Interview: Adrian Edmondson, ‘Darling, we’re the Young Ones’

Adrian Edmondson (c) 2013 Rex Features

Adrian Edmondson (c) 2013 Rex Features - Credit: Archant

As he enters his seventh decade, Adrian Edmondson is maturing rather nicely. And though he may be a Shakespearean actor these days, he’s still absolutely, positively young at heart

Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall and Christopher Ryan in The Young Ones (c) BBC Pictures

Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall and Christopher Ryan in The Young Ones (c) BBC Pictures - Credit: Archant

“It is rather good, isn’t it?” Adrian Edmondson laughs, referring to the trailer promoting the RSC’s latest production of Twelfth Night, “but I probably shouldn’t say that!”

Yes, it’s that Ade Edmondson: early ’80s punk rocker Vyvyan from the BBC’s Young Ones sitcom series, now entering his seventh decade – sans forehead studs – and treading the boards, Shakespearean style, darling. But, has he lost any of his bite? Has he heck as like.

The fabulously anarchic founder member of The Comic Strip Presents..., along with Bottom, Blackadder and several comic movies is, on the face of it, taking things a little more seriously these days. Other than roles in Prey, War and Peace, and One of Us – oh, and that little matter of him winning Celebrity Masterchef in 2013 – he has for the most part enjoyed playing the fool.

And now, here he is, playing the convoluted – blink and you’ll miss the plot twists – role of Malvolio.

“It’s quite complicated, isn’t it?” he says, kicking back after a long day’s rehearsals. “He’s not a very nice person Malvolio really; he treats people very badly. There was a laugh I got the other day when he showed emotion for the first time...If you can get people to cry at someone breaking down, then I think you’ve won some sort of battle – I don’t know what the battle is or what it means, but I enjoy it.”

He’s tired, yes – but who wouldn’t be after the rigours of a day’s rehearsals – but he also has a ready laugh, is warmly engaging and seems more than happy to answer my questions. So, how much preparation does it take, to go from being one of the country’s best-loved comic actors on screen to entering the high-art of Shakespeare’s Stratford?

Adrian Edmondson with Rik Mayall

Adrian Edmondson with Rik Mayall - Credit: Archant

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“When the idea of playing Malvolio came up a few months ago, I watched several film versions to see what other people had done and to see if there was anything I could add that hadn’t already been done.”

And, could he relate to the character, who many may think of as pretty odious?

“He’s not likeable, no,” he confirms, “but I think he’s more understandable than most people think… the way I’m playing it is that he’s genuinely in love with Olivia and has been for some time, which makes it more bittersweet.

“I think, since her dad and brother died and she’s in mourning, he sees an opening,” he laughs. “Having been the family retainer since she was a child, he begins to look up to her.”

Opportunistic, then?

“Yes, but not without love. I think he’s genuinely in love with and dotes on her.”

Adrian Edmondson wins Celebrity Masterchef in 2013 (c) BBC Pictures

Adrian Edmondson wins Celebrity Masterchef in 2013 (c) BBC Pictures - Credit: Archant

This is Adrian’s RSC debut – “It is, and may be my finale!” [boom-tish] – and he was genuinely delighted to be given the opportunity.

“Oh, it was extraordinary to be asked,” he enthuses. “I remember as a kid doing Hamlet at school, thinking ‘I’m going to be an actor, I’m going to the RSC…’ and here I am, only a mere 40 years later.”

So, had he always had a yen for playing more serious roles?

“The word I’d say is ‘play’ – I just love playing,” he says. “I don’t quite know why I enjoy it so much; whether I’m trying to avoid real life or whether I’m exploring real life through playing. It’s a fun thing to do – pretending to be someone else. It’s such a stupid conceit, isn’t it, but it still tickles my fancy.”

As I’m talking to him, he’s only into the third week of rehearsals with director Christopher Luscombe, but it’s been something of an awakening for him.

“I’ve never worked quite this way before,” he says, “but it’s a good way of doing things. We’re three weeks in and haven’t even done a read-through yet; we’re concentrating on all the scenes and what they mean, and then we’ll do a read-through...which means it’ll be really good. Christopher’s theory is that they [read-throughs] are often debilitating and set up a lot of fears for people, whereas if we’ve basically worked out what the whole thing means and then do it, we’ll have worked on our characters already. Sitting round the table telling each other what we’re going to do is much better than that first day at school feeling: you go in, in a blind panic, in a haze of fear, pick a voice, and then you’re stuck with the bloody thing!”

