When Ed Bye took on directing and producing duties for the pilot of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson's Bottom in 1990, then-BBC2 Controller Alan Yentob wasn't convinced he was up to the job.


"He said, 'Who's in charge of this?' I said, 'I am.' He said, 'No, who's really in charge?' I said, 'Me,' and he replied, 'Oh s**t,'" laughs Bye, who helmed series 1 and 2 of the groundbreaking sitcom in the early 1990s.

Having worked with the pair on seminal '80s smash-hit The Young Ones, Bye had faith in Mayall and Edmondson's abilities, though hesitancy manifested until the first laughs during the studio recording.

Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com, the director says: "Like all shows that are groundbreaking, there were doubts. Nobody quite knows how it's going to go down or what it's going to be like. So, you just have to have the courage of convictions to go, 'Look, this is going to work. We're going to give it our full blast.'

"There were reservations from the BBC, particularly because it was very edgy comedy. But the audience went nuts and it went really, really well. We thought, 'Great. Now we have the confidence.'"

From small acorns grow mighty oaks and Bottom was no exception, with audiences loving the exploits of sex-starved Richard Richard (Mayall) and violent drunkard Eddie Hitler (Edmondson), living together in a squalid Hammersmith flat and eking out an existence of petty crime and poverty.

Adrian Edmondson as Eddie and Rik Mayall as Richie in Bottom. Richie is wearing an apron and ironing his underpants, while Eddie is talking to him, wearing a dark coat and hat.
Adrian Edmondson as Eddie and Rik Mayall as Richie in Bottom. Don Smith/Radio Times

The show ran for three series and spawned five sellout live tours and even a feature film spin-off, Guest House Paradiso. More than three decades since that pilot, Bottom's popularity endures as new fans discover its mix of existential angst and cartoon violence, laced with toilet humour. Bye enjoys the continued affection for the show.

"It's a huge compliment that people still take an interest in it. Things get very popular when they get repeated. Some of those people taking an interest in it aren't even 30 years old, discovering it through late night repeats and the Talking Bottom podcast.

"When you're making something, you hope that it'll be the best you can make, but I would never have expected it to have such a lasting effect that it has done. Although, it's never been bettered, as it's a hard show to copy. It's got a uniqueness to it which is impossible to replicate."

Is that uniqueness the key to its longevity, I wonder? Bye agrees.

"You've got two really brilliant writer-performers there who work together in a unique way that created Bottom and it came out of their brains. It's that combo; their writing skills that are impossible to repeat.

"The scripts were always in really good shape. There was very little that we had to do before we started. We tweaked a bit in rehearsals, the odd line change here or there, and nailed the action, which was an important part of the series.

"What was great about that show, more than any other, was that we were left to our own devices and we just got on with it. In those days, there was very little interaction with executive producers or commissioners or anyone else. Not so now. But it was perfect for us."

That uniqueness is being celebrated in a new documentary about Bottom on Gold. Featuring insights from many of the show's cast and crew, plus celebrity fans, Bottom: Exposed dives into the history of the comedy and the work that went into creating it. "They really did their research," muses Bye. "Fans are going to love it."

One aspect that sets Bottom apart from other studio sitcoms is the cartoon-levels of violence and physical comedy. Fights involved frying pans, cricket bats and umbrellas, with hair-raising stunts including setting each other on fire, crashing through a ceiling while playing the piano and flying down a set of stairs in a wheelchair.

Ade Edmondson was keen to ape Wile E Coyote, admitting: "We were doing a human live-action version of that and I don't think we had seen people do some of those things before."

With so many physical aspects written into the script and then performed by Rik and Ade themselves, could Bottom be made today? Ed shakes his head.

"Not without massive difficulties. I took huge risks with some of the effects that we did, and I don't think that we would be allowed to do those kinds of things now without stuntmen standing in for them. I wouldn't have been able to get the shots that I got.

