Rik Mayall (Hon DLitt 2008)

Rik Mayall - a tribute

We were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Honorary Graduate Rik Mayall (Hon DLitt 2008)

He was nominated by English Professor Nick Groom, who wrote an essay on The Young Ones in The Cassell Book of Great British Comedy, published in 2003.

Here Professor Groom pays his own tribute:

The word ‘genius’ is overused today, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use it to describe Rik Mayall: he was a comic genius who changed the face of British comedy. Rik Mayall, who has died at the tragically young age of 56, created some of the most outlandish characters to appear on the television, from the coincidentally-named ‘Rik’ in The Young Ones, who reckons he’s a ‘right on’ anarchist and the people’s poet (as opposed to a sanctimonious and self-centred little prig with the emotional maturity of a sniggering thirteen-year-old) – to the wholly unprincipled, ultra-violent, and murderous Tory back-bencher Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman. He also co-wrote two of the most enduring and bizarre sitcoms ever screened: The Young Ones and Bottom.
Rik Mayall studied Drama at Manchester University, and it was there that he met his long-time sidekick Adrian Edmondson. Their early double-acts such as ‘The Dangerous Brothers’ were characterized by gymnastic, cartoon violence and deliberately puerile jokes, as if mocking the whole concept of comedy itself. At the same time, Mayall was developing a fascination with the inherent silliness of the boring and mundane. Trivial obsessions, he realized, could exaggerate characters to ludicrous levels, and so he created Kevin Turvey. Kevin, who had a regular and timewasting slot on A Kick Up the Eighties, was unutterably inept and aggravatingly tedious; he was a connoisseur of pointlessness, never happier than when debating with himself and at length how many cornflakes were on his spoon at breakfast.

The plots of The Young Ones likewise revolved around virtually nothing: paying the bills, going to the laundrette, borrowing a coin for the phone, answering the door – except that around this black hole of mindless boredom and acute pettiness orbited a mad universe of the strangest and most inexplicable events. Their whole hallucinatory world was alive: the fruit in the fridge made cheap sexual innuendo, the toilet ate cleaning brushes, a runaway sock had to be beaten to death with a frying pan. At one point the whole house was transported back to the Middle Ages. Their response? ‘Oh, who cares?’ They are most concerned that they might miss Scooby Doo.

The combination of grotesquely exaggerated characters, mind-numbingly boring activities, and surreal digression was a heady and strikingly original comic cocktail, and became Rik Mayall’s template, driving four series of The New Statesman and the three series and film of Bottom. His idiosyncratic humour also fuelled daring stage shows, and a memorable stand-up act, in which Mayall’s various characters squabbled over who should be using the microphone. Such a dazzling performance of multiple personalities suggested Mayall’s skills as a character actor. His versatility is evident in the different parts he played in the miscellaneous episodes – really mini-plays – that made up the 1980s series The Comic Strip Presents, such a bassist in the heavy-metal band Bad News (the band actually toured and performed at both the Monsters of Rock and the Reading Rock festivals).

Although most will remember Rik Mayall for his comic roles, he also took the lead in a series of contemporary dramas for ITV in 1993, had many film cameos, and recently wrote and delivered a series of modern parables for Radio 4. He was not content to rest on his laurels but was keen to experiment and take on new acting challenges. But his quad bike accident in 1998 was a blow: he was on a life support machine and after regaining consciousness suffered attacks of epilepsy. He dismissed the fuss surrounding his accident with characteristic hyperbole, comparing his recovery to Jesus rising from the dead, and it was in part his no-nonsense approach to his health that made me nominate him for an honorary degree from the University of Exeter. That, and the fact that he was a genius who had brought joy to millions. When I first met him we barely discussed The Young Ones – it was all a long time ago and he was more interested in what was coming next. He fizzed with intellectual energy, hilarious observations, roguish comments, and wide-eyed wonder. He was sparkling company – and I couldn’t stop laughing. Rik Mayall, RIP. The world is a smaller, sadder place without him.


Date: 11 June 2014

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