RSC's production of Twelfth Night, with Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio and Kara Tointon as Olivia (c)

RSC's production of Twelfth Night, with Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio and Kara Tointon as Olivia (c) Paul Stuart - Credit: Paul Stuart

There’s an undeniably strong cast in this production, and Adrian is playing opposite Kara Tointon as Olivia.

“Kara’s a very charismatic actor,” he says with obvious admiration, “there’s an in-built tristesse which she plays, which is very seductive. She’s very good.”

In the trailer for Twelfth Night, there’s a particular look that Olivia gives Malvolio as he walks confidently into the room, wearing yellow stockings and carrying an equally lurid flower… her over-the-shoulder, top-to-bottom glance cuts to the core with its witheringly disdainful manner, and you do feel pity for Adrian’s character… the poor, disillusioned fool.

But Shakespearean acting isn’t the only thing filling Adrian’s time at present. His first children’s book came out earlier this year, Tilly and the Time Machine, which again plays with darkly comic themes. It’s very beautiful – both funny and a little sad, too, as the young girl’s mum has recently died.

“I don’t know where the urge came from to write the book,” he says, “other than I was trying to entertain the kids next door.” (Adrian’s friends’ children – whom he’s known since they were born – moved into the cottage next door to him for a summer).

“My kids have grown up, but when they were young I used to read them books like the BFG,” he says, “but my friends’ kids poo-pooed my ideas, saying that they’d heard all those stories before. So I said ‘alright, I’ll write my own story’.”

Behind the scenes of shooting the trailer and stills photography for the RSC's production of Twelfth

Behind the scenes of shooting the trailer and stills photography for the RSC's production of Twelfth Night. Adrian Edmondson is playing Malvolio and Kara Tointon plays Olivia. Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton was used as the location (c) Andrew Fox - Credit: Andrew Fox

He intended to pop off for the afternoon, write five minutes of suitable material, and then read it to them, but found himself getting “stuck into” the process, and the result was ‘Tilly’.

He brought Tilly and his child-friendly interactive shows to Cheltenham Literature Festival and Bath Children’s Festival in October – “It’s been an eye-opener,” he laughs. “I said to Jennifer ‘I’ve never done kids’ entertainment before’, and she said ‘yes, you have – it’s just like anything you’ve ever done before, but just without the swear words’.

“Strangely, when writing a children’s book you can be a lot more direct than when writing an adults’ book,” he says. “If you wrote that kind of stuff in an adults’ book it would seem too earnest, but for kids it kind of works. I’m not sure why it’s slightly bittersweet and about what it’s about...except a lot of people I know have died recently.”

It’s well known that Adrian’s very good friend and long-time writing and acting buddy Rik Mayall died in 2014. They had played together in the 1980s in The Comic Strip Presents, and then The Young Ones, and Bottom. Adrian said of Rik shortly after the announcement, “They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he’s died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.”

And he does show a real honesty of spirit: he laughs when he’s genuinely amused, but he’s also not afraid to talk about what saddens him.

“We’re not very good at dealing with death, are we?” he says, thoughtfully. “I think we’ve forgotten how to do it; I do think we used to know how to do it, but we don’t accept it any more.

Adrian Edmondson in Twelfth Night rehearsals (c) Manuel Harlan

Adrian Edmondson in Twelfth Night rehearsals (c) Manuel Harlan - Credit: Manuel Harlan

“People used to talk about a ‘good death’,” he then laughs, breaking the melancholic spell. “They’d plan their deaths and more or less die at the right time. If you had a wasting disease, you’d think ‘I’ll die next Saturday, and then I’ll have said everything I need to say to everyone about everything...I’ll pass on, have a lovely wake and everyone will be happy. They can look at the body and...sort of...snuffle over me’.

“Funnily enough, I did War and Peace a year or two ago and when the count dies he’s in an open coffin in the church. I had to play the dead count while the family came in and snuffled over me. I thought ‘well, this is lovely – I hope when I go this happens’!”

I think we all, at one time or another, dream of witnessing our own wakes, don’t we? Who will tell the anecdotes that portray us in our best light, who’s crying crocodile tears while sneaking an extra sandwich, and will they actually play the music we wanted.

Anyway, he has far more positive things to occupy his mind right now.

