News Article

Feature: How Rik Mayall Helped Bring Anarchy To Nintendo UK

Posted by Damien McFerran

We investigate the late comic's brush with video games

The start of this week came with the tragic news that esteemed British comedian Rik Mayall had passed away at the age of 56. His name might not be instantly familiar to those of you living outside of the UK, but it's almost impossible to understate Mayall's impact on British comedy. Alongside such luminaries as Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton, Ade Edmondson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson, he stood at the vanguard of the British "alternative" comedy wave which swept through the country during the '80s, starring in popular series such as The Young Ones, Blackadder and Bottom. He would attempt to break Hollywood with the 1991 cult classic Drop Dead Fred — starring alongside Phoebe Cates and Carrie Fisher — but would largely remain a thoroughly British institution, which goes a long way to explaining the massive outpouring of sympathy witnessed over the past few days.

"When I joined in ’89, Nintendo was on the floor. The NES was selling around 10,000 units through retailer Boots a year" - Mike Hayes

However, we've not covering Mayall's sad passing simply because we're massive fans here at Nintendo Life; during the early '90s, he starred in a series of television commercials commissioned by Nintendo UK with the objective of knocking its rival Sega off its lofty perch. While Nintendo was dominant in practically every other territory in the world, Sega had managed to win the hearts and minds of UK gamers with its 8-bit Master System while the NES struggled to emulate the rampant success it enjoyed elsewhere. "When I joined in ’89, Nintendo was on the floor," recalls former Nintendo UK Marketing Director Mike Hayes. "The NES was selling around 10,000 units through retailer Boots a year, while the Master System was doing pretty well." Under Hayes' watchful eye, the company rallied and improved the flagging fortunes of its home console, as well as soundly beating the Sega Game Gear with its Game Boy handheld. However, when the 16-bit era dawned, Sega's previous superiority in the UK once again became apparent, and Hayes has a pretty good idea why.

"The Mega Drive came out a year before and it had Sonic, plus it had attitude." he says, referring to Sega's blisteringly successful series of television adverts which were subversive, anarchic and thoroughly cool — everything Nintendo wasn't at the time. Sega's campaign was spearheaded by the marketing duo of Philip Ley and Simon Morris, who — with the assistance of ad agency WCRS — created a series of commercials which have since become part of video game folklore in the UK. The award-winning Cyber Razor Cut ad is perhaps the most famous, but the irreverent and often befuddling Pirate TV commercials took the concept to an entirely new level. On a side note, these gloriously rebellious slices of advertising boasted the talents of actor Steve O'Donnell, who starred alongside Mayall in the TV show Bottom around the same time.

"They were the Rolling Stones, we were the Beatles," Hayes comments. "Nintendo was boring — that’s kind of what the research showed." It was a situation that was almost entirely unique to the UK, where Sega had been able to make its brand seem more appealing to gamers than its close competitor. "Nintendo was dominant throughout every other market in the world — with the possible exception maybe of Australia," Hayes reveals. "Certainly in the United States, Germany, Italy, and so on, Nintendo were strong — but in the UK, we were getting trounced. The market share was always two-thirds Sega, one-third Nintendo."

"[Sega] were the Rolling Stones, we were the Beatles. Nintendo was boring — that’s kind of what the research showed" - Mike Hayes

It proved difficult to counter this issue — even when it was arguably clear that the SNES boasted superior software to the Mega Drive. At a point when attitude seemed to mean more than gameplay, Sega was the clear winner — despite Nintendo UK's best efforts to educate the masses with some cutting-edge commercials. "When the Super Nintendo launched, we spent a lot of money on an ad which featured morphing, because Michael Jackson’s Black or White had just come out," explains Hayes. The resultant commercial may have been technically impressive, but it failed to achieve its goal. "We just couldn't shove that market share. It remained stubbornly 30 percent however much we spent." It was at this point that Nintendo UK decided to tender pitches from the leading advertising agencies of the day in the hope that they could find the marketing 'silver bullet' to deal with Sega's highly influential campaign.

