If you didn’t like or understand The Young Ones, you were just too old. We all said it, and it rings true now. Every generation blames the one before, as we’ve been told, and while parents of kids born in the 1960s and early ’70s despaired at what now passed for comedy when four dysfunctional, vulgar, self-obsessed prats turned up on their BBC2 screen in the late autumn of 1982, the kids knew better. It was marvellous; it was something made by them for them, and their parents were squares for not understanding it.
It wasn’t even Rik Mayall’s favourite work, nor even the work that launched him initially to a television audience, and like any sitcom that represents an era, it dated before the rust enveloped the pin badges on his jacket. But it was totally definitive. His brainchild (with girlfriend Lise Mayer), his jokes, his university mate Ben Elton merely called in to “churn out the gear” and make it half-an-hour long. His career made, a cult movement veering into the mainstream. He is probably the most important individual to come from the fabled alternative comedy boom of the new wave era as a result.
Alternative comedy – loosely defined as an X-rated stand-up and character led antidote to gag-tellers whose material was offensively old hat – was a necessary phenomenon. Terry and June were worrying about the boss coming round to dinner, and Jim Davidson was inexplicably nick-nicking his way to variety show stardom. Mayall, brought up in Worcestershire, went to Manchester University as an 18 year old in 1976, but when back home during holiday time spent every evening down the pub with his friends because his parents’ telly was full of stuff made just for his mum and dad’s generation.
“I don’t half feel sorry for you, having to stay in every night,” he’d say to his folks, both actors.
“I don’t half feel sorry for you, having to go out every night,” they’d reply.
Back at university, he developed a plan to try to find a new source of entertainment for his student generation. He had theatrical ambitions but was a natural comic, something ingrained in him since a gurning session during a school nativity play in the 1960s reduced the audience of parents to hysterical jelly and got him the cane from a mortified teacher. With fellow undergraduate Adrian Edmondson, he formed a raucous comedy duo, 20th Century Coyote. The name nodded to the famous failed cartoon Acme customer, a favourite of both men, and they followed the slapstick model of cartoons but with little emphasis on self-protection, resulting in hospital treatment for each when they were genuinely set alight or knocked out cold by a flying kettle.
The Comedy Store opened in London in 1979, with Alexei Sayle and Arnold Brown performing on the opening night, and soon 20th Century Coyote were there too, eventually moving on to their self-formed Comic Strip Club nearby, evolving into The Dangerous Brothers as they did so and getting on the telly. Mayall’s reputation as a singular performer was also growing; a spotty, spoiled, political activist with appalling poetry was starting to get laughs, mainly via his scripted incompetence and petulance, while investigative reporter Kevin Turvey, Brummie and condescending, was Mayall’s solo route to recognition. Little was recalled of this character once The Young Ones hit the headlines, but nevertheless he remained a key ingredient of the growing Mayall legend, and once he became a superstar, the BBC cobbled together a disparate bunch of Turvey lectures on to video for release.
The poet, just called Rick (leading to lifelong confusion as to how the actor spelled his forename), had much more going for him as Mayall began plotting his next move. Noting the soon-to-be-launched Channel 4’s commissioning of a stack of Comic Strip films, the BBC asked him, and others, to come up with ideas to make them look like they too wanted to acknowledge the emergence of this comic boom. Mayall suggested a sitcom. Given the go-ahead, he fleshed out the characters, co-wrote the jokes, hired Elton to turn them into dialogue and liaised with assigned producer Paul Jackson (who was instantly hooked) to develop the programme’s course.
What we got was a student house full of unlikeable people, and the most generationally divisive cultural phenomenon in years. The humour was as much in the surprise element as it was in the script, though some of the jokes, verbal or physical, were instantly brilliant. Mayall portrayed his alter ego as a childish, hypocritical, self-absorbed nonentity-in-waiting, and did so spectacularly. Edmondson as the psychotic punk, fellow Comic Strip performer Nigel Planer as wimpish house-slave hippy Neil and Christopher Ryan (an unconnected actor auditioned at the last minute after Planer’s performing partner Peter Richardson fell out with Jackson and withdrew) as smooth-talking, borderline villain and house leader Mike, made for riotously brilliant television. It introduced slapstick, mindless violence, second degree swearing, masses of fake bodily fluids, surrealism, barking mad cameos, unrelated sideshows and audience participation, plus the innovative interlude featuring a live band. It was spectacularly different. And like with anything else, the people who complained tended to be the people who were not in the target audience: the mums and dads, who had to find a way of preventing their youngsters from watching this “vulgar”, “unfunny”, “bad influence” of a series without, in some cases, coming across as killjoys. Most failed.
