Rik Mayall remembered

NATALIE BOCHENSKI
Last updated 07:28 10/06/2014
Rik Mayall Bottom

FUNNY GUYS: Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall as Richie and Eddie in Bottom.

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I was nine years old when I fell in love with Rik Mayall.

To begin with, I didn't know who he was, only that he played the brilliantly arrogant blond-haired, moustachioed pilot Lord Flashheart on Blackadder Goes Forth.

Vain and promiscuous but undeniably talented and really damn cool, Lord Flash had the kind of "F--- you" chutzpah that the younger me (hell, me now) desperately wanted. He was the kind of person who melted hearts, dropped jaws and punched Germans, all before breakfast.

Later, in my teenage years, I would realise he only appeared on one out of six episodes in that season; to my younger mind he had been so big, so bright, so loud, so fun, so captivating that he defined the whole final series for me.

Mayall was the King of Crude, the Rumpelstiltskin of Rude. No one - except perhaps his longtime writing and acting partner Adrian Edmondson - could spin smut, filth, grubbiness, indecency and the downright wrong into more delightful comedic gold.

Children begin life obsessed with their bodily fluids and emissions, and delight in the simplicity of slapstick, but most grow out of it, or at least pretend to be more sophisticated.

Mayall never lost the sense of how that stuff could shock adults, and shock them even more when they believed he should know better. He did of course; that's why it worked.

Smut flowed smoothly from Mayall's mouth, whether in a bravura character like Lord Flash, or a more put upon one like Rick, his acne-ridden, lisping anarchist with a penchant for bad pop music, from the seminal early '80s student share house sitcom The Young Ones.

The dialogue for both of course came from the pen of Ben Elton, another master of the toilet humour turn of phrase.

Mayall's rants, terrible poetry and general annoyingness made him lovable; indeed the first tweets to start circulating after news of his death broke were the immortal lines "He's dead! The People's Poet is dead!"

It remains the role he is best known for in Australia; but I only reached it in the early '90s, by which time I had already become obsessed with Bottom, the sitcom he and Edmondson wrote and starred in together.

As Hammersmith flatmates Richie and Eddie, they were Rick and Vyvyan grown-up, their loser young adulthood blossoming into nothing more than loser middle-age: unemployable, drunk, lacking romance or basic human empathy, their lives a spiral of cartoonish violence.

They were stupid, offensive and on occasion creepy, but they always got their comeuppance and damn, they were just funny.

Who else would think of ideas like having a "See How Much Custard You Can Fit in Your Underpants" competition, devote 10 minutes of one episode to commentating a local riot, or set one entire episode on a dodgy ferris wheel?

Eddie would get drunk on Old Spice and need to be resuscitated with an iron, Richie would fall down the stairs and get his head stuck in the toilet, Richie would recruit Eddie to be his butler to impress a date, then serve caviar from a bin. All of this would be accompanied by punch-ups, dust-ups, wind-ups, fall downs and knob gags.

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I loved Richie's pathetic neediness and bitterness as much as I had loved Lord Flashheart's superiority complex.

Those characters made me, as a pre-teen, start to really look at humour, to examine jokes, to work out how a funny sequence was constructed, how to create good characters, and comedic principles like the "rule of threes" and the fact that the word "knob" is always funny.

A friend and I would recite dialogue at each other in class; my mum used to tell me off for saying "bollocks", "bugger" and "bastard" too much (I loved hearing her ask if I knew what those words meant).

Bottom toured the UK regularly through the '90s and early '00s; I used to order the shows on VHS then watch and rewatch. They could swear in the live shows, and Mayall had a glorious talent for swearing. He was Shakespeare's clown and Beckett's buffoon but he was the James Joyce of modern comedic cursing.

In those same years he was also playing impoverished Richie's polar opposite as greedy Conservative MP Alan B'Stard in the parody The New Statesman; he also starred as the titular imaginary friend in 1991's Drop Dead Fred, probably his best-known film. In more recent years he had a recurring role on detective series Jonathan Creek as a policeman whose intellect and powers of observation almost matched the hero.

A couple of gems to grab are the 1998 BBC drama-thriller In the Red, in which Mayall showed off his remarkable dramatic capabilities as a fantastically immoral economist; and the sitcom Believe Nothing, in which he played the smartest man in Britain, Professor Adonis Cnut (the wordplay by no means an accident), who solves problems and mysteries with the help of a faithful manservant.

Every Mayall fan knows that nose of his; the way he would push it forward like a pig's snout to look slimy or grovelly, tilt it up to look haughty, or pair it with a raised lip and maniacal grin to look scheming or clever. No other performer, serious or comedic, has ever acted so well with their nose.

Mayall had cheated death once before. In 1998, he crashed a quad bike Edmondson had given him as a present.

It happened the day before Good Friday, and he christened it "Crap Thursday". There was some contention that the head wound he suffered changed him in some way forever; whether this was so is not really to speculate, save to say that any experience like that would have some effect.

What's for certain is that while 56 is far too young to go, we did get those extra 16 years of his glorious presence, time in which he worked, and still made us laugh.

The Young Ones were always huge supporters of Britain's famous Comic Relief charity events, and in 1986 joined Sir Cliff Richard to rerecord Living Doll. That version hit number 1 on the UK charts, and you can't sing it now without having someone yell The Young Ones' additional lyrics out at you ("What does this button do?")

It seems strange that one of The Young Ones should die before the seemingly immortal Sir Cliff - but then that kind of dark twist would probably be right up Mayall's alley, the utter, utter, utter, utter, utter, utter... oh, just pass me the mallet. 

- The Age

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