I’m boning up on conversational Spanish for a trip to the Primera Persona festival in Barcelona with Alexei Sayle. We’re due to talk about The Young Ones — the comedy series we made together 35 years ago. For some reason the show is huge in Catalonia — perhaps it’s scatological: one of their regional symbols is a pooping peasant. The Catalan-dubbed version is still playing on TV, so, as well as Spanish, I am refreshing my catchphrases in Catalan. When I visited Barcelona last year to make a travel programme called Catalunya Experience for Catalan TV3, people asked for selfies and threw peace signs at me in the street, because I played the hippie character, Neil, in The Young Ones. I found I could make the Catalans collapse with laughter by saying, ‘Hey, tius, mol a,’ which, roughly translated, means, ‘Hey guys, this rocks.’ I put on my glum Neil face and whined ‘Mal karma’ to their phone cameras. In order to have the desired effect, I had to do this, not in my own, nasal Neil voice — something I perfected long before The Young Ones — but in the voice of the Catalan man who dubbed me. My biggest laugh line was ‘Baj mes calen que la moto d’un hippy.’ Which literally means ‘I feel hotter than the engine of a hippy’s moped,’ but apparently implies horniness.
In the past 30 years I have often been accosted in the street by people saying strange things to me such as ‘1172 is not a bit like John’ or ‘Oh no! I’m being hassled by a chick’ or — one that is at least recognisable as a joke — ‘What’s the world record for stuffing marshmallows up a single nostril?’ Sometimes the quotes are so obscure that it takes me a few seconds to clock that I am experiencing what we in the bizz call ‘rek’, as in ‘recognition’. So yes, I do still get stopped in the street and asked questions about The Young Ones. It’s always the same three questions. And the answers are: 1) It was a wig; 2) Yes, he was a complete and utter, utter, utter; 3) No, we’re not going to get back together to make The Old Ones, because it’s a crap idea, and yes we have thought of it, thank you. Getting back together would be impossible now anyway, since the death of our figurehead and chief inspiration, Rik Mayall. Although, I reckon Three Men and a Funeral would make a funny Comic Strip film — if his family didn’t mind. I’m sure Rik would have liked a whole film about him.
I used to have a theory that people treat TV actors with more familiarity and less respect than they do stage or screen actors, because we have been in their living rooms. But, in the digital celeb culture we now inhabit, everyone is familiar. It’s wonderful, but also strange, creating and then being a character that seeps into the national consciousness. I realised the full power of telly when, at a family Sunday lunch in the 1990s, my mum served everyone but me a steak. When asked why, she said: ‘Because you’re a vegetarian, Nige.’ No I’m not, I never have been. But Neil was.
At least Mum got my name right, which is more than most. To be Neilish for a moment: if I had a pound for every time someone’s called me Neil and not Nigel, I’d have, er, £716 pounds by now. I’ve got so used to being misnamed, I sometimes think it is happening even when it isn’t. The other day at a media do, when chatting to the Spectator writer Mark Mason, a man approached to join our conversation. ‘Neil,’ he said. ‘No, Nigel,’ I replied, with a charitable sigh. ‘No, I’m Neil,’ he said. I apologised, but more because he had such a terrible name. Neil is a terrible name; that’s why I chose it for the character. Whenever I meet a Neil I apologise for my small part in making a nebbish name even worse.
In Barcelona last year we were promoting the Catalunya Experience programme at the Palau de la Música. Xavi Brichs, the producer of the programme, asked how many people in the audience were called the distinctly un-Catalan name ‘Nil’ after the comedy series. About 20 hands went up. One woman held up a baby. One person held up a two foot papier-mâché maquette of Neil, which was available in a Barcelona tourist shop. I apologised to all of them. Still, for me, it’s all pretty cool. If you had to choose somewhere to be a bit of a sad has-been, then Barcelona is the place, I reckon. Poor old Norman Wisdom had to make do with Albania.