JWT was the company which was ultimately successful, but the initial meeting with Nintendo of America's Minoru Arakawa — the late Hiroshi Yamauchi's son-in-law, no less — was as close as you could possibly get to a complete disaster. "The Japanese entourage swept into Nintendo UK and we had to show them the campaign, which had been approved," Hayes recounts. The concept was a simple one which on paper had clearly appealed to Nintendo's bosses: a wise Japanese master imparting wisdom to UK gamers. "The whole idea was this character would speak in Japanese with English subtitles," Hayes explains. "It was really pretty good for its time, and we were going to use prosthetics and early kind of CGI to make all this work, and it was going to cost millions. But instead of JWT pitching this with a translator, one of their guys got up and sort of did pidgin Japanese and effectively offended the Japanese VIPs." What happened next has vividly remained in Hayes' memory ever since.

"Arakawa-San — one of the kindest, nicest, most delightful businessmen I've worked with — got his pen, threw it onto the table and said, 'You have to be out of your f*****g tiny minds.' It was probably one of my worst days in business." Matters were made worse when JWT account director Steve Carter attempted to remonstrate with Arakawa, who gave an ultimatum — continue to argue, and the campaign would be given to another agency. Needless to say, things ended under a cloud. "After the meeting had finished and we were having lunch, the Japanese were all in one room and the Westerners in another, not talking to each other," says Hayes with a grimace.

"Arakawa-San — one of the kindest, nicest, most delightful businessmen I’ve worked with — got his pen, threw it onto the table and said, 'You have to be out of your f*****g tiny minds" - Mike Hayes

It was abundantly clear at this point that an entirely new campaign was needed, and fast. This is where Jaspar Shelbourne enters our tale. Shelbourne — who is still employed at JWT today — was both the creative lead and group boss of the team behind the Mayall adverts, and corroborates Hayes' recollections of that fateful meeting with Arakawa. "We had a campaign all tucked up and ready to go and then, as is so often the case in advertising, the son-in-law of the founder was swinging through the UK. He was at the time the market boss of North America. It was meant to be like, 'This isn't a problem. Just relax. It’s a rubber stamping meeting.' It wasn't. The work all got blown out and we needed to replace it in order to meet the air dates in staggeringly short time."

JWT needed a star to anchor its hastily revised campaign, and at the time Mayall was perhaps one of the biggest names working in UK comedy. His untimely death has triggered a flood of tributes and dedications, but even so, it's easy to forget just how massive he was during the early '90s. "I went out a couple of nights with Rik and John Lloyd — the director of the commercials who also helmed Blackadder — to Covent Garden and saw tangible, visceral evidence of how popular he was," recalls Shelbourne. "Everybody wanted to shake his hand. The women literally threw themselves at him. He just wore it very lightly, but he knew that was part of his persona and that people had grown up with those characters. He had that kind of common touch; he was kind of classless and his appeal was really broad. People just absolutely assumed — correctly, as I discovered — that he was one of us and just a very funny, very entertaining, very warm guy. He was enormously good company."

As it happens, he was also a pleasure to work with, as well. "He often sat down with John and I when he didn't have to," adds Shelbourne. "He really contributed to some of the scripts." Hayes is in agreement. "This brilliant comical stupidity came from within him and that to me is what made the ads great," he says. "He was just an anarchic character. I just remember it was great fun. Making TV commercials is one of the dullest things on the planet to do — there are fifty people on a set and you've got no idea what they’re doing, but you know you’re paying for them. But with Rik, it was really good. It was the partnership between John and Rik that made it, actually. They were just like two chums messing around, having a bit of fun and earning quite a bit of money."

"The women literally threw themselves at him...he was kind of classless and his appeal was really broad. He was enormously good company" - Jaspar Shelbourne

Mayall would joke at the time that the cash he received in exchange for the campaign paid for his new house, which he duly christened 'Nintendo Towers'. "I remember subsequently reading that," laughs Hayes. "Because it was so last minute, we didn't have much chance to negotiate. So even by today’s standards he did get paid quite a big chunk of change, but then we had such a big production budget because we were originally supposed to be creating this CGI masterpiece that never saw the light of day. So it wasn't really an issue for us."

