Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Rik Mayall

Rik Mayall
Image caption Kevin Turvey gave Mayall his big break on television

With a face seemingly made of the most pliable variety of rubber and a manic energy almost too wild for the mainstream, Richard 'Rik' Michael Mayall, it seems, was bound for a future in comedy.

Born in Harlow, Essex but raised in Worcestershire, Mayall spent his younger years performing in plays written by his parents, who had both attended London's Central School Of Speech and Drama.

"I obviously always wanted to be looked at as a kid," he said in a 1982 interview with The Face magazine.

"Really embarrassing, ugly things I used to do. If it was my brother or sister's birthday, I'd sulk all day. I remember being six and having my birthday party. A kid called Sid Prior was talking a lot and gaining all the attention, so I hit him over the head with the hammer from the children's toolkit I'd just been given."

He left home in 1976 to study drama at Manchester University and it was there that Mayall met Adrian 'Ade' Edmondson, with whom he would form one of the most successful comedy partnerships of the 1980s and 90s.

'Show off'

His big break came performing with his new-found comedy partner at London's Comedy Store under the guise of 20th Century Coyote.

"In the mid-70s, most of it [comedy] was very experimental, often punk-influenced," he remembered.

"A lot of it wasn't much fun, but I learnt from those guys... We wanted it to be much more humorous."

Coyote, formed in the summer of 1978, went on to play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

His double act with Edmondson included the extreme, violent slapstick of The Dangerous Brothers - a forerunner of their later, hugely successful TV show Bottom.

Image caption Mayall and Edmondson's partnership spanned three decades

"I was always a show-off and liable to get over-excited. But I have got it under control. I now find people who can't control their energy very funny," he told The Sunday Times in 1983.

Mayall also wrote solo routines, creating characters such as self-styled "investigative journalist" Kevin Turvey and pompous, anarchist poet Rick.

Turvey gave Mayall his first television break in BBC Scotland sketch show A Kick up the Eighties.

"The idea behind Kevin was to take the most boring man in the world, being as boring as possible, and make it funny," said Mayall in 1982.

Cult TV hit

"Part of my intention with Kevin was to waste 10 minutes of television time. What's funny about Kevin is that he thinks he knows what he's doing. He's patronising; here's someone more stupid than you trying to explain things."

20th Century Coyote eventually moved out of the Comedy Store and into their own venue, now called The Comic Strip Club, held at the Raymond Revue bar in Soho.

It was the launching pad for the talents of Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, and French and Saunders.

It also led to the cult television hit The Comic Strip Presents… which began with Five Go Mad in Dorset, a parody of The Famous Five.

In 1982, Mayall's solo character Rick would return, this time as an undergraduate in a student house in The Young Ones.

Image caption The Young Ones also launched the career of Alexei Sayle (far-left)

Along with Ade Edmondson as violent punk Vyvyan, paranoid hippie Neil and the suave and shady Mike, the characters would go on to become household names.

Equal parts subversive and silly, the show combined traditional sitcom style with violent slapstick and surrealism and featured live musical performances by the likes of Madness, Motorhead, and The Damned.

The reason for including the live performance, apparently, was that the BBC had to categorise the show as light entertainment rather than situation comedy, which meant it got a larger budget.

'Stop snogging'

According to director Ed Bye, the show was popular with policemen, a fact which upset Mayall greatly.

The show ran until 1984 and, in 2004, was voted number 31 in the BBC's best sitcom poll.

It also spawned the first ever Comic Relief single - a cover version of Cliff Richard's Living Doll, with the comedians providing discordant backing vocals.

"Everybody, everywhere, stop snogging," commanded Mayall over the song's intro. "Put on your dancing trousers and get down to the total and utter king of Rock and Roll".

Mayall followed The Young Ones with Filthy, Rich and Catflap which ran for a single series. He also appeared in another new BBC comedy series by the name of Blackadder, alongside Rowan Atkinson. He would make several cameos, most memorably as the roguish Lord Flashheart.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mayall took Alan B'Stard on a live tour in 2006

In 1987, Mayall debuted another of his most famous roles - the conniving, ruthless Tory MP Alan B'Stard in ITV satire The New Statesman. It ran for four series on ITV, and returned for several specials in the 1990s.

The character was created when Mayall had approached writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran at an ITV seminar and asked them to write him a script.

"We didn't know what it was going to be," Marks told the BBC. "Once he told us he liked murdering people and double-crossing them and lying and cheating, either Maurice or I said 'you sound like you should be playing a Conservative politician'."

Despite his thorough unpleasantness, the character managed to become something of a sex symbol for the 80s.

"I want to make all my characters ugly, " he told Jan Etherington for TV Times in 1987. "Whenever I play someone I disapprove of, I make him ugly, but they said, 'Stop pulling faces and be cool.'

"I've always had fan-mail from girls, but I just thought it was rather silly, Very flattering, but rather silly. It just happens when you're famous..."

Mayall had a crack at Hollywood in 1991, as Phoebe Cates's imaginary friend Drop Dead Fred in the film of the same name.

It was British film company Working Title's first financial hit and was apparently, at the time, the most successful independent film ever released in Australia.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Edmondson and Mayall starred on stage in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot

Not everyone was thrilled, however. One review stated: "Phoebe Cates' appealing performance can't salvage this putrid mess... recommended only for people who think nose-picking is funny".

Also in 1991, Mayall teamed up with Edmondson for the slapstick BBC comedy Bottom.

A bleak story of two losers, Richie Richard (Mayall) and Eddie Elizabeth Hitler (Edmondson), it was inspired by the duo's stage performance in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot.

"That's essentially a British comedy thing," Mayall told Vox Magazine, "because as a nation I think we look at ourselves as losers, but with delusions of grandeur, pomposity, and a feeling that we should be up there when we are in reality down here, serving and having to deal politely with conventions and people we despise."

Three series were shown on BBC Two between 1991-95 and the show spawned several national tours.

The pair were due to star in a spinoff show called Hooligans Island but Edmondson pulled out, which caused something of a rift between them, though it is understood they later cleared the air.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The star had three children with his wife, Barbara

Mayall said: "I thought it would be fun and Ade thought it would be fun but then he had a change of heart. It's a shame."

Recently, Mayall starred opposite comedian Greg Davies in the Channel 4 comedy Man Down, playing Davies' father.

Davies said: "He gave me a hug and that was his opener. Just straight in with a hug it was lovely and I knew this is my dad even though, as I'm sure Twitter will go mental with pointing it out that he's only 10 years older than me."

Speaking to the Radio Times in February, Davies had suggested the second series of the show would give Mayall a more prominent role.

"I am sure we will see a lot more of Mr Mayall. He is one of my comedy heroes," the comedian said.

Mayall leaves his wife Barbara and three children.

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