Rik Mayall’s memorial bench in London. Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
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Bedside Tales: a tribute to Rick Mayall’s charismatic comedy

When he first arrived, in 1980, Mayall’s face was alternative comedy, just as Johnny Rotten’s voice was punk.

Rik Mayall’s Bedside Tales
BBC Radio 4 Extra

The best in a little run of short stories co-written and read by Rik Mayall (13 March, 9pm) told of a man called Mike necking two pints of sherry in a London pub and subsequently losing any semblance of a plot back at the office. Mayall did all the characters and was especially good as a receptionist whose appalling voice (if virulent mustard had a sound, this was it) gently diminished as the doors of a lift shut.

The way he opened the story was lethally engaging. “We’ve got a thing, you and I,” he crooned. “Think of yourself as a salad and me as your dressing, drenching you in our special oil . . .” It looks no good written down but its outrageous intimacy in Mayall’s mouth – the blatant hugger-mugger-ness of it – had me rolling around, clutching my sides.

I hadn’t heard these stories before but it turns out that he recorded quite a few. When Mayall died in June last year, the attempts to assess his career inevitably involved questions of quantity. How winning he was in Filthy Rich & Catflap, how brilliant at Lord Flashheart – the aural equivalent of a Quentin Blake character – and so on. Yet the actual amount that Mayall did wasn’t related to the seminal effect he had. Fine, Mayall did many things and did them well but you only have to do one good thing once – and, in Mayall’s case, he just had to walk onstage as Rick and say, “Is there something wrong with my face?”

Rik Mayall c.1981, in “A Kick up the Eighties”. Photo: BBC

When he first arrived, in 1980, Mayall’s face was alternative comedy, just as Johnny Rotten’s voice was punk. While everybody else was shouting about Thatcher, any joke that Mayall told was (pretty much uniquely) always on him. He was unusually happy to be the butt of things.

For a good couple of years, he really was the only pop star in England. You’d look at Nik Kershaw and Simon Le Bon and then look at this madly handsome guy and recognise that he was the first properly charismatic new person you had seen in your own lifetime. The electric shock of “Who’s that?” is something I will for ever associate directly with Rik Mayall. He could make everybody else on the TV – and on the radio, some 35 years later, telling these stories – sound terminally out of date and not all that funny.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution