No bottom jokes? Pull the other one

Think of Rik Mayall and you see a grinning maniac spouting bad- taste jokes about bodily malfunctions in a succession of hectic TV sitcoms. Now he is starring in a slightly more grown-up role in the film `Bring me the Head of Mavis Davis'. But, he tells James Rampton, it is a part that still has him feeling like a misfit.

Rik Mayall is still defiant about his Bottom, the BBC2 sitcom which he and his long-term partner Adrian Edmondson wrote and performed together.

"We've got to the stage now where we realise the critics have got it in for us," he sighs. "In order to enjoy Bottom, you have to completely let go and swim in it. If you don't let go, it just looks like a collection of fart jokes - like jazz might look like a collection of notes. But if you immerse yourself in it and just go with the rhythm of it, it's there for your pleasure.

"I understand that the metropolitan, middle-class media have a problem enjoying it, but that doesn't trouble me because of my audience figures. The punters like it. It's an age-old argument, but it's a valid one."

As he makes his return to the big screen in Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, Mayall is bracing himself for yet more criticism. His last two cinematic outings, Drop Dead Fred and Remember Me?, were by his own admission "not received well".

In person, Mayall betrays no hints of nervousness. Resplendent in ripped jeans and a blue V-neck jumper over a white T-shirt, he is a man brimming with infectious self-confidence - he puts his feet up on the chintzy sofa in an upscale central London hotel to indicate as much. As he fixes you with his magnetic eyes and his winning smile, it is easy to see why fans - particularly female ones - ignore the critics and enjoy his work.

In Mavis Davis, a broad, black comedy thriller, he plays Marty Starr, a fading, bleach-blond record producer who hits on the idea of boosting the sales of his biggest act, Mavis Davis (Jane Horrocks), by bumping her off. It develops along the lines of The Pink Panther Strikes Again, as innocent bystanders keep getting topped by his bungled murder attempts.

Marty gives Mayall, 40 this year, the chance to re-visit one of his most cherished roles: the misfit. "There is a sense of loneliness about him," Mayall agrees, "he's a man on his own who doesn't have a confidant. Maybe the audience becomes that. Alan B'Stard [from The New Statesman], Rik [from The Young Ones] and Richie [from Bottom] are all like that, people who have things that can't be communicated. Those roles attract me."

The part in Mavis Davis also shows Mayall capable of more emotional subtlety than the "cartoon" exploits of Bottom allow. John Henderson, the director of the film, explains: "When people first read the script, they expected Rik to play a similar character to those he has before, such as the oddball role of Richie from Bottom... He's still very funny, but he's also playing a real character that you can believe in and relate to. As you know, all comedy is much funnier when it's believable and played straight."

Mayall's one concern about this approach was that it might alienate the aficionados of his more slapstick style. "There is this nagging thought that the audience will be saying to themselves, `why isn't he being funny? Why has he gone all Steve Martin on us?' But playing a straight part, there's a seduction thing even when you're reading the script. It's like starting a new relationship. You get entirely consumed by playing this new instrument. Perhaps I'm going through a Heavy Metal phase of straight acting, like David Bowie with Tin Machine - `here's three chords, now go out and form a band'. Maybe later I'll learn to be more delicate and have an Unplugged phase."

Adding a straight string to his acting bow - as he did successfully as a compulsive gambler on The Bill just before Christmas - will certainly prolong Mayall's career expectancy. "Acting is a life sentence for me," he muses. "That's a bravado way of saying it, but I want to be doing this till the day I drop."

With the film on release, he is reviving his partnership with Edmondson. They are developing a movie together in which their Bottom characters Richie and Eddie run a hotel that makes Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz. "We're keen to go from telly, to live, to film." What next? Bottom - The Opera? But just why has the spectacle of two grown men fighting and farting a lot proved so enduringly popular?

"We only try to do what we think is funny, not what we think we can get away with. Ade and I feed each other. Combined with all of that is this `us against the world' thing, which is why any criticism is good for us. It inspires us. Anyone who slags us off gets mentioned in the next show." Oo-er.

Most importantly, though, Mayall observes that he and Edmondson still "make each other laugh". That came in especially handy after what he calls the "Cell Mates crisis," when Simon Gray's play folded soon after Mayall's co-star Stephen Fry walked out.

Mayalls aid: "When I walked into our office, Ade said, `I told you not to muck about with those Cambridge bastards. Come back here, be a good boy and shut up'."

`Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis' is released on Friday

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