It’s rare to read anything about Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer without the writer mentioning the words surreal and chaotic. Which is fair enough as the words describe perfectly their comedy lives and style.
Jim Moir created his Vic Reeves persona in the ’80s, and it was at one of his performances that Mortimer joined him onstage and never really left. They brought this act to television with Vic Reeves Big Night Out in 1990, giving the viewing public a chance to meet “Britain’s top light entertainer and singer, Vic Reeves.” The first episode opened with Vic singing a cabaret-version of “I’m A Believer” as Bob stood silently, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and holding a stuffed, life-sized dog. The weirdness went from there to silly sketches, more songs, and characters like The Stotts, two brothers in bald caps, bad clothes, and clown shoes.
The format (and the Stotts) appeared again in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer in 1993. This time Bob shared the desk, and many of the sketches were spoofs of television shows like Master Chef and Antiques Roadshow (where, in Coventry, hand-holding brothers Whisky and Brandy Bolland discovered a wardrobe which housed the “almost too wee” clothes of American pop singer Prince as well as a termite mound that Prince lived in).
Their 1999 series Bang Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer allowed the Brothers Stott a chance to interview celebrities, including Sting, whom they quizzed quite vigorously about the type of bottle he left his message in as well as whether he looked at his lap or out the window when he rode the coach down from Newcastle.
Bang, Bang also featured a short mockumentary, “The Club”, a behind-the-scenes look at a Hull nightclub. In a 2009 interview Reeves referenced the piece when he was asked about Ricky Gervais and the ‘comedy of embarrassment’, saying that, with The Club, he and Bob had done “the very first spoof on reality” (John Walsh, “Funny Peculiar: The Curious World of Vic Reeves“, The Independent, 25 September 2009).
And, of course, there was Shooting Stars, Vic and Bob’s take on the panel game show, which appeared for various series between 1995-2011. Celebrities made up the panel members, and were given silly questions or tasks (they made Stephen Fry demonstrate the international gesture for monkey) and randomly assigned points (tallied by George Dawes, played by Matt Lucas, often dressed as a baby). The Dove from Above round asked guests to coo down a ridiculous prop dove with topics tacked on to it. Questions included little sketches or songs, and it all culminated in the Final Challenge, which seemed designed primarily to embarrass the celebrity contestants (Jarvis Cocker was made to throw Mini Babybel cheeses ‘girl style’ and Top Gear presenter James May let an old shirtless man crawl on top of him to tickle May with his beard).
Comedian Matt Thomas called it “without a doubt, one of the weirdest shows ever commissioned by the BBC.” As part of his “Americans Watching British TV” series on YouTube, Thomas shared Shooting Stars and while the Americans did laugh, one decided that “zero per cent of this makes sense” (“Americans Watching British TV: Shooting Stars“, 6 March 2015).
So yeah, surreal and chaotic work to describe Vic and Bob. But I’m going to focus on a different word for them, and that word is love.
In 2004, Vic and Bob wrote and starred in Catterick, a dark comedy about brothers, Carl (Bob) and Chris (Vic) Palmer. Carl has returned home from his service in Cyprus to his backward brother Chris, and together they head out to Catterick to find Carl’s estranged son. Needless to say, the journey does not go smoothly — there’s attempted murder, mayhem, a penis in a jar, and gooseberry picking all before they even get to Carl’s ex-wife’s house. Although it’s a traditional narrative series, each episode has the unusual feature of one character lip-syncing a song to reflect their current mood (Reece Shearsmith’s doing Morrissey’s “Satan Rejected My Soul” is just terrific).
The show weaves multiple characters and stories into the primary plot. Carl and Chris help Mark (Mark Benton) and Tess (Morwenna Banks) escape from their trapped lives in the Mermade Hotel (run by Matt Lucas), and there are coppers, led by DI Fowler (Vic), who are chasing a criminal who is chasing Carl and Chris who have stolen his Range Rover. Some of these characters are familiar: Fowler is basically Kinky John from The Club, where Chris also worked as a bouncer (the other bouncer was called Carl, but he wasn’t Chris’s brother and he farted a lot more than the Carl in Catterick does). In addition to the search for the abandoned son, they also discover love — Carl falls for Tess and Chris finds a true friend in the equally awkward Mark.
