RIK Mayall is standing in the middle of West George Street, trying to stop traffic. He wants desperately to be photographed having a fight with a taxi driver, but Glasgow’s cabbies just zoom past, honking and waving. “Fuck!” he exclaims. “People are too nice up here! What we need are some Cockneys!” Then he grabs the photographer and disappears off into the gents to pose by the urinals. He is 47 years old.
Rewind to 90 minutes earlier. Mayall and I are in a room of the Malmaison hotel; he’s looking sharp in a grey suit, and getting wired into a double espresso. He is in Scotland to promote his autobiography, The Rik Mayall: Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ.
The book wasn’t what I had been expecting. It’s a spoof in which Mayall tells the life story of a fairground mirror version of himself. “The Rik Mayall”, as opposed to plain old Rik Mayall, is an overweight has-been actor, tormented by his agent and by Adrian Edmondson (his long-time co-writer), in denial about his drug use, much given to random bouts of sex and violence, an egomaniac completely delusional about the impact on culture and society of his performances in hit TV sitcoms, The Young Ones and Bottom.
Trying to separate fact from fiction in Mayall’s writing is tricky. He has written a dense clootie dumpling of a book, and I found myself picking through it, looking for coins, unsure which were real and which counterfeit. Some bits are totally made up, much of his life is simply distorted or exaggerated, and only the very occasional passage rings true.
Worse, he has decided that it would be a hoot to do the interview in character, so we have barely shaken hands when he starts giving me his spiel. “You see, Peter, the great thing about me – well, one of the many great things – is what a nice guy I am. Thirty years now at the absolute apex of panglobal showbiz hugeness. I am a light-entertainment phenomenon.”
Luckily, I have come prepared, having read pretty much every interview he has given in the past 25 years (a surprisingly unenlightening experience; he plays his cards so close to his chest he probably has a Jack of Hearts wedged in his aorta) and am able to quote something he said in 1983 about needing to create a character called Rik Mayall who he can stick with for life.
He looks downcast at this. “You are a fucking intelligent, motherfucker, aren’t you?” A huge pause. “Well, okay, we’re out on the battlefield now, aren’t we? My plan was to pretend to be The Rik. Publicising something like this book is a tricky one. To say in print that this is a spoof autobiography is dangerous because I want to take the punters by surprise. See, now I’m telling the truth, and you should never ever tell the truth. But you’ve hit it on the nail.”
Nonetheless, he seems determined to persist with his conceit, and I spend the rest of the interview asking questions then effectively begging The Rik to stop butting in and let Mayall answer them.
“It is usually at the end of someone’s career that they bring out an autobiography, ” he explains, “and I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, it’s all over for Rik.’ I was toying with the idea of writing a book about how I was dying of cancer, or how I was thinking of committing suicide because I was so depressed.”
Instead, at a dinner party he got talking to someone high up at HarperCollins and the idea of The Rik Mayall was born. Then he landed the lead role in All About George, the new comedy from Cold Feet writer Mike Bullen, which starts soon on ITV1. Happy that nobody could now think his career was on the skids, he is more at ease with the idea of an autobiography. It’s interesting how anxious he was about public perception, though, and at one point he asks me to shake his hand and promise that I won’t slag off him or his book. He claims to have no problems with self-esteem, but hmmm, I wonder.
In one very striking passage of the book, Mayall describes a recurring dream he has had since childhood. He is in a field at dusk with a hooded man whose face he can’t make out. There is a rise in the field up ahead, but he can’t see what is beyond it. When he wakes up he is usually crying, sometimes angry or scared. In 1998 he crashed his quad bike on his farm in Devon, causing a fractured skull and a brain haemorrhage; as it fluttered close to death, his mind returned to this dream, but this time saw it through, and he seems to have had a vision of God.
I ask him to confirm that this part of the book is true. “To say that I would put anything in the book that isn’t true is shocking,” he half-grins, “but I think I can say that one piece which is especially personal and very true is about the man in the hood.”
