‘I replaced my lack of childhood love with adrenaline’: Adrian Edmondson’s book

At the age of seven, Adrian Edmondson’s father told him he was too old for hugs and kisses. From then on, they would enjoy nothing more than a manly handshake. “It’s a moment that plays back in my head like an old film,” he sighs.

We have met to talk about his hilarious and moving new autobiography, Berserker!, but the conversation soon veers into what feels occasionally like a mutual counselling session. There’s no avoiding it. Edmondson, the anarchic Young Ones, Bottom and Comic Strip Presents… star, who reinvented himself as a musician, director and serious actor, is living proof of Philip Larkin’s wry observation that your parents “f*** you up”.

Now 66, he exudes a zen-like calm that is the very polar opposite of student punk Vyvyan and Bottom’s Eddie Hitler, the high-velocity characters who made him a star.

But he admits still trying to make sense of his grim lower middle-class childhood and the “closed shop” parents who left him emotionally repressed and furiously angry for decades.

“The weird thing about perceived wrongs in your childhood is you have to accept them,” he says genially. “They are part of what you become, so you can’t really hate them. And if you start hating them, you have to hate yourself.

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“You have to come to peace with everything, otherwise you become a bitter person. And this book has been a cathartic experience, sorting out who I am and finding, if not answers, then a settlement: I won’t ever know what my dad really thought about me, but I’ve explored it and I’m going to leave it there. And that’s quite nice.”

So far, so surprising from a man hailed by millions of fans for pioneering physically chaotic, groundbreaking and very, very funny alternative comedy over the course of a hugely successful 30-year double act with the late, great Rik Mayall, of whom more shortly.

But open Berserker!, a nailed-on bestseller and easily the most extraordinary, joyful and yet, at times, harrowing celebrity book of the year, and it becomes clear still waters run very deep indeed for its author. Yet, much as it might be justified, there’s not a trace of self-pity.

Born in Bradford, in 1957, Edmondson went to a different school almost every year until the age of 12 as his father Fred, a geography teacher, pursued a form of educational wanderlust: taking posts in Cyprus, Bahrain and Uganda.

At every new place, he would have to justify his “girl’s” name – Adrian or Ade – which he hated. As a young “specky four eyes”, his words, he identified with the unfortunate Piggy in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Music, books and adventures (mostly drinking and smoking) took the place of family.

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Performance became another escape, whether writing, directing and starring in school shows, or later playing in a band. Today, he believes his ‘Berserker’ persona, unleashed in public via his extreme early comedy characters, was a result of this strange, slightly sad childhood.

“I replaced the lack of love with a search for adrenaline, a hunt for danger and a thrill and a laugh,” he explains. “I just wanted excitement. And that’s really what berserker is. Someone who’s off their t**s on adrenaline and fueled by various other things.”

Five years after his father confined their physical contact to handshakes, Edmondson, alone among his three siblings, was sent to boarding school in Yorkshire. Within a few weeks, he suffered his first beating. Four whacks with a size-12 slipper became eight and then 12 because, to the chagrin of the ghoulish assistant housemaster administering the thrashing, he defiantly refused to cry.

A year later, he graduated to the cane, receiving ‘six of the best’ 11 times during the remainder of his school days for various infractions, often leaving his buttocks looking like the “British Rail logo”. Afterwards, ironically, he had to shake the master’s hand.

Writing his book, he reined back the corporal punishment because it was “top-heavy” – there was simply too much of it.

During this time, he rarely saw his family, watching the “non-abandoned” boys leaving for their homes over the holidays while he was shunted off to distant relatives. All of which left him in 2007, ostensibly rich, famous and with a loving family – he married Jennifer Saunders in 1985 – yet finally realising that “thinking about how I’d kill myself almost every day” was not normal.

“I had problems with anger. I spent a lot of time hitting bits of metal with other bits of metal and shouting at the top of my voice,” he explains. “I don’t think I ever expressed my anger to my kids, but they were aware it was happening. It was never directed at them. But, you know, I would shout in the car. Simple things like that. It’s unpleasant to live with.”

He credits his salvation to a ‘self-help’ book, Philosophy For Life: And Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans, exploring what we can learn from the Ancient Greek Stoics.

“Actually, it’s not really a self-help book,” he continues. “There’s no whale music involved. But Stoicism teaches you you’re only hurting yourself by worrying about things that have happened. You can’t change them. You can change what happens going forward. I know I sound like a s*** self-help, and it doesn’t work all the time – we all feel stress or slighted or grievances. But when it gets bad, I list what I’m angry about and what I can and can’t affect.”

As he recounts: “My wife and children will testify that I become a much easier person to live with. Calmer, more biddable. My temper, in particular, is almost completely erased.”

