“There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. 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.”
Those are the words Ade Edmondson, long-time friend and collaborator of the actor, writer and British comedy legend Rik Mayall, who sadly died yesterday at the age of 56.
One of the great personalities of eighties British comedy, the groundbreaking ‘punk-comic’ Mayall was one of the cardinal laugh-meisters of my childhood, his mock-archetypal and somewhat iconic character in The Young Ones being one of the entertainment highlights of my young life, and both that character and that show being even now one of my favorite comedy creations.
I was actually a little saddened to hear some people asking who Rik Mayall was; but then I realised most people even slightly younger than me might have no reason to have heard of him, as his work – as far as mainstream, well publicized work is concerned anyway – has been minimal in recent years and most of what he is most remembered for is decades old by now. It’s a crime of negligence on my part that I haven’t acquainted myself with much of his work in the passed twenty years, particularly some of his film work and more serious roles; but then I’m bad at that generally.
“I don’t have moments of weakness. I’m Rik Mayall.” – Rik Mayall
It’s easy for people to take it for granted now, especially in this age where all boundaries and envelopes have already been pushed as far as “cutting edge” comedy is concerned, and in an age furthermore where television is inundated with comedy or stand-up ‘personalities’, but long before Frankie Boyle, Rik Mayall in his hey-dey, especially with The Young Ones (as far as the TV side is concerned), was a revelation. Mayall himself was a pioneer of alternative comedy in the UK and is rightly being celebrated as such.
Even thirty years or so later, The Young Ones still holds up remarkably well; in fact it can be seen to have been decades ahead of its time, often sounding and feeling like something that could’ve easily been written in the last ten years or so and would sit comfortably alongside such modern shows as The IT Crowd or the more surrealist The Mighty Boosh or even some of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s work in terms of its frequent Oliver Hardy style breaking of the ‘fourth wall’.
Although when I was a kid it was Adrian Edmunson’s violent punk Vyvyan that I enjoyed most (I was four or five years old and he was loud and violent and used to hit people and break things – of course he was entertaining), and Edmunson is of course the collaborator Mayall is most associated with in people’s minds; but when I was older it was of course Mayall’s character, Rick, that I realised was the funny one and the real core of the show.
A know-it-all sociology student and self-proclaimed ‘anarchist’ who writes terrible poetry and thinks himself “The People’s Poet”, Mayall’s character is one of the all-time great comedy creations. He is the archetypal self-important, university campus know-it-all who in reality knows nothing but thinks himself an authority on politics and society; a hypocrite whose ‘beliefs’ depend entirely on what suits his interests in any given situation, and a self-proclaimed acolyte of Lenin and Trotsky who in actual fact doesn’t have any real understanding of the ideals he wants to be seen to hold to.
Arrogant, conceited, pretentiously verbose and believing himself a “spokesman for a generation”, The Young Ones’ Rik is in my opinion up there with the likes of Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder and Ricky Gervais’s David Brent as one of television’s all-time great comedy characters.
And yeah I’ve known one or two people like him over the years too; that classic loud-mouthed, ‘little knowledge, much talk’ type. That’s probably one of the reasons the character remains so pertinent after all this time – we’ve all probably known someone like that. But of course it’s the utterly snarling, unremitting way Mayall played him that sticks in the mind; he made that role utterly, utterly his own. It is Rik Mayall’s abiding, cardinal character; a character that you cannot even begin to imagine being portrayed by anyone else.
It’s a symptom of the uncommonly inexhaustible levels of energy Mayall brought to his characters that even a relatively minor fixture like Lord Flashheart in the classic Blackadder (“Still worshipping God? Last thing I heard he’d started worshipping me!”) has become such a memorable character in people’s minds despite being in the company of Rowan Atkinson’s iconic lead role and Miranda Richardson’s unforgettable Elizabeth I or “Queenie”, and only appearing in two episodes. I didn’t hugely like Lord Flashheart in Blackadder, preferring Rowan Atkinson’s more subdued deadpan in that particular series to Mayall’s larger-than-life bluster, but it’s a tribute to Mayall’s comedic abilities that he made so big an impression in so small a space as far as that series was concerned.
And although I don’t know much about his personal life (I’m not one to pry), one of the things I’ve always liked about Rik Mayall as a real-life personality outside of his work is his ceaseless and knowing mock-arrogance; he was always sarcastic and cutting, to the very end, and could always come out with a great quote – that “I don’t have moments of weakness” line further up the page is one of my favorite interview quotes from any comedian. While I’m sure he was a lovely person (people certainly say so about him), I always felt like there was genuinely a bit of Flashheart and The Young Ones Rik in him for real. There always seemed to remain that little bit of punk-rock, that little bit of playful dangerousness, in him. He never seemed tamed or softened as he got older; as perfectly evidenced in the title of his book (below).
I didn’t really get into the much later Bottom, and I haven’t happened to have caught many of Mayall’s more serious roles. I also haven’t yet watched any of The New Statesmen and Mayall’s fictional Tory MP Alan B’Stard, though it has been on my extensive To Do List for some time and is a series I’ll have to make sure I get around to. The last thing I saw Rik Mayall in was the 2013 Channel 4 show Man Down in which he played the father of Greg Davies’ character (despite being only ten years older than him); I didn’t watch much of that series, but it was nice seeing Mayall back doing his thing with the same slightly wild, off-kilter enthusiasm. He will be missed.
As fate would have it, I already have a fittingly poignant (and suitably conceited) sentiment to mark Rik Mayall’s passing. The words of his own character, Rick, in The Young Ones, in typically self-aggrandizing form; from the second season, first episode…
“This house will become a shrine, and punks and skins and rastas will all gather round and hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader. And all the grown-ups will say, ‘But why are the kids crying?’ And the kids will say, ‘Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!‘