In praise of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson's Bottom

Feature Wil Jones 2 Jul 2014 - 06:54

Grimy, bleak, extremely violent and stupidly funny, Wil salutes the genius of Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall's sitcom, Bottom...

The recent passing of Rik Mayall led to legions of fans hitting up Netflix and Youtube to relive the late comedian’s greatest moments. And while the ground-breaking 80s alternative comedy opus The Young Ones and his turn as Lord Flashheart in Blackadder seemed to be the most quoted on social media, it felt like Bottom, the grisly, profane flatshare comedy Mayall and long time collaborator Ade Edmondson made in the early 90s, was left out of the conversation. Which is a shame, because it might just be their masterpiece.

It’s kind of easy to see how Bottom got forgotten. The Young Ones was capital-I Important, not only in terms of breaking alternative comedy into the mainstream, but also as being as much a time capsule of the Anti-Thatcher zeitgeist as The Smiths or Adrian Mole. Bottom, on the other hand, was just two guys being debauched in a flat. Also, The Young Ones was aired on MTV in the USA during the 80s, giving it a small but loyal international following long before American anglophiles swapped torrents of Spaced and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace online. Bottom, however, was rarely shown outside of the UK. (As an aside, you get the feeling that Mayall and Edmondson were unfortunately too early to capitalise on their success – had they been 15 years later they’d have been popping up in Hollywood productions with as much regularity as Simon Pegg and Ricky Gervais.)

Starting in 1991 and running for three six-episode series, Bottom starred Mayall and Edmondson as Richie Richard and Eddie Hitler respectively, two pathetic, desperate men sharing a dilapidated flat in West London. The series spun out of the pair starring in a West End production of Samuel Beckett’s classic absurdist play Waiting For Godot. (Fun fact: Mayall and Edmondson’s production of Waiting For Godot also featured a young Dean Gaffney in the cast.) While the double act of two guys brutalising each other through violent slapstick is something that Mayall and Edmondson used throughout their career, from their early days as The Twentieth Century Coyote at The Comedy Store, through The Young Ones and even lesser-remembered vehicles such as Filthy, Rich & Catflap, it’s the Godot-influenced existential woes and nihilism which makes Bottom possibly the most interesting thing either of them ever did.

British sitcoms have long tradition of focusing on desperate, unsuccessful people, from Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge to David Brent, and it’s often been said that the difference between UK and American comedy is that the Brits focus on losers whereas the Americans have happy protagonists (well, at least until The Bluths and Larry David came along). But Bottom goes so much further than that.

A contemporary sitcom that Bottom has obvious analogues with is Peep Show. Both revolve around two single males sharing a flat in London, nominally failing at life and having an underlying co-dependent relationship with each other. The central pair in both shows also share similar archetypes – both Richie and Mark Corrigan are somewhat uptight, unsuccessful with the opposite sex and hamstrung by a weird sense of doing what’s deemed ‘proper’ by society; whereas Jez and Eddie Hitler are both reckless, ditch all responsibility and seemingly rely on the other party to sort out all of life’s necessities.

Yet Bottom seems like a gonzo, OTT pastiche of Peep Show, despite being made a decade earlier. Mark is eventually able find a girl as lovely and perfect for him as Dobby (even if he ultimately screws that up) and Jez is able to get with the sexy Russian next door (even if he ultimately screws that up as well). Richie and Eddie, however, are violent anti-social losers with no jobs and seemingly hated by everyone they know. Mark Corrigan might be a boring history nerd who’s crap with girls, but Richie is a literal virgin and compulsive masturbator. Beta-male Corrigan attempts (and fails) to live up to his domineering father’s perception of a real man; Bottom pushes this concept of being crippled by social expectations a million miles further - Richie delusionally insists on doing things the ‘proper, English way’ oblivious (or in denial) to the squalor he lives in, adhering to some nonsensical, parodic stereotype of Britishness – insisting on watching cricket or playing charades at Christmas, despite the fact he’s really a sleazy perv. Jez thinks he’s an amazing musician but its funny because he’s terrible and he should grow up and get a real job; Eddie is a barely coherent, violent alcoholic who drinks cleaning products.

One of the bleakest things in the show is that Richie and Eddie are always wearing shirts and ties (Eddie is even usually wearing a suit). Why are they always dressed up when they clearly have nowhere to go? Of course, they look terrible, but it’s what they think they should be wearing, the symbolism of being smart. No one is coming to see them and no one would be impressed by their dress if they did, but it’s the delusions that they (especially Richie) should be doing what’s proper, regardless of who’s around to check up on them. It’s crushing when you think about it.

Richie and Eddie don’t even seem to be friends. Richie tries to be courteous to Eddie due to his own misplaced pompous hubris, but actually just hates his guts for being a lazy drunk, for giving him an empty miniature of Malibu for Christmas, for choosing to eat the entire contents of the neighbour’s fridge when he’s supposed to be stealing their gas supply, and for all the other times he’s ruined Richie’s otherwise perfect plans. Eddie is even more brazen about his hatred for Richie. He actively excludes him from his schemes (like printing fake money), is embarrassed by him when Spudgun and Dave Hedgehog (Eddie’s only two friends) come round, and he’ll gleefully electrocute him or drop a fridge on his face at any opportunity.

