Friday 5th July 1991.
I was sixteen years old and this was the day I first got to see Rik perform, it was also the day Gas was filmed in studio 1 at BBC Television Centre. I was incredibly lucky to be in the audience for the filming of it. Every year since, I have looked back and remembered that day, and each year I remember it with more and more affection. For a young teenage fan, and this being their first encounter of seeing Rik Mayall live, I definitely was truly spoilt.
Where to start, well, I’m sure first of all you are probably wondering how on earth at sixteen, I managed to get tickets for, what was then, to most people an unknown show! Well, when I was about fifteen, a school friend and I decided to write a fan letter to Rik, we really wanted to try and get a signed photo of him. We had absolutely no idea where to post it, so we just addressed it to the BBC in Wood Lane – surely he must be popping in there all the time – as innocent teenagers, we assumed. Weeks and months must have past, we’d almost given up hope of receiving any reply. Then, to our surprise, early in 1991, we both received a letter, our large stamped addressed envelopes we had included, had arrived. Inside was a signed letter and and autographed photo of Rik as The New Statesman. We were over the moon, and extremely delighted that he had also put in a letter, which said; that he had been busy in America being a movie star, making a film called ‘Drop Dead Fred’, and that he was also busy with Ade, working on a new sitcom called ‘Bottom’.
Early in 1991, the same friend and I had written to dear Auntie Beeb, we had asked for, and recieved tickets to be in the audience of Comic Relief that year. Having enjoyed that experience so much, we thought we’d write again, but this time we’d asked for studio audience tickets for Bottom. A reply, like before, came back saying that we were on the waiting list, and tickets, if available, would be sent 7 to 10 days before the recording… Bare in mind, at this point we had absolutely no idea when the recording was likely to take place, or if we’d even be lucky in receiving any tickets. It really was a waiting game, we just had to be patient, hope and wait, not a concept teenagers are very good at!
The days, weeks, then months went past, I took my GCSEs and had left school. Then one day at the end of June a BBC envelope arrived in the post. Could this be the tickets? I was nervous but felt excited as I slowly opened the envelope, and to my delight I pulled out the amazing tickets. I could not believe it, my friend and I were so overjoyed, our dream had finally come true, we were actually going to see Rik and Ade Iive in the flesh, at long long last!
Having been to an audience show before, we knew we had to get there early to get entry, but most importantly to us, get a good seat, as it’s first come first served. We arrived incredibly early, determined to get front row seats. Sure enough, we were first in the queue. It was an extreamly warm July evening, so queueing for hours outside was easily bearable. Eventually we got led to the studio audience entrance, and into Studio 1, where were told to fill up from the front. As we walked down the steps we noticed a row of reserved V.I.P seats – so I wonder who else was there that evening? There we were, sat centre front row of an audience of about 500 people, in the same studio we had been in for Comic Relief. This time however we had the set of Richie and Eddie’s squalid flat in front of us. Above us were the studio monitors, lighting and microphones for capturing the audiences laughter.
Now…try to imagine yourself knowing nothing about the sitcom Bottom, and being a 16 year old obsessed Rik Mayall fan!! That will give you some idea of how excited I was feeling at that moment in time.
On the screens of the monitors, was a still picture of Rik and Ade sat on a bench, Rik was crying, giving us a little clue as to what the show was about. We were having a good look at the set and were amazed by how incredibly detailed they were, we couldn’t help but think how similar it was to The Young Ones. It felt like we were in for a treat. The floor manager came on, he said a few words, and told us how the evening would work, mentioning that this was the fourth episode of this new series to be filmed. Then eventually he introduced Rik and Ade, they came on in their costumes and stood directly in front of us with hand held microphones. There was a nervous excited energy about them both. I hate to think what the expression on my face was like, with them stood so close. It’s funny what sticks in your mind, because I remember noticing how dirty Rik’s fingernails were! They chatted to the audience and told some jokes. Rik’s joke was very long, but had the punch line. “How do you ask a person with no arms and legs what the time is? Have you got the time on you cock?”.
There was no warm up man, like you would usually get at TV recordings, it was just them getting the audience relaxed and happy. Then they got ready to start the filming, sitting down at the table with their playing cards, both messing about and getting incredibly excited. You could really tell this was something they both felt very passionate about and were really enjoying together. The opening credits appeared on the studio monitors, with the music playing quite loud, we all looked up to watch, then they went straight into the first scene…
It was incredibly hot in the studio that day, Rik and Ade were given these hand held mini fans to cool themselves down between takes, which they loved messing about with. Ade I remember got a telling off for still having his wedding ring on – which you can clearly see him wearing in the card playing scene. All went very smoothly, then at the first break, all Rik had to do again for another take, was to throw the playing cards down onto the table and bend forward (to get the right camera shot). Rik being Rik says “was that it?!” in his very distinctive tones. My friend and I found this really funny, he spotted us laughing, so played up on it even more, pointing at us and telling us to “get out, go on get out!” making us laugh all the more! He’d definitely clocked two giggly teenagers who were very easy to make laugh!
