When Rik Mayall died earlier this year, a lot of fans comforted themselves with one of his best-known lines:
“Aha, kids, do you understand nothing? How can Rick be dead when we still have his poems?”
And Rik Mayall can’t be dead when we still have Rick from The Young Ones. Mayall’s legacy includes a long list of vibrant, memorable characters, but before anybody even thought of Lord Flashheart or Drop Dead Fred, there was a whiny, spotty little brat who thought Cliff Richard was a revolutionary leader. On one level, Rick is a typical egotistical comedy protagonist who has no idea how he comes across to others, a lot like Alan Partridge or David Brent. But The Young Ones is a deeply political show, and Rick’s alleged anarchic beliefs are central to his character. In a way, he’s a bit of a cautionary tale for anybody who wants to be politically active.
The world of The Young Ones might be a place where bricks explode when you bite them and vampires suddenly appear in your living room to try and trick you into forgetting to return your rented video player in time, but it’s also got one foot in reality. The characters frequently discuss their hatred of Margaret Thatcher. The police are shown as corrupt, racist, or just plain incompetent. University Challenge is rigged in favour of the posh kids. Casual drug use is depicted in a completely non-judgemental way, but sexist beer ads are mocked mercilessly. Thirty years later, it still feels subversive, mainly because the political aspects of the show happen alongside the sillier and more surreal humour. With The Young Ones, you’re never really prepared for what’s coming next.
People tend to use the phrase “equal opportunity offender” to mean, “I can make as many sexist and homophobic jokes as I want, because I’m so ironic and hardcore.” But to me, The Young Ones represents what that phrase should really mean- the willingness to mock the shortcomings of your own side just as readily as you would those of your enemies. So, in addition to the racist policemen and the rigged game show, we have Rick.
Rick thinks of himself as an anarchist, and spends a lot of time reminding anyone who’ll listen how much more politically sound he is than them, but he is chronically unable to put his money where his mouth is. He plans to boast to his friends about refusing to pay his TV license, but, when the inspectors show up, he tries to shift the blame to his housemates. He meets an old man in the post office and berates him about his (presumed) reactionary attitudes, but soon ends up complaining that “the country’s in such a state” because the government gives away too much foreign aid. When Vyvyan upsets him, he begins to write a letter to his MP, until Neil (whose radical beliefs are, in contrast, shown as silly but sincere) reminds him that he doesn’t have one. In general, he comes across as somebody who doesn’t know much about what it means to be an anarchist, and probably only picked the label because it seemed cool.
It’s easy to imagine Rick as a more right-wing archetype- say, a fundamentalist Christian who constantly tells everyone else that they’re going to Hell even though he’s as badly-behaved as they are- but if he was, he wouldn’t be half as interesting. When Rick says, “Neil, the bathroom’s free! Unlike the country under the Thatcherite junta!” the joke isn’t that the writers think he’s wrong. The joke is that he’s so self-satisfied about it. Later in the same episode, Alexei Sayle breaks character, talks about his real-life Marxist principles and reassures his allies that appearing on television doesn’t mean that he’s sold out… before launching into a Pot Noodle advert. The message is clear: Your beliefs are worth taking seriously, but if you start taking yourself seriously, you’re screwed.
Rik Mayall played a lot of great characters in his time, but we should probably be most thankful for Rick. Not just because he’s hilarious, but because he actually teaches the audience something. Don’t use other people’s problems as an excuse to draw attention to yourself. Don’t get so wrapped up in the superficial aspects of a movement that you forget about the substance. Don’t assume that fighting against awful, wrongheaded political opponents automatically makes you wise and virtuous. And, no matter how much they annoy you, don’t ever call your nice hippy flatmate a “fascist.”