Obituary: Rik Mayall, actor and comedian

Rik Mayall: Comedy actor best known for his roles in The Young Ones and The New Statesman. Picture: AP
Rik Mayall: Comedy actor best known for his roles in The Young Ones and The New Statesman. Picture: AP
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Born: 7 March, 1958, in Harlow, Essex. Died: 9 June, 2014, in London, aged 56

Angry, political, violent and surreal – Rik Mayall played a key role in the transformation of British comedy in the early 1980s, pretty much booting out the final vestiges of variety hall song and dance routines and jokes about mothers-in-law.

Mayall was a major player in the alternative comedy movement that took off, post-Monty Python. There was a little more structure, satire and reality to the comedy than on Monty Python, and a lot more political consciousness.

Mayall’s characters in particular prided themselves on their political awareness. There was the pretentious, overbearing left-wing idealist in the landmark BBC2 series The Young Ones, who by chance just happened to be called Rick.

With a mad twinkle in his eye and little time for personal hygiene, Mayall’s character wholeheartedly espoused anarchism, as opposed to the sheer anarchy represented by his flatmate Vyvyan, played by Adrian Edmondson. Mayall and Edmondson went on to work together on several other shows, including the sitcom Bottom.

At the other end of the spectrum in The New Stateman, Mayall played the Tory MP Alan Beresford B’stard, the nasty extreme right-winger who made the chap in the political thriller House of Cards seem positively wishy-washy and who by chance just happened to share the same middle name as Tory politician Norman Tebbit.

Born in Harlow in Essex in 1958, Richard Michael Mayall was the son of two drama teachers, made his acting debut at seven in a play written by his father and studied drama at Manchester University.

It was there that he met Edmondson, who became his best friend and regular collaborator over many years. They formed a small comedy troupe called 20th Century Coyote, a spin on the Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox, came to the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe and staged a show called My Lungs Don’t Work at the Zetland Hall in Pilrig Street. Mayall also appeared in a Manchester Umbrella Theatre production of a play called The Flood at the same venue.

Retaining the name 20th Century Coyote, Mayall and Edmondson headed for London and appeared at the Comedy Store, where Alexei Sayle was compere. Around this time they met other emerging comic actors, including Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who married Edmondson, and set up their own club called The Comic Strip in Raymond’s Revuebar strip club in Soho.

Mayall was also developing solo material and characters such as Rick and the socially inept Kevin Turvey, who became a regular on the sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties at the beginning of the decade. While working on the show he met Barbara Robbin, a Scottish make-up artist. They would marry a few years later.

Not only a gifted comic actor, Mayall was also a talented writer. He co-wrote The Young Ones with Ben Elton and Lise Mayer, who was actually Mayall’s partner at the time (she later began a long-term relationship with Angus Deayton). Like many previous sitcoms it focused on a single household. And that is where all similarity ended.

Instead of a happy, smiley family and a cosy domestic setting, The Young Ones featured four ill-assorted students in the sort of accommodation one might have hoped would have been the subject of a demolition order some time previous.

As well as Rick and Vyvyan, there was Neil (Nigel Planer), the dopey, miserable hippy, and the rather dodgy Mike (Christopher Ryan). Alexei Sayle played the landlord and various other roles.

It took a sitcom structure and blended it with a more surreal vision and cartoon violence and, pretty much everything else too, with talking animals and characters suddenly turning round and addressing the camera.

In one classic episode, which had more narrative plot than most, the flatmates, representing Scumbag College, took on the toffs of Footlights College, Oxbridge – Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. As well as being very funny, it effectively contrasted two schools of comedy, and if Scumbag failed to match the wit and intellect of Footlights, well, they could always stick a foot through the ceiling that separated the teams or simply blow them up.

The Young Ones debuted on BBC2 on 9 November, 1982, but just seven days earlier Mayall and Edmondson had helped launch Channel 4, appearing on the opening night comedy The Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad in Dorset, a send-up of the Famous Five, which also featured French and Saunders, and the dog Timmy of course.

Suddenly, at 24, Mayall was being hailed as the future of British television comedy. He went on star in a string of other sitcoms, including Filthy, Rich and Catflap, playing an out of work actor, with Planer as his agent and Edmondson as his minder; The New Statesman; and Bottom, in which Mayall and Edmondson were two layabouts, forever dreaming up ways to get money and sex and beating each other up, generally with the use of a frying pan.

Mayall made guest appearances on Blackadder and starred in the films Drop Dead Fred and Guest House Paradiso, the latter with Edmondson. They also wrote it together. But Mayall’s greatest successes remained his comedy series of the 1980s and 1990s. Subsequent sitcoms were less successful.

In 1998 he was very badly hurt in a quad bike accident near his home in Devon and was in a coma for five days. Seeing him lying on the ground, his wife initially thought it was a joke. He did subsequently return to work and took on an ever more diverse range of projects, on television and on stage.

As well a touring with Edmondson in a stage version of Bottom, he provided voices for the Andrex puppy adverts and Shoebox Zoe, made guest appearances in Minder, Midsomer Murders and Jonathan Creek, played King Herod in a video production of Jesus Christ Superstar and revived Alan B’Stard in a new stage show. Reflecting the changing political scene B’Stard had left the Conservatives and joined Labour.

He also played the poltergeist Peeves in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and claimed he discovered his scenes had been cut only at the premiere.

He is survived by his wife Barbara and their three children Rosie, Sidney and Bonnie.