Monday 9 June 2014

Remembering Rik Mayall

I'm expecting this to get lost. It's the one thing that's making me feel like I'm not jumping on a bandwagon or trying to make this all about me. I'm expecting the outpouring of emotion and memories about Rik Mayall to be so enormous that this is just going to be one of the flow.

I'm 34 and I'm not quite sure how that's happened. It seems to have happened incredibly quickly, because somehow, Rik Mayall was a big part of my life a long time ago. It seems and feels like it was still fairly recent, because his death brings so many vivid memories flooding forward that it feels like I've only just experienced them. But I mention my age because it puts me squarely in a generation that grew up with Rik Mayall.

The first thing that I remember him from was The Young Ones - specifically, The Young Ones singing 'Living Doll' with Cliff Richard. It was anarchic and it was silly and it was a little bit rude (at least, the bits that I understood) and I was absolutely blown away by it. I immediately became a huge fan of The Young Ones, whenever I was able to see it.

Looking back, I've no idea what my parents were playing at, letting me watch The Young Ones at that age. But I'm exceptionally glad that they did. Well, I'm not actually that surprised that they did. I was of the age where so many of the jokes went over my head that all I really had was the sheer silliness and the characters.
We forget, I think, that we were accepting of so much stuff going over our heads as children. It's like growing up and realising just how much of Grease was actually about sex, because you were young enough to just not know what 'flogging your log' was. There was so much stuff flying over our heads that you mainly asked about the things that you needed to understand for plot reasons. Danny's going home to flog his log... I think I associated that a bit with log rolling or something else boring that he'd rather do than hang around with the others.

 But with Rik Mayall, there wasn't that need. He was just funny - naturally and consistently. He had an incredible energy, a dangerous and manic quality that meant you couldn't help but watch him. The next thing I saw him in was Blackadder as Lord Flashheart. A character that's onscreen in total over two episodes for about 15 minutes and yet is one of the most immediately recognisable and quotable characters ever written in comedy. When I realised that Flash and Rick were played by the same actor, I just fell in love.

It helped that Mayall had a beautifully childlike quality about him, which made him a natural for story-telling, which he seemed to enjoy just as much as anyone listening when he gleefully played around with inevitably disgusting details. It felt a little bit like he was recognising and encouraging something in the children that adored him, which made it all feel a bit naughty and yet freeing.

It was this quality that likely saw the creation of Drop Dead Fred - a movie that doesn't quite work, but through no fault of the full-on performance by Mayall that's made it a favourite of lots of people in their early-to-mid-thirties. He just threw himself about the screen like a cross between Miranda Richardson's Queenie and a Looney Tunes character. A film that was a little grown up for a kid's audience but a bit too childish for an adult audience, I can't help but wonder how it could have worked with someone like Sarah Silverman opposite Rik, able to tap into the little girl that would have been just as manic as Mayall.

As much as I loved the work that he did in the UK (especially Bottom and the New Statesman), I always felt a little like he was underestimated as a talent. The at-times-stunning Rik Mayall Presents - a short series of one-off stories, usually showing a more serious side to his phenomenal acting ability - displayed him at his peak. Dark, sympathetic or just pathetic... he was an amazingly versatile actor. Kevin Turvey, Rick, Richard Richard, Drop Dead Fred and Alan B'Stard. While you never forgot that you were watching Rik Mayall, all you'd need is a second of any of them to recognise them instantly. Most comedians never get to create one iconic character. Mayall created numerous. There may have been some DNA in common between them, but you'd never mistake one for the other.

Bottom was, of course, magnificent - the live shows were riotously funny at times, and showed off how much fun he seemed to be having sometimes. Sadly, that fun wasn't always there. Mayall could, by some accounts, be awkward and arsey at times, especially following the quad bike accident that almost (and technically did) kill him. Suffering from long-term effects of the accident, it appears that his frustration occasionally made him difficult to work with.

He worked less after he recovered from the accident, but there were still flashes of the brilliance that had been there before. I'd always hoped that he'd have a late autumn in his career, ideally moving towards more straight acting. He was incredibly charismatic and the intensity that he carried as a performer always put me in mind of Jack Nicholson. I'm not intending to exaggerate when I say that I absolutely believe he could have been that good.

If I feel sad now, it's because for all his talent and for all his achievements, it still never feels like Rik Mayall got the opportunities on a worldwide basis that seemed due. I always thought it would happen one day. I always wanted his talent to get more recognition. I wish I'd kept up with more of his work in recent years, because he's a performer I always enjoyed watching.

As it is, though, I don't feel that sad. I feel lucky and many of us should. I got to grow up watching Rik Mayall, that dangerous jester that appeared to terrify adults while sharing a wink with the children. He let us in on the joke and the jokes were fantastic. Rik Mayall is one of the greatest performers ever to have been on television. It is obviously sad that he has died, but it was a privilege to be alive when he was.

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