Rik Mayall – a celebration of the British actor and comic

Nostalgia is painful, inevitable, and sometimes strangely comforting… Mayall is inimitable: he was our ‘people’s poet’

‘Recognising the formative importance of Mayall’s comedy should celebrate the dynamism and force for change alternative comedy advocated’
‘Recognising the formative importance of Mayall’s comedy should celebrate the dynamism and force for change alternative comedy advocated’

Like many of my generation, I grew up on Rik Mayall’s comedy; it has certainly had an influence not only on my outlook, but also on the path my academic studies took. Like so many, I was devastated by the news of Mayall’s passing, and would like to take this moment to revisit his comedy.

As one of the most visible figures of UK ‘alternative comedy’, when the UK’s stand-up and comedy scenes were crystallising in a new direction (away from Oxbridge sketch and revue-shows, and against the traditional club comics with their politically incorrect ‘mother-in-law’ jokes), Rik Mayall’s comedy was particularly distinctive, helping to define the movement, and influencing today’s generation of comedians.

Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson formed the double-act 20th Century Coyote during their student-years at the University of Manchester. Influenced by both Beckett and Python, but with added exuberance which owed something to punk, they found a niche at the new Comedy Store at the forefront of the emerging alternative comedy scene in London, honing their style alongside another double-act, ‘The Outer Limits’ (Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson) – later branching off together, with a few others, to open their own venue, The Comic Strip.

Cheerfully unsubtle, expertly raw, there was something about Mayall’s comedy that simply couldn’t be ignored. Wildly manic, it was comedy for the punk and post-punk generation. Unlike Ben Elton, Mayall’s comedy was not obviously directly ‘political’, but was declaredly non-sexist and non-racist – indeed, satirically targeting sexist and racist attitudes. This was in itself a significant move away from the ‘traditional’ comedy of the time, and not lacking in the political consciousness and engagement befitting comedy’s response to ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, which would become more overt in his New Statesman character Alan B’Stard.

Although Rik Mayall was active on television in other comedy roles – such as his character Kevin Turvey on A Kick Up the Eighties, given to non-sequitur monologues, dismantling expectations of a punch-line – he was propelled more spectacularly into the public eye with the BBC series The Young Ones in 1982. Written by Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer, the submitted script came covered with coffee-stains and untidy scrawls – a bold irreverence which bore visual testimony to a kind of ‘punk anarchy’.

Ben Elton eventually joined the writing team, and made a couple of appearances on the show. The series turned out to be both ‘punk’ and punk-parody, and was also striking for its parody of sitcom conventions. It is sitcom, and knows it – however, it plays with those conventions in a manner that transforms and highlights them. Narrative coherence is frequently disrupted by pointedly irrelevant interruptions, as the camera zooms in to pause on inanimate household objects – a family pictured on a cereal box commenting on their own situation, a matchbox commenting ‘Don’t look at me – I’m irrelevant.’

The musical interludes (bands included The Damned, Motörhead, Madness) did not quite constitute a separate part of the show – action would often intrude upon the musical performance. This connection with music also contributed to the strong feeling that this series was in tune with the time – while going some way towards shaping the experience of that time. While music performances had long been a feature of comedy shows such as Morecambe and Wise, Mayall pointed out in conversation that their insertion as a regular feature into a sitcom format was something that hadn’t been seen before.

Mayall’s character had emerged from his ‘angry young performance poet’ live act – rounded out as (silent ‘P’)Rick: sociology student, egotistical ‘anarchist’, with limited social awareness, described by Vyvyan (Ade) as ‘the classic example of an only child’. A defining performance, it established his comedy style as manically energetic and unflaggingly high-spirited – every moment giving his all.

