Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Rik Mayall Lights up Jackanory in 1986

Rik Mayall was an explosion of kinetic energy which manifested itself in a unique style of comedy that alienated those who feared life and delighted everyone else. Roald Dahl, meanwhile, was a writer of children's books who managed to conjure up worlds which were highly relatable yet, at the same time, coloured fantastically with surreal and grotesque narratives. And, in January 1986, these two worlds collided when Mayall delivered a one man performance of Roald Dahl's 1981 novel George's Marvellous Medicine for BBC1's Jackanory.

I'll be honest, I never paid much attention to Jackanory as I was growing up and can barely remember watching it. Always a little too sedate and staid to my young eyes, Jackanory was overshadowed - for me - by the short-lived Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden over on ITV. Nonetheless, Mayall's first stint on Jackanory (he appeared again in 1993 for The Fwog Pwince, The Twuth) was one which stood out. There was a manic brilliance underlining Mayall's reading of Dahl's narrative which refused to be diminished by the passage of time and, all these decades later, my memories were still fond if a little vague. However, there was still plenty to recall, so I dipped into the episodes once more.

The most entertaining aspect, of course, is seeing Mayall at the peak of his mid-80s powers. Dressed uncannily similarly to Rik from The Young Ones (albeit with better hair and a devilishly handsome smattering of light stubble), Mayall serves up everything you could want. All those classic Mayall expressions, mannerisms and voices are thrusted to the fore with such vigour that, as ever, you suspect his ears are about to start billowing smoke before his head explodes. But, to everyone's benefit, it remains firmly attached. Seamlessly switching from wild, fearful eyes that are threatening to pop out with a fearful velocity to a smile that threatens to charm both sexes into bed, Mayall is magnificent. As we all know.

He's got great source material to work from, too, and despite George's Marvellous Medicine not being Dahl's most celebrated work, it plays to all of Mayall's strengths. The disgusting and evil grandmother allows Mayall to ooze a filthy, evil strand of his brilliance while George's industrious naivety gives Mayall the chance to tap into the mindset of the young viewers at home. Mayall's surroundings in the 'house' are relatively sparse and this allows him to really pop out of the screen, but even if this had been a grandiose BBC period drama set he would have remained the visual centrepiece. Even during the quiet moments, and there are relatively few, the whole programme is infused with a gleeful charm.

Clearly, I'm a fan (and you should be too), but a legend has arisen that this edition of Jackanory received numerous complaints due to the story and the performance. However, aside from a rather vague mention of complaints in the depths of the BBC website, there's very little evidence that any sort of furore ever occurred. And if there had been it's unlikely the BBC would have repeated it twice in six years. Perhaps there's a chance that the more trepidatious parents at home objected to Mayall's assertion - during the 1988 repeat - that children should save any poison for their teachers, but even with 1980s sensibilities at play it's just a bit of cartoon silliness.

And, five years on from Mayall's untimely death, we need cartoon silliness more than ever in this current landscape of uncertainty. Thankfully, the past is at hand and George's Marvellous Medicine is available on YouTube to remind us what life should really be about. And, whilst you're there, make sure you check out Grim Tales which features Mayall on equally superb storytelling form.

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