Comfort classic: Bottom

Comfort classic: Bottom

Thursday, 4th July 2024
Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson (Credit: BBC)
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Matthew Bell finds both belly laughs and existential angst in this 1990s sitcom

It is neither subtle nor sophisticated but what would you expect from a sitcom written by and starring Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall? Particularly one called Bottom and featuring Eddie Hitler, Spudgun and Dave Hedgehog as characters?

Bottom is childish and crude but also laugh-out-loud funny – and it’s the apogee of the famed Edmondson and Mayall double act. The pair met at Manchester University as drama students in 1975 and clicked immediately.

As the live act 20th Century Coyote, they mined vulgarity and violence at London’s iconic Comedy Store. They soon morphed into the Dangerous Brothers and brought their trademark surrealism, silliness and slapstick to the telly, briefly in 1981 and then weekly in sketch form on Channel 4’s Saturday Live a few years later. Eyes were gouged; heads butted; goolies scrunched, blow-torched and blown up. By then, Edmondson and Mayall had become household names thanks to the groundbreaking BBC Two sitcom The Young Ones.

Bottom is the Dangerous Brothers opened out into a sitcom. The title is apt: unemployed Eddie Hitler (Edmondson) and Richard “Richie” Richard (Mayall) are at the bottom of the heap.

In fact, they had tried to call the show “My Bottom”. “We wanted people to say at the bus stop the following day, ‘Did you see My Bottom on television last night?’,” Edmondson recalls in the excellent recent UKTV Gold doc Bottom: Exposed. BBC Two boss and aesthete Alan Yentob apparently vetoed the idea.

Bottom is more than a succession of knob gags, though there are a fair number. One inspiration was Steptoe and Son, as melancholic as it was funny; another was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play the duo had bonded over at university and even took to the West End. Edmondson recalls: “We [found] bleak and despair very funny.… [A] kind of sense of despair permeates the entire series… I think that, strangely, is what people enjoy more than the slapstick.”

This desperate exchange is an Edmondson favourite –

Richie: “Why can’t we ever bloody win anything?”

Eddie: “Oh, don’t be stupid, Richie. People like us are not meant to win things.”

Richie: “What are we meant to do then?”

Eddie: “You get born, you keep your head down and then you die. If you’re lucky.”

If the Beckettian existential despair wears thin, there’s always some Laurel and Hardy slapstick or eye-watering violence around the corner; Eddie and Richie with mousetraps attached to their nadgers, perhaps?

The first episode, Smells, in which Richie tries and fails to lose his virginity, aired in September 1991. Critics hated it. “Gives lavatorial humour a bad name”, said The Observer; “Witless tosh”, pronounced The Mail on Sunday.

But audiences lapped it up. Bottom had a life beyond its three TV series: there were five successful theatre tours and a so-so film spin-off, Guest House Paradiso, shot only months after Mayall’s near-fatal quad bike accident in 1998.

During the final Bottom tour in 2003, Edmondson felt the quality had dipped: “They weren’t as much fun… it had come to a natural end.”

Looking back, Edmondson rates Bottom as the high point of his comedy career, and the time writing it with Mayall, who died in 2014, as “the most joy I’ve ever had in my life, making each other laugh, properly laugh, big guffawing belly laughs.… It’s very rare that you get a relationship like that with someone.”

And the joy shows on screen. Like Steptoe and Son’s Harold and Albert, Stan and Ollie or even Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Richie and Eddie love each other. Even when they’re beating seven shades of shit out of each other with frying pans.

Bottom is available on UKTV Gold.