Goodbye to all that?

Has debut novelist Adrian Edmondson turned his back on comic mania for a life of letters? Mark Wareham finds out
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You open the first novel by Adrian Edmondson with extreme caution, half expecting one of those joke boxing gloves to come flying out and bloody your nose. Close it again and wait for the built-in whoopee cushion to blow off. Strange. Alright, so where's the scratch 'n' sniff centrespread?

It seems the comic actor, who has spent the past 20 years exchanging blows with Rik Mayall, is adopting a more subtle approach to the written word. The Gobbler, announces the jacket cover, and then, by way of reassurance, "A Novel". What can this mean? Comedy star lays down knob gags to write world's first knob novel?

Adrian Edmondson is ensconced in the luxury suite of an Edinburgh hotel, laying waste to the mini-bar. What with the loneliness of the book promo business, he seems pleased to have someone to talk to. "I've been in the room all day and I got kind of stir crazy." He fixes you with his dancing blue eyes and pulls on a Michelob. Slicked-back hair, tanned and floral shirted, he exudes a relaxed contentment. So what does he think of his own work? "Is it a novelisation of Bottom?" he returns the question self- mockingly. "Is it a bit of Proust? Or is it somewhere in between?"

As it turns out, The Gobbler is an unrelentingly diverting romp, crammed with wild slapstick and some deliciously paced comic scenes. Set unashamedly in showbiz country, it pitches its hero, Julian Mann, a seedy sitcom star with dramatic pretensions, in a downward spiral of sex, alcohol and violence. If nothing else, you have to admire Edmondson's ability to keep his character in a semi-permanent alcohol haze for 260 pages.

Of course, he expects a critical dissing. He wouldn't be the co-creator of the constantly lambasted Bottom if he didn't. But there's no Naomi Campbell syndrome here, not even the hint of a Ben Elton masterclass. Edmondson began work on the book seven years ago, but decided writing a novel smacked of pomposity. "Then everyone else did it," he smiles. "Obviously I'm a face from TV who's fourth or fifth in line to write a novel. Critics hate anyone who changes disciplines."

Although he has written "bits of prose" for his own amusement, it was only recently that he felt ready to face a readership of more than one. "It just always felt like a presumption to imagine that you could write a novel... I met a Frenchman, about 45, and when I told him, `I'm writing a novel', he said, `How can you? I've always wanted to, but I'm still too young,' and there is something to that. You have to reach a... it's not an age, it's just a mood.

"About three or four years ago my life became more relaxed and I started thinking of myself as a kind of hobby. It's a great release. I don't feel the urge to pose any more as I'm quite content amusing myself."

Edmondson believes his single-sex, boarding-school education has a lot to answer for. "It just taught me to be a delinquent," he says. "I never had any reason to be responsible for myself, and that's why I was drunk for 10 years of my life. I was constantly cross and loved getting into fights." If you were Anthony Clare sitting him down in your psychiatrist's chair, you couldn't have found a neater rationale for his comedy. "I'm a very different person now," he adds serenely, continuing the self-analysis. "I could become a Buddhist if I knew what it meant. Life doesn't seem to be a problem any more."

Which seems just about the total antithesis of Julian Mann. Edmondson admits that writing the character has been "a kind of therapy, 'cos I think it is most men's dream to live a shag-happy, drinking, guilt-free life".

Three of his contemporaries, it transpires, have already spotted themselves in the guise of the sex and booze monster that is Julian Mann, though presumably none of them are claiming the scene where Edmondson's vainglorious hero cries pathetically, "I swear by my Baftas - it's funny." Of course he's naming no names, but it may not be too long a shot to suppose that his ego-toting, ex-womanising comedy partner, Rik Mayall, might just be one of the three.

Until now, Mayall has exercised something of a hold over Edmondson's career. Plenty of high-profile solo projects from raucous Rik, but everything had gone horribly quiet in Ade's corner. Now we know why. With The Gobbler, he should once and for all have exorcised the ghost of Vyvyan in The Young Ones screaming, "You compleeeete baaaaastard" at a nation of farty students.

The Young Ones may be a distant memory - "There were about seven gags per episode... we do them much better now" - but his missus's Absolutely Fabulous certainly is not. For a while there, when the world went totally Ab Fab, he even found himself becoming plain old Mr Jennifer Saunders. Not that he minded, the brick. "I prefer to take the backseat, I must say. It's a better position to be in. I don't have my confidence sapped by either of them. I do think Rik does his best stuff with me, and I don't envy Jennifer anything. We never work at all together... I just think our personal life is too precious to start having a professional relationship as well. I can't imagine pulling it off."

With a "pretty massive" downpayment for The Gobbler sitting in the bank, Edmondson is already well down the road with novel number two. "It's about a band who had a couple of hits in the late Seventies and have been going ever since. You know when you read a bit in the paper about Smokie's van falling off the autobahn near Frankfurt? One of those. It's about when to decide to give it up. When does the dream end?"

He now sees himself alternating between his solo writings and his Mayall collaborations - a second live Bottom outing starts in a couple of weeks entitled "The Big Number Two Tour" (you think that's bad, you obviously didn't buy the video compilation, Bottom Whole). "It's nice to combine the two," says Edmondson. "Writing's not a gregarious profession. If you live your life as a novelist you end up writing about yourself 'cos you're the only person you ever meet." Maybe it's just as well the two be kept apart. Otherwise book number three really might become Bottom: the Novel.

n `The Gobbler' is published by Heinemann, pounds 10.00