Rather than having a constant theme like Sega's campaign, the nine Mayall adverts — filmed at Shepperton Studios during a five-week period in 1993 — feel like self-contained comedy sketches, which is hardly a shock given the talent involved. In one, Mayall self-deprecatingly hams up his status as a suave playboy by explaining that the only thing good enough to keep him entertained during his down-time is The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on the Game Boy, before walking face-first into the glass window of his penthouse apartment. In another, he tries to pass himself off as Formula One and IndyCar champion Nigel Mansell by donning a disguise which constitutes little more than bushy eyebrows and a moustache, before introducing the viewer to his wife, daughters and pet dog — all in reality beefy men sporting similarly comical facial hair. Yet another ad focuses on a decimated talk show set following a visit from the cast of Street Fighter II, while the interview theme is continued for the Kirby's Dream Land advert, which ends with titular pink hero growing in size and attacking Mayall's character after he insults him. Compared to Sega's often incomprehensible commercials, these TV spots eschewed the in-your-face attitude and went straight for the funny bone — often showcasing the unique brand of physical comedy Mayall would refine during the Bottom television series and subsequent live tours — and are still amusing after the passing of over two decades.

However, while Mayall's contribution gained plenty of chuckles, the campaign didn't provide the end result that Nintendo UK so badly wanted and the Mega Drive continued to outsell the SNES. "I think it was a year too late," explains Hayes. "We should have run them from the get-go. They were very campaignable and we could have made more based on the software. If we’d spent the money that we did in ’93 on them a year before, then I think that would have moved the needle a little bit in favour of Nintendo."

"A bit of money was spent at Christmas in ’93 to put them on air, and that was it, they were never used again. Nintendo just didn't have the appetite and didn't understand, and they never did" - Mike Hayes

In the end, Hayes feels that Nintendo's decision to cut short the relationship with Mayall was based on the company's Japanese bosses simply not grasping British humour and the inherent need for an image change in the UK. "Nintendo of Japan never understood what 'edgy' was," he explains. "I had to get everything approved by Japan. Yamauchi used to send me storyboards. It was just ridiculous — they just didn't get the comedy or the market needs. A bit of money was spent at Christmas in ’93 to put them on air, and that was it, they were never used again. Nintendo just didn't have the appetite and didn't understand, and they never did." However, Hayes — who would leave Nintendo in '94 and later serve as CEO of all of Sega's western operations — appreciates the fact that his superiors allowed him to take the chance, because he got to work with one of his comedy heroes as a result. "Nintendo is a very conservative company, whereas Sega is a very Western-looking company," he says. "At Sega, I was CEO of everything outside of Japan. It’s very rare that they allow a Westerner to do that, and Nintendo would never have allowed it. But even so, it was just nirvana being able to do this and get to work with someone like Rik Mayall."

Mayall's sudden and unexpected demise has impacted Hayes on one level because he is able to say that he worked with the great man, but the grief goes deeper than that. "I'm 52 years-old, and he died at 56," he says. "I grew up with this guy’s comedy — from the Young Ones in the early '80s through to the beloved Blackadder and The New Statesman — and for someone of my age, it’s such a loss and shock to lose somebody like that." Shelbourne has been equally affected. "I've been doing this job for 30 years now and there are certain things that you know are always going to stick in your mind," he says. "John and Rik were very good reasons why that was such a 'sticky' job, and one I’ll always remember." Mayall's career may have waned in the years leading up to his death, but he leaves behind a body of work which will go on entertaining and delighting viewers for many years to come. His contribution to Nintendo's commercial history is a small one, but for those who fondly remember splitting their sides during the original transmission run back in 1993, it remains incredibly significant.

We'd like to thank Jaspar and Mike for giving up their time to speak with us for this feature.

