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.