Berserker! by Adrian Edmondson | Review of the Young Ones and Bottom star's frank and entertaining memoir
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Berserker! by Adrian Edmondson

Review of the Young Ones and Bottom star's frank and entertaining memoir

It’s been more than 40 years since Adrian Edmondson first tore through the world of light entertainment with the rest of the alternative comedy cohort.

And what a good job it took him until the age of 66to write his autobiography. Not only because he can pack in so many anecdotes, with the added benefits of context that hindsight provides, but also the world is now more open to hearing of his struggles with mental health, that are frequently present – but never overwhelming – in this hugely entertaining and disarmingly honest memoir.

One thing that might surprise readers of Berserker! is how little significance he places on The Young Ones in his life, given how inextricably he linked to the role of destructive punk Vyvyan Basterd in so many people’s minds.

‘The Young Ones takes up precisely 14 weeks of my life, but looms over everything else I ever do in a very disproportionate way,’ he writes. ‘It’s not that I don’t like it – I am incredibly proud of it, and of my part in it – but it takes up too much space. I’ve been asked so many questions about it, and given so many answers, that I probably talked about it for more than 14 weeks.’

He considers it a ‘cult’, yet one he’s not part of (He’s in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band cult, and later in life, lives out a dream by joining their ranks). He hadn’t watched The Young Ones in the 40 years since making it, at least not until he did his research for this book, so the obsession escapes him – though he acknowledges how groundbreaking those 12 episodes were.

However, his involvement does have its perks when he finds out that one of his heroines, Joni Mitchell, is not only a fan but has been known to dress up as Vyvyan.
For Edmondson, The Comic Strip Presents… – which launched on Channel 4 in the same week The Young Ones hit BBC Two – is a more significant part of his career. He wrote and directed some episodes of this (and has been behind the camera of far more music videos than you might think) – and the eclectic franchise has spanned decades.

He calls himself an accidental comedian, mind, having joined forces with Rik Mayall and others in a 1970s Manchester university sketch troupe called Twentieth Century Coyote merely to try to get the elusive Equity union cards that were then crucial to an acting career. The others dropped out, and he and Mayall became a double-act – and the rest is history.

This much we already knew, given how much has been said and written about the origins of alternative comedy. The origins of Edmondson are less well documented.

The schooldays he relates in Berserker! seem out of a different era – which, of course, they were. At the age of 12 he was sent to a boarding school when his father headed off to Africa to be a teacher… although none of his siblings are similarly treated.He spent

his first two weeks at Pocklington School in Yorkshire crying himself to sleep, but soon learns the lesson all the boys were supposed to learn: 'To be emotionally cold and maladjusted without showing it too much.'

‘The only emotions I don’t repress are anger and a desire for excitement that borders on frenzy. I am a novice berserker, and the masters try to beat this out of me. Idiots – little do they know they’re actually beating it into me,’ he adds.

Young adulthood is defined by reckless behaviour – including getting married at 19. It last 18 months, and when the relationship finally ends he has a serious mental health incident, not recognised by him nor the university doctor. It took until 2007 until a writing colleague tells him that ‘suicidal thoughts are not normal’ and he seeks treatment. Fearing antidepressants will subdue his creative spark, he instead manages to reprogramme the way he thinks about life – a version of cognitive behavioural therapy, basically – and becomes a calmer, better-functioning person.

Sharing such episodes frankly and with excellent humour gives Berserker a real humanity, while not skimping on the anecdotes you’d hope for from a celebrity memoir. The story of Edmondson and his wife Jennifer Saunders going to dinner at Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall’s house –part of the Texan model’s nakedly ambitious pitch to play Patsy in a possible US remake of Absolutely Fabulous – is a real doozy, offering new insight into what has become of rock’s once-notorious hellraiser.

Edmondson is tender and honest about his relationship with Mayall, too. How they were inseparable for so long, but how his friend changed over time, starting to believe the ‘sex god’ image – with some justification – rather than mocking it through his pathetic alter-egos of Young One Rick or Bottom’s Richie. Mayall’s drinking was one factor, but the deciding one was the erosion of trust regarding who got the laughs. 

Did Mayall’s near-fatal quad bike accident in 1998 affect a change in its personality? It’s hard to say, but Edmondson makes clear how their relationship had run its course, even though he has so many fond memories of their time together.

Edmondson called time on his own comedy career 15 years ago, when his radio sitcom Teenage Kicks – about a middle-aged man who moves in with his kids following a spectacularly nasty divorce – had transferred to TV. When discussions come up about a second series, the comic just says ‘no’.

‘I’m feeling such elation at the thought of not having to do it any more that I feel dizzy. It’s a feeling of such profound relief. It’s unfathomable,’ he writes.

‘Imagine not having to prove that you were funny any more. Comedy is the only art form that demands instant and constant proof – if they’re not laughing, you’re not funny. It’s an enormous pressure. For 33 years, I’ve lived with the pressure, and I’ve just realised I don’t have to live with it any more. I don’t have to be a comedian. Brilliant.’But he has provided so much excellent entertainment on  he way – and even post-comedy – with an enviable body of work to which we can add this funny, frank, poignant and intimate book.

• Berserker! by Adrian Edmondson is published by Macmillan and available from Amazon priced £11.

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Review date: 9 Nov 2023
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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