I hope you’ll forgive me if I add a final paragraph to the plethora of tributes paid to the comedy genius Rik Mayall, who died last Monday. I feel justified in claiming this last word, because I was involved in his first – I gave Rik his first big break.
In 1981 I was producing a comedy series for BBC2. It was originally conceived as a vehicle for the whimsical Richard Stilgoe, the man with the beard on Nationwide. But after Not The Nine O’Clock News hit our screens, television wanted its comedy with a sharper edge.
Although my office was in London, the BBC asked me if I’d mind making the show up in Glasgow, because the London studios were short of makeup artists, and they were desperate to use their regional resources (Rik ended up marrying one of them, a lady called Barbara Robbin).
They had just formed a new comedy unit up there, under Sean Hardie, the co-producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News. Sean and I teamed up and set about casting the show, which we called A Kick Up The Eighties.
We wanted comedy actors, rather than comedians – people who could convincingly turn their hand to multiple characters, in the way Rowan, Mel, Gryff and Pamela had done.
We chose Miriam Margolyes first – she could play anything – and then we had an agonizing choice between Emma Thompson, whom my agent had just signed while she was still in the Cambridge Footlights, and Tracey Ullman, whom I’d discovered in a fringe play called Four In A Million at the Royal Court. We auditioned them both, and Tracey’s ability to sing and dance just got the edge. Emma was very nice about it afterwards.
When it came to the men, Rik Mayall’s name kept bobbing up, but we discarded it. We’d both seen Rik with Ade Edmondson at The Comedy Store, and we couldn’t get his rubber face, wild eyes and manic character out of our mind – he was unlike anything we’d ever seen.
We particularly liked his mad, rambling monologues as Kevin Turvey, based on Rik’s experience of growing up in the Midlands.
Rik represented a new wave of comedy that was only just breaking, but we weren’t convinced that as an actor he could provide sufficient versatility for the numerous characters and situations in our show.
|Remember, armchair viewers, Kevin's 'ere.|
All the clips, and shows, are on YouTube. Don’t be confused by the subject matter: Kevin doesn’t really investigate anything at all, and we actually transmitted the monologues in the wrong order (we'd planned to make Death the subject of Show 1, and Kevin's monologue reflects this, but we swapped the show for the one on Sex at the last moment, as the BBC thought people might be more offended by the jokes about funerals).
As Rik said, ‘Part of my intention with Kevin was to waste 10 minutes of television time. What's funny about Kevin is that he thinks he knows what he's doing… here's someone more stupid than you trying to explain things.’
Off camera I found Rik to be extraordinarily amicable and warm, and utterly focused on his work. He was incredibly insecure and nervous until the chair turned and he faced the audience – before every recording he’d disappear to the toilet in a cold sweat.
Kevin’s rants were all scripted, of course, but the words only came alive when Rik donned the anorak and switched on the persona. Then he was absolutely, terrifyingly, wonderful.
A few weeks later I put Rik/Kevin on another of my shows, the live Russell Harty chat show, which had developed a reputation for spontaneous anarchy with invasions by characters like Grace Jones.
It brought the house down. Sheer genius.