On my first day at university I’m puffing away on a fag on the top deck of a bus in Manchester when I see a young bloke sitting in front of me.
He’s wearing a dirty denim jacket, has greasy shoulder-length hair, and he’s constantly flicking his head to get this hair out of his eyes. His hair’s so greasy it falls back over his spotty forehead as soon as he’s swept it back.
His every move is considered, as if to say: ‘Look at me, look how great I am.’ He pulls a cigarette from a packet of No.6 and ostentatiously taps both ends against the box — it’s something you only need to do with the unfiltered end, to stop loose tobacco from falling out.
This is how I know this bloke is an idiot. He lights it, inhales deeply and blows six perfect smoke rings — thick circles of rippling, tightly configured smoke, all perfectly equidistant from each other. This doesn’t endear him to me either, because I’ve never been able to do that, so I’m jealous.
He gets off at the same stop as me. In single file we both make our way to the drama department where I discover that we are on the same course and that his name is Rik Mayall.
ADRIAN EDMONDSON (left): In single file we both make our way to the drama department where I discover that we are on the same course and that his name is Rik Mayall (right)
The older I get, the more I realise that beauty mostly comes from within, and with Rik, especially in the early student days, he’s just remarkably uncomplicated, and that’s what people find attractive (pictured: Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall in comedy ‘Bottom’)
He’s only 17 when he arrives, and he’s a bit over-excited: he’s living in halls with lots of similarly hyperactive new chums, there’s cheap booze in the student union, he can smoke without having to suck a Polo mint on the way home, and he can stay out all night if he wants to.
He does a lot of shagging, by all accounts. Though this is nothing new if his tales of schoolboy conquests are to be believed. And who wouldn’t believe them — he’s a shockingly handsome boy, and he carries himself with such easy confidence. He manages to be amiably available to everyone without ever coming across as unpleasantly pushy or arrogant.
The older I get, the more I realise that beauty mostly comes from within, and with Rik, especially in the early student days, he’s just remarkably uncomplicated, and that’s what people find attractive.
You get what you see — a fun-loving charmer, someone who’s easy to be around, someone who wants to laugh and to make other people laugh, a bit of a show-off but someone who just wants the night to go well.
At the Edinburgh Fringe in the late 1970s we hang out at the Fringe Club — like a student union for performers — the drinks are cheap, and there’s a small stage where people can show off or try out new stuff.
One night we’re doing a new sketch about two Yorkshiremen on deckchairs trying to explain why American cars are so big and Japanese cars are so small (something to do with perspective and the Earth’s rotation), and as we blunder through it a girl walks by close to the front of the stage.
Adrian Edmondson, left, pictured with The Young Ones co-stars including Rik Mayall, right
You can’t really make comedy without learning a lot about each other, because creating together is more or less a sharing of everything you know
Nothing unusual in that, it’s a casual performance space, people are free to move about. But when she sees Rik she just stops right in front of the low stage and stares at him. I’ve got a ringside seat. And I watch her fall for him, from very close quarters. Watch her gape in wonder. See her smile grow into a beam. See her eyes transfixed. It’s like she’s been injected with a wonder drug that makes her glow from within. This is his power.
We finish our little sketch, and the compere announces the next act: it is the girl. She sings My Heart Belongs To Daddy — a teasing, sexually charged song made famous by Marilyn Monroe.
She sings it directly at Rik. There are an awful lot of signals in it and he responds to every single one. As I said, he’s very uncomplicated. I don’t see him again until we do our show the following lunchtime. He’s quite tired.
In the mid-1970s the actors’ union Equity is a closed shop. You can’t work as an actor unless you’re in Equity, and you can’t get into Equity if you aren’t in work as an actor. Catch 22.
One of the loopholes is Variety Contracts. Rik and a couple of friends hit upon a plan to do ‘lunchtime theatre’ at a pub called the Band On The Wall. He invites me to join this group and writes me a joke ‘contract’ on the inside of a dismantled fag packet. It says: ‘I promise there will never be any money in it, but it might be a bit of a laugh.’
Every fortnight we pile into our friend Lloyd Peters’s car and drive to the gig pretending to be in a James Bond film.
