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Monday 22 September 2014

Rik Mayall: The funny man who ripped up rulebook

Ian O'Doherty on the enduring genius of the subversive and anarchic performer who died this week

Published 14/06/2014 | 02:30

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Rik Mayall in iconic comedy The Young Ones
Rik Mayall as Alan B'Stard in 'The New Statesman'
Rik Mayall as Kevin Turey

I was nine, maybe 10, when Rik Mayall first embarrassed me. My parents were watching some comedy on the television and there, staring manically back at the camera, was a weird young Birmingham man railing against the world. As he discussed his recent meeting with a man who had lost both arms and legs, he dropped into his Brummie colloquialism and asked, "Got the time on you, cock?"

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This was the best, naughtiest joke I had ever heard and I broke into the kind of delighted laughter that any rude word provokes in a kid. To this day I remember the folks trying not to laugh as they jokingly grilled me on where I had heard the word 'cock'.

I wasn't the first kid to be embarrassed by Mayall's deranged antics as they sat alongside their parents, and that demented character he played was Kevin Turvey, a hapless and quite possibly mentally ill young man from Redditch in the West Midlands. I didn't understand much of what was going on, but what I did understand was comedy brilliance.

When news of his death broke on Monday, I went back to those old Kevin Turvey clips with more trepidation than excitement. After all, comedy, like music, is often best left in the memory. As it happened, it's even funnier now than it was then. For an actor who would go on to become known as the most self-destructively physical comedian of his generation, Turvey was a masterclass in script, timing and delivery. From accusing the launderette of killing his pet tortoise Dave (a rat with a dinner plate stuck on top), or being randomly assaulted by policemen, Turvey deserves to be ranked right up there with Peter Cook's surrealist monologues (all 10 Turvey skits and a mockumentary are up on YouTube).

But while Turvey was good, The Young Ones felt like it had been a gift from God. It remains the closest TV has come to recreating the chaos inside a young man's brain. A standard sitcom in the sense that it was essentially a squabbling family in a house, they were the football hooligans of comedy, and Mayall's Rick, the tedious lefty with a Cliff Richard obsession, was as much a two fingers to the right-on comedians of the time as the show was a rejection of traditional TV.

It was wonderful, joyous stuff; a celebration of being both completely and utterly stupid and prone to random acts of senseless violence. That programme launched a million playground impressions and, if the tributes are to believed, nearly as many careers in comedy when those kids grew up. Inevitably, it was lambasted at the time by the establishment as a corrupting influence on impressionable minds. The thing is, the establishment was right – it was a wonderfully corrupting influence.

Inevitably, news programmes have been eager to run clips of him as the dangerously priapic Captain Flashheart in Blackadder, a character so virile that, as he informs Captain Darling: "The last time I called someone darling she was pregnant 20 seconds later." Such was the jubilant madness of the character, you believed him. For a show that revelled in cameos, his Flashheart remains the most memorable one – a selfish, vile, charismatic bully who represented the worst of imperial excess and stupidity.

Mayall also brought that sense of psychosis to perhaps his most enduring character, Tory MP Alan Beresford B'Stard. Straight from the Bullingdon Club of entitled Tory headcases, B'stard was the increasingly amoral MP who mercilessly satirised the swaggering young post-Thatcher Tories – although he could have been the template for Tony Blair.

Mayall used to joke he had led the same charmed life in reality that B'Stard enjoyed in fiction, but that came crashing to an end in 1998 when he had a major accident on his quad bike. In a coma for five days, he later joked that he was bigger than Hitler and better than Jesus because he had been shown in more countries than Hitler and, "Jesus was only dead for three days, I was dead for five".

It was a defiant response, but the experience left him with epilepsy, and he concentrated on the easier and more lucrative voiceover market. I was lucky enough to interview him a few years after the crash, but for all the false bonhomie it was like getting blood from a stone because he was serious about his business. In a moment of candour, he admitted the crash had damaged his memory and that posed questions for any actor – a problem he encountered when he brought B'Stard to the stage for the adaptation of The New Statesman.

While he will always be defined by The Young Ones, there can be no doubt that Alan B'Stard was his finest role, reminding people that for all the pratfalls and fart gags, here was a serious actor who could switch from charming to psychotic with alarming ease.

He was seen on Irish screens playing the father in the loathsome Damo And Ivor, but to focus on that makes as much sense as claiming that Orson Welles is defined by the ads for he did for port. No, Mayall will be remembered for what he did best – spreading joyous mischief and causing glorious mayhem wherever he went, You can't ask for a better legacy.

In his own words

"There's this drink I've invented. It's a bottle of Tia Maria, which you pour into a pint glass and mix in an ice cube to taste. You gotta watch it, though; I had three last Wednesday. I ended up eating a tablecloth. I woke up in the morning inside the fridge" (Kevin Turvey Investigates).

"Good evening, everybody, Kevin Turvey – the man who investigates everything properly, not like Keith Marshall. And anyway, Keith Marshall, if I don't investigate things properly, how come I'm on the BBC? And it wasn't me who nicked your bike. Anyway, good evening everyone else" (Kevin Turvey Investigates).

"Neil, the bathroom's free. Unlike this country under the Thatcherite junta" (Young Ones).

"Point 1: abolish poverty. Point 2: abolish capitalism. Point 3: Dexys Midnight Runners play free, daily, in the university library" (Young Ones).

"She's got a tongue like an electric eel and she likes the taste of a man's tonsils!" (Blackadder).

"Why should we, the country that produced Shakespeare, Christopher Wren cower down to countries that produced Hitler, Napoleon, the Mafia and The Smurfs?!" (The New Statesman).

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