Very few celebrity deaths bother me.
In fact, I think the last one that hit any kind of level deeper than “that’s sad, I feel sorry for their family” was Steve Irwin.
But now Rik Mayall is dead.
Mayall was involved in a surprising amount of movies – it wasn’t just Drop Dead Fred. From the crucial role of ‘Man in Pub’ in An American Werewolf in London, to parts in Carry On Columbus and Churchill: The Hollywood Years, he popped up from time to time, usually in unexpected places.
But none of his film roles were as popular as Drop Dead Fred in 1991, which provided his biggest success and made him recognisable worldwide. The part of a young girl’s mischievous imaginary friend who comes back to torture her when she’s older was tailor-made for Mayall, giving him free reign to be offensive and ridiculous on a bigger stage than ever before.
The film was received…. not particularly warmly. Right now it sits with a nine per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, although the audience rating is closer to 80 per cent. That’s more like it.
It almost didn’t happen though. The script was originally offered to Tim Burton, who passed up the job, thankfully… he’d have only cast elena Bonham Carter. While Robin Williams was first asked to play Drop Dead Fred, but The Hairiest Man in Hollywood instead chose to play the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Hook.
Mayall was sort of (but not really) in an even bigger film; one of the biggest of all time, in fact – Harry Potter. Mayall was asked to play Peeves the poltergeist, but while filming his scenes, the rest of the cast couldn’t keep a straight face. Everything he did was marred by one of the kids chuckling or one of the crew belly-laughing and he was cut from the final product.
If you’re so inclined, you can watch a very, very sweary Rik talk about the situation here:
But it was in his TV work that Rik Mayall really shone, and where he was able to combine his unique comedic acting with his writing talent. Mayall never got enough recognition for being a writer, but his was one of the pens responsible for The Comic Strip, Filthy Rich & Catflap, and The Young Ones.
I probably saw Rik for the first time in The Young Ones, but it was Blackadder that made me a fan for life. Just look at him in the second and fourth series of the show: surrounded by the absolute best in British comedy, he blows them all off the screen and strals the episodes he appears in, despite only appearing for a matter of minutes. There are more than 12 hours of Blackadder, and Rik Mayall appears in about 7 minutes of them. Nonetheless, mention the programme, and many people’s minds leap straight to Mayall’s performances as Flashheart, despite the character’s relatively tiny screen time.
And then there was his work in The New Statesman and the insane narrations he provided for children’s show Grim Tales and the time Jackanory did George’s Marvellous Medicine. Roald Dahl didn’t write George’s Marvellous Medicine with Rik Mayall’s voice in mind, but it certainly sounded like he did. Apparently when the episodes of Jackanory that featured Mayall were first broadcast in 1986, a number of viewers complained to the BBC that his performance was “both dangerous and offensive”. Perfect. And exactly what he was aiming for, I expect.
Even more “dangerous and offensive” was Bottom; the outrageously rude, childish, violent and hilarious spiritual sequel to The Young Ones. In each episode flatmates/friends/nemeses Richie (Mayall) and Eddie (Adrian Edmondson) invented new and obscene ways to hurt each other, and the programme spawned a series of live shows that broke records when they were released on video.
In 1999, Rik and Adrian wrote and starred in Guest House Paradiso an unofficial Bottom spinoff movie, which Ade also directed. As is generally the case with British movies based on sitcoms, it wasn’t terribly good, but the sheer work rate of the pair and the gleeful nihilism throughout gave it a certain charm, and one or two scenes were laugh-out-loud funny.
The last couple of days has seen hundreds of people post pictures of letters and autographs on the internet. Even they’re funny. And unspeakably cruel. For every fan that approached him, it seems he had a new good-natured insult that he was more than happy to scrawl across the book, DVD or photograph they thrust towards him.
Throughout it all, his reputation as a warm and decent man never waned. We almost lost him back in 1998 when he suffered serious head injuries following a quad bike accident and was in a coma for several days.
But now we have lost him for real. He was 56. What age is that?
Hit somebody with a frying pan. It’s what he would have wanted.
This column first appeared in the Kent Messenger series of newspapers.