The Radio Times and national newspapers, without exception, used one of two buzzwords in their synopses of the show when it featured in their listings. One was “anarchic”; the other “offbeat”. However, despite its narrow intentions, it became a hit beyond the target teenage crowd. The slapstick element helped, as a well-timed smack in the face with a large piece of crooked wood and a judiciously chosen sound effect will always raise a laugh, even if humans are doing it instead of a cat and mouse. And when Vyvyan was electrocuted by his own hamster, or Dawn French’s barking mad God-squadder was crushed by an enormous sandwich chucked from the skies by Keith “Pestilence” Allen, you couldn’t help but laugh. The element of surprise was key, and it was Mayall who made sure it was there.
Two series were made, along with a spin-off single by Planer, and that was deemed enough. Mayall wanted to move on. “I don’t know what it will be yet, but it will be different,” he said at the time. The Young Ones was missed, but unsurprisingly it did date, which was why it became an adored comic museum rather than an overblown parody of itself and not many people begged for more. A year later, with Elton now recruited to co-write the failing Blackadder dynasty (in which Mayall had appeared once as Mad Gerald – “close the bloody door!”), the character of Lord Flashheart was created, specifically for him. In Blackadder II’s first episode, Flashheart turns up at the eponymous peer’s wedding, attacks Percy, flirts with the Queen and Nursie, mocks Melchett, tries to castrate Edmund and then buggers off with the bride – all in one scene and all with a healthy dose of fourth-wall shoving. Mayall’s totally over-the-top portrayal of this seafaring narcissist, recreated as a squadron commander at episode length in Goes Forth four years later, was outrageous and beyond hilarious, and despite the character being somewhat irregular, contributed much to his comic armoury, while leaving his co-performers visibly aghast at his energy. It was the first time we’d seen him as the hero, the wit, the heart-throb, the attractive cad. And he was, and remained, the only man to truly equal Rowan Atkinson in a Blackadder scene.
Mayall loved Filthy, Rich & Catflap, the next venture after The Young Ones which Elton wrote alone. He starred as Richie Rich, a clapped out actor of negligible talent, with Planer as his alcoholic agent and Edmondson as his drifting, violent minder. It aired in early 1987, six months after The Young Ones had reunited for a day’s recording for Comic Relief alongside Cliff Richard, but, despite good reviews and strong figures, the BBC didn’t touch it again. Every time he was subsequently asked how come, Mayall would always say: “I don’t know why – that is, I genuinely don’t know why – it wasn’t seen as a success.” Certainly his character retained some of Rick’s infantile self-obsession but, befitting the self-indulgence of showbiz life Elton intended to satirise. Planer’s character of Ralph Filthy proved he was a proper actor, and often he stole the show. Yet it never floated the BBC’s boat, and it has still to be repeated terrestrially, took years to come out on video, and is only occasionally spotted on digital channels.
Although there was always little affinity with Mayall’s characters, there was something pitiable about them that made them hard to hate. His next creation, however, was quite the opposite. Having bumped into Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran at a promo event, and admired their work as writers of Shine On Harvey Moon, he asked, nay instructed, them to create a sitcom for him. The result was The New Statesman, based in the House of Commons in which Mayall’s character, Conservative MP Alan B’Stard, trod a fine line between believable malevolence and his love of the slapstick. He wanted 20 laughs per page; if he got 15, he’d create the other five himself just from a gesture, a sneer or a chuckle, all now guaranteed comic tools in Mayall’s armoury. B’Stard was appalling; the programme was ITV’s best sitcom since Rising Damp and there hasn’t been a better one on the network since. During the same period, Mayall reprised the character on the BBC for a Comic Relief skit (“Cor, bloody hell, Cecil Parkinson and a whip!”) and narrated George’s Marvellous Medicine for Jackanory, with parents missing the point completely when they complained to the BBC about it being “frightening” and “chaotic.”
