HAPPY 60TH BIRTHDAY, would have been nice to say, RIK MAYALL!
When Rik’s final jog spoiled everything back in 2014, I wrote a blog all too soon, and was honoured to also provide a short Flashheart-themed obit for the BBC, but today seems an auspicious occasion to muse a bit more about missing The Late Dr The Rik Mayall.
A third of a decade without the People’s Poet, and still the comedy community kind of tries not to think about it too much. Not for Rik the outpourings of tribute books which marked the loss of his cohort in the Comedy God Pantheon, Peter Cook – I’ve long known that an official biography, a kind of sensible answer to BIGGER THAN HITLER, BETTER THAN CHRIST was in the works, penned by that book’s ghost-writer, but as we shared a publisher, Preface, which has since ceased to be, I’ve no idea what’s happened to it. It must have been finished a year or two ago unless it was abandoned…
However, perhaps the hero’s closest mourners are now beginning to come to terms with Rik’s loss, and make comedy out of the situation. Posthumorous tributes are always a problematic gig to contemplate (Rik & Ade’s own snide appearance at Cook’s ‘Posthumorous’ tribute show rather ripped the piss out of the whole concept in the first place). It’s over ten years since the loss of David Hatch, for instance, and I still can’t quite believe there never was any kind of charity revue tribute, given the generations of comics he helped to stardom – and ditto Geoffrey Perkins.
But Rik presents an even trickier challenge when it comes to funny tributes, partly because he will always be an irreplaceable performer, so there’s little point in others performing his material – but also because it’s impossible to think of any other comedian whose output so closely went hand in hand with DEATH, from the very first. Extremely dark poor taste humour obsessed with what Rik liked to call duh-eh-ah-thuh can be a spine-chilling thing once its perpetrator has stopped pissing about and actually carked it. You can’t watch any of Rik’s oeuvre without the macabre coming along to rub your nose in it.
Rik Mayall really, really loved death. Just think of Rik’s whole comedy career from start almost to finish – Rik & Ade’s fledgling Edinburgh Show, Death on the Toilet starred Death himself in the first of many appearances, then Kevin Turvey presented his own special investigation into Death…
…His classic 50’s rock and roll number ‘Oh Gosh I’m So Lonely’ is all about death (and The Unrelated Family will be performing a version at this year’s FUNNY NOISES, comedy music fans!), and then where do you even start with The Young Ones? Besides the boys all dying horribly at the end of numerous episodes, Death showing up again as a poor loser in chess, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Rick trying to kill himself with laxatives, etc., etc. The Comic Strip is packed with death, but especially when Rik & Ade were in charge – Mr Jolly goes without saying. What about Alan B’stard, and his famous fake assassination, complete with nightmare zombie dream sequence? Then to be pedantic about it, Mayall’s many acting roles centred on death and murder, from Bring Me The Head of Mavis Davis to his knock-out role in Murder Rooms – he even played Dominic De’Ath in In The Red. Bottom – again, Richie and Eddie only survived numerous unquestionably lethal attacks by being human cartoon characters, but Richie was always prone, if not to feign a heart attack Steptoe-style or self-strangulation, then to drop to his knees and beg his peer Jehovah to deliver him from eternal damnation. And right up to the end, the shadow of our eternal finale was forefront in his career, with animation ‘Don’t Fear Death’ being one of his last jobs:
You can just see him now, miming hanging himself, toes scampering on the stage, as he LAUGHS WILDLY IN THE FACE OF DEATH. How do you follow that up once he really has turned to earth? I was going to say that one of the few roles where Rik never snuffed it was Lord Flashheart, but even then, in Back & Forth, his Robin Hood ended up with a hundred arrows thunked into his body. His starring movie vehicle was called DROP DEAD FRED, for fuck’s sake. Name me one comic more obsessed with death. I won’t wait.
The death obsessions will always add an extra layer of complication to any kind of tribute to the brilliant chap. But, it seems like finally his friends are beginning to think about how it can be done, with Nigel Planer recently letting slip that he’s working on a final instalment of The Comic Strip Presents’ ‘Four Men’ films, Three Men & A Funeral, which will surely be anything but in good taste, and perhaps will lay many ghosts for all of them. It seems somehow perverse not to laugh about Rik’s death, because it’s so very clearly what he would have wanted, with the utmost sickness.
I was quite pleased to have possibly planted the tiniest seed of a different anti-tribute too, when I attended the Bristol Slapstick Bad News event with Ade & Nigel back in January – as the bootleg linked there should attest (can’t find the actual moment, sorry – somewhere near the end), I had the thrill of my life when my question triggered the biggest woof of laughter from Ade, and the whole theatre, much to my own surprise (rather annoying way to get one of the biggest laughs of your life, but there we are). In the Q&A section, I posited the idea of new Bad News by saying something along the lines of: ‘Do you ever think about what the Bad News guys are up to now, and dare I ask, would Colin’s death not be more of a boon to the surviving members than a hindrance?’ The huge laugh arrived round about the word ‘boon’, and Ade didn’t wallow too long in the possibilities, but it seems such a crime not to have Vim, Den and Spider reunite to remind themselves just how much they despised Colin. We can only hope.
In the aftermath of his death, it was impossible to think any of these things out loud, because in the forefront was the stunned realisation that THE RIK was a husband, a father, a brother and a son, and even he couldn’t make the reality of sudden death funny. But that huge laugh at the idea of being glad that Colin is dead is a wonderful indicator, that the time has come to slip off the black armband and celebrate Rik in the right spirit.
Without wishing to turn this blog into self-promotion (Moles gig plug aside), Rik does have a crucial role in SOUPY TWISTS, as Stephen’s co-star in Cell Mates, there’s some time spent on the Fry/Mayall partnership… but above all, Rik’s spirit, should such a thing exist, has been constantly on my mind throughout the production of TALES OF BRITAIN, my forthcoming British folklore collection – because I basically wrote all 77 stories for him to perform. Top of my To Do list in early summer 2014 was ‘finally get through to Rik about TOB’. Rik’s Grim Tales was consciously my inspiration from start to finish, and nothing would have been more perfect than to have him present a TV show version. Now that is eternally impossible, I find myself editing the tales for publication, dealing with the copy-editor’s sense-of-humour-failing notes, queries about weird jokes that were written expressly for Rik. And all I can reply to them is, ‘it would be easier to understand in Rik’s voice’. Not all the tales are balls-out daft, some have to be proper tear-jerkers, or genuinely scary – and nobody could zoom from no-limits hilarity to sensitive sincerity with the speed and agility of The Rik Mayall. Maybe I’ll be pilloried when the book comes out for its esoteric blend of anarchic silliness and sincerity, but I can’t dilute the book now. Frankly, the more Rik there is in Tales of Britain, the more proud of it I will be when it finally comes out this year.
Everything’s just shit without him, let’s be honest. But let’s equally hope that his inspiration will give us many more laughs to come. Happy birthday, you dead bastard.