He lights a cigarette. “Part of writing the book was to clear up stuff that has been going on. And what an extraordinary event that was. Yes, that’s very personal. I don’t think I expected to write that.”
Yes, he concedes, he is religious and was brought up as a believer, but won’t say whether his faith was strengthened by the accident and the lengthy period of recovery. I ask repeatedly why he thinks he survived. I get a very strong sense that he believes God has some purpose for him, but he will not be drawn.
At one point he begins: “Well, the Lord put me back on Earth …” and my heart leaps, but he continues, “in order to write my book. When I met him and spent some time with him, we got on very well.” And then he is off riffing again about how he invented alternative comedy and brought down the Thatcher government.
He is much happier talking in gory detail about the aftermath of the accident, which he refers to as a smack from God. “It’s a fucking great story. So I’m in Devon and they were pretty sure I was going to be dead. Three-fifths of my brain was full of blood.”
His wife Barbara had discovered him unconscious and lying on his back with blood oozing from his nose, mouth, ears and eyes. He came round in hospital after five days in a coma: “I couldn’t think properly. I could only remember two words – one was ‘Barbara’ and one was ‘Mummy’. Then it was very, very weird; I could smell colour, I could see music. But I don’t remember that time particularly clearly.”
He was totally confused, believing he had been kidnapped and imprisoned. He tried to escape many times, but eventually understood what had happened. One day the doctor explained to him that his brain was still swamped with blood, which really ought to have drained away by that point.
“So he said, ‘OK, Rik, what I am going to do is -‘” He breaks off, leans in and puts his hands on either side of my forehead. “The doctor says, ‘What I’m going to have to do is take the top of your skull off, go inside, and take every piece of blood out.'” Mayall makes a spooning motion like a man enjoying a boiled egg. “‘It’s a very dangerous operation, OK, and there’s only a 50% chance that you are going to live. So what I want you to do now is go home with your wife, relax with the kids, then come back in the morning and I’ll do it.'” He laughs. “What an extraordinary position to be in. So I go back and I had an evening with the kids, and didn’t tell them anything, knowing that this was probably my last evening on the planet.”
The next day he went for a pre-op brain scan. The doctor was astonished to discover that overnight all the blood had drained away. “That’s pretty miraculous as far as I am concerned,” says Mayall. “It was like a second rescue. I didn’t die in the crash and then I didn’t have to undergo this operation.”
Does he feel indestructible now?
“Yeah. Yeah, sometimes.”
That said, it was touch and go for a while whether he would be able to work again, which would have been disastrous because self-expression is for him a purgative rather than a mere pleasure. “The best characters come when, in order to survive in the normal world, you suppress pieces of your personality that you disapprove of,” he explains. “Such as vanity, such as selfishness, such as avarice, such as lust, such as feeling that you are more important than other people. You suppress those so that you can live a normal life. You take those out and express them. You ridicule yourself. That was very much the case in The Young Ones and in The New Statesman. And I think that’s what The Rik is about.”
But he hasn’t become less self-obsessed by dealing with his ego in his work; the irony is that many of those projects in which he has tried to exorcise his vanity have been wildly successful, making him more famous and therefore more prone to narcissism. The smaller he tries to make his head, the bigger it becomes.
Mayall’s love of attention goes back to childhood. The key moment came during a school carol service when he was 10. A teacher told him not to sing with the rest of the choir because his voice was horrible and just to stand at the back and mouth the words instead. He was bored and started pulling faces, making the audience laugh.
The teacher made him stand in the corner behind the audience, but he made noises so they turned round to look at him. “I took the attention away from the stage completely. That’s when he came and got me by the ear and threw me out. I enjoyed it. There’s a thrill that people don’t know about the power of focus, the power of getting attention.”
