorous Sisyphus trying to close off an infinitesimal distance between his self (his Appetite) and the vaporous Roadrunner.
A silly question – I know – but what is it about the Coyote that you like?
“I don’t actually like the Roadrunner character at all, that’s partly it. I’m sure everyone will identify with the Coyote character rather than the Roadrunner. The Coyote is just a complete and utter bastard – that’s why he’s so funny; he’s got no redeeming qualities.”
We also mine a shared love of Laurel and Hardy, and aside from the Roadrunners he also falls for
“…Tom and Jerrys, and the original Pink Panthers were brilliant; there was a little guy with a big nose who’s always got something really horrible happening to him and it’s not his fault.”
As far as The Young Ones goes, the only really likeable character is the one nearest to cartoon, furthest from identification, just pure dent: Vyvyan.
“I think that’s probably because – and this id no insult to Ade – he is the most amoral. Not immoral, morality doesn’t come into it; it’s almost like he has no brain, he’s just two-dimensional, he does, he doesn’t think, and he often does because the other characters are so unpleasant. He gets to inflict pain on the others, its almost like a punishment and the audience side with him. Vyv delivers the punchline (…) I’ll be shouting and screaming about something and Vyvyan will come up and – ! – me and that’s the conclusion. That’s the punchline, literally.
“That’s probably why he’s the most likeable – because there’s no consideration, no thinking behind it, no morals, he does what the audience wants him to do.”
Why such a predominance of aggressiveness – in The Young Ones and in the newer comedy in general; or, what about The Young Ones makes it particularly a slice of The Eighties?
“Well, we deliberately set out to make the characters as horrible as possible (…) we did it because we were trying to put down those particular kinds of young students, that kind of arrogance (…) To get pretentious, all that kind of arrogance of youth, the way that breed sets itself up as better than anybody else in society, so you get the fragmentation of society, so you get a lot of people being isolated… and a lot of the time, music being the expression for that kind of arrogance. Which is why Rik picks on Cliff and thinks he’s great, thinks he’s a revolutionary leader.
“So we set out to make them unpleasant because, like we were saying with the Roadrunner, the reason I find the Coyote so very funny is that he’s a complete bastard, so in a sense he deserves the failures that come to him. Like Hancock as well – he was an unpleasant character. Like, I prefer Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel because Stan’s a bit more sympathetic, whereas Ollie’s a complete pompous bastard. Although that’s just my taste, I find funny. Although… my hero has always been Tommy Cooper and he was neither, he was neither horrible nor sentimental.”
They’re not really Young Ones so much as pre-adolesent; babies, really…
“In many ways yeah… Some of the thinking behind it when we first did it was to take the piss out of the youth stage where you feel you’re terribly important – not that you’re not, but – you feel you’re more important than everybody else: every decision I make is absolutely right – I never want to get any older – I am right and everybody else is wrong… It was just to take the piss out of all that.”
Something I realised recently, watching The Young Ones again, was – it seemed to me – that the’re a complete nuclear family unit: Mike’s the Dad, Neil their Mum, Vyvyan the nasty boy and Rick, well, a little girl…
” Yeah I suppose so, it’s a unit that maybe subconsciously… that’s one of the reasons the audience can relate to it, it’s a unit that you’ve seen in Sit Com so many times. I never thought of it like that but yes, I suppose you’re right…”
FUNNILY ENOUGH, the comic doesn’t go off on on flighty fancies, doesn’t relish a rave – he simply isn’t fired off with any of the blue funk the likes of himself and Sayle supply for their audience: a valve for the profoundly English fear of blathering, the avoidance of outburst, of voice as purest gesticulation and utter irrelevance.
What is missing in the dialectical decorum of the interview is that staged opportunity of the Comic, that which allows word and accent to chase each other round in circles, chaffing their tale; that which kicks the comic into the Comic.
I plug away at my grand inquisitor’s sheaf of questions – on censorship, aggression, political vantage, privates/publics – and Mayall returns the enquiry a tidy natter about the work, and never the labour. In the end, my questions just sort of go “Oh,” and walk off. I sneeze into my beer and know that, given the cruel license of comedy and a few more drinks – later that night, as it happens – I’d call him a bit of a boring bastard.
But , then again, given the cruel license of comedy and a few more drinks, Rik Mayall would turn into something Comic, and fly away, off his handles.
For instance? Kevin Turvey, for goodness sake – so far the one truly immortal landmark of the newer comedy. If much of the latter seems concerned to act as TV’s conscience, its sentinel, mildly pickling the game-rules in a propriety of parodies, then Kevin is its subconscious – the rubbish running through its (talking) head.