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User Comments (52)

IxC

#1

IxC said:

They're 'adverts' not 'commercials'. Come on. For a British website doing an article about British things, this is unacceptable.

DamoAdmin

#3

Damo said:

@IxC You're right, it's totally unacceptable. I'd write a stern letter to your MP if I were you.

Untitled

thedanman64

#4

thedanman64 said:

I'm still in shock that he's gone.
Bottom and Young Ones are two of the greatest shows on telly. He was always my favourite comedy actor and the fact he did all these adverts (don't worry IxC, i said advert) just makes me love him even more.

Thanks for all laughs Rik.
R.I.P

JakeShapiroAdmin

#6

JakeShapiro said:

As an American, I was pretty unfamiliar with Mayall's work aside from a peripheral knowledge of Drop Dead Fred, so it's great to get better insight into his career. Fantastic piece, Damo.

Great_Gonzalez

#7

Great_Gonzalez said:

Yep RIP Rik! You were hilarious :D

But this article makes me smile because nintendo UK still haven't got their act together!

TheRealThanos

#8

TheRealThanos said:

"His name might not be instantly familiar to those of you living outside of the UK"

As an American living in the Netherlands I can tell you that Mayall is very popular here too and since I've been living here for a long time, I have had the pleasure of enjoying most of his work too. Far as I know all the shows he was in were aired here. I watched Blackadder, The Young Ones and Bottom, and I've seen Drop Dead Fred.
@IxC So you have "advert" breaks in between TV programs then? ;)
Sounds a bit newspapery to me to be honest...

Trikeboy

#9

Trikeboy said:

Yup, we sit through the adverts.

Rik Mayall, loud, obnoxious, hilarious. I am still in shock he left us so soon. Good bye Rik, Thank you for corrupting my informative years.

DamoAdmin

#10

Damo said:

@TheRealThanos I can believe it - a few years back I ordered a Bottom DVD box set off Amazon UK, and for some reason it was in Dutch packaging!

Starwolf_UK

#11

Starwolf_UK said:

Great things really do sometimes arise from unusual circumstances as this article points out. It is a shame the tight grip of NCL at the time only let things go so far.

IxnayontheCK

#12

IxnayontheCK said:

So crushed. Young Ones is still one of my all time favorites. Rik is a legend and deserves a state funeral.

Mrclaycoat

#13

Mrclaycoat said:

I was lucky enough to discover his genius across the pond in Canada back in the 90's. Reruns of the Young Ones would play every late Saturday night along with Blackadder and a ton of other British Comedies. I never knew TV could be so funny! To this day, The Young Ones is still my favourite comedy show of all time (maybe tied with Mr Show) I love this man!

AlexSora89

#14

AlexSora89 said:

Believe it or not, I'm Italian and I know who the guy was anyway.
Other than being the eponymous Drop Dead Fred, Rik Mayall gave his voice to all characters in a slightly more obscure PC/PS1 title from Infogrames called Hogs Of War, a polygonal and swine-based counterpart of Team17's Worms. I have fond memories of his politically incorrect voice clips lampooning national stereotypes in a Monty Python-esque take of World War I.
So long, Rik, and thanks for all the--SQUEAL!

RainbowGazelle

#15

RainbowGazelle said:

Yep, comic legend. I must have watched Bottom about one-hundred times. You left us far too soon, Rik... Rest in Peace.

PAppleyard

#16

PAppleyard said:

Sad day, I loved watching Bottom. This is the only time I will say that and not be talking about girls as well.

p.s is that a a photograph of him doing a subtle illuminati sign (V for 5th age and holding it on the eye to sign the 'all seeing eye')?

Andyjm

#17

Andyjm said:

Great piece of writing about a truly great comedian. Good article guys.

(Oh and I'm British and couldn't give a €%# whether it's advert, commercial or whatever. A good man has died way before his time. Let's show some respect)

rastamadeus

#18

rastamadeus said:

This house will become a shrine, and punks and skins and rastas will all gather round and hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader. And all the grown-ups will say, "But why are the kids crying?" And the kids will say, "Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!"

