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It was a shock yesterday to hear of the passing of Rik Mayall, at the age of just 56. Though he wasn't a prolific stage actor, I'd seen him in the West End in two Simon Gray plays - The Common Pursuit and the ill-fated Cell Mates, and at the National Theatre in a production of The Government Inspector.
In 2007, he returned to the West End in an updated stage version of The New Statesman, in which he had starred on TV. I interviewed him at the time and I can genuinely say it was one of the strangest interviews I've ever done. Given that it was for a website that no longer exists, I am reprinting it below.
But it turns out that I'm not the only one who's had "interesting" interviews: around the same time that I met him, Anthony Cooke did so for The Stage, and quoted him saying:
“Tricky one before we start. How do I present myself? Nice guy? Crazy mad guy? Good bloke?” Rik Mayall’s opening words say a lot about him – he’s not an easy actor to pin down.
In person, Mayall is genuinely very funny. He gets excited. He lays himself bare. He mentions things he probably shouldn’t. He says ‘fuck’ a lot.
A few minutes in, any prepared questions are out the window and I’m running to keep up.
And here's my own interview from January 2007:
Meeting Rik Mayall is slightly unnerving. He’s an iconic actor, familiar to audiences around Britain and the world for the roles he has created in A Kick Up the Eighties, The Young Ones, Bottom and The New Statesman (playing politician Alan B’Stard, a role that he is now reprising for a stage version in the West End). But it is not so much his reputation and standing that are intimidating as his erratic shifts of personality over the course of the half hour we spend together.
He has the familiar comedian’s fear of personal disclosure – though he is honest enough to admit to me: “I hate being interviewed. God knows I’m not someone who likes talking about himself a lot, and I’ve always hated telling the truth.” So he frequently deflects questions with sly humour whenever he can; or if that doesn’t work, he has the politician’s knack of simply answering another question entirely, which may or may not have a bearing on what you’ve just asked.
Or he turns the interview onto you – “Do you have any brothers and sisters? Did you have trouble with your parents? Didn’t they like you?” – and then announces, “I’ve been looking at your antennae and working out who you are and what you might write, dancing the dance with you. It’s taken me 10 minutes, but you’re very good.” Perhaps he’s trying yet another tack: flattery.
One minute he’s sending himself up; the next, he’s deadly earnest, but trying desperately not to seem “wanky”. Being with him is a like being on a rollercoaster: you’re being let onto the ride that is life. And it was a life that almost ended with a ride on a quad bike in 1998 that left him so seriously injured that he was technically declared dead. But he’s back with us now, and making a welcome return to the West End stage for the first time in more than a decade since his 1995 run in the Simon Gray play Cell Mates was brought to an abrupt end when co-star Stephen Fry walked out after a few days in the role and disappeared to Bruges.
Q: You – and the character of Alan B’Stard – are back, and we have to make the most if it. We haven’t got long, have we?
It is vital, wherever you are in the world, that you read this: This is Rik Mayall talking, it’s not some meaningless nonentity who is going to waste your time. This is THE Rik Mayall – the most fearful thing in the wilderness – and I am telling you that you’ve only got until the 27th of January to come to the Trafalgar Studios and see me and you better do that, because this is the greatest play ever written. Shakey Bill would have hung himself. And if Tony Blair loses his job and I’ve brought him down, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not many people bring down two Prime Ministers in their careers – but I’m going to do more than two. Bring me another bad one and I shall protect my British people – I brought down Thatcher to protect my people and I’m bringing down Tony to defend them, and I’ll be there for any other dangers that come along.
Q: Alan B’Stard was originally a Conservative – now he’s New Labour. It’s quite a journey you’ve been on with him.
Can you give me another character in drama that has stayed in existence from his 30s into his 50s? Who can you think of? No, I can’t either. Does it mean you don’t do those things? No, it means that Rik has broken another barrier of entertainment concepts. Yes, it does – I’ now a pan-global light entertainment phenomenon, not a mere award-winning top actor of the National Theatre [where he appeared in Gogol’s The Government Inspector].
Q: It’s quite a few years, though, since Alan B’Stard helped to topple Thatcher.
We brought out a series after she was gone, but we knew that there wasn’t really much to bring down with Major – there was nothing there to hit, so we called it off, and The New Statesman ended in 1993. But something that has been important to me is never to repeat myself, never to go back. I once met Little Richard – it just so happened that little Ben Elton and me were bringing out a book about the Young Ones. We were in some cool club last century; in Soho, and it so happened that Little Richard was bringing out a book about himself – and he’s only one of my all-time heroes! In the autobiography I wrote a couple of years ago – called Bigger Than Hitler, Better than Christ, because I don’t fuck about with the truth – there’s a photo of me and Ben and Little Richard! And it was him who told me, “Always stop at the top!” He was talking about performance: he said that you’ve got to get the audience high before you’re even on the stage, and when they are high, that’s when you go on there – then you get to take them higher and take them higher, till they can’t get any higher. Then you get off that stage – and you don’t come back.
Q: But you HAVE come back with Alan B’Stard?
No, you’ve misunderstood. We killed the Young Ones – at the top! We killed Bottom – at the top! We killed The New Statesman – at the top – although we kind of hung on a bit after the top had gone, though we didn’t know it! So you could say, this goes against your principles then, Rik, doing Alan B’Stard again? That would mean you’re a very ignorant, irrelevant, small piece of barely human flesh form waste of oxygen if you posed that one at me. Not that you did.
Q: So why are you re-visiting the character in that case?
