‘Never, ever, bloody anything, ever!’ – 30 years of ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona on the 30th anniversary of 'Mr Jolly Lives Next Door' - an unlikely classic of English comedy

01 October 2018 08:05

Among the hundreds of cultural, political and personal Twitter accounts that I follow, one gives me particular joy: ‘Dreamytime Escorts’.

Yes, yes: I know what you’re thinking. But bear with me. The escort service in question is entirely fictional, and features in a 30-year-old Channel 4 film, Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, starring the late Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and the also-late Peter Cook. Though he has never seen it, the comedy was directed by the Oscar-nominated Stephen Frears – after My Beautiful Launderette (1985) but before Dangerous Liaisons (1987). Of which more anon.

Familiar to millions as the beating comic heart of The Young Ones and Bottom, Mayall and Edmondson truly dive into the gutter in this scabrous work of unexpected genius. With no backstory, names or plausibility, they play two utterly revolting, self-styled male escorts – ‘We go all the way!’ – whose indigent craziness you can almost smell through the screen.

The film opens in the early morning with Mayall and Edmondson reeling down a hospital corridor, escorted by police officers whom they try to persuade to open a pub. In the morgue, they are greeted by a demented pathologist who has severed arms up his sleeves. One of their clients – ‘Fatty’ – lies dead on the slab.

Edmondson, sweaty in his donkey jacket, smells alcohol only to be told it is the odour of embalming fluid. ‘Barmy fluid!’ he exclaims. ‘I’ll have some of that, then!’

Mayall and Edmondson truly dive into the gutter in this scabrous work of unexpected genius.

To accuse Jolly of having a plot is an insult to the whole concept of narrative, really. The astonishingly squalid offices of Dreamytime Escorts share a partition with Little Fluffy Toys Ltd, run by the eponymous Mr Jolly (Cook). In fact, he is a psychopathic contract killer, who has a portrait of Hitler on his wall and chops up his victims while playing Tom Jones’s ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ at maximum volume.

Mayall and Edmondson accidentally intercept a large cash payment intended for Jolly and spend all the money on ‘One thousand, five hundred and seventy-four gin and tonics, please, Monica! They misinterpret the instruction to ‘take out Nicholas Parsons’ – mysteriously, the target of a local gangster’s wrath – for a social challenge, and decide to entertain the veteran game show host (playing himself). It is a task they regard as ‘the pinnacle of escorting’.

Well, you get the idea… or maybe not. The glory of Jolly is hard to communicate in prose, as it depends so completely on the anarchic visual performances of the main performers. Everyone in the film is either mad, or useless, or both. The benign exception is Parsons himself, who personifies baffled Middle England, hoping desperately that being a good sport (which he is) might just save his life (which it doesn’t). On Tuesday, there will be a special anniversary screening at the Everyman Cinema in Bristol, featuring a Q&A session between one of its co-authors, Rowland Rivron, and John Rain, a high priest of the cult of Jolly and host of SMERSH POD (an excellent podcast celebration of James Bond).

Rain has been a fan since the film was first broadcast in 1988, but noticed over the years that, when Channel 4’s Comic Strip Presents… series was mentioned, it was generally the Enid Blyton spoof Five Go Mad In Dorset (1982), or the heavy metal satire Bad News Tour (1983), that received the garlands. The omission of Jolly struck him as a grave cultural injustice.

‘So with the 30th anniversary on the horizon,’ he says, ‘I floated the idea on Twitter about the possibility of arranging some form of crowdfunder.’

The proposal blossomed into a ticketed event, and Rain secured the involvement of Rivron: two screenings have already been held, in Maida Vale and Isington – attended by fans coming from as far afield as Israel, and sporting the ‘I’ve Been Out With Nicholas Parsons’ forehead tattoo that Edmondson’s character drunkenly acquires somewhere between dinner at the Dorchester and Parsons’ home.