But that was to come. Arriving “emotionally feral” at the University at Manchester in 1975 to study drama, he found his tribe in the performance space and lecture and tutorial halls. It was not all plain sailing. There was an ill-fated first marriage to the friend of a roommate – they were just 19 and split up after 18 months. That night he suffered a breakdown, loosening the brake cables on his motorbike before taking it for a ride through the city. He survived, ending up on tranquilisers. Gradually, he pulled himself back from the brink.

And a big part of that was the bloke he spotted on his first day at university, sitting in front of him on the bus in a dirty denim jacket with greasy, shoulder-length hair, blowing perfect smoke rings. Something about him “demands attention”. It was Rik Mayall, of course, though they didn’t meet properly until their second year.

There is a rather grainy and ever-so-slightly washed-out photo in Edmondson’s book showing the pair beaming in front of a tiled fireplace under an LS Lowry print. It’s a lovely, warm shot of two good-looking young men who, having finished university, like millions of Young Turks before them, are going to change the world. And it’s fair to say that, as pioneers of the alternative comedy that sweeps away the racism and sexism of their predecessors, they do.

After some false starts, they combine as a double act. It’s foremostly about making each other laugh and, for nearly three decades, that’s how it works. At times, Edmondson’s book feels like an exorcism: firstly, of his childhood, then of the legend of Rik Mayall, who died of a heart attack in June 2014, aged 56.

“That’s not the intention but in any kind of discussion about my life I have to admit he’s one of the major influences,” he says. “It’s about who I am, and who I am was my relationship with Rik for a long time. The ending of that relationship is a lot of who I am as well.”

The seeds of that ending were sown in the wake of Mayall’s quad bike accident in 1998. He recovered but suffered a brain injury. “But up until the very end, our relationship was always incredibly equal,” he says.

“We were a proper double act.” But as time went on, his friend became “more focused on being Rik Mayall” than playing his characters. The laughter and trust began to ebb and, after their hugely lucrative last Bottom live tour in 2003, he pulled the plug. “I thought our career had gone like that forever” – Edmondson mimes a rising bar graph. It had begun to feel flat.

Reunited several years later to write their never produced final series, Hooligan’s Island, he realised Rik was counting their gags to work out who had more. But now, aged 46, he decided not to do comedy anymore. And by and large, despite some smaller sitcom roles, he has succeeded.

“It was a turbulent few years but it was the best decision I ever made. You stop being creative if you keep doing the same thing. It’s like having the same thing for breakfast. I like caviar but, if I had caviar every day, I’d eventually want a sausage.”

Perhaps surprisingly, their revolutionary BBC sitcom The Young Ones, which ran for two glorious series in the early eighties, is mentioned almost in passing.

As Edmondson put it, the show takes just 14 weeks of his life, yet looms disproportionately largely over pretty much everything else he ever does.

“It’s not that I don’t like it – I’m incredibly proud of it, and of my part in it,” he writes. “But it takes up too much space.”

One marvellous anecdote, however, recounts how legendary folk singer Joni Mitchell, appears out of the blue while he is directing a music video in LA, hugs him and reveals she always dresses as Vyvyan at Young Ones fancy-dress parties.

I foolishly wonder if he misses Rik and those halcyon days. “Of course I do,” he says, and for just a moment, there is a glimpse of Vyvyan or Eddie behind his soft blue eyes who might as well punch out my lights for such a question.

Does he miss his father, who passed away ten years ago, then? “No. Not a bit,” he says. “Well, there was nothing there. It just felt like an obligation. I had an email today from another bloke I used to sit next to at the football and he said his dad is dying of cancer and they haven’t spoken for 23 years. So I’m not the only one.”

His mother Dorothy, now 93, remains another enigma. She is reading the book but Edmondson, who lives in London and Devon, doesn’t expect her to like it.

“But then she hasn’t liked anything I’ve done,” he smiles.

Like many people, he has tried to “do the opposite” to his parents in raising his own children; he has three daughters with Saunders, 65, and five grandchildren.

Are they competitive given her own huge success, with stand-up partner Dawn French and the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous?

“Why would you not want the person you love the most to be very successful?” he chuckles. “It’s an odd thing. ‘Well, you can be slightly successful, but don’t be very successful’. That would be an odd kind of love.”

Funnily enough, he had a recent social media spat with Jim Davidson, firmly of the generation of comedians who preceded The Comic Strip.

“Someone asked me about the comics we replaced, and I said it was this blatant kind of racist, sexist, homophobic comedy, and he tweeted me. His response was: ‘At least my wife’s not funnier than me’. I thought that was hysterical.”

  • Berserker! An Autobiography by Adrian Edmondson (Pan Macmillan, £22) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25

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