Adrian Edmondson: ‘The Young Ones? I think The Good Life has aged much better’

British comedian and actor, Adrian Edmondson - Adrian Sheratt
British comedian and actor, Adrian Edmondson - Adrian Sheratt

I’m trying to get Adrian Edmondson to unbutton a bit and share an insight or two into his home life with Jennifer Saunders. In these gloomy times, the memory of the uplift they have brought to millions over the years and their staying-power as a couple shine like good deeds in a naughty world.

The couple tied the knot in 1985 – after Edmondson had attained immense cultish cred from The Young Ones, the student house-share sitcom in which he played snotty, grotty, punkish Vyvyan Basterd, with cawing voice and lobotomised stomp. There’s abiding curiosity about Ade and Jen: it’s hard not to picture an enviable marital set-up in which laughter flows between kindred spirits.

But backstage at the RSC in Stratford – where he’s currently rehearsing to star as Scrooge in David Edgar’s revenant version of A Christmas Carol, having been a commendable Malvolio here in 2017 – Edmondson, 65, won’t have it so neatly described. “It’s not quite like that. My daughter Freya [their youngest of three] is actually the ‘comedian’ in the family. She’s not a professional. Many people have a lot of comedy in their lives without being professional comedians, don’t they? Don’t most people have quite a jolly time?”

He says this with a grin, not a Scrooge-like scowl. But it’s clear that even though Saunders has publicly mused on their relationship, in her 2013 memoir Bonkers, he’s not mad-keen to play ball. In the book, she assessed why their partnership had held firm: “We have always made a point of not interfering with each other’s work. And we never get jealous. That’s the thing.” I quote that for corroboration, and he affably shrugs. “Yes, but as soon as you say that and think you’ve cracked the problem, then it all falls to pieces, doesn’t it? So it’s best not to talk about it at all, or you tempt the curse of Hello!” Another grin.

In his youthful heyday, it could be hard to see the joins between him and his anarchic personae, most amply on view in his double-act with Rik Mayall, initially as the Dangerous Brothers, on-stage and on the rabble-rousing C4 floor show Saturday Live, then as “Richie” Richard and “Eddie” Hitler in the uber-puerile bachelor flat-share sitcom Bottom. He could be a livewire interviewee – near flummoxing Terry Wogan in 1985 with deadpan goofiness. But today, the maverick in him is apparent more in his gently quizzical push-backs.

Firm partnership: Edmonson with his wife Jennifer Saunders in 1992 - Shutterstock
Firm partnership: Edmonson with his wife Jennifer Saunders in 1992 - Shutterstock

Shortly after we meet, the death is announced of his friend and former Comic Strip Presents... cohort Robbie Coltrane. When I contact him again to ask about it, he recalls the Scottish Titan with affection. “It was very sad to lose Robbie. He had such a beautiful, childish face when he found something funny. His eyes would literally twinkle. We were following him down to Devon one day – he was driving one of his big Cadillacs – and it started to rain. We saw him switch his wipers on and they promptly flew off and over the back of his car. We couldn’t help but run them over. I’m still laughing. It sort of sums Robbie up for me – a big, stylish hulk of a man with an eye for the surprisingly idiotic.”

Neatly unpacking his feelings about such a close loss is unexpected. Edmondson gave short shrift to the Good Morning Britain team when they asked how he felt about Mayall in 2019 – five years after he died from a heart-attack: “I don’t know what people want me to say about him. He’s dead, and I do miss him, and he’s dead…”

Yet now a glow of warmth comes over him as he describes how he and Mayall would come up with material together when writing Bottom. “We were boys when we met [at Manchester University, studying drama] and we always enjoyed sitting dreaming stuff up, making each other laugh – just two friends.”

Adrian Edmonson with his comic strip cohort, including Robbie Coltrane (left) - Hulton Archive
Adrian Edmonson with his comic strip cohort, including Robbie Coltrane (left) - Hulton Archive

Bottom, he still watches, and admires. It has stood the test of time, he reckons. That’s not true, he avouches, of The Young Ones, approaching its 40th anniversary on November 9 – a week after the same landmark moment arrives for The Comic Strip Presents..., which helped launch Channel 4 with Five Go Mad in Dorset. To help define a new channel and a new spirit of comedy at a stroke is no mean feat, I tell him.

But he resists such adulation, and the label “alternative comedy” has never stuck: “I still don’t know what it means, it sounds like ‘alternative to comedy’!”. He sums up The Young Ones as “an antidote to Terry and June and The Good Life. We were trying to do horrible characters, that’s what was new – but The Good Life stands up better. I’d rather watch that. I once said to the kids: ‘Let’s watch The Young Ones’. After 20 minutes they wandered off. It was too slow and boring.”

It’s interesting that of the dominant sitcoms of the early 1980s, it’s Yes, Minister that’s most talked about today, thanks to our political upheavals, though last week’s C4 resurrection of Friday Night Live (successor to Saturday Live) shows a residual fondness for the “alternative comedy” boom. For many, that sudden televisual take-over by “the young ones” epitomises a golden cultural moment when the balance was right – out went the sexism and racism of earlier comedy but there was a fearlessness and freedom about what could be said that has been rolled back in recent years.

But Edmondson unpicks that line of argument.

Bah-humbug: Adrian Edmonson as Scrooge in the RSC's A Christmas Carol - Hugo Glendinning © RSC
Bah-humbug: Adrian Edmonson as Scrooge in the RSC's A Christmas Carol - Hugo Glendinning © RSC

“I don’t think we brought that era of racist, sexist jokes to an end. I think society stopped finding those comedians funny – we didn’t tell society to do that.”

He’s of a “bah-humbug” mindset about the phrase “the culture war”, too. “It has become accepted and we should un-accept it. It suggests that there are just two sides, but society is much more complicated and nuanced than that, isn’t it?” That said, he ruminates: “I think most people in the world actually want three things: they want to have a nice roof over their head, not to worry about food, and to love and be loved.”

Which brings us to A Christmas Carol. The stinginess that defines Scrooge stems from a foundational want of love. Edmondson’s “straight” acting credits have swelled in recent years – with fine work on EastEnders, the comedy-drama Back to Life (BBC), and an imminent turn as the head of MI5 in A Spy Among Friends, about Kim Philby (BritBox/ITVX). Yet he has battled, he says, “a snobbery about comedians – people were afraid I couldn’t act”.

Despite a dearth of “straight” stage credits, he has a head start with this production, because of personal parallels with Scrooge’s youthful experiences, especially the sensation of feeling abandoned at boarding school.

He was dispatched to Pocklington School in Yorkshire by his parents. His father was a teacher in the Armed Forces and stationed overseas – and, albeit this was the late 1960s, it sounds thoroughly Dickensian. “It was holding firm to its Victorian principles – there were a lot of damaged people in teaching and they took out their anger on boys’ bottoms.

“A Christmas Carol resonates with me. Aristotle said, ‘Give me the boy at seven and I will show you the man’. I hope I’m not as curmudgeonly as Scrooge but that experience of having to fend for yourself from early on affects you.”

In the past he has talked about his anger issues, and how he has managed them. So this is a confrontation with his own ghosts, in a way?

“That’s why it’s such an intriguing story,” he replies. “It shows someone looking at what they’ve done, getting a glimpse of where it might all go if they continue that way, and then deciding whether to change or not.”

'A Christmas Carol' is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from tomorrow-Jan 1. Tickets: 01789 331111;