COLUMNIST: Richard Beecham - Should we grieve for our celebrities?

Rik Mayall
Rik Mayall

This week Britain lost one of its jesters.

I was out on an interview when I heard Rik Mayall had passed away this week. A strange feeling overcame me – not the gut-punch of despair one might feel when losing a loved one, but just a faint sadness. A “why him?”.

On so many occasions as a child I would guffaw violently at Richie and Eddie’s escapades on Bottom. Mayall spent hour upon hour inflicting serious laughter-related internal injuries on me – I’m sure I’ve not breathed the same since the ‘gas man’ episode.

Richie telling someone they were wearing a “smashing blouse” is still, for me, a bellweather of comedy greatness.

And, it appears, I wasn’t alone. Social media exploded in a way not seen since Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009. People’s outpourings of grief for Mayall certainly eclipsed those for Thatcher.

You’d think it would be natural for us to feel slightly wistful at his passing, such was the joy he brought to so many people’s formative years.

But I didn’t know him.

Why should I be sad at the passing of someone I wasn’t personally acquainted with?

It’s a strange question, but not a particularly new phenomenon.

According to Richard Harris, professor of psychology at Kansas State University, a study was carried out in 2012 of the way in which people form relationships with mass media.

He said: “The common responses to celebrity deaths demonstrate important realities about how people build relationships with the media they consume.

“Many people have probably spent more time with the characters on Friends than they have with most of their real-life friends.

“Of course they haven’t interacted with them -- it’s very one-sided. People can, if drama is particularly well acted and written, identify with the characters. That’s a significant relationship.”

Forming relationships with fictional characters is enough to make you feel as if you watch too much TV, but the same is true for public figures.

Remember the death of Princess Diana in 1997? Of course you do. And everyone, be it good or bad, had some form of emotional response to it.

Often, when the public mourns its real-life figures, it often has a lot to do with the image they portray of themselves.

In an interview with the Huffington Post in 2011, clinical psychologist Steven Meyers spoke of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, whose death that year touched tech-nerds and ambitious entrepreneurs alike.

He said: “Much of this is related to how Steve Jobs marketed himself. He always wore jeans. People referred to him by his first name. Few CEOs have the same kind of longevity.”

This is an interesting way of looking at it – celebrities, as successful individuals, probably reflect the aspirations of many people. When they die, the dream could well die with them.

That’s not to say I plan on one day living in a grotty flat, hitting my friends with frying pans and playing games of chess with frozen prawns (I do most of those things already).

Patrick West, in his 2004 book Conspicuous Compassion, took a rather more dim view of celebrity grieving. He called people’s extravagant public displays of grief for people they have never met as “grief-lite”.

“Mourning sickness is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches,” he said. “Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes’ silences its liturgy and mass. But these new bonds are phoney, ephemeral and cynical.”

This may help put things into perspective. The death of a celebrity whose work was loved by many would naturally garner tributes, but those close by should always take precedence.