It’s difficult to know what to say about Rik Mayall’s death without sounding like one of those Private Eye parodies, but, if you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, you will have the feeling that a bit of your childhood has gone. I’m convinced that anyone in their thirties or forties (and beyond) will forever remember where they were when they heard the news yesterday. For many, and I say this apologetically, and with humility, as a past critic of grieving for public figures, it’s the first time the death of a stranger has touched us profoundly.
I won’t pretend to have known the actor and comedian, but I did used to boast that I lived in the same halls of residence as he once did: Manchester University’s Whitworth Park. And I was honoured to have seen him in Homebase in Warwick Road, Kensington, in 1992. I was honoured because, for my generation, Rik Mayall was someone we grew up with. He was part of our youth.
Although he later found fame as the sleazy and morally bankrupt Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, a savage satire on the sordid, back-to-basics Conservative governments of the early 1990s, and in Bottom – taking, with Ade Edmondson, sordid slapstick comedy to new extremes of sadism – he will be best remembered for the character that first propelled him to fame: his namesake, Rick, the people’s poet from the early-1980s BBC comedy, The Young Ones.
The show, which he co-wrote, is often invoked as being at the forefront of that long-misunderstood phenomenon, ‘alternative comedy’. Often described as ‘radical’, ‘post-punk’ and ‘left-wing’, alternative comedy was actually a rather middle-class, even conservative, affair. Consider Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder: a veritable Basil Fawlty for the 1980s; an intelligent if frustrated middle-class individual whose ambitions are invariably dashed by daft, effete toffs and royals (Elizabeth I, the Prince Regent, General Melchett) or a wretched, brainless prole (Baldrick). Or think of Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’, a good old-fashioned exercise in belittling the uppity working-class man on the make.
Rick was little different. He was the radical people’s poet yet supreme ignoramus whose parents doted on him; Rick still had his name-tag sewed into his clothes. At heart, he is a reactionary, harbouring secret conservative opinions – he concludes a long rant in the queue at the DHSS complaining about scroungers and emaciated Biafrans on the television. He professes to read Lenin, Trotsky and Marx, but in truth prefers Cosmopolitan and the music of Cliff Richard. He was so inexperienced with girls that he didn’t know what a tampon looked like.