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

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear