Rik Mayall’s first interview

Published 2016/06/09 by Dr. Dannii Cohen

largeIt’s two years since we lost one of comedy’s brightest stars. In honour of Rik Mayall’s death day, here is his first ever interview from 1981.

Investigating Turvey

New Musical Express November 7, 1981

Rik Mayall’s the name and comedy’s the game! Paul Rambali interviews TV Reporter of the Year, Kevin Turvey. Could these two characters be the same man?

“They,laughed at Lenny Bruce too…”

Dimbleby, Day, Turvey. Repeat it often enough and it becomes a litany. Dimbleby, Day, Turvey. Dimbleby, Day… Turvey?

Dapper, erudite, acute, penetrating, insightful — these are just a few of the adjectives they are bandied about in the vicinity of Dimbleby and Day. So far, none of them has landed anywhere near Kevin Turvey.

Every Monday night for the past six weeks on BBC2’s A Kick Up The 80s, the spotlight swung heavily on Kevin, seated there alone on the lofty dias, ready to impart the fruits of a week’s investigating.

Lips curled obscenely in what he thinks is a smile, eyes glinting crookedly at two cameras at once, Kevin trampled across a whole range of topics.

Unemployment, sex, leisure — each received the same distinctive treatment. Exactly the same. Hopelessly at sea, painfully nervous, easily riled, unable to keep to the point, artless, witless and utterly thick, Kevin is a beacon in the wilderness of intelligent broadcasting.

This man of the people and self-styled investigative reporter knows his time will come.

“I’ve had letters from the viewers,” he barks, his face twisted with emotion. “They say don’t worry Kevin, I think you’re great. Don’t worry about it.”

He’s feisty is Kevin, even if he is an excruciating nerd, the kind you might find in any pub up or down the land. Co-incidentally, it was to a pub that Rik Mayall took me to meet him.

Rik Mayall is Kevin’s ‘mentor’. He found Kevin lurking in the depths of his subconscious, eating beans on toast in front of the TV in a council house in Redditch with the gas still burning under the grill.

Redditch is quite near Driotwich, which is where Rick Mayall’s parents live — another co-incidence. Kevin is currently preparing a half-hour documentary on Redditch, with his mentor’s help.

“It’ll be as if Kevin had written it,” says Mayall, “so it’ll be coming from nowhere and it’ll be really badly edited.”

Kevin has also been asked to appear on The Russell Harry Show, something Mayall is apprehensive about.

“I don’t want Kevin to be just a wacky comedian, who’s safe because we know it’s just funny. I don’t want him to be just taking the piss out of Birmingham working class ’cause that’s not what he’s about.

“He’s an individual who happens to be funny in his own right. In fact he’s really quite normal. Most of the people you see on TV don’t really exist in real life.”

Kevin Turvey began his burgeoning TV career when Mayall was invited, as one half of 20th Century Coyote and an alumnus of the Comic Strip, to take part in a new comedy show that would be ‘quite like’ Not The Nine O’Clock News. “You know, Heeey! So I said no.”

The Comic Strip gang had already made some pilot shows

some pilot shows called Boom Boom Out Go The Lights, and learned, that which works in a seedy little theatre in Soho doesn’t always work in a box in a corner of the room.

“On stage you can group 200 people together and scare them or embarrass them or whatever. You can’t do that on TV. You have to use the conventions, that’s why Kevin works so well.”

The idea, he adds, was to waste TV time, a commodity which in theory is rarely squandered. Kevin thrashes about in his allotted five minutes like an over-excited child, upsetting the slick conventions of TV punditry. It was a shame he appeared in the context of a comedy show, since very little of what he said was strictly funny. He should have been on Nationwide.

“It was an anarchic idea, if you like, but because the pressure was on we had to actually write jokes for him towards the end. Kevin works best when his brain just wanders off. In a way, it takes the mickey out of the BBC because they’ve been stupid enough to put someone like that on the TV.”

Mayall is 23 years old. He was born in Harlow and grew up in Droitwich. His father was a drama lecturer, now redundant. His mother ran a book shop, now closed. He is somewhat loath to admit that he has a BA in drama from Manchester University, and he steers away from theorising about his work.

“People won’t listen to you if they think you’re experimenting on them,” he argues.

“… Which we are, really!”

On leaving college, he toured America with the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, playing Dromio of Syracuse in the Comedy Of Errors.

“It was great fun. Eighty shows in three months. I lost two stone, falling out of windows and shouting. It was great training too — trying to make American laugh at Shakespearian comedy…”

The perpetrators of bizarre, tortured comedy on bewildered, unsuspecting audiences at Comic Strip known as 20th Century Coyote began life as a five-man student troupe at the Band On The Wall, a jazz club in Manchester where John Cooper Clarke (who is perhaps something of a missing link in all this) was a regular turn. The Coyote used to work at lunchtimes, and with no time to write material they would improvise a new play each week.

Ultimately, the other members departed, leaving only Mayall and Ade Edmondson, another Manchester University drama student. When Mayall returned from America this duo began touring the Midlands with their half-hour plays. One was called The Joke, about a custard pie joke. Like Richard and Adrian Dangerous (a later incarnation), screwing up knock-knock jokes and trying to tell the gooseberry joke, about a gooseberry in a lift — “But how does a gooseberry get into a lift?” — The Joke also a painful dissection of the obvious.

The two characters would come on stage with a tape recorder and record a laugh. Consulting a list of instructions, they laboriously prepared to do the famous joke. Finally, they would come to the last instruction, which was, simply, ‘Do the joke’.

“… And I’d do the joke; push the thing in his face. And then we’d press the button and there’d be a solitary laugh on the tape… It was quite Beckett in a way.”