Kevin – mute nostril agony of the merest articulation, this pain borne with all the patient mirth of an Open University rep – is the other side of neutrality, of the unagonised flow of interviewer, pundit, newscaster, naturalist. He is TV pleasantry’s tic, and the threat of a cannibalistic frenzy (pace Videodrome, Poltergeist). He talks in tongues, albeit with a Midlands accent. Not only is he the real voice of youth-on-TV, but more, he is TV (Tur-Vey), spoken from the proud domain of gibberish. TV’s off, then…
(It is worthwhile recalling to mind that TV’s duration off the air each night is commensurate with the sleep of babies… I mean, what’s going on in three? The man in the sick-covered anorak knows.)
SOMETHING I noted down recently – was what Cartoon let me see a con-fusion of Reality and Pleasure? In principle, at any rate.
Cartoon is dominated by the Pleasure principle, utterly selfish and self-contained, allowing a free flow of energy along its storyline, washing us back to a time when we satisfied our needs simply by hallucinating their end. The sucking and smashing vibrance of the Cartoon (I am thinking here of the five or 10 minute size) literally pops the world out of its skin – at the same time pronouncing its real (a vacuum cleaner might be revealed in all its voracious brutality) and its REAL (endlessly postponed satisfaction).
The cartoon zaps straight to the synapses, employing such subliminal partners as: terror/delight, destruction/proliferation, and death-threats/buddies, really. Complicated games of capture, quenching, overcoming and failure are condensed into a flicker.
Perhaps only Hollywood’s ex-cartoon director Frank Tashlin has come close to a sure animation of human frame, in his work with Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. The second series of The Young Ones branched out (or relied upon…) a fair degree of cartoon-derived mayhem – in arcs of unmitigated physical violence, and the disintegration of squarely-set Sit Com into hirsute conceptual set-pieces.
The problem with this transfer is that – more often than not – its purely energetic. Funnily enough, a cartoon’s violence is never an end-in-itself. It is i) impossible and then ii)violent. Violence is the shortest and most apt route for a gymnastic (gymnasty?) enumeration of the impossibilities inherent in any one scene, face-off or next step. What The Young Ones offered has no (sur)real basis in cruelty or impossibility: mindless violence.
Turvey’s warring internal partnership of David Coleman and Wittgenstein aside, much of the newer comedy’s aggressiveness strikes me (or doesn’t) as faked in its fury as a soft-boiled Pam Ayres tenderness. Bluster to cover up a lack of cleverness, and a litany like “bored, bored, bored” to hide a rather quaint sort of fear. (It seems no little coincidence that much “alternative” comedy has replaced the slang and arrows of so-called misogynistic put-down with a no less ‘masculine’ violence of delivery; as if the warped denial of sexual difference had to be displaced rather than ditched. Or, as Freud noted: “When we laugh at a refined obscene joke we are laughing at the same thing that makes someone else laugh at a coarse piece of smut. In both cases the pleasure springs from the same source.” Thing and source being the operative word here, presumably.
Equally lavatorial as “traditional” humour, this new comedy often relies – nudge nudge, wink wink – on a kind of club Left escape clause: OK, this is the same old shit (a gag about our ‘sexist’ apprehension of busty barmaids still features a busty barmaid) but the context is Right On, abide with me. So what? My stomach gurgles more at an expertly choreographed Terry And June golf match (complete with suburbia’s version of class warfare thrown in). Or, as Rupert Pupkin noted: “You don’t say, Folks here’s the punchline – you just do the punchline.”
I recall during the last series of The Comic Strip Presents, switching from their clever-clever simulation of some convention or other to a Steptoe And Son movie, which happened to be about death. There was in Galton and Simpson’s simple exercise precisely the tone of black and delirious absurdity that the Strippers desired, but could only plodding schematize.
The point here is not one of inverse (or class) snobbery – I recently roared with laughter at a C4 profile of a Czechoslovakian surrealist animator – but of timing, in the general sense of the word. Of knowing where, when and how to strike. Of knowing your frame. Of knowing how Tradition keeps you in its fold.
IN BLEAKER moments I fear for the Great British tradition of superbly crafted comedy – uncannily intricate writing, the braiding and twisting of puns, the supernatural timing. Great British humour (or GBH) does have sledgehammer tendencies, and we shouldn’t deny them. But nor should we forget the remarkable linguistic forays of the Crazy Gang, Will Hay, Frank Randall.
With the predominance on our TV screens of skit and satire based shows, and the absence of a Likely Lads or Steptoe (not to mention the death of the full-length comedy film), the tradition of well-crafted comedy seems best kept alive in what is ostensibly drama: Minder, The Irish R.M., Brass, Shine on Harvey Moon…
What does the comic think – and feel – about this snobby, sarky, studious forecast of mine?
