Any premature passing is regrettable and a tragedy. In this regard, yesterday’s announcement of the sudden death of comedian Rik Mayall at the age of fifty-six certainly qualifies and, generally-speaking – not just in these sad circumstances – if you cannot say something positive about an individual it is probably best to say nothing at all.
Yesterday the media was inevitably and understandably chockfull of heartfelt salutes and tributes from Mayall’s friends, colleagues and fellow entertainers. There is a time for an instinctive shocked reaction to news such as this and there is perhaps a different time for reflective analysis of the life, body of work and influence that a notable person has left behind.
This is a personal view and possibly an unworthy one this soon after the event.
Having listened to the torrent of contributions throughout the day, last night I became struck by their uniformity and, to an extent, their banality. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting anyone to lob in a comment that Mayall was a difficult or volatile sod, even if he was – and let me state for the record that I have no knowledge of the matter either way. As I wrote above, yesterday was not a time for considered analysis anyway.
Nevertheless, speaker after speaker testified as to how brilliant, how creative, how innovative, how wonderful to work with, Mayall was. His constant striving for excellence, for improvement and for breaking new ground was also mentioned. I heard at least two different people, both prefacing their comment by referring to their distaste for the modern devaluation of the word, describe him as a genius. To risk reducing my point to absurdity, it might not have surprised me if I had heard someone had recommended him for sainthood.
Let me post my personal reaction.
Without doubt, Mayall was an extremely talented comedian/performer with a manic, dynamic energy that was seductively attractive. In full flight, he was a force of nature. On screen the viewer’s eye was naturally drawn to him.
Having registered that, for me he was a bit of a one-trick pony. Maybe it was my advanced age but – for all the jokes, insightful humour and energetic slapstick – I found his series The Young Ones and Bottom (with Adrian Edmondson) irredeemably childish. Having by then gained the impression that in every role Mayall was essentially playing himself, I’m afraid the qualities of his later series The New Statesman completely passed me by.
For me his one classic (cameo) character was Squadron Commander Flashheart, who appeared to defining effect in Blackadder Goes Forth, previous manifestations having surfaced in earlier outings of the same oeuvre. I could watch Flashheart for episodes at a time and even now seek out Blackadder repeats just for the chance to wallow in Mayall’s inspired performances.
Nevertheless, there was one contribution yesterday that, for me, rose above the dross in paying tribute to Mayall.
Quite soon after the news of Mayall’s death had broken, Sky News broadcast a live interview with the Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic Tim Walker over the phone.
Having spoken for some minutes of Mayall the man and his comedic brilliance, Walker was asked to nominate his lasting view of Mayall’s qualities. He said that, upon reflection, he might surprise some people by choosing to plump for a mention of his acting ability.
He told of how Mayall and Stephen Fry had starred in Simon Gray’s two-hander play Cell Mates at the Albery Theatre in 1995. After just three performances, Fry – spooked by either an unfavourable review and/or a personal crisis and loss of confidence – had walked out and disappeared for several days, with people fearing for his life. Walker said that Mayall had soldiered on in the play for the remainder of its six week run and, in doing so, had given a quite outstanding performance of straight acting.
I guess that learning something novel and interesting about a deceased person is a worthwhile plus of taking heed of the tributes paid to them.