Quite.

It was also quite funny.

The response was good. For a two-man existential comedy drama team touring the Midlands the response was fantastic.

20th Century Coyote ventured north, to the Edinburgh fringe, to perform Death And The Toilet, and then south, to London, to perform The Wart, their spoof of Ken Campbell’s The Warp. By December of ’79 they were performing at The Comedy Store, where they found they had to modify their approach.

“Carabet is about talking to an audience. You can’t pretend to be anywhere else. You’re not doing revue — which is what Oxbridge do: now we’re in a cheese shop, or waiting at a bus stop. The audience won’t tolerate that. They want to be talked to. If you pretend to be a character you have to be a total character who’s real enough for the audience to believe him.

“The people who are really daring are people like Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen, who got up as themselves and do it. What I like doing is going up so involved in a character that people think he’s actually real. Like Rick the Poet… that worked really well because out came the most embarrassing person you’ve ever seen, too embarrassing to boo even, because you feel so sorry for him. Then when you laugh at him he shouts at you!”

“Hi. MY Namee’s Wick, okay?” The suit is ill-fitting, the gait terminally awkward like a kid at a prize-giving, and the accent is prep school with a lisp struggling to be hip. He flashes a peace-sign and grins idiotically.

” …What? What’s going on?” Sniggering has broken out in the stalls. Wick laughs too, thinking he’s in on the joke.

“It’s all happening!”

He flashes another peace sign, still thinking he’s in on the joke. “Anyway, my name’s Wick, and I’m from 20th Century Coyote … You’ve probably heard of us. We’re a group of feminist poets.”

The sniggering erupts into outright laughter.

“What? What’s wrong with that?” He looks genuinely hurt.

“I’m not one of the comedians. We’re a poetry collective and — Shut up please!”

The audience is taken aback, the laughing subsides. There is a moment of doubt; is he serious?

“Right. I thought I’d open with one of my angwiest poems of all… Yeah, they’re all pretty heavy, hah hah, yeah, it’s a bit zany here I know but this is serious. It’s one of my angwiest poems of all and it’s called ‘Theatre’.”

Wick reads his poem. It is, of course, awful. His delivery totters on the brink of epilepsy.

“…What are you, Theatre? Perhaps I should ask Vanessa Wedgwave… But I don’t know Vanessa Wedgwave. And neither do you, Theatre…

“Or do you…?”

He finishes with a satisfied snort. The house, by now, is convulsing with laughter. Wick is indignant.

“It’s easy to clap, isn’t it?” He spits. “I’m sure it’s very funny. They laughed at Lenny Bwuce… Yes, haw haw haw, very funny. It’s because of people like you that they build airports!”

Among Other things, Rik Mayall is also an actor. He has appeared in episodes of Wolcott and The Squad. He has small parts in The Eye Of The Needle and John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London. He co-stars in a short film directed by Bertolucci’s wife Clair Peplo called — “about a kind of shabby English Bonnie and Clyde” and he plays the part of a TV soap opera character in Shock Treatment, the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, set in a TV studio.

Acting, however, is not something he especially enjoys. It lacks the element of audience interaction found in comedy.

“Comedy is not something you create on your own — you need the audience. Ade and I mainly work out our routines by getting two characters together and then trying them out in front of an audience.”

As the Comic Strip moves on, in fragments, to the larger audience-away from the clubs and into the electronic media — Mayall finds himself and his contemporaries at the career crossroads, with film and TV offers beckoning from all directions. It’s along way from their original intentions.

“You remember that magazine Sniffin Glue… that piece that said here’s three chords go out and form a band? That’s fine if you’ve got a guitar. What the Comedy Store was about was that all you needed was yourself and a voice, and if you could just amuse or interest people somehow, you’d get money for it. That’s what we were trying to popularise. That’s what people like Keith Allen in particular were about. And he’s now decided to pack it in because it’s not working.

“What’s happened is the few who started it have been hailed as the great saviours of British comedy, but it hasn’t popularised the thing. There aren’t clubs opening up in Bristol or Glasgow or whatever.

“There are one or two people following the lead. But the worst thing is that you get imitators of people like Alexei; they think, That’s a good idea — be an alternative comedian… How do I become an alternative comedian? They put on Alexei’s voice and start talking about young trendies. The thing is to take whatever you find funny. And it doesn’t even have to be comedy. Look at all those old music hall acts…

“I’ve got some great books at home. There was one guy who had a motorbike, and all his act consisted of was crashing his motorbike on stage! I’ve got this thing of tucking my ear in. There were guys in the’30s who could base a whole act around that! There were circuits in those days and one ten minute act could keep you going for about two years.

“People are demanding on us, especially at the Comic Strip; turn over your material faster, come up with sketches, do what The Goons did or do what the Pythons did. We don’t really belong to that. It’s getting away from the actual live performance, which is what I’m really interest in. But that’s always there…”

Mayall’s favourite comedians are Tommy Cooper, W.C. Fields and Peter Cook. Tommy Cooper because “he doesn’t need funny lines. What’s good about his is that he’s really like that.” He has never actually met Tommy Cooper… “but that’s the impression I get.”

Of the two streams of British humour, surrealism and satire, he is least fond of satire. “Satire implies that there’s one way to behave, it implies a superior outlook, like Not The Nine O’clock News… ”

His own style leans towards the surreal or plain lunatic-demanding laughter with menaces.

On stage he is tetchy, belligerent, vaguely threatening, with a brittle edge that can have a startling effect on audience; defused by the fact that his creations are, underneath it all, weaklings.

One more thing: he isn’t funny. He’s hysterical. In time he could create a character as memorable as Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. Perhaps he already has.

Over to you, Kevin…

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