“I don’t think there is any tradition at the moment really, because… when Will Hay and people were working they had an unbroken tradition of something like 150 years that got them to that – as you say, it didn’t look like it, but – highly intricate, sophisticated form of signals between them and the audience. Because everyone understood the tradition. With the coming of TV all of that was wrecked. The only tradition we have – which is hampering us, if you like – is that of TV restrictions.
“So there’s whole generations of people who have no idea what seeing a live comedian is like – the only way the tradition is being kept up is in the clubs in the North, maybe.
“Now, I don’t think that that’s a shame at all. In fact, I think it’s a really exciting time at the moment because the audience has no expectations, so the performer can really expand, he’s free to do pretty well whatever he wants… especially with the passing of a lot of the old boys who remember the old form, like Cooper.”
Is there now anything of a disillusionment with the ‘easy access’ offered by TV? Is it too easy to by-pass the years of slog, learning and disappointment?
“I don’t know. I think it’s hit and miss. Occasionally you’ll get someone who takes to TV like a fish to water… and you’ll get ten who don’t and it might seriously damage them going on telly and then everyone saying, Saw you on telly last night – you’re shit, and they’ll think I’m not a comedian , I’ll give it up.
“I agree with you that it is very easy to think of ten minutes of jokes and be in the right place at the right time when the right TV producer’s there (…) I mean, that’s what happened to us! We’re lucky, ‘cos we were one of the first and they gave us more breaks than they’re likely to give people these days. And we were with the BBC…”
It seems to me there’s a lot of easy laughs in many recent shows through taking the piss out of TV itself. Is that really satire, or just recycling your own medium?
“I agree with you… although I shouldn’t, because we’ve fallen into that trap, both with this series and the last. In defence I would say that… it works, even though it might be a cheap laugh. It’s always been there: The Goons did it with radio, the Pythons did it with TV, Hancock was full of references to being on the radio. I think it’s always been there: Comedy comments on the form it’s in.
“Like, what was so funny about the clowns in the circus was that they were coming on and they weren’t dressed very smart… and that was the joke, they were people who weren’t behaving themselves, they weren’t people who were behaving properly.”
WE ALL of us find redemption in private humour… is the most difficult thing (for the comic) that transition from private code – of friends round a pub table, for instance – to a public hearing?
“It’s as important to work on your own private sense of humour as on your own means of communicating that. If you’ve got something that you and your mates find particularly funny, say something like a word like ‘trousers’ might make everyone in your flat fall about every time it’s mentioned… if you work out why that’s funny and then communicate that to the audience…
“But I was lucky… just because I had a reputation for being a funny performer at school that gave me a lot of confidence; then I went to Manchester and into a drama department, so everyone I was sitting round the pub with were performers and a lot of those were funny, people like Ben (Elton) and Ade… So I’m really just with the same bunch of people.
“And now, most of my mates, most of the people I go out drinking with now – sounds terrible, but – they’re mostly comics, me Ade, go out with Alexei a lot, Lise, who’s a comedy writer, so I haven’t really been on my own…”
Was there ever any old comic you met who advised you, or said, Lad, you’ll never make it…
“I’ve never really met any. I met Ronnie Barker around Christmas time last year and he was great, a lovely guy. But again, he’s a comic actor, he’s someone you meet offstage and he’s just a nice guy to talk to – when he gets onstage he’s really funny…”
WHEN THE comic gets onstage he can get away with madness – he can speak the nonsense of a dozen different mouths in one and the same voice. Perhaps it’s not possible, yet, for us to be interested in what gets the comic onstage, in what begets the comic.
WHAT IN the world, I wonder, is Turvey a pseudonym for? Rik, what part of you does the thinking for Kevin?
“Just in the planning and rehearsal, really. It’s because I come from that area of the country, so I know him really well. Once you get all the words you can just slip into him and he does all the thinking for you, does all the talking. Much the same with Rick as well…”
Oh go on! Do Kevin Tur-vey!
“Funnily enough, I just did this Labour Party gig two weeks ago as Kevin, it was great. Neil Kinnock was on afterwards, it was all about, I dunno…
“…he bangs his knob on the kitchen table and all the end goes orange, a bit like a belisha beacon. And Neil Kinnock phones him up and says ‘Kevin Turvey?‘, and he says, he says ‘Where the fuck are you?‘ I says, I says ‘I’m at home!‘ He says ‘Listen Turvey, get to Wembley, you’re supposed to be doing a gig.‘ I says, ‘Listen Neil – I’ve got VD‘ – he says, ‘Don’t give me that!‘- I says, ‘I’ll try not to mate!‘…'”
Ian Penman 1984
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