THE TIMES EDUCATIONAL SUPPLEMENT
30th December 1983
The Cult Of The Snarl
Rik Mayall, creator and star of The Young Ones, and much imitated by classroom comedians, tells Nick Baker why he chose students as a suitable case for sneering
Like lots of successful television comedy, The Young Ones, devised by Rik Mayall and written by him with Lise Mayer and Ben Elton, achieved instant popularity with young people before penetrating the “more mature” market.
Just as generations before the fad was regurgitating chunks of Monty Python’s Flying Circus now fourteen and fifteen-year-olds, particularly boys, repeat the sayings of the ghastly, spotty, trendily pig-tailed Rik, played in the series by Mayall himself. Apparently, Prince Charles did the same thing with The Goon Show.
Mayall explains his choice of student life to set the scene for his situation comedy as an excuse to have four people living together with nothing to do all day, and he felt that it was not the right time to have a comedy series about people who are on the dole. ” I wanted them to be privileged, and for people to hate them,” he told me.
The Young Ones contains a wild mixture of styles, featuring the stand up comedy of Alexei Sayle, weirdly tangential sketches and pop music. But it is essentially situational comedy, based around the four students who live together in extreme squalor. Rik the self-appointed leader, is pretentious, unpleasant, ignorant, supercilious and cowardly – able to turn from parody anarchist to whimpering sycophant in a trice.
Mike is more of a shadowy character, flashily dressed and marginally more clever than the others, he’s always “on the make”. Vyvian is a manic punk skinhead, given to acts of mass destruction. He wears metal studs in his forehead rather than on his leather jacket. Neil is a stereotype hippy, softly spoken, obsessed with lentils, astrology and suicide.
Mayall ascribes the popularity of the series, and in particular to the character he plays in it, to the way it portrays adolescence. “Rik rants and raves, he’s over-energetic, unpredictable and quick tempered. I was a bit like that when I was, say, fifteen. I wouldn’t say he’s popular though. For kids, he is easy to identify with. When people come up to us in the street, Neil, the Hippy is the one the kids warm to. They back away from me slightly.”
Knowing the responsibilities involved in producing television with such appeal for young people, the writing team have conscientiously avoided jokes against homosexuals, as well as racist and sexist jokes.
Mayall admits that mistakes were made in the first series. In one episode, a policeman wearing dark glasses approaches a man who is ringing the students’ doorbell. The policeman pretends the man is black, and subjects him to a torrent of racial abuse: “That’s white man’s electricity you’re using, Mr Rastus Chocolate Drop…” and so on. Mayall got a letter from a teacher who understood that the point of the joke was rather heavy handed anti-police satire, but found that the one black boy in her class was having the same abuse levelled at him. “In the next series, we’ll be more careful”, says Mayall, ruefully.
Mayall finds it easy to say what sort of comedy he aims to avoid, but more difficulty to say what sort he wants to get across. One explanation that he makes is that an audience’s laughter is, in a sense, a gesture of rejection.
He compares it with a pack of wild dogs, rejecting a diseased pack member by snarling at it. That’s the sort of laughter he tries to get from his audience. They’re almost saying: “You’re not part of us, get away, we’re not like you.”
He demonstrates the snarling laugh and instantly becomes Rick the student – upper lip drawn back into sneering derision, scalp taut, eyes starring challengingly. It’s as if the character is somebody who thinks he’s the leader of the pack, snarling at his inferiors, but it’s perfectly clear to the audience that he’s the opposite.
One of the routines he did as a stand-up comedian on London’s notoriously tough alternative comedy stage was a dreadful piece of “modern” poetry entitled Theatre. It’s a devastatingly accurate piece of satire, the angry radical poet becoming more and more angry as the audience reject his message by laughing.
Careful to protect his character and his work, he turns down offers to do advertisements on principle. Recently he was asked to appear in television publicity for the Youth Training Scheme. He turned it down. “They gave me an outline but wanted me to do my own dialogue. Anyway, from what I’ve read it’s a complete rip off and I don’t want anything to do with it…”
He breaks suddenly, conscious that he may be giving the impression of blind prejudice, and explains how easy it has become since his rise to fame to become out of touch.
Mayall tries to keep in touch by answering all his fan mail personally and finds that he’s as popular with 10-year-olds as he is with adults. When we met at his agent’s palatial flat/office, our talk was punctuated by interruptions from a secretary waiting to take dictation. Above all, despite his growing reputation, he doesn’t want “stardom” and fights shy of the attentions of the popular press, particularly when all they’re interested in is his private life.
Mayall is just finishing his first straight theatre role. For his part in Brecht’s Man equals Man he returned to Manchester where he was a student in the university drama department. “I’ve forgotten how to act,” he says “and I want to break away from the pressure of writing for The Young Ones. It’s also a chance to be a bit more disciplined, working with a group of actors under a director. As a stand-up comic you don’t need discipline. You just need guts…”
Another series of The Young Ones is planned for 1984 and Rik Mayall can be seen in the four-part series A Kick Up The Eighties starting on BBC2 on January 3.
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