"Trick or Ruddy Treat": Remembering The People's Poet Rik Mayall
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
"May I say what a smashing blouse you have on." - Richard Richard, Bottom
We all remember our first encounter with Rik Mayall. How could you forget? I must have been seven or eight when I first saw Bottom (1991 - 1995). On Saturday nights I was allowed to stay up shockingly late, even later if Mum was working a night shift. We would each pick out a treat for the evening - whilst my brother and sister were consistent with their Yorkie and Skittles, I was rather contrary, changing from season to season... so it must have been a dairy milk bar for the Mars Bar fad was much later, with the Double Decker soon taking it's place - get J2O if we were lucky. I would sit on my dad's legs and we'd all watch TV.
First on the programme was always BBC's Casualty, which now I look back seems a weird thing for us all too be so engaged in, and from such a young age. My mother is a nurse, so maybe we just felt closer to her by watching it even if we scolded her when, she was present, for calling out all the inaccuracies. We loved the drama of it all... and the accidents.
But after Casualty, it was a free for all. For dad that is. The remote controller holder. He skimmed the channels, just as he does now, infuriatingly skipping between half-finished films, music videos and clips of comedies. It was, however, how I discovered Adam Ant - in those swashbuckling Highway Men boots - and my love of 80's music. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes, 1986) and Father Ted (1995 - 1998) were other significant late night watches which stayed with me. Countless age inappropriate viewings were done during this time. But we loved it then. Now I want to ring dads neck as he jumps all over the place. I'm beginning to believe he's never watched a complete film in his life.
"It's the Gasman!" - Rik, Bottom
But one that stuck with me and shocked me to my core was the discovery of Bottom. I remember being exceedingly tired. It was probably only about ten o'clock, but for a seven year old I thought I was partying with the best of them. Dad was doing his usual thing. Skipping, scanning all the channels with little focus. And we landed on something grimy, bleak and miserable. The men were discussing a yogurt growing cress that they removed from the dirtiest fridge I have even seen on telly. And then they started beating one another up. When you're younger, the rude jokes go over your head, but the physical fighting cracks you up. Like a Carry On..., you just like when they pull a funny face with silly music but when you grow up, the innuendos pack a fabulous comedy punch.
We were in hysterics, all of us. And Dad left it on, knowing the dirty stuff would go over our heads. I loved it and the image of the mouldy yogurt. Never had I seen anything like it, lived anything like it. And the sweaty man that kept getting beaten up enraptured me with his ridiculous face and flamboyancy. That man was Rik Mayall.
“The bathroom’s free. Unlike the country under the Thatcherite junta!” - Rik, The Young Ones
Rik Mayall was a comedian who rose to fame with comedy partner, Ade Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry to name a few, during the Alternative comedy phase of the early 80's that seems to begin at the Comedy Store comedy club in Manchester. Wanting to produce comedy that was not racist, sexist and against the norm of the regular household names of the time, it's off-beat, madcap style changed the face of youth TV forever. And they hated Thatcher Britain which was an absolute bonus!
Mayall lead the way, as both a writer and a star, with comedies like The Young Ones (1982 - 1984) on BBC, The Comic Strip (1982 - 2016), which launched with Channel 4 - With one of their many creations doing a Spinal Tap before This is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984) with the gloriously stupid Bad News. Later on he became known for other outstanding works such as The New Statesman (running from 1987 - 1994, a political satire about a despicable conservative yuppie in Thatcherite Britain), Blackadder (1983 - 1989) in one of the greatest recurring characters in British comedy ever, Lord Flashheart (Example: "Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it, doesn't mean that I'm not sick of this damn war: The blood, the noise, the endless poetry"), the critically successful Rik Mayall Presents... (1993 -1995) and Bottom. He would own every room he was in with his vibrant, loud comment. Not only would he chew the furniture, he would probably hump it too.
Heavily inspired by Samuel Beckett, Bottom is different from the other works of Mayall and Edmondson as so many of the episodes are very self-contained sometimes limited to just the two of them. This, in the years to come, would influence much of my own work, as I love leaving two characters to their own devices. One of the stand out episodes of Bottom, in series three, episode one called Hole (even the name of the show is a joke, all the titles go with the Bottom) takes place entirely on a Ferris Wheel and it is the the peak of their marvellous storytelling and comedic timing. Not a minute is wasted and every single one of them is hilarious.