We sing the theme tune at the top of our voices — from the quiet bits (dum, dum, dum dum), to the loud horny bits (da-da de-daah, de da-dah, daddle-de-dah, de da daaah) — and Lloyd, a man who should never have been given a licence, swerves out into the traffic obligingly as we fire imaginary pistols out of the windows.
You can’t really make comedy without learning a lot about each other, because creating together is more or less a sharing of everything you know, and Rik and I learn the following: our mothers sent us to university with exactly the same dressing gown — a paisley-patterned job from C&A; we both own a treasured copy of Gorilla by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; and we think the Road Runner cartoons are better than Shakespeare.
After a year, and with no Equity cards in sight, 20th Century Coyote becomes a double act. Me and Rik.
It’s often said that a double act is ‘like a marriage’ — it’s an effort to explain the closeness of the partnership; the abiding love and affection; the living in each other’s pockets; the telepathic anticipation of what the other might be thinking.
But it also acknowledges that, like in many marriages, the love and affection can be taken for granted; that people can feel suffocated; and that they sometimes yearn for divorce.
After a year, and with no Equity cards in sight, 20th Century Coyote becomes a double act. Me and Rik
The double act Rik and I share for 30-odd years lies somewhere between these two stools. To carry the marriage analogy further — our courting days are really good fun
The new broadcaster Channel 4 is desperate for new talent and commissions The Comic Strip Presents… while the BBC gets frightened of missing out and commissions The Young Ones (cast pictured above)
Stan Laurel never worked again after Oliver Hardy died because he thought it would be a betrayal of their relationship.
In the 1975 film The Sunshine Boys a double act is asked out of retirement for a TV special. The resentment that caused their break-up festers like an open wound, and one of them ends up having a heart attack.
The double act Rik and I share for 30-odd years lies somewhere between these two stools. To carry the marriage analogy further — our courting days are really good fun.
We are always desperate to laugh. Desperate in the proper sense of the word. Frantic, despairing, distracted. It’s like a disease. We want it hard, we want to mainline it, we want to laugh our b*****ks off. We laugh a lot.
We drink a lot. We drive around together on my motorbike a lot. When we leave university we are a proper double act and proper best friends.
By the time we hit London in 1980 our act has become The Dangerous Brothers. They’re more like hitmen than comedians. Richard Dangerous is wired, anxious and hyperactive.
Sir Adrian Dangerous is furiously violent and out of control. But it becomes evident they’ve been sent to deliver a bog-standard cracker joke: ‘What’s green and hairy and goes up and down? A gooseberry in a lift.’
But they never get to tell it in this simple form.
They argue and bicker and fight. They’re never stationary. They have problems with logic. The joke they’ve been given isn’t as simple as it seems — how did the gooseberry get in the lift? How did it press the buttons? Why would it want to go anywhere? It’s a f***ing gooseberry! It’s basically a sketch about not being able to tell a joke, delivered with terrifying conviction and a lot of violence and nipple tweaking.
Luckily, this sort of thing turns out to be just what television executives are looking for in 1981. The new broadcaster Channel 4 is desperate for new talent and commissions The Comic Strip Presents… while the BBC gets frightened of missing out and commissions The Young Ones. Bingo.
We’re going to be on the telly. Twice. The Young Ones is better remembered, perhaps because we only make 12 episodes, so we get out while it’s still hot. But the success of The Young Ones changes the lives of everyone involved, and changes Rik more than anyone else.
He loses the uncomplicated charm of his student days and becomes much more complicatoratory, as George W. Bush might say. He falls in love with his fame.
Just going down the street with him becomes a trial, because he walks around as if every passer-by is a future biographer in search of an amusing anecdote that will prove how off the wall he is.
We’re going to be on the telly. Twice. The Young Ones is better remembered, perhaps because we only make 12 episodes, so we get out while it’s still hot. But the success of The Young Ones changes the lives of everyone involved, and changes Rik more than anyone else
He loses the uncomplicated charm of his student days and becomes much more complicatoratory, as George W. Bush might say. He falls in love with his fame
He gurns at people until they recognise him, eyes swivelling to attract attention, then he’ll do something ‘outrageous’ like pretend to pick his nose and wipe the bogie on their coats. This excites some passers-by who will then ask for an autograph, and it will take for ever to find paper and pen, and if they are female it might entail a hug, a kiss and a squeeze.