Yet they seem to rely on each other. There’s nothing to forcing them to stay together (apart from probably not having anywhere else to live), but they stay together anyway. A decade later Judd Apatow would popularise the bromance concept, but Richie and Eddie are far past that stage. They are a bickering husband and wife who hate each other but have invested too much time together and the only other option is being alone. It’s the sort of relationship you see in 70s sitcoms where the husband can’t wait to get away from the ball and chain and sneak off down the boozer. Richie has long hair and is frequently referred to as she or her, and Spudgun and Dave Hedgehog have a tendency to call him ‘the wife’. In the Christmas episode, Richie even briefly thinks he’s the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary – fulfilling both his delusions of grandeur and justifying why he’s never had sex. (Interestingly, in the episode where Richie and Eddie pretend to be a married couple, it’s Eddie who dons the dress. But even then, he infuriates Richie but flirting with a saucy barman in order to get free drinks.)

It’s not just that the two central characters are horrible, hopeless losers. The entire programme creates a beautifully bleak milieu. The show's setting - Hammersmith in West London – is almost a character itself. It does date the show a little – with average house prices in the capital now hitting £600,000, West London flats are more likely to be populated by yuppies or oligarchs these days – but it’s a surprisingly honest (if totally over the top) portrayal of working class London. There’s a definite through-line from Steptoe And Son, another West London-set sitcom about two desperately unhappy men trapped together with no hope of social mobility (both shows also namecheck Queens Park Rangers).

There’s a real sense of tragedy around the show’s cast, not just Eddie and Richie. Eddie’s two friends, the wonderfully named Spudgun and Dave Hedgehog, are equally as tragic. Spudgun is a lonely overweight guy with no personality; Dave Hedgehog (played by Young Ones alumni Christopher Ryan) has a life slightly less terrible – he apparently has a wife and kids, though he constantly seems to be oblivious to the fact he is married, and can’t even remember the word ‘wife’, let alone her name. Dick Head, the landlord of the local pub, is a horrible man who only shows compassion when asked about his (very unsuccessful) trial with QPR. They are joined by incidental characters consisting of psychotic hardmen, ultraviolent local kids, unhygienic kebab shop proprietors and the occasional normal person, who wanders into the squalor and is disgusted by what they find.

It’s a horrible world, rarely portrayed like this in any other medium. Bottom is a show about lonely, middle-aged daytime drinkers who haunt grimy pubs and park benches. It doesn’t glamourise life. It’s nasty, unpleasant, and makes Bukowski look like The Wolf Of Wall Street. It's about sad people trapped in a nightmare of booze and social inequality. In one of its most telling scenes, Dave Hedgehog’s daughter turns up to bring him home, as her mum doesn’t like dad hanging around the “weirdos' house” after dark. We all knew the weirdos we stayed away from growing up. Bottom is about those weirdos.

And we’ve gotten this far without mentioning the greatest thing about Bottom – the violence. It’s slapstick in the great tradition of Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and Inspector Clouseau, but with the violence and gore spectacularly amped up. It does to Laurel and Hardy what Itchy and Scratchy does to Tom and Jerry. Every episode explodes into several moments of staggering violence, with Eddie’s legs being chainsawed off and stitched back on the wrong way, fingers being lost, umbrellas being gouged into groins, and genuinely sickening burn make-up after someone is in an explosion or set on fire (which happens rather regularly). Mayall and Edmondson really sell the physical rough and tumble of it, really throwing themselves at each other – in 2004 Edmondson told The Mirror that over the course of their career they ended up in casualty five times, just from taking things too far. The fact that they suffered real injuries puts the show more on a par with something like Jackass or hardcore pro-wrestling, getting a gut physical reaction out of the audience as opposed to just laughing at slapstick.

While The Young Ones wasn’t exactly short on such violence, it was relatively bloodless. Bottom, on the other hand was not shy to have blood (and even limbs) splattering everywhere. Mayall and Edmondson’s comedy definitely evolved from slapstick to splatterpunk - there’s stuff in those 18 episodes that Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi would be proud of. It’s not just that it’s hilarious, though. Combined with the desperation and depression of the subject, the extreme violence takes on a transgressive dimension. The depiction of the situation Eddie and Richie are stuck in, one which many lonely, drunk people are in real life (albeit not the in the hyper absurd reality of Bottom), is presented as so soul-crushing that nihilistic violence is the only means of release. It’s a common literary device, from A Clockwork Orange to American Psycho, but it’s heady stuff for a 90s BBC Two sitcom.

Due to a lack of international exposure and its crude subject matter, Bottom will probably always be treated as somewhat of a guilty pleasure. And to a generation of kids who were probably too young to be watching (myself included), it will always be that amazing show with the violence and the dirty jokes. But just as The Young Ones is critically acknowledged to be a clever TV programme pretending to be a dumb one, so was Bottom. It deserved to be re-evaluated, as it had far more going on than just Rik Mayall being kicked in the nuts.

Rik Mayall being kicked in the nuts is pretty brilliant on its own, though.

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