‘The People’s Poet is Dead’: A Tribute to Rik Mayall, 1958-2014

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Hannah Oliver


This house will become a shrine, and punks and skins and rastas will all gather round and hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader. And all the grown-ups will say ‘But why are the kids crying?’ And the kids will say, ‘Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!’ And then one particularly sensitive and articulate teenager will say ‘Other kids, do you understand nothing? How can Rick be dead when we still have his poems?Rik Mayall, The Young Ones

I don’t think I was quite expecting how hard Rik Mayall’s death hit me. As I mindlessly scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed on the 9th of June with a melting Kit Kat in hand, I had no reason to believe that anything of particular note had happened in the media world. Then all of a sudden, BAM – every British news outlet posted the bulletin simultaneously. In one fell swoop I had gone from feeling perfectly contented to feeling shocked, horrified and vaguely sick. Perhaps it was the suddenness and relentlessness of the delivery, or perhaps the fact he had died at such a young age (the same age as my own mum, in fact) that had knocked the wind out of me so completely. Either way, I feel no shame in admitting that I had a bit of a cry. Despite the fact that nearly three weeks have passed since the news broke, it all still feels rather raw. It is unspeakable to accept a death so painfully premature and pointless, let alone the death of a man who was known and loved by all for his sparky energy and joie de vivre.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when Rik Mayall first burst into my life, but I do remember the ferocity with which he did. Like most kids growing up, I can attribute a great deal of my taste in classic British comedy to my parents. A particular family favourite was Blackadder, the classic 1980s series penned by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. It was a series endlessly quoted by my siblings and I, and was the source of many witty insults used to great effect in the playground. More importantly, it was thanks to this wonderful show that one of Rik’s most iconic characters was born – a character so bold, brash and sex-obsessed that he had to be seen to be believed. If you haven’t yet guessed, I am of course talking about Lord Flashheart – Flash by name, flash by nature! WOOF!

I remember my sides aching with laughter the first time I saw him, and I remember my complete shock and awe at the man who played him. I mean seriously, who the hell was this guy?! In one single episode, and in just 3 minutes of screen time, Rik had managed to singlehandedly steal the show. Even with his fake moustache coming loose, he still managed to completely wipe the floor with everyone around him. It was true poetry in motion.

Being the naïve nineties kid that I was, I thought for a long time that this was the only part he had played. I had no idea of the pivotal role Rik played in the renewal of British comedy in the eighties, had no notion of what the term ‘alternative comedy’ meant, and I certainly had never heard of The Young Ones.

rik montageHowever, it was The Young Ones that had cemented Rik’s place as a British comic icon. Fresh faced from his days performing at The Comic Strip, Rik teamed up with fellow performers Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan to create something truly special. It was a chaotic, anarchic, and delightfully barmy series that followed the antics of four undergraduates living in a dingy student flat. Mayall played wannabe anarchist Rick, a student so consumed by his inflated ego that he styles himself as the ‘People’s Poet’, claiming to be the voice of a generation downtrodden by Thatcherism. However, thanks in no small part to the genius of the writing team and Mayall’s acting, Rick comes across as more of a bug eyed, petulant man-child. It was a massive gamble for the BBC to screen a show so outrageously different from all the sitcoms they had commissioned before, but it paid off. The British public took the show to their hearts, and Rik Mayall – along with his co-stars – became the unofficial voice of the post-punk generation. There was no show more radical, demented or downright hysterical on British TV. It was unlike any sitcom that had come before, and there’s been nothing quite like it since.

I wish I could’ve been around for this explosion of alternative comedy. While there are many eighties fashions trends I’m very glad to have avoided, I’m pretty sure I would’ve enjoyed every last mad minute of the comic revolution Rik and his gang created. I firmly believe that my sense of humour, which at times can be pretty bizarre, would not have been quite the same if it hadn’t been for the influence The Young Ones had on British comedy since the eighties and I’m certainly not alone. Following the announcement of Rik’s death, the number of British comedians who took to Twitter to pay tribute to his talent and influence on their work was truly astonishing. Like me, it was clear that many had been completely taken by surprise by the suddenness of it all. The phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’ has never seemed so apt.

Watching The Young Ones now, the scene in which Rik declares his immortality through his poetry takes on a whole new poignancy. Even after nearly dying in a quad biking accident in 1998 and having to live with epilepsy as a result, Rik Mayall carried on living his life to the full. His was a career of numerous highs– both in comedies and dramas – and he enjoyed a happy domestic life with his wife and three children. In a life made poetic by his hard work, imagination and fiery energy, Rik managed to craft a legacy in British comedy’s history that most could only dream of. And while it remains unlikely that the fictional Rik would have been remembered for much more than his crappy poetry and overwhelming love for Cliff Richard, his real life counterpart has secured his place in the hearts and minds of a nation.

As long as we have his work and his legacy, Rik Mayall will never truly die.

Melanie Christie

Melanie Christie is PTL’s Video Editor. She also happens to be a History and English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh. She likes to think that her cultural interests make her slightly more interesting. She also spends a great deal of her time basking in her fox onesie, has a profound weakness for chocolate, and is a proud Hufflepuff – that’s loyalty for you, folks!

If you’re interested in getting involved with PTL – drop us an email on prancingthroughlife@live.com.

(Image sourced from: www.smh.com.au, www.fanmail.biz, www.theguardian.com