Catterick is, like all of Vic and Bob’s work, a bit weird. George Bass of The Guardian said: “This is the most bonkers, brilliant and gripping thing Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have ever done. Just let that sink in: thanks to these two men, we have seen Mad Frankie Fraser threatened by a giant baby, Will Self singing Virtual Insanity, and Ulrika Jonsson cleaning fake dandruff off a car windscreen with her backside. Yet Catterick outshines all that” (“Catterick Box Set Review“, The Guardian, 16 July 2015).
Yes, the story line is indeed quite bonkers, but for me, the brilliant and gripping aspects involve the relationship between the two brothers. And it is one of love.
When they are first reunited at the train station, Chris arrives carrying a bouquet of flowers, which he drops and, when questioned by Carl, pretends he knows nothing about. He spends a lot of his time looking lovingly and longingly at his brother. It’s clear that Carl is Chris’s hero, and his approval means everything to the man. He was obviously crushed by the fact that Carl left and is desperate to have him back for good.
He’s worried, then, when Carl gets angry at Chris for ripping his George Clooney poster in half. Carl calls him stupid and reminds him how much joy that poster had given him. In fact, Carl gets so upset, he stops the car to get out and cool off; all the while Chris sits still, his face crestfallen as he stares out into nothingness. Carl doesn’t give up on the guilt though; when they arrive at the hotel, Carl tells Chris he needs to write to Clooney to apologise and when he rings room service, he pretends he’s calling Clooney himself to explain what Chris has done.
Carl: Hello, can I speak to George Clooney? Oh it is you, George, hello there … yeah, I’m fine, thanks, well, I was phoning you about my brother, Chris, yeah with the woolly hair, well, I’m sorry to tell you this, George, but he’s ripped one of your posters in half … try not to be so upset, George, man, well, I know, of course you’re devastated … hello? Yeah, could I have two fried eggs on toast. Room 7. Thank you.
Chris: Was he really angry?
Carl: He was more upset than angry really, Chris.
Chris: Why’s he sending us eggs then?
Carl: I’ll tell you why — he’s a decent bloke, you know, he doesn’t bear a grudge. You’re a lucky lad, Chris.
Chris looks upset and ashamed before crawling over the bed and offering Carl a face washing. He washes his brother’s face with a flannel, and then Carl washes his, and it’s quite an odd but tender moment.
Perhaps the intense berating of his brother is Carl’s way of covering of his own guilt for leaving him. Regardless, although he is occasionally frustrated by Chris’s inadequacies, Carl is also fiercely protective and supportive. He scheduled the trip to the Mermade Hotel simply because staying there has always been Chris’s dream, and he smiles proudly when Chris does his act (playing the flute while dressed in a green boiler suit and delicately placing one foot on various parts of a chair). He encourages the friendship between Chris and Mark, who offers Chris the other half of the ripped George Clooney poster (now hanging in his own room) to smooth things over with Carl.
It’s Chris who finally discovers Carl’s son, and, in a moment of compassion, decides to keep the devastating truth from his brother. Although he’s spent most of the trip being jealous of any attention Carl gives someone else (he grumbles when Carl awards Mark a star for his good ideas), he knows that his brother’s desire to see his son is important, and now Chris plays the protective one.
There’s a realness to the relationship between the brothers, despite all the absurd occurrences going on around them. They accept each other and forgive each other, because they love each other.
There was more love in Vic and Bob’s recent show, House of Fools. The show was a multi-camera, live-filmed sitcom, and the first time the duo had a proper go at the format. It had a classic sitcom premise — Bob’s house has been invaded by a group of wacky characters: Vic, of course; Erik (Daniel Simonsen), Bob’s Norwegian son; sex-obsessed neighbours, Julie (Morgana Robinson) who wants sex with Vic and Beef (Matt Berry) who wants it with anyone; and Vic’s brother, Bosh (Dan Skinner).
