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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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

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 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser