David Whetstone: Death of comedian Rik Mayall sparks tributes and memories

The tragic early death of comedian Rik Mayall sparked memories for David Whetstone, who saw in The Young Ones shades of his university experiences

Rik Mayall who died on the 9th June 2014. Pictured on 2nd May 1995
Rik Mayall who died on the 9th June 2014. Pictured on 2nd May 1995

Not meeting Rik Mayall is just one thing on a long list of personal regrets. The man was a comic genius, and handsome with it.

I’m also inclined to believe the friends who are telling us how nice he was, since only a really nice person could get away with playing an MP called Alan B’Stard (as he did in The New Statesman from 1987-92).

The thing is, I could so easily have met Rik Mayall... and indeed might have done without realising it.

He and Adrian Edmondson, his comedy comrade-in-arms, went to Manchester University in 1975, as did I. They studied drama and so for a while did I, briefly inhaling the same rarefied air as the lads who would go on to become famous for violence-infused comedy.

We were all spotty kids back then (except Rik, probably) and, in my case at least, wondering what the hell we were doing. In my first drama lecture I could have set next to Rik or Adrian but instead I sat next to Gary, who was from Barrow-in-Furness and even more ill at ease than me.

He hated drama and he hated drama students. His ambition was to become the drummer in the band at his local working men’s club. Me and Gary would sit on one side of the room and the noisy crowd would sit on the other. After one term Gary left, the lure of drumming in Cumbria impossible to resist, and I was left in solitary confinement. It was too late to mix.

 

Rik and Ade were probably bonding like billy-o. I don’t remember either of them but, 20 years later, I was able to reminisce with Ade at the Copthorne Hotel in Newcastle. He was promoting a novel and I told him about me, Gary and the precocious twits in the lecture theatre.

“Who the hell were they?” he said, disingenuously. But he confirmed that he and Rik had the makings of a double act on day one.

“We hit it off straight away because we had incredibly similar backgrounds. Our dads were both teachers and we’d been to the same lower level of public school and been the same sort of dreadful arty type, eschewing sport and smoking Number 6.

“But at university there were so many pretentious plonkers doing naked versions of Edward II in a cage – that kind of thing. They were the easiest people in the world to take the **** out of.

“Do you remember Monday nights in The Studio? You could get up and do your own thing in front of an audience. People used to go on and do these pretentious things and me and Rik would take the ****. It wasn’t exactly satire.”

Sometimes they found themselves the butt of ridicule. Ade remembered appearing in a play by Pirandello and getting heckled by students from the poly. “We took them in the toilets and beat them,” he recalled, baring his teeth like Vyvyan in The Young Ones.

I don’t remember Ade or Rik or indeed Ben Elton, who became a Manchester Polytechnic student a year later. The three of them would gravitate towards each other to their mutual benefit.

My memories of student life in mid-Seventies Manchester are mixed. The place was still a bit of a post-war mess, pocked with craters and without its 21st-century swagger. We drank in a pub with knickers on the ceiling where Bridge­­­water Hall now sits.

For a year I shared a house with Nige from Barnsley, Jeff from Basildon (if you ever need a comic combination, Barnsley and Basildon works well) and Roger from Stevenage. We rode motorbikes, which we parked in the kitchen.

The place was full of utility furniture, scruffy and brown, and a bit unsanitary. The carpet was green and shaggy and there was a kettle which would whistle itself to death before one of us cracked and grudgingly made tea.

We had a lugubrious landlord called Mr Guzman who would materialise in the front room and look disappointed. “Gentlemen, gentlemen...” he would intone in a Polish accent as he surveyed our domestic disarray.

When The Young Ones burst onto our TV screens in 1982 I realised our circumstances hadn’t been uncommon.

Ade recalled living in a house like ours, a place to sleep off hangovers when not out drinking beer (beer, in the 1970s, was consumed in pubs). Quite clearly it was the crucible for The Young Ones with its disregard for property and politics (I remember Ted Heath coming to talk at the students’ union and a banner saying “Waffle, waffle, waffle” being unfurled below the stage in front of him. We were spoiled in a way we didn’t appreciate. There were no mobile phones or computers. None of us knew the meaning of “en suite”. But we had grants and beer was cheap. No one owed £9,000 a year.

In The Young Ones, Rik and Adrian turned this fecklessness into comic gold, topping up the antics with acts of outrageous violence which they later carried on into Bottom.

My last memories of Manchester include Jeff, waking up late and due for a job interview, hunting for his suit and eventually finding it screwed up in a ball beneath the motorbike helmets. The seam up the back was split from base to collar. “I had to back out of the room,” he recalled later in his whining mock-cockney. Then there was Nige, who’d moved in before us and lived for 12 months on the contents of a lard-filled chip pan. Casting an eye over the place for the last time, I spied the grimy utensil and called: “Nige, you’ve forgotten your pan.”

“It’s not mine,” came the gruff reply. “I found it here when I came.”

Many of my fellow graduates went off to work for the gas board. Rik and Ade kept their double act going between boring jobs. “We did six gigs in our first year,” recalled Ade.

“In the second year we had 12. After 18 months we both went to London.”

They went on at the Comedy Store and were picked up by the BBC, rattled by new kid Channel 4 and out to woo the nation’s youth. The Young Ones was born.

Ade, when I met him, thought Bottom much superior but said: “What The Young Ones had that Bottom didn’t was that element of surprise.

“Rik as the conceited, socially grasping character and me as the violent, illogical one was new then.”

Bottom was put to rest, he said, when he and Rik had perpetrated an act of on-screen violence with every bit of kitchen equipment they could think of.

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