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.


  1. I'm very much leaning on an open door here but no matter. This is hands down the greatest Jackanory retelling and whoever commissioned Rik knew exactly what they were doing. I speak for myself but I can't imagine anyone who watched this at the time forgot it. Decades on, anyone finding themselves reading George's Marvellous Medicine aloud to their own children is keenly aware of some big shoes to fill. Perhaps only Victoria Wood's retelling of Matilda came close.

  2. Tom Baker reading the Iron Giant was fantastic too but Rik Mayall was top of the pile

  3. I was very split on 'Jackanory' as a whole - it very much depended on the book and who was reading it; sometimes it could be engaging, other times it could be rather flat and dull.

    By Rik Mayall's performance of 'George's Marvelous Medicine' does stand out as an absolute highlight. As a boy I love Roald Dahl stories anyway (and still do), but beyond that, Mayall bought such an energy and excitement to the story. He did just sit on some dusty old chair reading the book, he was literally leaping all over the place. Dahl's books have a running theme of being from the child's point of view, daring to be naughty and seeing things from their view, and for this, nobody could have been more perfect than Mayall for embodying this and bringing it to life.

    The first episode popped up on some BBC Four themed evening or other about 12ish years ago. I again was so grabbed by his performance that I recorded the middle-of-the-night repeat of it, longing for the rest of the episodes. Finally, year's later the whole lot appeared on YouTube, and I quickly backed up the lot for-personal-use, even converting them to .mp3 to listen to as an audiobook.

    Interestingly, there are official celeb-read audiobooks of Dahl's books, but the version of GMM I simply can't get into after Mayall's masterpiece.

    Mayall's GMM episodes have dated incredibly well, being actually ahead of their time in a way in the manner of which he delivers it all. The story itself does sadly dip about episode 4 where it really loses it's way, but I'd long through of this as a (rare) flaw in Dahl's storytelling even prior to the Jackanory version as is no fault of Mayall's performance.

    All-in-all, a masterpiece. If they ever try seriously to bring Jackanory back (I think they've tried half-heartedly a couple of times) they should really use this as source material and inspiration.

  4. This used to be available to watch on YouTube, but some of the episodes have been taken down, sadly. My now-husband and I would watch this after work!