Culture

Adrian Edmondson on family, fatherhood and break-up with late comedy legend Rik Mayall

He broke all the rules at school, but now understands he’d been chasing adrenaline as a substitute for affection

Adrian Edmondson

Adrian Edmondson. Image: Paul Marc Mitchell

Adrian Edmondson was born in Bradford in January 1957. He studied drama at the University of Manchester, where he met his future comedy partner Rik Mayall. The duo found their feet in the burgeoning alternative comedy scene of the early 80s and – along with French and Saunders, Alexei Sayle and other regulars at London comedy club The Comic Strip – came to the attention of Channel 4. 

The resultant series, The Comic Strip Presents… debuted on the channel’s launch night on 2 November 1982. The week after, The Young Ones made its debut on BBC Two. The two shows catapulted Edmondson and his co-stars into the limelight and had a revolutionary effect on British comedy. Adrian Edmondson went on to star in Filthy Rich & Catflap and Bottom while taking roles in Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous and Jonathan Creek, among many others on stage and screen. 

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Adrian Edmondson reflects on a strict childhood, academic disappointment and his relationships with Mayall and his children.

When I was 16 I was at boarding school, with a very strict discipline. I was always getting hit with sticks and didn’t really like my life very much. I enjoyed the games, and I enjoyed the rule breaking, that was fun. We were given a printed list of rules and we used to just break them for the sake of it. It they hadn’t printed them we probably wouldn’t have done it. The school had an old-fashioned idea of discipline, it was set up mostly to cater for kids from army and forces backgrounds. They wanted to build the next generation of empire builders and sailors and airmen. I didn’t want to be any of those things, so it didn’t really work on me. And they were all very disappointed in me. Everyone was disappointed all the time.

My dad wanted some sort of urbane intellectual to arrive in the family, and he never managed to get that. My school was an experiment for my dad and it went wrong, so he gave up. I was left to my own devices from the age of about 13. I only went home twice a year and there was no love there anyway. So I just aimed for excitement in place of love. I went drinking and me and my friends dared each other to do certain things. I was finding a replacement – not consciously – but in retrospect I think I was filling in a huge missing hole with fun and wildness, using adrenaline as a substitute for emotion. 

Ade Edmondson aged two
1959: At Wolseley Barracks, Cyprus, where his father was a teacher in the armed forces. Image: Courtesy of Adrian Edmondson

My dad had a really hard childhood, with very strict Methodist parents. He was 15 when the war started, then he went through rationing and all that kind of stuff as a teenager. He was on his bicycle when he got run over by an army truck full of Italian prisoners just outside Catterick. He spent a long time in hospital. So he didn’t get the kind of start he wanted. He wanted to move up the social order. And he didn’t manage it. I mean, I feel sorrier and sorrier for him the older I get. There was a time when he was an enormous problem in my head. But I got that out of my system.

For me, talking to my younger self is a weird thing, because I’ve made peace with myself now. I’ve come to terms with the fact that who I am now is the result of everything I’ve been through. The only thing I would really like to expunge is the feelings of unhappiness. Being unhappy is very unpleasant. Most people who are unhappy don’t even realise they’re unhappy. They’re just sort of going along, self-medicating and struggling on. I wish people had understood mental health in the ’70s because it didn’t come up as a term. It wasn’t an accepted idea. 

With my own kids my only rule is do what my dad didn’t do. Enjoy them. Treat them as human beings and have fun with them, and laugh with them. Encourage them, even if the thing they’re doing isn’t something you particularly like. 

I think Rik [Mayall, comedy partner] and I were in love with each other in a platonic way. The characters we played were always extensions of who we were and we loved those extensions too. I used to write a lot of his characters, and he wrote a lot of my characters. That’s a kind of symbol of love, isn’t it? It’s a way of showing affection. Though we never really showed much affection to each other. One thing I would tell my younger self is to not be afraid of affection. I think we’re were always rather reticent, we grew up in a weird… though actually, Rik grew up in a very loving family. But we were very reticent with each other, so we expressed our feelings through writing each other’s characters to express more love of each other. 

Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall in Bottom
1991: Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall on the set of their sitcom Bottom. Image: Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

Rik did a few things on his own but I don’t think he enjoyed it. I think he needed to be in a partnership with someone to make it work. There’s a film of Morecambe and Wise at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon and there’s a bit where Eric does 10 minutes on his own and it just doesn’t work. Yet he’s one of the funniest people in the world. Same with Laurel and Hardy, you never see them on their own. It’s part of the fun, having this counterpoint. It was a regret that Rik became more dependent on me as I became less dependent on him. There was no malice from me, it was just a reflection of the fact that I thought we’d peaked and it seemed mad to continue. And I was a bit bored and wanted to do other things in life. It’s not like we were joined at the hip. 

I think I became a pompous prick when I was in my early 20s. I had that insecurity that makes you strangely arrogant. There was a fashion in the ’90s for slagging people off. And I think in my personal life I sort of fell into it as well. It wasn’t till I hit my forties that I kind of relaxed and accepted that some things are good and some things are bad. Now I have a completely different approach to things. I don’t begrudge people their endeavour. I’m much less judgmental than my younger self. No one ever sets out to do anything bad. I remember listening to a review of a film we had made called Guest House Paradiso. I don’t normally listen to reviews but this one suddenly came on Radio 1, and before I could turn it off I heard the first line, which was that anyone who’s had anything to do with this film should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. That seemed rather harsh. You shouldn’t feel shame for trying to do something. 

Jennifer [Saunders, his wife, the comedy actor/writer] and I were watching one of those old Top of the Pops programmes from the late ’70s, early ’80s. We reflected on the fact that everyone who turned up onstage obviously didn’t have a stylist or a PR person. They were just themselves. They just turned up and expressed themselves. That’s the joy of that period. It’s slightly missing these days, isn’t it? You feel that everyone’s been perfected before they appear in front of a camera. And they’re being paid to endorse the company who supplies their clothes and their jewellery. That sort of goes against the heart of self expression.

A secure family is important but I think you have to work at it. All my kids are married and I remember at one wedding I had to make a speech. And I reflected on the fact that the love between parents and children isn’t necessarily automatic. You have to nurture it. You have to be active. You have to lay out an invitation to your children to come to the party. And we’re very flattered that our children have all come to our party. It’s very consoling, a happy thing. But you have to keep doing it. You have to keep telling people you love them. Constantly. That’s my advice. And show physical affection. My dad made an actual point of stopping kissing me when I was seven. That’s a thing that I keep remembering. I’m not trying to say oh, poor me. But you know, it was my seventh birthday and he said, “So now that you’re seven we’re not going to do all this kissing any more. We’re just going to shake hands.”

Ade Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders
2018: Adrian Edmondson with wife Jennifer Saunders at Chiswick House, London. Image: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

If I could re-live any time in my life, it would be with my family, my kids. We have an annual holiday, all of us together still, even though they’re in their thirties now and they bring along the grandkids. And there’s always a moment when we’re sitting around a table eating and drinking, and it’s just what I live for. There was a time when they were teenagers and they used to bicker and fight around the table and I was worried about that. But we’ve all come to love each other now and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Absolutely. The best thing in the world.

Adrian Edmondson Berserker book cover

Berserker! An Autobiography by Adrian Edmondson is out now (Macmillan, £22). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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