Adrian and his wife, comedian and actress Jennifer (Saunders) whom he married in 1985, have three daughters and three very young grandchildren – Fred, Albert and Ivy – so I wonder how readily they’ve taken to the roles. Does it come naturally?

“Yes, it seems very simple to me, but I don’t feel like a grandfather; a grandfather seems like a very old person, which I’m not.”

Adrian Edmondson in Twelfth Night rehearsals (c) Manuel Harlan

Adrian Edmondson in Twelfth Night rehearsals (c) Manuel Harlan - Credit: Manuel Harlan

His own childhood was a less happy one. At a young age he was sent to boarding school – Pocklington in the East Riding of Yorkshire – while the rest of his family were overseas, and he absolutely hated it.

“I was packed off to a house of cruelty,” he laughs in his darkly comic way. “I came to terms with it about 20 years ago. You can’t regret things; regretting part of your life is pointless, so you just have to process it as part of the ‘thing’. I’m neither sad nor guilty about it. They were quite cruel, they were quite ’orrible… it’s funny to talk about these days as people aren’t beaten with sticks any more.

“It was a very odd generation,” he continues, “the one before ours – the children of the war must have had a weird time. They must have had it weirder than us, and we were just on the tail end of it.

“I mean, can you imagine being a 14-year-old, living in London or some industrial city with people trying to kill you with bombs. We’re talking hundreds of people a night, every night,” he says, “Can you imagine? The psychological damage it must have done, even if they weren’t directly involved...”

He goes on to talk of the plight of children in present-day Syria and Iraq, bringing to mind the images of bombed settlements and people with no homes or possessions. Although children have a remarkable ability to cope with traumatic events, I suggest.

“Yes, but I think all they can do is deal with it; they can’t ever get rid of it, I don’t think,” he says. “One thing I’ve learnt about my school experience is that I’ve dealt with it, but it’s still there. I’ll never get rid of it; I’ve just learnt how to stop it impinging on my life.”

For those of us who have enjoyed Adrian’s musical career, I’m sure you’ll be sad to hear he doesn’t have any immediate plans to continue. His portrayal of heavy metal singer and guitarist, Vim Fuego, in Bad News was a wonderful thing to behold, and visions of him in Spandex wielding an axe with blonde crimped mane certainly endure. He also spent time on the road in real life with his mandolin-fronted folk punk outfit, The Bad Shepherds, with band mate Troy Donockley on uilleann pipes and cittern. They went on to release three rather wonderful albums.

“I’ve put the music on the back-burner for a while,” he confirms. “I loved doing it, but it was all-consuming; you have to plan so far ahead for such long tracts of time. All my weekends were taken up for the whole year, more or less, which stopped loads of other things happening.

“I’ve just finished writing a play with Nigel Planer, actually.” Ah, good to hear the Comic Strip bond remains. “I’ve sort of re-oriented myself back to acting principally, and I do enjoy it, although I have never really thought of myself as being an actor; more of an entertainer. I feel like I was reborn into the acting world a couple of years ago, and now I want to do more and more of it.”

And what can he tell us about the latest Edmondson/Planer collaboration?

“It’s about two c***y old actors,” he laughs, “in a trailer on an ice sheet in Iceland, making a massive franchise movie, called ‘Vulcan 7’. They went to drama school together and start measuring themselves against each other...and then the volcano starts to erupt, leaving them stuck in a dangerous situation together.”

Strangely enough, he says this will be the first time the two of them have sat down and written anything in earnest together – not even from the Comic Strip days, although they did work on bits and pieces for Bad News together. “It’s been really good fun, actually; we’ve had a jolly old time of it.

“You get to an age where you have to discover how to write, and we’ve found a way to tap into the seam with each other. It’s nice.”

The start of a long writing relationship?

“Yes, I would say that.”

And more serious acting roles on screen as well as stage?

“Well, it’s a matter of getting the parts, love,” he says, playfully, “but I do need to keep busy. I got some of my pension stuff through the other day as I turned 60 in January, and there was very little in it. I idly looked up what the annuity would be, and I thought what’s the point. Really!”

Vyvyan drawing a pension? Perish the thought.

Twelfth Night runs from November 2 to February 24, 2018 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. It will be broadcast live in cinemas nationally on February 14, 2018.

Tilly and the Time Machine is published by Puffin. Adrian’s next children’s book is due for release in May 2018.