As a lifelong fan of Rik, my brother and I had the great pleasure of directing him in 2010 when he very kindly narrated our short film, This Side of the After Life.
We wrote the film specifically with his voice in mind but as unproven directors with barely a short film to our name at that point, the general perception was that we didn’t stand a chance of landing him. We didn’t even have any real money on offer, so to actually get him for the part was amazing – “Rik likes our script! Maybe we’re not wasting our time with this film making thing after all!”, we thought.
They say you should never meet your heroes through fear that they may disappoint you but in real life Rik was exactly the bloke, as a fan, you’d want him to be – a whirling dervish of energy; brash, foul mouthed, naughty, hilarious. I’ve never before or since experienced someone who took up a room the way Rik did with his sheer charisma and force of personality. I consider him the greatest physical comedian our country has ever had (watch the scene in the Young Ones in which the gas cooker explodes inches away from him in slow motion!) so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
What I didn’t expect however, was his generosity of spirit and professional, well-preparedness that he brought to the voice over session. He had comprehensive notes and ideas on how he wanted to deliver certain lines and what he thought his character motivations might be in each scene. It goes to show the depth of thought that was behind every slapstick punch and every pervy leer – there was method to his madcap madness. Before he stepped in the vocal booth to do his first take he told my brother Joe; “You guys are the boss. If I do something that’s shit say, ‘Rik it’s shit’ and I’ll do it better.” To receive that level of input and feeling of respect from a comedy pioneer as a pair of young directors speaks volumes about what a kind man he was and how supportive he was of up and comers. He simultaneously empowered us as directors and satisfied us as fanboys.
Needless to say he sat in the booth to do a ‘warm up’ take and absolutely nailed it, first time. We did several more takes, mostly just so we could indulge our desire to bask in the man’s talent for a little while longer. If this was our one chance to work with THE BLOODY RIK MAYALL (!!!Garrghh!!!) we didn’t want it to be over after 15 minutes! At that point our life’s work had seemed to mainly consist of trying to perfect our own, ‘Rik faces’ in photographs (flared nostrils, drawn down chin). We wanted to enjoy the moment with him. We asked him to do takes that were more manic, more menacing or more dramatic, and it was incredible to witness what vocal dexterity he had. I hope those people who made the Domestos and Andrex ads appreciate how good they had it!
Of course, Rik’s natural instincts and notes about the character were spot on – 70% of the narration that made it into the final film was from that first, so called ‘warm up’ take (like the man needed a warm up – he was an exploding volcano of pyroclastic comedy!). It was a wonderful lesson for us as young writer/directors; when you put your material in the hands of a genius, just stand back and let them do what you hired them for – don’t get in the way! He threw so much energy into the recording the outtakes made us cry with laughter. He messed up one line and exclaimed in frustration “Oh fuck me up the arse with a brick!” before assuring us, “don’t worry this next take is gonna be God-like!”
One of the memories that sticks out from the 90 minutes or so we spent in his company was the state of his mobile phone. He was delightfully old school as a performer – someone who blossomed in the post-punk, early 80’s alternative comedy scene and stubbornly (and charmingly) refused to change his game and roll with the times. Rather fittingly, in the iPhone heavy 2010, Rik’s phone was a battered, Nokia 3210 with a cracked screen. I like to imagine he damaged it while engaged in Tom & Jerry style smack down with Ade, but I think that was just fantasy on my part.
After finishing the VO session, he watched a cut of the film and offered his critique; one scene features the star of the film, stand up comedian Eric Lampaert, being hit in the face with a football. He felt the hit was too gentle, he wanted to see Eric get smashed in the face really, really hard!
He chatted to us about a recent radio interview he had done in which they told him to stop saying “bastard” so much, so Rik informed us he then wouldn’t stop saying bastard over and over. No wonder he rarely made chat show appearances, he was seemingly incapable of being a good little boy! He then told us about a project he was working on that was a spoof of presenter-lead travelogues. He explained; “All has-been comedians present a travel programme, so now I’m a has-been comedian, I might as well take the piss out of them.” Self-deprecating and anti-mainstream, how could we not love him? I also noticed he had other scripts and work-in-progress ideas in his briefcase. One of these well thumbed scripts had the phrase ‘3D Twat’ scribbled on it in biro. I wanted to ask him what it referred to but never did. It’s quite nice that that rather curious ball-point annotation remains an enigma to speculate on.
We had a few pictures with him and I couldn’t help do a sneaky flared nostril Rik face in one of them. I remember his hair brushing my arm and being surprisingly soft. Who would have thought the man whose head had seen the bottom of so many lavatory bowls would have hair worthy of a L’Oreal ad? Then, having ran out of excuses to keep him there any longer, we said our goodbyes. He left with a hearty handshake and a massive smile. On his drive back he chatted to our runner/driver, pointing out various locations where they filmed the opening credits to Bottom and talked about his desire to make a zombie film.
It was obvious the man had dramatic range, as evidenced by his particularly genius performance as Richie in Bottom. The character was such a wretched cretin but somehow there were moments in which he would draw you in, such as in the episode ‘Contest’ when he declares “I’m just a very lonely person, Eddie.” It’s testament to his skill that he would tease fleeting moments of humanity that would make you feel empathy for the arrogant and petty Richie.
Afterlife went on to be nominated for ‘Best UK Short’ at the Raindance Film Festival (largely thanks to his brilliant performance, I suspect). Since working with him, we’ve progressed in our careers, creating bigger and more successful shorts than the one we did with Rik but that project will always be special to us, largely thanks to our experience with him.
Over the last few years Me and Joe would sometimes talk about what roles we could possibly collaborate with him on in the future. We wanted to create a role that would do for him what Lost In Translation did for Bill Murray; re-invent him as a critically lauded, tragi-comic icon. Recently we thought of him to play an abusive commentator in a boxing feature film that we are currently in the midst of writing. We talked about doing an anarchic off-the-wall documentary about alternative comedy that would explore why Rik, as influential as he was, has never really entered the hallowed realm of being considered a “national treasure.” Of course that feels like it was by design – I gather Rik would have considered himself a sell-out had he been seen to somehow enter the establishment. He was a staunch alt-comedian, the most recognizable figurehead of that revolution, the influence of which reverberates today amongst the country’s best comedy talent. Perhaps now, in death, Rik won’t mind us elevating him to national treasure status. But then again, maybe he would think we were all bastards for doing that and want to kick us in the bollocks as punishment.
As (P)Rick in The Young Ones he was the self-described ‘People’s Poet.’ Perhaps if we consider trouserial (a Rik-ism!) explosions and acts of cartoon-violence to be his words and punctuation, he wouldn’t mind if we referred to him as the John Keats of physical comedy. In fact his character once self-eulogised (while trying to commit suicide by laxatives, no less), asking; “How can Rick be dead when we still have his poems!?” I can’t think of a more fitting way to summarise his passing.
RIP Rik, you utter, utter, UTTER Bastard.