Yet he’s completely aware of how ludicrous he’s being. Once we get back indoors he’ll become old Rik again, making jokes about how vain and preening he is, and about the very people he’s just been trying to impress, who he calls ‘the ghastly ordinaries’.
We’ve always had an odd relationship with booze.
Straight out of uni he’d come over to mine every Saturday. We’d go to the pub, drink lager with whisky chasers, play pool, and put Revolution 9 on the jukebox several times in a row.
After chucking-out time we’d go back to my flat and the chip pan would swing into action. We’d press play and record and make each other laugh and laugh and laugh. The next morning we’d listen back — it’d be mostly unfunny gibberish with the sound of kitchen accidents in the background.
We’ve often wished that we could write drunk, what a life that would be, and don’t think we haven’t tried: many’s the time we’ve taken a notepad on a lovely pub crawl, but reading it back the next day we’ve confirmed the universal truth that drunks are not as funny as they think they are.
Just going down the street with him becomes a trial, because he walks around as if every passer-by is a future biographer in search of an amusing anecdote that will prove how off the wall he is
In 1993, when we do the first theatrical tour of our rambunctious TV sitcom, Bottom (pictured above), we drink copiously. Too copiously
It turns out, in the long run, that Rik isn’t very good at drinking. As students, we couldn’t afford more than four pints of cheap lager of an evening, and four pints made Rik amiable and fun to be with
In 1993, when we do the first theatrical tour of our rambunctious TV sitcom, Bottom, we drink copiously. Too copiously. There’s a strict rule that we don’t drink before a show — because we need our wits about us — but afterwards, well, the end of each and every show is a cause for enormous celebration, and we drink for the sheer joy of conquering the panic. A lot of people drink to celebrate the end of their exams — we get meticulously examined every single night.
It turns out, in the long run, that Rik isn’t very good at drinking. As students, we couldn’t afford more than four pints of cheap lager of an evening, and four pints made Rik amiable and fun to be with.
But now we’re earning good money, we can drink as much as we like, of anything, even spirits, and half a bottle of Scotch makes Rik, by turns, belligerent, morose, and then unconscious. It’s no fun for either of us.
The office where we write overlooks the front door of a pub, and as we’re writing the second Bottom live show in 1995, Rik turns up increasingly late, and I often see him nip into the pub first thing before we start writing. He thinks I can’t see him, and that vodka doesn’t smell — he’s wrong on both counts.
I eventually challenge him. He swears he hasn’t touched a drop but, annoyingly for Rik, his lazy eye wanders further to the left the more he drinks, and right now it’s practically looking backwards.
We finally have a friendly, truthful and rather tearful discussion. Rik doesn’t appear for a week, and when he finally returns he says he’s come to accept that he has a problem with booze.
So from the second tour onwards Rik doesn’t drink at all, and to make it easier for him, and because drinking alone is a bit sad, I stop drinking too.
Rik is an undoubted comic genius, and he’s equally successful with the ladies. Richie Richard, the character he plays in Bottom, is definitely not a genius, and is not at all successful, especially with the ladies.
Trouble strikes a few weeks into every Bottom tour, when the line between Rik and the character Richie starts to blur.
He starts to think that the crowd are laughing not because Richie is a funny character but because Rik is a comic god. And it’s complicated, because it’s both, but he starts being more Rik than Richie. Unfortunately, Rik the comic god isn’t quite as funny as the character. The character is humble, nervous, insecure, scared and desperate. Rik isn’t.
It’s hard to explain the difference between a good laugh and a diminishing laugh. The audience will not be aware of it, but all comedians will occasionally come off stage saying: ‘What a s*** audience.’ But once you start thinking the audience are s*** every night, you’re in trouble.
There’s always a point a few weeks into every tour when he’ll say: ‘None of the stuff I have is funny, let’s cut all my lines.’ And I’ll try to point out that if he stayed in character the laughs might come back. If I had a penny for every time I said, ‘just play the character’ I’d have £5.42.