Each episode naturally begins with a song, introducing the plot (for example, Vic sings, “Today’s the day of the danceathon / Twenty four hours of dancing / Fast or slow, just watch me go / But who will be the last man standing?” before Bob appears and sings, “He jumps and grooves with his bouncing boobs / He can go on for hours / Just look at him as he jumps and shakes / And he never takes a toilet break”). They also crack the fourth wall, often forcing Bob to explain his actions as simply ways to move the plot along, and in one episode, they start off by acknowledging they’ve got no story planned at all and just have to hope one reveals itself (luckily, it does: Beef comes in wearing a turban that makes the wearer tell the truth, and the hat threatens to tear the family apart).
The show mostly uses typical sitcom plot lines, turned slightly on their heads. Vic explained that with sitcoms, “They’re all pretty much the same kind of story: it’s like, ‘look after my dog for the weekend whilst I go away’, and something’s going to go wrong, but in our case, it’s a pork pie.” Some have made comparisons between House of Fools and The Odd Couple, but as Bob pointed out in the same interview, “It’s kind of like Terry and June“, the early ’80s sitcom about a middle-aged suburban couple (“Vic and Bob Interview on The One Show“, 10 January 2014).
This is a better comparison, because Vic and Bob are much more like a married couple than mismatched flatmates. They want a happy home as they co-parent Erik (who idolises Vic and resents Bob), and they’re willing to tolerate each other’s ups and downs in the way that truly devoted couples do (for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and whatnot).
Yes, they bicker and occasionally call each other “moron” or “prick”, but they always work it out (often by hitting each other on the head with a mallet, a callback to their sketch show days). Okay, that might not be the best advice for newly married couples, but the point is that, even though they aggravate each other, their love for one another conquers all. In the first episode, when Bob suggests they take a break from each other, Vic sticks his hand up Bob’s jumper, and Bob says, “Clawing at my magnificent chest is not going to work, Vic, not this time.”
Their biggest argument comes in the second series when they fight over the name for their band (Vic wants Erotic Diagram and Bob wants The Plumps). It goes too far, and Bob announces that they are through. Vic runs upstairs crying, “I hate you, I hate you, I wish I was the first Mrs. DeWinter.” It gets worse before it gets better, though, with a wrestling match on the kitchen floor, and Bob’s sobbing, “I just want this to stop.” Eventually Beef tricks them into ceasing this conflict, and the episode ends with their duet of “Reunited” (be prepared to wipe away a tear when Bob sings, “The breakup we had has made me lonesome and sad / I realize I love you ’cause I want you bad” before moving into Vic’s embrace).
Of course, these are all fictional television characters, but it seems pretty obvious that the real Jim Moir and Bob Mortimer love each other as well. Their relationship appears to be the key to their success and longevity. Last year they announced they were going on an anniversary tour, 25 Years of Reeves & Mortimer: The Poignant Moments. Vic said that, despite their popularity, they “think about first of all pleasing each other and then seeing if anyone else is interested” with Bob agreeing that “as you reflect as the years go by, first and foremost it’s probably a friendship really, and [comedy] is just a way of acting it out, of continuing it” (Red Carpet News TV, 17 January 2016).
Unfortunately, the tour was delayed when Mortimer had to have emergency triple heart bypass surgery (he married his longtime girlfriend a half hour before the operation). He completely recovered, and the tour began earlier this year (more dates are coming up this November). It’s a nostalgia tour: they consulted fans on Twitter to find out which characters they wanted to see and wrote new material for the old routines. One reviewer said, “the show is anchored by the warmth of the relationship at its heart — two men who are still making each other laugh after 30 years” (Chris Green, “Vic and Bob Still Provide a Great Big Night Out“, The Independent, 31 January 2016).
Reeves and Mortimer are often praised for their unique take on comedy, and this originality led first to a cult following and eventually to national treasure status. They’ve kept up their surreal, chaotic antics for decades, and thankfully don’t appear ready to stop just yet. That they’ve kept that going for as long as they have is perhaps their most admirable quality. So raise a glass to Vic and Bob — here’s to many more years of the love, the laughter, and the larking about.