My Jolly Lives Next Door (Stephen Frears, 1988)

If all this seems very odd, that’s because it is. I, too, have loved Jolly since its birth, but did not realise for some years how many others felt the same. I remember the scorn of the staff in a branch of Blockbuster when I asked for a VHS rental copy of the film. Jolly, of course, lives on. Blockbuster went out of business in the UK in 2013. I think that tells you all that you need to know.

It was in Westminster, of all places, that I first encountered fellow members of the masonry. You would hear odd lines of the script etched into a sentence: ‘God bless Heimi Henderson!’, ‘Escorts, bescorts, come in if you’re saucy!’ – and (especially) Mayall’s mantra: ‘Never, ever, bloody anything, ever!’

And if you think that this was just the usual post-Monty Python phenomenon of over-educated young men quoting comedy lines at each other in pubs, you’d only be slightly right. One of the most fervent Jolly-manes I have ever met was the late David Hart – the right-wing libertarian best known as special adviser to Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo, an ally of Margaret Thatcher, and a ferocious opponent of the Miners’ Strike. Hart would end all his phone calls to me with Edmondson’s line shortly before the Dreamytime van knocks over an OAP: ‘And have a nice day!’

Oddest of all, perhaps, is to discuss Jolly with its director. Stephen Frears is one of the world’s most acclaimed film-makers, whose work has encompassed Prick Up Your Ears (1987), The Grifters (1990), The Queen (2006), Philomena (2013), and much else.

Most recently, Frears’s BBC dramatisation of the Jeremy Thorpe affair, A Very English Scandal, was rightly hailed as television at its finest – not least because of Hugh Grant’s terrific performance as the late Liberal leader. So what was the auteur, recently-responsible for My Beautiful Launderette, doing with the Dreamytime Escorts?

The answer is: it was a two-or-three-week job, he liked the Comic Strip gang of alternative comedians, and he had a spot of time on his hands.

Though he finds the cult of Jolly mystifying – to repeat, he hasn’t ever seen it and is ‘embarrassed by my ignorance of all of this’ – he has the fondest recollections of Mayall and Edmondson.

I have loved Jolly since its birth, but did not realise for some years how many others felt the same.

‘Both of them, they were terribly nice,’ he says. ‘I have a disabled son. He was in hospital and they went to visit him – and, I think, kept going to visit him. They were very, very nice to him.’

And Cook? ‘I knew Peter and he was very good. If you look through his working life, he got better and better – he became much less self-conscious and by the end he had become a good actor.’ At which point, I am reminded of the ferocity with which Cook delivers the immortal line: ‘Look, just because my second name is “Jolly” doesn’t mean I have to be jolly all the fucking time!’

Frears is typically self-deprecating about his part in it all, but I think his hand at the tiller made all the difference. What could have been an almighty mess is a perfectly-paced visual riot, a brisk 50-minute race through a world of booze-fuelled lowlifes, halfwits and ineffective thugs.

It also amounts (in my view) to the finest iteration of the Mayall-Edmondson double-act that stretched from their time together at Manchester University in the late Seventies until around 2004 when they stopped working together (Mayall died in 2014).

Why has the film endured? It is, I think, the post-punk counterpart to Withnail & I (which was released the year before). Whereas Bruce Robinson’s masterpiece is an elegiac exploration of endings – of the Sixties, of friendships, of a certain kind of England – Jolly draws on the nervous energy and slapstick of music hall, The Beano’s Dennis the Menace and Bash Street Kids, and the degenerate London street spirit that links Hogarth to the Sex Pistols. If Withnail is a tract on Bohemian homoeroticism, Jolly is the final word on English male idiocy. No more needs to be said on the subject.

Which is why I hope if you haven’t seen it, you do so immediately (it’s available on iTunes for £1.49). Better still, go to the Everyman Bristol on Tuesday, appropriately tattooed, to celebrate one of the unlikeliest monuments of national comedy.

And have a nice day!