Comedy has lost an icon and innovator and I have lost a formative, guiding light….
Rik Mayall passed away yesterday at the age of 56 leaving behind a wife and 3 children and a legacy that has (justifiably) resulted in him being labelled a comedy God. You can read about his career and what not here. That he was a huge part of the alternative comedy scene in the 80s is without doubt, alongside the likes of Ben Elton, Alexie Sayle, Peter Richardson et al, Mayall was a founding father of the scene creating characters that will live on far past his death. His career and achievements can be summed up by someone better than me, to be honest. I just want to write about what part Rik played in my life.
Much like my musical beginnings, my comedy beginnings stem from friend’s older brothers. Back in 1991, I heard from my friend Richard, about this show called ‘Bottom’. He told me it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen, bearing in mind that I was 11 and he was 12 this wasn’t that much of an accolade given our short lifespans, but it still sold me on the idea of the show. He mentioned a live show that was so rude it could never be broadcast on TV (something I think is still true today….). Obviously my interest in the show was more about being part of a crowd (initially) than anything else but after watching an episode…. it was instantaneously about loving the show. It wasn’t until a good few years later that I realised I had already experienced Rik’s genius acting via Children’s BBC and the much-lauded performance he gave of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine on Jackanory. Imbuing the reading with so much of his OTT vim and vigour acting that parents complained.
Over the next 3/4 years Bottom would shape my life. Sounds extreme, but true. I had just entered high school and the pressures of making friends, losing friends, having falling outs with friends, trying to be cool, trying to be individual, trying to be part of a crowd….. Bottom shaped my humour. I remember one time during morning break quoting a little bit of a Richie speech (can’t remember which one) and it getting a bit of a laugh. That was it for me. Laughs meant an acceptance of sorts. I was on to something here. So I started adapting the Bottom humour and sensibilities into my own humour. The use of double entendre, the use of smut, connotations…… it became my thing for a while. I’m sure after about a day, my friends were pretty bored of me inserting a knob (ooh-err!) gag into every other conversation, but it was my schtick; it was what I did.
In 1995 I finally got the opportunity to see Bottom live on stage at St David’s Hall in Cardiff. I was 16, so well below the age restriction of 18 but being tall for my age, I got away with it. Actually me even going to the show was a huge surprise for me. My Mum picked me up from school one day and told me she had managed to get a ticket for the sold-out show for me. She was in town on the day of the show at an Ade Edmondson book signing for his novel fiction ‘The Gobbler’ (another surprise present for me albeit this time for Christmas) and called into the box office just on the off-chance that they had any returned tickets. And they did. In row D (4 rows from the front!!!) seat 50. A bit of sweet and sour here as I was indeed 4 rows from the stage but so far to the left that whenever Rik & Ade went stage right, I could no longer see them! I knew there was a parrot in the show but until I got the VHS for Christmas, I’d never actually seen the parrot!
My best friend in school was also a John (by that I mean his name was John too. He wasn’t a pimp, we went to a church school, thank you very much). He was the yin to my yang. He was responsible for setting me on another course in life by introducing me to a new set of friends. John and I not only shared the same first name we also shared a love of Bottom, me more than him I suspect, but we still laughed together about it. We quoted lines from the show but we also morphed it into our speech; into the way we were with each other. We became a watered down version (to a degree) of Richie and Eddie. At one point, I even approached our drama teacher with the idea that John and I would perform one of the episodes from series 1 on the school stage as part of some concert or another (it would have been edited for language and content).With John, I felt invincible. I could say things that were a bit rude and get away with it. Bottom drew us together, made our friendship stronger through shared love of the show (amongst other things). When John and I came to do our GCSE Drama performance of Ayckbourn’s ‘Gosforth’s Fete’, I suspect that was more than a little bit of Rik and Ade in our performances, particularly the scene when John’s character had to storm on stage and call me a “bastard” for getting his girlfriend pregnant!
In 2001 I again saw Bottom live on the 4th tour (Arse Oddity). This time I was with a group of friends and could see the whole stage! Great seats again, row G, centre. As it was in an arena this time there was much more of a “party” vibe and atmosphere. The heckling was more frequent but Rik and Ade dealt with it in their usual manner. Although I do recall they had security eject one persistent (drunk) heckler when it became detrimental to the show. Also of note was one of my friends (who shall remain nameless…..) in a fit of drunken-ness decided to go over to a girl in the row in front of us and ask her out. She said no. For a few years that made us all chuckle.
In 2007 I met Rik. My brother, my mate Dave and I went to see the stage version of The New Statesman. Afterwards me and Dave hung around the stage door (with a bunch of other people) waiting for Rik to appear. He popped his head out and said he’d be with us shortly and then suddenly he was. He was everything you want him to be and more. Charming, generous, funny and rude. My turn came to get a signature and I managed to untie my tongue long enough to thank him for his work. He then proceeded to ask me a joke which totally confused me. For the life of me I cannot remember the joke itself. It was something along the lines of:
RIK: What’s the best thing about four 21 one year old’s?
ME: (Missing the point that I was supposed to repeat his line) Ummm there’s four of them?
RIK: (Laughing) God, you’re shit at this!
He signed my programme, posed for a (sadly, blurry) picture and that was it. I moved to the side and marvelled at the fact that I had met the man who meant so much to me growing up; whose work (in partnership with Ade) had had such an impact on me; that had shaped my humour
We never really know the real person behind the celebrity. By all accounts Rik was a charming, quiet, thoughtful man in direct contradiction to the characters he played. But I only know that from what I’ve read. I don’t know Rik the man. I only knew his work. And I loved it. And I will miss, not the man, but his work. It is devastating that there will be no more new Rik Mayall genius for me to savour and laugh at for the rest of my life. A key icon from my formative years has left us. And whilst we feel sad, his family must be distraught and my thoughts and heart go out to them. What we, those that new Rik the actor, are left with is a body of work that will stand the test of time. Work that I hope to be able to share with my kid and say “You roll your eyes when I make that joke but THIS is where it comes from. Albeit much more funnier”. From Bad News to Bottom, from The Young Ones to The New Statesman, from Blackadder to Man Down. The breadth and depth of his work from comedy to drama is a treasure trove of nuance, OTT-ness, darkness, lightness and downright ruddy brilliance. But….. you know…. I’d give all of that back to still have him here in the world with us.
Thank you, Rik, from the bottom of my heart. I’ll miss you.
You can watch the genius at play here:
- Bottom Live
- Bottom Live: The Big Number 2 Tour
- Bottom Live 3: Hooligan’s Island
- Bottom Live 4: An Arse Oddity