“And the reason we were laughing so much was—honestly you’re going to love this, we [fill in amusing and heart-warming anecdote here].” - Rik Mayall, Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ
Why am I talking so much about Mayall? Why am I even writing about this? I'm a massive fan, always will be. He changed the way I thought of comedy and my sense of humour. But I also grew up with him. He was the voice of Toad (very fittingly) in my favourite adaptation of The Wind in the Willows (Unwin, Abey, 1995) which I still watch to this day and is the reason he is one of my favourite fictional character of all time. He was in lot's of things I watched as a child that I remember on the peripheral like Drop Dead Fred (de Jong, 1991). But also, I still remember seeing Bottom at such a young age, seeing them in the sex shop (which I was oblivious to), in the pub being rejected by multiple women - just seeing the chaos.
And I rediscovered him when I was older. I bought the box set of Bottom and watched it in my new, unfurnished bedroom lying on a fold out mattress and laughing into the night. It was insanity. It was high-energy. I wanted to be that. (Also, Richard Richard is me. On my own birthday, I'm the first to sing 'Happy Birthday' to myself and make my presence known. I can be just as self-involved and I would, without a doubt in my mind, wrap up every individual item of the Christmas dinner and put it in my stocking to make it look like I had more presents.) Reliving all the hilarious moments again, I began to buy his other work such as The Young Ones and was excited by all the works I still had to go through.
“...And the kids will say: ‘Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!'” - Rik, The Young Ones
And then then news came out that he had died. It felt like part of my childhood had gone with him. I was heartbroken. For someone so influential to me but who I had only just rediscovered, I couldn't explain why it had affected me so deeply. But through his death I had an epiphany. That I didn't want to live like I was; working a job I hated and doing nothing with my life, hoping for something to happen.
I had to do something. I left my job, applied and got into Manchester university. I wanted to change my life. And I wanted to start writing again, properly. and I did for a while. Whilst watching everything Mayall ever made.
"Insanity is a very high art form. If everyone was insane, I wouldn't be here!" - Rik Mayall
I was relentless, working though his back catalogue like a maniac. First seeing The New Statesman on an old videotape and then buying a lot of his stuff spending a lot of money, rinsing The Comic Strip, replaying the very romantic and funny TV movie Dancing Queen (Hamm, 1993) on repeat and watching over and over and over every morning Bottom and The Young Ones. It was an obsession. It seems insane now but I felt I needed to make up for all the time I hadn't spent on it, researching how he wrote, how he performed. Everything was necessary for me to work. Eventually this obsession went away as well (thank goodness!) but it was a vital time for me. If you ever get a chance to read his 'autobiography', Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ, do. It's one of the funniest books I've ever read and a wonderful example of his writing ability and character performance.
I didn't stay at that University, It got too much for me. I returned home, I had to look for another job. I felt like a failure. Much of my work was weak then because I imitated rather than had my own voice. But I learnt that his influence didn't leave me as I discovered from later works; It was very much there. That love of innuendo, the character, the style.
I became healthier and over time I picked myself back up and tried again, applying for Brighton Film School. And getting in. Although it was not perfect, those three years, I found my voice, made some amazing life long friends, stepped out of my comfort zone and have begun writing again. This time less self-consciously. All because Rik Mayall inspired me to be the better me.
I can be gloriously stupid, but if it helps to divert peoples attentions from the grimness of life, I’m happy." - Rik Mayall, interview with the Daily Mail, September 2003
I never forgot what I learnt from Rik Mayall, the man with a lust for life. Sometimes I find myself doubting myself I think of him and his never ending optimism. And I know what I need to know. To live my life and to love it. To push boundaries in all I do. To laugh. To be playful. To be a good human. I think of his many zany characters; Rik the Poet, Richard Richard, Colin the Bassist, Lord Flashheart, Toad of Toad Hall, Alan B'stard... and I always smile. He was there for me at the most significant time in my life, during my greatest stresses and hardships and I will be forever grateful to his work. Even now I stick on an episode of something and will feel better. Just before I wrote this article I watched Bottom, Burglary ("One lump or two mister burglar..."). You see, this is the power art and comedy had over me.
This was a gushy post, I know, but I wanted to share something that meant a lot to me about one of my heroes. Because some people, you've never even met, are significant to you in more ways that even you can comprehend. Years on I still feel like I have to justify why I care. And I do care. Six years on and I haven't forgotten this is the day we lost Rik Mayall and the day I thought I lost a part of my childhood. But I didn't, of course I didn't. I remember him and the joy he still brings me. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.
"You go out there and have a fucking good life" - Rik Mayall, University of Exeter, 2008
Bottom Series 1-3. (2005). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: 2 Entertain Video
Blackadder Remastered. (2009). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: 2 Entertain Video
The Young Ones Complete. (2007). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: 2 Entertain Video
The New Statesman. (2006). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: Network
Rik Mayall Presents... (2006). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: Network