Frenetic comedy actor described as ‘a talented maniac’

Rik Mayall: March 7th, 1958 - June 9th, 2014

Rik Mayall (left) with Adrian Edmondson. Photograph: PA

Rik Mayall (left) with Adrian Edmondson. Photograph: PA

 

Rik Mayall, who has died suddenly aged 56, was a phenomenal and outrageous performer, a leading light of the “alternative” comedy circuit that emerged from the Comedy Store in the 1980s, and a not inconsiderable comic actor, playing in Beckett and Simon Gray on the West End stage and in Gogol at the National Theatre.

Part of his success lay in the timing. His crude persona Rick in the breakthrough television series The Young Ones (1982-84), written with Ben Elton and Lise Mayer, was a gimlet-eyed, nose-picking lunatic who nonetheless carried a terrible plausibility as a prissy radical student of the day.

Long gone were the political protests of the 60s student generation; here, student life was parodied as grotty and anarchic, with Mayall surrounded by Ade Edmondson as Vyvyan, a crypto-Nazi, Nigel Planer as Neil, a cartoon hippie in a haze, and Christopher Ryan as Mike, a miniature smoothie. Reading nothing Mayall even lived this role off-stage, telling an interviewer he had thrown his satchel in the Severn on the day he heard he had got a place at Manchester University, resolving never to read a book again.

In an episode of The Young Ones, the four students featured on University Challenge, with Griff Rhys Jones playing Bamber Gascoigne, representing “Scumbag College”.

Mayall and Edmondson, who met at Manchester and remained longterm writing and performing partners, scored further popular success with Filthy Rich and Catflap (1987) and Bottom (1991-95).

Mayall had another television hit as the monstrous Tory MP Alan B’stard in The New Statesman (1987-92). In a later touring show, The Blair B’Stard Project, B’Stard went over to New Labour.

After a brief appearance in the first series of Blackadder in 1983, Mayall returned as the boisterous adventurer Lord Flashheart, full of sexual innuendo and flirting with Queenie, in Blackadder II (1986); then, with the same name, as a first world war flying ace in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).

In 1998, he sustained a fractured skull after crashing a quad bike into a concrete wall on his farm in East Allington, south Devon. He was “technically dead” for five days, but made a good recovery, allegedly saying to the first doctor he saw as he came round: “So, you’re the bastard who keeps sticking needles into me.”

Mayall was born in Harlow, Essex, the second of four children of John and Gillian Mayall, both drama teachers, and grew up in Droitwich, Worcestershire.

He was educated at the King’s school, Worcester, and took a degree in drama at Manchester, where he formed a comedy partnership with Edmondson that became known on the circuit as the Dangerous Brothers. Anti-Thatcher Some of their comedy was inspired by opposition to Margaret Thatcher and some of it was just high-energy nonsense. Mayall and Edmondson wrote a very short play, The Wart (1979), in response to Ken Campbell’s 24-hour epic The Warp, which prompted the critic James Fenton to hail Mayall as “a talented maniac”.

After the madness of his TV success, he joined the National Theatre in 1985 to play the deluded lead character in Gogol’s The Government Inspector, duping a small town and its mayor, played by Jim Broadbent. Two years later, in the West End, he was Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with Edmondson as Estragon, in a surprisingly tender and melancholic revival directed by Les Blair and designed by Derek Jarman.

He received poor notices for several films, including Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (1997) and Guest House Paradiso (1999). His turn as Peeves the Poltergeist in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), was dumped in the editing suite.

There was also one disastrous excursion to Hollywood in Ate de Jong’s high-energy low comedy Drop Dead Fred (1991). But Mayall bounced back to Bottom and, in 2005, published a spoof, Alan Partridge-style autobiography, Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ, and also made a surprisingly “soft” TV series, All About George.

Mayall married the make-up artist Barbara Robbin in 1985, and is survived by her and their three children, Rosie, Sidney and Bonnie.