UK Politics

No! Rik Mayall's political campaigns

Rik Mayall and Marsha Fitzalan pose as their comic 1980s TV characters Alan and Sarah B'Stard launching the UK tour of the stage adaptation of The New Statesman in 2006 Image copyright Getty Images

Rik Mayall won widespread acclaim for his portrayals of an anarchic left-wing student in The Young Ones and ruthless MP Alan B'Stard in The New Statesman. But he also stepped away from the fictional world for two successful political campaigns.

It seems a long time ago now, but around the turn of the millennium there was frequent speculation that the then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted to take the UK into the European single currency.

The Conservatives had been beaten in the 2001 election, after a campaign focused on their "Keep the Pound" slogan and a referendum on joining the currency was on the cards.

One issue for referendum campaigners was to ensure that the anti-euro campaign was broad and had a widespread appeal.

Step forward Rik Mayall, playing Hitler in a celebrity-packed anti-euro advert.

Mayall's contribution to the No Euro campaign hit the headlines, with condemnation from a range of people, including the European Commission who called it "crass and offensive".

Flashback: How the BBC reported Mayall's ad in 2002

The anti-euro campaign called the advert "harmless fun" to win people over to its argument and Mayall himself said it was satire.

In his five second appearance as Hitler he said: "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein euro" - one people, one realm, one euro - in a reference to the Nazi slogan: "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer".

The comedian then reappeared saying in English: "Euro? Oh yes please."

As he told the Sunday Times at the time: "Look, I'm saying what I say because if Hitler tells people to support the euro then surely they won't. That's the point of it."

Asked why he opposed the UK joining the euro he said it was basically because he was "not a joiner".

"So that means no to joining the euro... I'm an independent sort of person. If we join the euro then the people in Brussels will take even more decisions on our behalf," he told the paper.

Matthew Elliot, the leader of the later 2011 campaign against the proposed transition to the Alternative Vote (AV) system for electing MPs, says that Mayall had "really made the ad".

"Eurosceptics were seen as being right-wing guys in pinstripe suits, but actually having a leading comedian get involved made it much more mainstream and made it okay for people to back the cause."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Possible UK membership of the euro was a high profile issue in 2002

Rik Mayall returned to the campaign scene in 2011, opposing plans to change to the AV voting system for Westminster elections.

Mr Elliot recalls that Mayall had seemed "very committed" to the cause, believing that AV would lead to more coalitions and more back-room political stitch-ups.

The actor appeared in character as B'Stard, and, according to Mr Elliott, was enthusiastic on set, making several adaptations to the script.

Given that neither issue divides neatly along party political lines, what can we glean about his real-life political leanings?

Mayall's most celebrated fictional character, Rick from the Young Ones, seemed designed to undermine leftist arguments with their absurdity.

But it would be rash to conclude that this positioned Mayall to the right of British politics.

Image caption "Deep down you knew he was a Tory," Labour MP Jamie Reed says of Rick from the Young Ones

After all, the heinous B'Stard began life as a Conservative MP.

"I brought down the Thatcher administration," Mayall told Sky News in 2006 with some relish, before swiftly correcting himself. "No - Alan brought down the Thatcher administration."

Whatever his and his characters' politics, MPs, especially Labour ones and including party leader Ed Miliband, lined up to pay tribute to the actor after his death on Monday at the age of 56.

"He was a brilliant comic talent," said Mr Miliband. "Totally gutted," said Labour MP for Wansbeck Ian Lavery.

"My youth in Thatcher's Britain was made so much more bearable by Rik in the Young Ones and Alan B'Stard," Labour's Tottenham MP David Lammy added.

Labour MP for Copeland Jamie Reed wrote: "He enthralled and excited. He was a genius. He made my life and the lives of my friends better. When I went to university, I realised it wasn't just me, but a generation of working class and middle class boys from all over the country who felt the same way. Whatever he was saying, he spoke for us: he was our hero.

"Goodbye 'People's Poet'. You changed my life forever."

'Satan's nasty brother'

But Mr Reed told the BBC the impact had been more cultural than political.

"It was the desire to be very energetic, ready to be explosive, ready to challenge orthodoxy wherever that orthodoxy was found," he said.

Rick in the Young Ones had been a painful, middle-class pastiche of the worst kind of left-wingery, he said. "Deep down, you knew he was a Tory."

Yet his later character B'Stard had crossed the floor in 2006 to join New Labour, remaining just as heinous as his previous Conservative incarnation had been - or perhaps more so.

"He used to be a baddie," Mayall continued in the Sky News interview. But after switching teams, he became "really evil, like Satan's nasty brother".

Mr Reed detected within the actor an ideological proximity to Old Labour, although he emphasised this was speculation not based on any particular personal insight.

But Mr Elliot concluded that Mayall was probably motivated by a more general "anti-politics feeling" than any particular leanings to the right or the left.

Image copyright Other
Image caption B'Stard campaigned in the No-to-AV referendum broadcast under a multi-coloured banner to imply that AV would make coalitions more likely

Conservative MP George Eustice, who worked with Mayall on both the anti-euro No Campaign and the No2AV campaign, said he had not found him to be an intensely political person - just someone who cared deeply about these particular issues.

He also put forward another theory about why so little had entered the public domain about Mayall's personal political beliefs.

Dabbling in party politics risked alienating both viewers and broadcasters, which have a duty to remain politically neutral - and could therefore have been bad for business.

"Anyone who has got a career based on getting contracts with the BBC and the like, their agents are not keen on them getting involved in anything remotely political," he said.

"But when there was an issue that he really cared about, he wasn't scared to put his head about the parapet."

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