When I watch the episode now, I just love the fact that I can definitely hear myself, but in particular my friend laughing. I’d honestly never laughed so much and so hard before, line after line of dialogue was just so funny. The whole production was really slick and carefully done. I don’t remember them having to do many retakes, they certainly didn’t have to shoot every scene twice, which is usually the case. Even when they did have to shoot again it really wasn’t a chore to watch or laugh again, if anything it got funnier and you were hoping to see it performed again. Usually, there would be a compare entertaining the audience between takes, but not here, we were also entertained by a singer, who I think may have been Ruby Turner – it felt like she actually helped to calm us all down!
Now for the famous frying pan bit, this was hilarious, but definitely had to be done a few times, for timing issues and camera angles, but mainly because Ade gave Rik an almighty blow on the head, for real! Which when you watch the episode you can see had to cut, but they kept in the almighty blow, you can hear the reaction from the audience too. Rik in particular needed a fairly long break after that huge wallop! There were other timing issues too; when the gas man wakes up at the window, and they throw him out down the stairs, there were a number of takes to get this looking right, with camera angles, problem doors plus a few fluffed lines.
During other breaks they showed us a pre recorded clip of another episode, this being the bit in the bathroom with the pliers from Smells. Plus several outtakes from The Young Ones. Vivian setting his bed alight in Sick was one I remember.
The bedroom scene took place in a set that was behind the main set of the flat, so we had to watch that on the studio monitors. We were able to see a set at the side with Ade enjoying himself eating in Rottweiler’s kitchen. The very last scene of the episode was pre-recorded. It was however, as with all pre-recorded scenes in sitcoms, shown to the audience so their laughter could be recorded. We watched this on the monitors until the end credits came up. There was then huge cheers and clapping from the audience, I was totally blown away by the whole experience. It was everything I’d wished and hoped it to be plus a whole lot more!
Rik looked particularly exhausted, he had put everything into his performance. Having to change his shirt several times throughout the recording, and the makeup girls were constantly around him, powdering him down and sorting his hair out. Ade on the other hand was the complete opposite, he seemed so cool and calm. The audience gave a long applause and there was plenty whooping and cheering. I expected them to come on and take a bow, but sadly not. I think the recording may have overrun a little and they probably just wanted to go home and relax, it had taken over 3 hours to film! Interestingly we found out that same evening Jennifer Saunders was also recording a new show, they didn’t tell us what it was called, but I suspect it was Absolutely Fabulous. Anyway, we slowly got out of our seats, we didn’t want to leave or for it to end. I was desperately trying to take in as much as I could (no photos were allowed), before we finally had to leave Television Centre.
It was such a privilege to be there that day, to witness Rik and Ade at work. They were hilarious, professional, witty, amazing, charming and exhausted by the end. The hard work and huge team effort that goes into making a studio audience sitcom is incredible, especially with such a visual and physical comedy like Bottom. It’s sadly a dying and considered dated genre. If you saw Ben Elton’s Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture in 2017, you’ll know how passionate he is about tying to keep the audience sitcom alive – proving it can still be a popular form of entertainment with Upstart Crow. He described the process of what it takes to produce, why it’s so expensive to make, and how it captures an evening of comedic performance, really well. If you were also able to see The Young Ones documentary on UK Gold in 2018, How The Young Ones Changed Comedy, Ade mentioned there, how when they were making The Young Ones, they thought at the filming, they had to try and keep the audience entertained throughout, well let me tell you, that must have been something they both found very hard not to do, because that’s exactly what I felt was still happening at the Bottom recording.
On the 17th September 1991, I had a new blank video tape at the ready and made sure each Tuesday I recorded every episode. I even put together my own cover for it, cutting out pictures from the Radio Times. It was very strange seeing the Gas episode on TV, and I must say every time I see it, I can feel myself transported back and sat there all over again. It brings back such amazing memories. Since then, it has gone on to be one of people’s favourite episodes and indeed the episode the BBC showed in tribute to Rik. Something special was definitely captured there that night, a magic chemistry that Rik and Ade had in front of a live audience. I feel incredibly lucky and truly greatful to have been sat there watching that evening.