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Opinion: Goodbye Rik Mayall – you loveable, manic scoundrel

Rik Mayall burst onto our TV screens in the ’80s, challenging the stagnant sitcoms of the day and paving the way for new generations of comics.

Stephen Downes

RIK MAYALL WAS more than just a run-of-the-mill comedy actor from the ’80s. His edgy, risqué and sometimes manic performances were ground breaking for a generation of writers, actors and comics who wanted to distance themselves from the stagnant format of joke-telling and front room sitcoms that had plagued the 1970s entertainment industry.

His long-term partnership with fellow alternative comic Ade Edmondson in ‘The Dangerous Brothers’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘Filthy, Rich and Catflap’ and ‘Bottom’, pushed television to its then-limits, paving the way for new generations of comedy entrepreneurs. But Rik and Ade were never surpassed by the new generation of comics for their onstage antics and their sheer lovability, as both characters and performers.

Rik’s characters were a frictionless extension of his personality, from his Young Ones’ bashing of Margaret Thatcher (and that terrible poetry of course) to his stylish, devious and hilarious portrayal of Alan B’stard in ‘The New Statesman’, he seemed to wow audiences into making his character the favourite; who can forget his brash and over-the-top Lord Flashheart appearances in Blackadder, where he outshone the likes of Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson?

Rik Mayall was the scoundrel we wanted to love, the outsider of the group of alternative comedians that arrived on our screens from the mid-1980s. He was, both on and off stage, a do-it-my-way comedy villain, the kind of cad that we wanted to see get away with the crime; perhaps that’s why the BBC and Channel 4 allowed him so much leeway to experiment with physical and surreal comedy.

Any time you read through the TV guide and spied Rik Mayall’s name, you watched whatever show he was in because you were never quite sure what he was going to do or say, and I’m certain some of the actors and directors who worked with him felt exactly the same.

What Rik Mayall gave to me, and many other aspiring writers, actors and comics who grew up with his work as the backbone of their humour, was the assurance that you could make a joke out of anything, every situation could be funny and the boundaries of what we can do as artists are only defined by ourselves. His worked ceased to be alternative comedy and became instead classic comedy, the standard by which all of us must be measured.

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Steve Downes is an Irish contemporary poet, historian and novelist, currently living and working in Ireland. Steve is the author of The Botolf Chronicles, WarWorld and several collections of poetry including Urbania and the Pagan Field.

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