When Mayall and Edmondson reunited for Bottom in 1992, a sitcom of squalor and physical humour that again exceeded boundaries of realism, it was like coming home. The characters – jobless ne’er do wells who share a Hammersmith flat and can live neither with nor without each other – were variations on their personas in The Young Ones but without a satirical eye. This time there was nobody in society to poke fun at; it was about the two of them, with little help from others, conceiving their own grimy little world ridden with desperation, bad puns, sexual inadequacy, outlandish violence and intentionally over-elaborate twists. Mayall was the frustrated, gloomy misanthrope who revelled in occasional victories of wit over Edmondson’s character, as useless as his counterpart but more worldly-wise, clever and with an unmatchable capacity for drink.
The show was Mayall’s finest as a post-alternative performer; the scripts didn’t always hit every height going but he exploded into the television screen with every wild scream of terror, evil guffaw or pompous bit of uninformed lecturing. This was the firebrand comic colossus he had always been, but this time he was being nothing more. The Young Ones gave him activism; Filthy, Rich & Catflap gave him satire; The New Statesman gave him a sinister side; Bottom gave him, very simply, licence to act like a child and be very, very funny with it. It is repeated more often than any of its predecessors.
There were some whiffy moments, mainly in longer productions. Drop Dead Fred, where he played the imaginary friend of an adult had concocted in childhood, was totally panned. Guest House Paradiso, a Bottom spin-off, was jokeless and directionless. The modern Comic Strip efforts, such as Four Men In A Car, were disappointing, although Mayall’s spoof adoration of Gold by Spandau Ballet after finding it on a cheap compilation CD he’d bought at a service station was enjoyably cruel. But in making some clunky choices, he wasn’t alone.
On stage, it was better – anyone who viewed a Bottom video or attended one of the many live shows will tell you that while the script was funny, the ad-libs and corpsing – Mayall was always more prone to that than Edmondson – would leave people fearing for their constitutions through laughter. Their comfort in performing together and trusting one another when stuff went awry was never more prominent, and it made them all the more loveable. And when Marks and Gran relaunched The New Statesman as a stage production, with B’Stard as a New Labour convert and fresh scripts each week to keep it topical, he was in his element – though again, the biggest laughs were reserved for his bouts of forgetfulness – brought on by the infamous quad bike crash in 1998 which left him technically dead for five days – and occasional turns to the audience to moan about the one-way system in whichever city they were in.
Edmondson’s desire to become slightly more befitting of a man in his 50s brought their partnership to an end a decade ago, and while he did BBC dramas and an ITV documentary series about Yorkshire, Mayall was forced to find his own new direction, and he too took on serious roles, while also clowning around as a narrator and on adverts, most notably sponsor bumpers on digital channels for Bombardier ale.
The death of Rik Mayall could be the first one that makes the Cream-era audience consider its own mortality. If we were old enough to remember him when he was 22 and affecting a ludicrous Birmingham accent while investigating sex (“I did find out that eating aphrodisiacs make you violently sick”), we’re now old enough to wonder when our own time will come, given that 56 is such a ludicrously young age to lose him, or anyone. For a drama student whose initial self-appointed brief was to make his own telly (“If there’s nothing on for you, you make it yourself”), he achieved so much.
The body of work he leaves behind is considerable; the adoration he attracted from pretty much everyone who watched him as a kid will remain undimmed. The influence he had on the whole shift in comic thinking, however, as comedians got cleverer, sillier and more politically aware, is probably impossible to put into words. He died once in The Young Ones (and tried to commit suicide another time) and a few times in Bottom (fell off a Ferris wheel via a ghostly hand, shot by “A-squad”, among others) but always came back for more.
That he won’t do this time isn’t just tragic, it feels very final for all of us.