Lovers of British comedy everywhere are mourning the loss of one of the industry’s most outrageous, colorful and original performers, Rik Mayall. Aged 56, the anarchic star of ‘The Young Ones’, ‘Bottom’ and ‘The New Statesman’ passed away suddenly earlier this week of an ‘acute cardiac event’ following his regular morning run. His adoring wife and family, friends and cast-mates (not least of all Adrian Edmondson, who was his on-screen foe for much of his career) were quick to pay tribute. Fans meanwhile have flooded the internet with their favorite clips, quotes and even personal (and often hilariously vulgar and tongue-in-cheek) correspondence with the much-loved star.
Many glowing tributes to Rik have been written over the last few days citing the tremendous impact he had on their lives, particularly those like myself who first came across his work at a young age. A true clown through and through with an indefinable warmth and heart beneath the rudeness and insane levels of physical energy, here was a man who despite being good-looking, charming and full of charisma chose to spend his career being the sad, greasy, pompous and hilarious butt of the joke. He revelled in being everything we were told not to be and in return was loved by millions. Watching Rik as a child, he seemed like one of us – albeit in a man’s body – the naughty boy at the back of the class who refused to grow up and could always have you in stitches. Nowhere is that connection better explored than in the unusual and often unfairly maligned 1991 comedy/fantasy ‘Drop Dead Fred’.
Released in 1991, the film co-stars the era’s number one sweetheart (by way of ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’, ‘Gremlins’ and many others) Phoebe Cates as Lizzie, a woman whom we’re introduced to just as her life is falling apart. In the midst of a divorce from her cheating and sleazy husband Charles (played to loathsome throw-your-popcorn-at-the-screen effect by Tim Matheson), she suffers an afternoon from hell when after failing to reconcile with him, she spends her lunch break confiding via phone box with her friend Janie (Carrie Fisher) and her car is stolen causing her to be late returning to work. To add insult to injury, she is abruptly fired. These are not the only problems in her life however – her cruel and passive aggressive mother Polly (Marsha Mason) has her on a short leash and is all too eager to express her disappointment at the mess that she regards her daughter to be – and to enforce her guidance upon Lizzie whether she likes it or not.
Through a series of flashbacks (beginning with a monster-movie style reveal – hands, shadows etc.) we are introduced to Lizzie’s childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Mayall), a green-suited wild orange haired source of fun and expression. It is made clear in an impressively subtle way that Fred’s outlandish pranks and antics served as an escape for the young girl from her mother’s stern oppression. In the present, Lizzie is forcibly returned to her childhood home (complete with her eerily preserved, inevitably pink and pristine bedroom) where she soon stumbles upon the jack-in-the-box toy through which Fred made his entrances into Lizzie’s world – sealed up with tape by her mother years ago in a cruel (and we learn, successful) bid to eradicate the child’s playmate. After removing the tape and leaving the toy on her windowsill, adult Lizzie head’s to bed, only to be awoken by Drop Dead Fred’s glorious return.
Fred is at first disgusted to find that his pal has grown up, until it dawns on him that “that means there’ll be loads of grown up things to smash!” As Lizzie doubts her sanity and Fred’s playful destruction escalates, she also discovers that the cause of his seemingly impromptu resurrection is her own unhappiness with her current life. She later faces a choice in renewing her relationship with Charles – and by means of medication prescribed for her increasingly erratic behavior, saying goodbye to Fred for good.
In some ways it’s easy to see why the blend of toilet humor, psychology and romance failed to gel with some audiences, particularly those not already familiar with Rik’s on-screen persona. The film is however more consistent in tone and less chaotic than you might expect and actually has some interesting observations to make on childhood coping mechanisms and whether they can continue to be employed in adult life. While some concepts are a little far-out – multiple imaginary friends of different children interact in one scene at a clinic, for example – the conclusion is as satisfying as it is shamelessly sentimental.
If you’ve avoided ‘Drop Dead Fred’ due to it’s reputation or haven’t seen it for several years, there can be no better time to take a look. The Huffington Post’s Andrea Mann said ‘People say you should never meet your heroes. Those people never met Rik Mayall’. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of meeting Rik myself in 2003 and couldn’t agree more – he was every bit as warm and funny as you could hope. While it’s extremely difficult to think of him as being in the past tense, there is no doubt that his work will be keeping us laughing and smiling for years to come.