It’s hard to believe that it’s been exactly a year since the lovely, brilliant Rik Mayall left us. His death – and the fact that it’s already been a year since it happened – is, for me, a reminder of both how quickly time passes and how important it is to live our life fully while we’re here (and of course those two things are connected). And if there was someone who lived his life fully – someone who was totally and utterly himself while he was on this planet – it was Rik Mayall.
His speech to the students of Reading University in 2008 – in which he gave his five mantras for leading a happy life – was testament to that:
Rik was my childhood (and adulthood) comedy hero. Here’s what I wrote when he passed away:
People Say You Should Never Meet Your Heroes. Those People Never Met Rik Mayall
As a kid growing up in a nice middle class house in nice middle England – literally, it was the West Midlands – in the 1980s, my parents weren’t fond of us watching ‘rubbish’ on television. ‘Rubbish’ largely covered a) anything that was obviously loads of silly fun, b) anything showing on ITV and c) anything American. Shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider were, therefore, triple threats; and we were a house that chose Multi-Coloured Swap Shop over Tiswas every Saturday morning. Because while Noel Edmonds and Posh Paws were clearly loads of silly fun, Tiswas was even sillier. (And possibly more fun. I don’t know. I wasn’t allowed to watch it.)
So I’m sure it’s only because it was on the BBC that we were allowed to watch The Young Ones.
And when we did, we didn’t know what had hit us.
Throughout its two series, we talked about it with our friends in the playground, and my sister and I did endless Rick (or rather: “Rrrrrick”) impressions. I even sat in front of the TV with my cassette recorder, taping the show so I could listen back to the audio of it in my bedroom. The brilliant, silly-but-smart slapstick comedy of The Young Ones made me laugh in my belly. But most of all: Rik Mayall did.
I had already known and liked Rik as the character Kevin Turvey (in fact, that’s when my and my sister’s impressions of him started) but with The Young Ones, it developed into full-blown love.
I wrote him a fan letter during The Young Ones reign – I was only 12 – and he wrote a short letter back, including a signed photo (which I of course proudly took to show my friends at school). Being unaware of the phrase ‘quit while you’re ahead’ – I was only 12 – I wrote to him again. And again he wrote back, this time including a flyer for his forthcoming play: The Government Inspector. I didn’t go and see it – I was only 12 – but years later I saw Michael Sheen in a production of it at The Old Vic. His performance was, essentially, one big Rik Mayall impression.
The ’80s continued, and while I’m sure Michael Sheen dropped his Rik impressions, my sister and I didn’t: fuelled as we were by The Dangerous Brothers, Filthy Rich & Catflap and of course Mayall’s cameos in Blackadder – not just as Lord Flashheart (“Woof!”) but also Mad Gerald (“Mr Rat!”).
And then, in the ’90s, I met him.
I was a languages student, and on my year abroad, studying in Brussels. I heard from another British student at our college that Rik was in town, filming The New Statesman (Alan B’Stard had become an MEP). “They’re going to be at the Atomium tomorrow,” he told me.
Now, I don’t bunk off classes lightly, dear reader. But even I realised that an amazing opportunity was presenting itself. Hanging around a stage door surrounded by loads of other fans? You’d never get to properly meet your comedy hero that way. But journeying to the outskirts of a foreign city on a Wednesday? I was probably in with a good chance. Not least because it was winter, too. A midweek day in November was not going to be the Atomium’s biggest day for ticket sales, I imagined.
I was right. The following, rainy, day I found myself sitting in the reception area at the base of Brussels’ structure of silver and balls, and the only other people in the place were the film crew from The New Statesman, standing around, chatting between takes. And there among them was Rik: wearing a see-through plastic cap on his head, like an old lady, to protect his Alan B’Stard hair from the elements.
I sat and watched, too shy to approach. And then he saw me.
Before I could think, I was doing the international sign language sign for ‘Can I have your autograph, please?’ (it’s not unlike the one you use when you ask a waiter for the bill, only you flourish the pen-holding fingers a bit more). Rik nodded and winked at me with a ‘give me a second’ gesture.
And sure enough, moments later he came over with a “Well, hello!” and plonked himself next to me. I explained (no doubt extremely quickly, because I so nervous and excited) who I was, and how I was such a huge fan, that I had written to him before but could I maybe have his autograph again – and produced the paper and pen that I had brought. He went to sign his name… and the pen didn’t work. I was mortified, but Rik had it in hand. “A pen! A pen! I need a pen!” he shouted, clicking his fingers theatrically. And swiftly, a crew member brought him one – by doing a power slide up to us, brandishing the pen aloft.
Rik was ridiculously charming, funny and generous – and clearly loved by the crew around him. He was also, I was embarrassed but delighted to learn, flirtatious. After the chat and the autograph, one of the crew took our photo together: I put my arm around Rik, he put his hand on my bottom. But it wasn’t, I hasten to add, the slightest bit creepy or slimey. It was funny, and brilliant. Clearly, this man wasn’t making a play for me – he was just absolutely making my day.
It was, in short, pretty much the most perfect meeting-of-a-hero you could wish for.
As a child, you can tell a performer is special, but you don’t know – or can’t articulate – why. You just feel it. They move you, they blow you away, and in the case of a comedy actor, they make you laugh more than anyone else on screen. As an adult, you can maybe start to pinpoint what it is that creates that magic.
Meeting Rik, I realised that part of this magic is that he appeared to be utterly congruent. He was clearly a natural performer but not arrogant. A natural charmer who had the confidence to simply be himself. And he was also a good-looking man who – as is the case with all great comedians – was never afraid to make himself look ugly.
Indeed, rewatching clips of his performances, I’m struck again by how he was that rarest type of comedy performer: one who is equally brilliant at both verbal and physical humour (a trait he shares with that other comic genius Rowan Atkinson). Rik was a master of timing and delivery, whether that was using words or his body – and when it comes to the latter, I don’t just mean the violent slapstick of Bottom and The Dangerous Brothers. It’s there in the way he flicked the Vs or snorted as Rick, the way he animatedly used his hands while sitting in his Kevin Turvey chair, the way he grabbed ‘Bob’ and went in for the kill as Flashheart. And when it comes to the former: well, I don’t believe that any of Rik’s lines would have been quite so memorable or quite so quotable if they had been delivered by anyone else. And I certainly don’t think my sister and I (and Michael Sheen) would have been able to do such good impressions of him.
Goodbye Rik, you utter, utter, UTTER hero. I’m glad I got the chance to tell you how wonderful you were – and not just when I was only 12.