"The physical violence would be very difficult to do in a studio and in-camera. There would have to be so much done with computers. So no, I don't think we could have done it now.

"Rik and Ade understood the parameters of what they could and couldn't do and would write for a television studio. There was never a challenge the BBC visual effects department ever said no to. They made everything work in some form or other. We had that kind of cartoon sensibility about it, which was tied into the practicalities of what you could actually do. So, they wrote it and we did it."

Rik Mayall as Richie and Adrian Edmondson as Eddie in Bottom. Richie's head has gone through a television screen and he looks unimpressed.
Rik Mayall as Richie and Adrian Edmondson as Eddie in Bottom. Don Smith/Radio Times

Crucial to the live-action representation of cartoon-style violence was the use of sound effects played out live for the studio audience. It was a trick the team had used previously in The Young Ones but Bottom took things to the next level.

During one memorable episode, Richie and Eddie take turns attacking a hapless gas man who has come to read their meter. On the night of recording, the scene turned into a competition between the actors and the sound crew playing in the effects live.

"The pressure was on," remembers Bye. "The sound guys had to hit the button as close as you can get to the action as they see it. The gas man beating was spectacularly done, with Rick punching him on the ground and then Ade hitting him with a frying pan.

"It was all unrehearsed and they just kept going, hitting, punching. It became a battle, to see if they could keep up with Rik and Ade. And it just went on and on, and I just thought, well, we'll just let this run because the audience are screaming and loving it."

Rik Mayall and Richie, Adrian Edmondson as Eddie and Mark Lambert as the gas man in the Bottom episode Gas. They are stood in the front room and Eddie is raising a cricket bat above his head as if to strike the gas man.
Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Mark Lambert in the Bottom episode Gas. Don Smith/Radio Times

With Bottom episodes often repeated, retrospectives such as this documentary and even an upcoming book about Bottom keeping the show firmly in people's minds, Bye expects fresh audiences to keep discovering it.

"I get people coming up to me and saying how much their parents loved it. The parents wait for their kids to get old enough and they feel it's acceptable for them to be able to watch it. So, the audience keeps regenerating. Kids watch it today and see something that they've never really seen before."

Ten years on from the sad loss of Rik Mayall to a heart attack, Bottom: Exposed reunites Ed Bye and Ade Edmondson with a poignant visit to Hammersmith, where they first shot the show's opening credits and where the Rik Mayall memorial bench sits.

"We were sitting there and some people came up to us, assuming we were tourists," laughs Bye. "So, they were waiting for us to go. 'Can you move? We'd like to sit down on Rik's bench!'"

In addition to Bottom, Bye has directed a plethora of the nation's favourite comedies, including The Vicar of Dibley, Absolutely Fabulous and 40 episodes of cult favourite Red Dwarf. The sci-fi comedy was a '90s staple on the BBC before disappearing from screens for over a decade, finally returning on UKTV channel Dave.

Red Dwarf
Robert Llewellyn as Kryten, Danny John-Jules as Cat, Chris Barrie as Rimmer and Craig Charles as Lister in Red Dwarf. BBC

For Bye and for fans, it was a welcome return. Though one he was unable to be a part of due to scheduling issues.

"There was a bit of a gap between the end of Red Dwarf on the BBC and it being picked up by UKTV and Dave and I was off doing other things. Also, Doug Naylor wanted to direct them, and he did a very good job, I think. They were annoyingly good. You can quote me on that!"

News of a planned Red Dwarf prequel book and TV series announced recently by co-creator Rob Grant had fans excitedly speculating who might be involved in the project called Red Dwarf: Titan. Does space beckon once more?

"Yes. I had a discussion with [Rob Grant] and Paul Jackson over some interesting lunches, and it's a really exciting idea. It's ambitious and crazy, which are two things I really like. As a director, I'm going, 'Yeah, let's do this.' I can't wait."

Bottom: Exposed airs at 9pm on Gold on Thursday 18th April.


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