And then one particularly sensitive and articulate teenager will say, "Other kids, do you understand nothing? How can Rick be dead when we still have his poems?"

ICHIkatakuri

#21

ICHIkatakuri said:

Those adverts I like them! Firm and fruity! Am I pleased to see them or this a canoe in my pocket. Nigel mansells wife has a tongue like an electric eel and the taste of a mans tonsils!

I miss you Rik

Luna-Harmony

#22

Luna-Harmony said:

i am going to miss him so much in Bottom he is so funny get bottom on dvd you will love it. The young ones was so great back in the day as well.

KevTastic84

#23

KevTastic84 said:

It was a sad when he passed. Me and my friends got together to watch some episodes of Bottom on Monday evening. Sometimes when i read about this whole Sega whooping Nintendo in the UK i question its figures. As a child growing up int he 8-bit and 16-bit era i think my friends and peers would probably equally have sega and nintendo consoles between them. Shops would equally have both systems and games on shelves. This whole UK hates Nintendo thing has always been silly.

James1993

#25

James1993 said:

Rest in peace Rick Mayall, I never even knew you but thank you for helping Nintendo During the Nintendo Entertainment System era.

audiobrainiac

#27

audiobrainiac said:

He was great. Hated to hear he passed away. I thought i'd heard about a Drop Dead Fred reboot or something.

HylianJowiStaff

#28

HylianJowi said:

This piece had me smiling so much. I really love getting deeper insights into these things, it's almost guaranteed that there's an interesting tale to hear. Thanks for sharing this, and I hope Rik Mayall's passing only brings his zany brand of comedy to more people who might not have been in the know. :)

DinoFett

#29

DinoFett said:

Nice photo with Adrian, First seen the comedians in 1984 when MTV first played 'The Young Ones' and 'The Comic Strip'. And PBS would play 'Black Adder'.

koelboel

#30

koelboel said:

Damn, depressing news. I grew up comic strip and young ones. Bottom helped me through uni (well not really but it had me laughing loudly in between study sessions). Missed until I´m off this mortal coil as well.

DamoAdmin

#31

Damo said:

@audiobrainiac It was on the cards a few years back with Russell Brand set to take the lead, haven't heard anything since. Brand's standing in Hollywood has diminished to the point that I doubt he would be involved any more - thankfully.

Technosphile

#33

Technosphile said:

....I hadn't heard this. Thanks for the lovely news, NintendoLife.

I love The Young Ones, Rik was my favorite character. My little sister and I recite his monologue at the beginning of the "Bombs" episode often.

Please don't edit my posts if you've never seen an episode of The Young Ones and don't get it.

Anguspuss

#35

Anguspuss said:

didnt he advertise amiga 32. Seriously he is 14 years older than me. That is a sobering thought but I grew up with the young ones Alan Bstard bottom

great talent RIP

k8sMum

#37

k8sMum said:

'Lord FlashHeart, Lord FlashHeart
We wish you were the star.
Lord FlashHeart, Lord FlashHeart
You're sexier by far!'

funny, funny guy. woof!

ReigningSemtex

#38

ReigningSemtex said:

great read. I remember the zelda advert from whhen i was a kid it was one of the first games i got on my gameboy. RIP Rik Mayall you were one of the most entertaining comedians i have ever watched

ClassicJetterz

#41

ClassicJetterz said:

Oh man. He was Ricky from the Rest Home in Shock Treatment, the "sequel" to The Rocky Horror Picture show. And of course all the other awesome things he was in.