When fame arrived it made him happy. He was part of that filthy, furious generation of comedians – Edmondson, Ben Elton, French and Saunders, Alexei Sayle etc – who made a name for themselves in the early 1980s performing at the Comedy Store and Comic Strip clubs in London before going on to revolutionise TV comedy.
Mayall wasn’t conscious of being part of a significant movement. “I was just aware of having a really fantastic time. The early days were terrifically exciting. There we were getting a weekly wage and performing every night. And all these extraordinary film stars came to see us. Jack Nicholson was in the audience one night. Jack Nicholson! So me and Ade went on and did knob jokes.”
Going back to that school carol service, it’s interesting that, from the first, Mayall equated attention with disruptiveness and destruction. Violence has been a constant presence in his comedy; Bottom in particular took it to cartoonish extremes in both its sitcom and stage show incarnations.
Edmondson has called time on Bottom, saying that it isn’t dignified for a middle-aged man to be behaving like that, but Mayall doesn’t care about dignity. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaping around and punching each other as long as you do it as a 47-year-old should.” He is working on a new sitcom in which he will play “a very entertaining serial killer”.
Why does violence interest him? “That’s a difficult question to answer.”
Does it frighten him? “No. I enjoy it. It fascinates me.” He pauses. “There are certain things I could say that I shouldn’t say.”
I beg him to please say them. “Good in Belfast over the weekend, wasn’t it?” he leers.
In all seriousness, does he find things like the Loyalist riots thrilling? “I don’t think it’s right to say in the paper because there are a lot of punters out there might get the wrong idea. It’s an awkward question to answer. It’s the fact that violence is wrong and dangerous that makes it fascinating.”
Could it be he’s a latently violent person and comedy allows him to let out that part of himself? “Very probably subconsciously, yes. I don’t like restrictions. It’s thrilling to be able to smash something up and set fire to it. So you can dominate everything. Because my imprint isn’t on this room, it would give me great pleasure to smash up the table, burn it and destroy it so that I am its superior.”
Then, out of nowhere, this: “It’s always been a big part of me that I fell out of a tree when I was about 10 and I thought I was going to be dead,” he says. “My little sister Libby had a friend who lived over the road and I was in their garden, and I climbed up a tree because it was there. Anyway, a branch gave way beneath my right foot.” He clicks his fingers. “I can still hear that branch now. I fell straight down and went through a cucumber frame. There was glass and blood everywhere. I was so winded I couldn’t breathe and I was pretty certain I was dead. I remember thinking, ‘This is death.’ I went to a tree in the middle of the garden and held on to that and tried to shout for help. Eventually Dad came and got me, and I remember hugging him and thinking, ‘I’m not dead!’ It stayed with me for a long time, that.”
Now he thinks about it, he may be obsessed with death. “It’s the opposite to life, isn’t it? And I like life.”
What he likes about life, particularly the celebrity life, is feeling free. When he first became well-known he did his share of bingeing on sex and booze. Hedonism, for him, was not just a way of life but a concept to be explored. “You could look at excess in quite a romantic way as testing the parameters, testing how large your existence is. It wasn’t so much about seeing how much I could drink before I died. It’s about freedom. I don’t like law or being told what to do.”
That’s why he hated school – “I remember when I got into Manchester University I took my satchel and threw it into the River Severn and I swore that I would never read another book again” – and why he believes in anarchy. “I do think that money should be made illegal, banks should be made illegal, everything should be free and we should just take what we want. Except my stuff. I’m not saying people should come into my house and take my stuff.”
The book publicist pops her head round the door to ask us to wind up. “Do we have photos after this?” he asks. “Alright, babes, come back and get us in four minutes.”
It has been a fascinating interview, “a good fight” as he says, although I must say I think he had an easy victory. He’s so fast and aggressive, part battering ram, part chariot of fire. I finish up by asking if he has a motto.
“Do what the fuck you like and don’t give a shit, ” he says, pointing right in my face. “If anyone tries to stop you, they are the Devil.”