Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dangerous to the end: Rik Mayall, 1958- 2014

"Comedy is truly great when it comes out of nothing, and the greatest of comedians, like Rik, have that rare ability to conjure laugh after laugh not from endless words but from a single look or one absurd gesture."

So said Alexei Sayle, paying tribute to Rik Mayall yesterday following the news of the comedian's ridiculously premature death at the age of 56.

I can only concur completely with Sayle's assessment. I once went on a school trip to see Mayall in The Government Inspector at London's National Theatre. To be honest, there wasn't a student amongst us with much interest in spending an evening at the theatre, let alone watching Nikolai Gogol's dreary Russian satire. But this was 1985 and Mayall's star couldn't have been any higher.

As if to prove the point, at a certain moment Mayall broke character to deliver the mocking line "Hah! Lawyer!", but not as the corrupt civil servant Khlestakov. It was Rick, the spotty, Cliff Richard-obsessed socialist oik in The Young Ones. Naturally, the mostly adolescent audience in the Olivier Theatre went nuts.

My parents grew up with radio comedy like ITMA, The Goons and Round The Horne, gentle and somewhat innocent shows that sustained Britain during the post-war gloom. The generation that followed had the Pythons, but for my contemporaries, we had The Young Ones. Where our elder brothers and sisters were able to hold court in sixth form common rooms with excerpts from The Dead Parrot Sketch or The Spanish Inquisition, we could - from just two six-episode series - regale each other with examples of The Young Ones' Ben Elton-penned pontificating, such as Rick's toilet rant: "We NEVER clean the toilet, Neil. That's what being a student is all about. No way, Harpic! No way, Dot! All that Blue Loo scene is for squares. One thing's for sure, Neil. When Cliff Richard wrote Wired For Sound, no way was he sitting on a clean lavatory."

Being still school age, we may not have got all the student humour, but we understood the anarchy. And with Margaret Thatcher's Tory government making itself extremely popular since 1979, we were totally at home with the sentiment (e.g. RICK: "Neil, the bathroom's free!" [stares straight into the camera] "Unlike the country under the Thatcherite junta!").

The Young Ones was our thing, amusing anyone between the age of 12 and 30 (except for William Hague, of course), while also hilariously parodying the sort of gait-prop headcases running around British campuses, purporting to being hardcore lefties while being profoundly middle class at the same time.

Mayall and Ade Edmondson were the standout stars of The Young Ones. Meeting at Manchester University on a drama degree course (along with Ben Elton, two years below them), they formed the prototype of their later double-act, The Dangerous Brothers, largely an excuse to hit each other over the head with frying pans, or blow torch each others' genital districts.

This, however, wasn't what 'alternative comedy' was about, being more like a human form of Tom & Jerry slapstick than politically correct diatribes about "Mrs. Thatch". But Rik and Ade were part of a loose confederation of comedians who coalesced around the dingy Comedy Store in London, building a reputation for comedy that patently wasn't based on blokish gags about black people and how obviously amusing womens' breasts were, and didn't involve hanging around on golf courses in pastel-coloured knitwear.

All of them soon came to the attention of TV producers like the BBC's John Lloyd and Paul Jackson, who recognised that in the Comedy Store mob they had a new generation to draw on, just as their predecessors had been able to draw on with the Oxbridge comics of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Beyond The Fringe.

Mayall found his first outlet in the BBC's A Kick Up The Eighties, playing the socially awkward investigator Kevin Turvey who, despite his Birmingham accent, provided the blueprint for The Young Ones' Rick's more anal characteristics.

Mayall and Edmondson would go on together in Filthy, Rich & Catflap, the 'difficult second album' to their Young Ones debut, with both making various guest turns in the inspired Comic Strip Presents... spoofs for the nascent Channel 4. And there were appearances in Blackadder, most memorably the relatively brief explosions of Mayall as the recurring alpha Lord Flashheart ("Woof-woof!!"), in both Elizabethan mode and as World War I flying ace (though we shouldn't forget Edmondson's mad turn as The Red Baron). Somewhere along the line Mayall found time to appear in four series of The New Statesman as Alan B'Stard, the brilliantly grotesque caricature of a braying, machiavellian Tory MP in the early 1990s.

Bottom, however, brought Mayall and Edmondson together in perhaps their best roles as a double act. Inspired by Samuel Beckett's tragi-comic Waiting For Godot, in which they were both appearing in the West End, Bottom was a grown-up version of The Young Ones - Mayall playing a still painfully socially inept virgin, Edmondson, a toned down and altogether more sedate version of Vyvian, and set in an equally shabby abode as their student characters had been. The Dangerous Brothers' cartoon violence prevailed with increasingly hilarious vigor, as frying pan fights became elevated to gas oven explosions.

Bottom didn't just consolidate Mayall and Edmondson's professional relationship, but also the characters that had sustained their careers since university. The unemployed, sexually inadequate Richie Rich and Edward Hitler, combined the suburban desperation of Tony Hancock and Sid James in Hancock's Half Hour with the junkyard philosophy of Steptoe & Son (which was set just up the road from Bottom's Hammersmith in Acton), plus an added touch of surrealism, to produce a broad comedy that, with the slapstick removed, could have been quite bleak.

"There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing," Edmondson said last night in reaction to news of his longtime collaborator's death. "They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he's died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard."

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