You're at the pearly gates of Dentonvale, Rik. Rest in peace.

cfgk24

#42

cfgk24 said:

Policeman 1: I reckon I could have slept with her, if it wasn't for something I said. But we had a row and, uh... I said something about the Pope.
Policeman 2: That's a bit stupid, you know she's Catholic.
Policeman 1: Yeah, I know she's Catholic, but I didn't know the Pope was.
Policeman 2: It's a laugh, though, innit?
Policeman 1: What?
Policeman 2: That noise you make in the back of your throat when you hear a joke.
Policeman 1: Yeah. Yeah, that's a laugh.
Papa Bear: Who's been gobbing in my lentils?
Mama Bear and Baby Bear: Yes! Who's been gobbing in our lentils?
Papa Bear: Sod it. Let's go to McDonald's.
Mama Bear and Baby Bear: Yes!

cfgk24

#44

cfgk24 said:

I could have sworn he said ' I'm Nigel Mansell and so's my wife ' but now I remember that's a life of Brian quote lol.

TheRealThanos

#46

TheRealThanos said:

@Damo That is a bit strange though. Dutch packaging for DVD's? For Blurays I could understand because they often come in more languages and of course also have the capacity to store way more languages so in that case the package wouldn't matter that much. (when I order Blurays online here in the Netherlands I often get UK discs, recognizable by your specific age labels, but Dutch subs are still on them anyways) Come to think of it: DVD's probably also have the option to switch of subs, if you don't need them, but still strange they didn't just give you the English packaged version.
As for Rik Mayall, sad to see him pass, he wasn't only funny but also very amicable, according to most people that got to meet him or work with him. His passing was well documented in the Dutch news this last week, not only because he is quite well known here, but also because of him having worked with some Dutch director on a movie that was just recently finished and they were supposed to organize the promotional tour, which is now obviously in need of a different planning because Mayall was of course supposed to join this tour. I'll truly miss seeing new programs sprout from his decidedly wacky brain... 56 is WAY too young to go. RIP comedy genius. Gotta love British humor...
(and for some strange reason the episode from Bottom with the man with the wooden leg at the bar keeps popping into my head)
@rastamadeus @Mercy_Lost two thumbs up for those clips if there was any way to add such rewards to any comment.
(@Damo maybe something you guys should consider adding to the NLife comments section: it regularly happens that I regret not being able to like a comment in any kind of official way. That and adding proper smileys... )

Der_Eisenkaiser

#47

Der_Eisenkaiser said:

May he rest in piece. I remember sitting with my dad when I was young and watching the Young Ones on DVD repeatedly. To this day, I can't help but think about the absolute absurdity yet purely brilliant comedy that show provided me back then. Rik Mayall, you and your comedic genius will be missed. May you forever call people fascists in Heaven. Now if you shall excuse, I have a Young Ones marathon that needs to happen in tribute to the life of a Young One.

Henmii

#48

Henmii said:

Haven't seen that much of him, though I liked his role in Midsomer murders (If I recall correctly he played that hated uncle, hated because he told the truth!).

He seems to have been a crazy guy. I guess I should check some stuff of his out on youtube! Rest in peace Rik!

MEGAMAN_D

#49

MEGAMAN_D said:

It probably wasn't healthy, but I grew up watching Rik Mayall with bottom and the young one's. My dad remembers him as Kevin Turvey even before my time, What a shame he's gone, he was a massive part of the British comedy.

I still remember the mario all stars and street fighter 2 turbo adverts LOL

R.I.P Mr. Mayall

koelboel

#50

koelboel said:

@MEGAMAN_D
Oh yeah, I forgot all about Kevin Turvey, investigative journalist (his piece in sex is fantastic www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CpHEqxy1jM).
He was a brilliant character as well. One of a kind comedy.

stephbm6

#51

stephbm6 said:

I loved Rik on the Young Ones. Being in the U.S. I loved watching that show in the mid 80's on MTV Sunday nights. Now I have to pull out the DVD's and watch them again. R.I.P Rik.

stanleecroup

#52

stanleecroup said:

Lovely article about a national treasure and comic genius!
I remember those adverts being on tv. I used to watch Friday night live and saw rikl and ade first as the dangerous brothers. Awesome stuff. Like all other people here hage seen young ones, bottom( the live showz are amazingly funny) alan bastard and of course flash by name..
And not forgeting Kevin
you will be very much missed mr mayal

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