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19 March 2015

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.

By Antonia Quirke

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?”

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

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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.