We finally have a friendly, truthful and rather tearful discussion. Rik doesn’t appear for a week, and when he finally returns he says he’s come to accept that he has a problem with booze
Rik never gets his head around my decision to quit. For the next decade, whenever I ring him up to suggest we have lunch, just to chew the fat, just to be friends rather than colleagues, he always assumes I want to get the act back together again
Nothing wrong with being a sex god — well, I wouldn’t know, but I’m imagining it must be lovely — however, the jokes are written for the exact opposite. The character is wailing that he’s destined to be a virgin his entire life, while the sex god playing him is winking at a girl in the fifth row.
He cuts huge sections of carefully written jokes which only he at his manic and sexually inadequate best can perform, and the show gradually loses any complexity it might have had and becomes a race to the next fight.
By the end of the last tour in 2003 I’m thinking: ‘I don’t want to do this again.’
Rik never gets his head around my decision to quit. For the next decade, whenever I ring him up to suggest we have lunch, just to chew the fat, just to be friends rather than colleagues, he always assumes I want to get the act back together again.
Rik had a serious quad bike accident in 1998, and was in a coma for several days, and since then his memory has only ever got worse. So every time we meet, I have to explain my decision all over again. It becomes our Groundhog Day. I start to dread our lunches.
After ten years I hit upon a way to put the idea to bed once and for all. ‘OK,’ I say. ‘Let’s write an episode of something, give it to the BBC, and see if they want it.’
I’m confident they won’t, and that now it will be the BBC’s fault that we are no longer a double act, not mine. We dash off a script. And I mean dash. It is all very slapdash.
I just want to get the script written, to get a firm refusal and get on with my life. We hand it in… and it’s accepted. They offer us a series. Christ Almighty.
So in the summer of 2012 we start writing episodes of Hooligan’s Island, with Richie and Eddie marooned on a desert island. It’s not unfunny, but it’s not our very best stuff.
The way we check back on material is that I read it out, playing both parts, and Rik listens to get an overview. I’m reading out a scene when I notice out of the corner of my eye that Rik is counting things off on his fingers.
It doesn’t make much sense — he’s using each hand to count something different.
‘What are you counting?’ I ask.
‘Jokes,’ he says.
‘On two different hands?’
‘I’m counting your jokes and my jokes,’ he says. ‘And you’ve got more jokes than me.’
If you watch any of our programmes, I defy you to come to the conclusion that either of our characters has any more ‘jokes’ than the other. Our material is mostly framed in a two-shot, because you need to watch both of us at the same time to enjoy what’s going on. We’re a double act.
The next day I try to explain this to Rik. He’s very apologetic, but in that way a child apologises without knowing what they’re apologising for. He just wants to get the apology out of the way.
Later, as I’m reading back a scene, I can see his fingers going again. Counting. Two tallies. I don’t think he’s doing it to provoke me. In fact, he’s trying to do it without me seeing. I challenge him and we go through the script sitting side by side. He points at it and provides a judgment on each line.
Rik (pictured with Adrian in Bottom) dies of a heart attack in 2014. His death is a dreadful shock to the world, and to me. My head fills with a kind of white noise. It’s difficult to comprehend that he’s dead
He would have been over the moon to be on the front page of every newspaper, to make all the major news bulletins, and to be the subject of a segment on Newsnight as Jeremy Paxman questioned Caitlin Moran about his cultural importance
‘See, that’s your joke. That’s my joke. That’s your joke…’
And I realise that the double act is properly over. There’s no trust left. It was glorious when it was alive, I’m immensely proud of everything we did together, it still makes me laugh, but I’m glad we didn’t do a dodgy final series.
Rik dies of a heart attack in 2014. His death is a dreadful shock to the world, and to me. My head fills with a kind of white noise. It’s difficult to comprehend that he’s dead.
He would have been over the moon to be on the front page of every newspaper, to make all the major news bulletins, and to be the subject of a segment on Newsnight as Jeremy Paxman questioned Caitlin Moran about his cultural importance.
I write a letter to his mum, Gillian, and she replies, saying the sweetest thing. She has an abiding memory of standing in her kitchen listening to us as we sat in two deckchairs in her garden just laughing and laughing and laughing.
She says it was hard to understand how anything could be so funny.
- Adapted from Berserker! by Adrian Edmondson (Pan Macmillan, £22) to be published on September 28. © Adrian Edmondson 2023. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid until September 25, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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