Sunday, June 15, 2014

Goodbye to the People's Poet

As usual, I'm late to the party on this. Or perhaps I should say wake. On June 9, 2014 Rik Mayall died of a heart attack at the age of 56. It was depressing news. I've always enjoyed Mayall's work and he was young. Six years older than me when he died. That sometimes makes you think. I wanted to post something about this sooner, but this is the soonest I was able.

I'm not really sure how I discovered the television show "The Young Ones." It could have been through a friend, could have been my seeing a video of it. For a while MTV was showing the episodes in the mid-80s. However it was, at some point I saw the show and was blown away by it. Comedic anarchy it was a force to be reckoned with.

I've been a fan of British comedy from the days of watching Sunday night "Monty Python" episodes shown on our local public television station. "The Young Ones" brought the absurdest sensibility of Python to extremes. Sometimes violent extremes. For all intents and purposes it was a sitcom. Four students of diverse personalities living under one roof and trying not to kill each other. Well, perhaps not really trying that hard. It broke all the rules.

Rick Mayall, one of the writers along with Lise Mayer and Ben Elton (who would go on to write The Blackadder series) cited his own years at university, and running into these groups of divergent personalities, as an inspiration for the show. Curiously, the television show "The Monkees" also served to inspire the creative minds behind "The Young Ones" who used similar techniques like jump cuts, montages and breaking the fourth wall. The show was a sort of a Punk Monkees (which may have been a band name in the 80s. If it wasn't, it should have been).

There was even music in the show as every week they somehow managed to sew into the plot a musical performance by a popular band such as Madness, Motorhead and Dexy's Midnight Runners. This was done primarily for budget purposes since the producers discovered that by adding musical acts they could classify the show as a variety show and the BBC would offer it a larger budget than it would offer a sitcom.

Rik Mayall played Rik, the "People's Poet" a would be anarchist whose anarchy only went so far as to cause no inconvenience to Rik. His character was always fighting some sort of injustice even if it was only imagined.

Ade Edmondson played Vyvyan the punk, the one who did everything he could (and usually violently) to piss the People's Poet off. Vyv's philosophy was "why walk through a door when you could crash through a wall?"

Nigel Planer was Neil the hippie. But not a happy hippie. Rather a decidedly unmellow hippie who went through life waiting for the other shoe to drop and probably shouldn't have been living with other three guys, most certainly not these guys.

Christopher Ryan played Mike the cool person, the unofficial leader of the group. Mike was an operator who always had an angle, even if the angle rarely played out. He was a legend in his own mind.

Mayall was part of the alternative comedy scene that began blooming in the 80s. Infused with a sort of punk mentality these alternative comedians offered comedy less formulaic, more free flowing than that which preceded them. Names like Alexi Sayle, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, produced comedy that was edgy, unpredictable and often laced with political commentary.

Of course some of it was just purely ridiculous--or violently ridiculous as in the case of The Dangerous Brothers, one of my favorite bits that Mayall did. Teamed with Ade Edmondson, Mayall was one half of a brother duo whose act consisted of death defying stunts, most of which usually went terribly wrong. It's pure slapstick, utterly ridiculous and completely hilarious.

Around the time I discovered "The Young Ones" (which led to The Dangerous Brothers) I came upon a more subdued and thoughtful (if that's the right word) character of Mayall's. Kevin Turvey was an investigative reporter who, from a chair in a darkened studio, delivered earnest commentary on issues that really seemed to only concern him. Mayall completely invests himself into the character and I was completely fascinated by it.

After "The Young Ones" he starred in a series called "The New Statesman," a wicked take on the wickedness of power. Mayall plays Alan B'Stard, a Thatcherite MP prepared to do anything to satisfy his ambitions. Think of it as a comedic "House of Cards." The character is much more subdued then Mayall played in the past, much more diabolical. It's a perfect take of the creepiness infesting the government in Thatcher's England.

Perhaps my favorite project was another teaming with Ade Edmondson called "Bottom", a sitcom in which two middle age losers share a flat. It's almost as if they asked, "What would Rick and Viv from the Young One's be like ten years later." Mayall and Edmondson came up with the idea while appearing in the play 'Waiting for Godot." It's frenetic, often times raunchy, and boasts one of the catchiest closing themes of any show.

A curious change of pace showed him capable of carrying dramatic roles too. A friend turned me on to "Claire de Lune" an episode featured in a larger series called "Rik Mayall Presents" in which Mayall plays a single dad who juggles his parental duties with driving a cab and going to school. Along the way, he helps a damsel in distress and gets more than he bargained for. It's an interesting story and it reveals an acting range that might surprise people who think of Mayall only as the crazy energy comedian. His performance is sincere and subtle.

Of course that crazy energy he could dial up came in handy for the children's show "Grim Tales," in which he told popular children's stories. His to ability channel his inner child is perfect for the show and he's thoroughly engaging.

And speaking of inner child, I liked "Drop Dead Fred." It delivered what it intended to deliver (at a time when every movie didn't have to be a blockbuster filled with explosions). It was a simple story, at times quite touching, about a woman trying to reconnect with that inner child in an attempt to learn how not to be a doormat. Mayall was perfect as Drop Dead Fred, the imaginary friend of the character played by Phoebe Cates who retained a child's lack of impulse control. It was a movie about finding a balance in life between humor and responsibility.

In April 1998 Mayall was seriously injured in a quad bike accident. As he lie a coma for five days, doctors weren't certain if he'd survive. He did, but it left him with epilepsy for which he had to take medication. Often times he joked, however, that he beat Jesus' record, rising after five days dead as opposed to Christ's three. He moved on with his career starting up again with voice overs then moving on to guest starring roles and even live shows of "Bottom" and "The New Statesman."

There are a few people I'd like to have met to tell them what a profound effect their work had on me. I was introduced to Rik Mayall's work during a time when I desperately needed to laugh and laugh often and watching the shows of Mayall and his contemporaries helped me through that time. I would have liked to have told him that.

Perhaps one day I'll get the chance.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy him in one of his most famous cameos: Lord Flashheart in "Black Adder the Second"