The Comic Strip Presents… (1982-) was a sprawling project, an extensive series which produced films and episodes of varied length, most having a different theme, cast of characters, and setting. I’ll mention just a few in which Mayall was involved – Mr Jolly Lives Next Door is an excellent, silly, and violent comedy with Peter Cook as meatcleaver-happy hitman Mr Jolly. A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques is, as the name suggests, a Western parody, with Rik Mayall and Peter Richardson as two English tourists in Spain, attempting to take on the role of two gunslinging desperados, determined to recreate the ‘Wild West’. Two episodes were devoted to Bad News – the parody rock band, with Mayall as preening bassist Colin Grigson – which actually toured and played rock concerts maintaining the pretence of earnestness, to a barrage of bottles.

His comic partnership with Ade Edmondson lasted through most of their career – Edmondson commenting, ‘And now he’s died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.’ Rik and Ade’s ‘Dangerous Brothers’ double-act – a reworking of traditional double-acts in the slapstick mould, with increasingly violent antics – appeared on Saturday Live, the mid-80s Channel 4 TV showcase for alternative comedy and a variety of other acts, hosted by Ben Elton. Filthy, Rich and Catflap, a satire of light entertainment, is probably best known for being the transitional series between The Young Ones and Bottom.

Bottom, in some ways an exploration and intensification of one area of potential present in The Young Ones, is extraordinary and relentless in its quest for the lowest point. Its brand of lavatory-humour is, though not without precursors, possibly unequalled in sitcom. The fact that there is a relative dearth of successors claiming or manifesting a direct and visible debt to the series may suggest that it couldn’t be followed or topped (by which I mean, Bottomed). Always relentless and merciless in its focus, in its most effective moments it challenges the viewer’s ability to watch the downward spiral of desperation, through the deliberate courting of disgust –  while denying the easy relief of pity. Admittedly, ‘downward’ is, perhaps, a misleading term here – the cycle of desperation is mostly consistent, sustained, and repetitive, leaving the implication that there is nowhere lower to go.

In an interview on Wogan (1984), Mayall expressed a wish to create a character that was ‘something like [Tony] Hancock had’. This conception would materialise with Bottom, where Ade and Rik play their own versions of Sid James and Tony Hancock’s middle-aged men, with the distancing and framing of the abject cruelly accentuated alongside the intense focus on their miserable existence. Most of the action takes place in a single sordid room – with the episode ‘Hole’ heightening the oppressive spatial confinement, restricting the action to a passenger car isolated atop a Ferris wheel. This testifies in all likelihood to another lineage – Rik and Ade were playing Didi and Gogo in the 1991 production of Waiting for Godot at the Queen’s Theatre, concurrently with the first series. This Beckettian strain in Rik and Ade’s writing can be traced back to their 20th Century Coyote days. Rewatching it today, Bottom’s studied puerility remains cruel, delightful, and astonishing.

I could mention so many other films or series Rik Mayall has been in – Rik Mayall Presents, Drop Dead Fred, Whoops Apocalypse, Happy Families, Man Down. I have selected those I feel have been particularly important or influential, and a few are down to personal choice.

I am left asking – is a generation in mourning, or is this also the mourning for a generation? Nostalgia is painful, inevitable, and sometimes strangely comforting (Mayall is inimitable; he was our ‘people’s poet’).

Rik Mayall is dead, and this is so hard to write. Bottom gains something of a poignancy it never courted, and The Young Ones’ contextual specificity is confirmed with the authoritative seal of ‘comedy history’. There is a danger in monumentalising a legacy, a risk of conferring on it an oppressive authority which would be at odds with the spirit of altcom. The recognition of the formative importance of the comedy Mayall was at the forefront of – formative in cultural, generational, and (for many) individual terms, but also in its effects on the practice of comedy itself – should not be to monumentalise in nostalgic stasis, but rather, or more importantly, to acknowledge and celebrate the dynamism and force for change alternative comedy advocated, and to see continuing life in the legacy – for its influence is very much alive – in comedy’s political edge and sense of responsibility, in the comedians who claim a debt to Mayall, and in the very diversity of styles within stand-up and even television comedy today.