It actually took me by surprise. The boys [Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who wrote the TV series] gave me the script. But I wouldn’t have done it if it was wrong and wasn’t funny or it seemed inappropriate or especially if just seemed pathetic – like hey guys, let’s all do the Old Ones! No! That would just embarrass me and kill me. But although you could have thought that Alan was just a member of the right-wing me-me-me 80s generation, he’s a bigger character than that. He is not just an 80s figure – he IS British politics, or rather what it has become. He’s the evil, selfish fighter who shits on the people, who takes their money and dumps on them. Alan took the Labour Party, which used to defend the British working class, and destroyed it. He called it New Labour and picked someone from nowhere, Tony Blair, to put in front of it. So Alan is responsible for the last ten years of British unhappiness. And if your readership wants to be associated with contemporary culture in a meaningful way, then buy a ticket to come and see The New Statesman – they will participate in the destruction of the current British establishment, and it’s important for my people, who I have rescued before and I shall rescue again. I don’t leave the Somme. I stay in the trenches and I lead. Others don’t even look over each shoulder – they just slither out the back of the trench and fuck off to Bruges, claiming to be sad. But men of honour don’t do that.
Q: That was a very bruising time for you, wasn’t it, when Stephen Fry, your fellow cellmate in Cell Mates, walked out suddenly.
You don’t leave the trenches – especially if the other actors become unemployed and they’re poor anyway. Selfishness is one thing, being a cunt is another. I mustn’t start that war again – but then I don’t start them, I finish them.
Q: And this play enables you go finish a war on Tony Blair…
When Tony Blair won the election in 1997, he asked everyone he loved round to Downing Street – there was French and Saunders and Harry Enfield, all having a good time – everyone was there except for me and Ade [Edmondson, his longtime comedy partner]. We said to each other, we’re glad we weren’t asked – at least we’re still outlaws. But how can I say that this play is now revenge?
Q: Your first West End play was another Simon Gray play, The Common Pursuit, which you also did with Stephen Fry. When was that?
I honestly can’t remember and that’s the truth. You’ll have to look it up [it was 1988 at the Phoenix Theatre]. All I’ve got is in here [he points at his forehead], and that’s fucked. Because I died in 1998. I was technically dead for five days – that’s why I’m better than Christ. He was dead on Good Friday, but came to life on Easter Sunday. Whereas on what’s called Crap Thursday in my household, I had my accident – assassinated by the Tony Blair administration -- and was technically dead until the following Bank Holiday Monday five days later. So I beat Jesus Christ five-three. Tell me someone else who has done that!
Q: You did very well!
Fuck right! I met God, and he sent me back down here – he gave me a second chance, because he needed me to get rid of Tony.
Q: The great thing about this play is that you can keep it spontaneous. Marks and Gran add new jokes, don’t they, whenever something happens in the news?
They gave me a handful of jokes about Pinochet as soon as he died. They are so creative.
Q: Whereas you can’t do that with a Simon Gray play, can you?
You do if Simon’s not in!
Q: But the stage presents its own unique challenges and rewards, doesn’t I?
This is a company of actors who move to the same beat and rhythm as me – when I move one way, they move that way with me. Working with Garry Coooper, Helen Baker and Kamaal Hussein has been amazing. There haven’t been two identical performances in the run. It really depends on who the audience is. London audiences are the most challenging around – it’s a group of such diverse strangers. To be able to get their clothes off and to lock them together in one unit of passion is the challenge – there might be a Yugoslav, someone from Islington, a couple of Scousers in the audience, but by the end they’re a locked revolutionary cabal. That’s the excitement, can’t you see? People might read this and think I’m very pretentious, but rather than sounding pretentious, what people don’t know is that pretension is just a mere skein for the actual heavily defended insanity which very few people see, which God gave me for our people – His and mine.
Q: Well, loving the theatre requires a bit of insanity – I think I’m insane, too, to do what I do.
Don’t be cheap! Insanity is a very high art form. If everyone was insane, I wouldn’t be here!
Q: But it’s all about loving what we do…
That’s the bottom line, yes. It’s just a selfish pleasure. And it probably looks wanky to say my selfish pleasure is to make an awful lot of people laugh, but it’s true.
Q: When did you discover you had that ability?
When I was a little boy, at Rashwood County Primary School near Droitwich in Worcestershire, all the little girls and boys were stood on the table and the parents came in to hear us sing Christmas carols. I was about three and a half, and I can still fucking remember this – the teacher came up and said to me before, “now Richard, don’t sing – I want all the children to sing, but not you, because you’ve got a horrible voice. So just move your mouth to look like you’re singing, but don’t sing, ok?” So in came the mums and dads, and while all the other kids were being good, I was being bad. Not technically bad, because I did what I was told and didn’t make any noise, but I was moving my mouth very stupidly and waving my bottom around, and I got big laughs – and they were good laughs as well. I thought I like this! Until the middle of the concert and in front of 40 parents, I was pulled off the table by my ear and taken into the corner of the room. I was still pulling faces and getting laughs and I wasn’t even onstage!
Q: It’s a lesson you’ve obviously taken into your professional life!
This isn’t wank, but the real joy of it is the real sensual engagement with the audience. Really – I’m being honest with you now. I don’t want to classify myself as just funny or just frightening, but as someone who is utterly sensually engaged with the audience, who can feel what they need and give it to them. I can sense what a large group wants – I’m telling you, it’s sexual, really. There are times after a good show when I’m sitting drained in the dressing room and it’s really post-coital.
Q: And what about bad nights?
It’s a silly question – I never come offstage until I’m satisfied!