Arts: Reeves' rascals

Vic Reeves is putting surreal comedy on hold to dispel some myths about notorious scallywags. It's nice to blow the gaff, he tells James Rampton
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Vic Reeves is well aware that, in the eyes of some critics, appearing on I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here is tantamount to announcing that your career is over. But the 46-year-old comedian is supremely unbothered by such opinions. Reeves, who joined his wife, Nancy Sorrell, in the Australian jungle after the start of the three-week show, concedes: "I know a lot of people think it's tacky to appear on I'm a Celebrity, and you only do it if your career is struggling and you want to try and sell some records. But when people like John Lydon and Janet Street-Porter did it, they opened it up and gave it more credibility. I admit it probably wasn't good for my profile, but I was confident enough to do it anyway. I did it because I thought it would be fun."

In the event, Reeves, whose real name is Jim Moir clearly had a whale of a time. He says that there were hardships, but these were largely manufactured by the programme-makers. "You had to keep yourself busy - otherwise, you'd go mad. So I made ink out of charcoal, and paper out of reeds, and used that as a sketch-book. I drew lots of pictures of flowers, but the producers don't want you to see that - they only want you to see people rowing. I also dyed clothes and invented a brilliant game - lacrosse with blueberries."

It is typical of Reeves that he should entertain himself with madcap games - in effect, that is what he has been doing for the past 15 years. Since he and his comedy partner, Bob Mortimer, burst into the public consciousness in 1990 with Channel 4's ground-breakingly silly variety show Vic Reeves' Big Night Out, he has cornered the market in what has become known as "surreal comedy". In Shooting Stars, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Bang, Bang, It's Reeves and Mortimer, Reeves conjured up a string of meaningless yet unaccountably hilarious catchphrases ("You wouldn't let it lie," "I really want to see those fingers", "Eranu" and "Uvavu") and ludicrous sketches. On one unforgettable occasion, he and Mortimer broke into a hymn of praise for cottage cheese. On another, they burst into a chorus of: "I love the smell of Chris de Burgh's eyebrows." Reeves is - in the best possible way - daft as a brush. During our meeting, a drill is whirring insistently in the background. Without so much as pausing for breath, Reeves speculates that it must be "some sort of mole device trying to dig to the centre of the earth".

He would be the first to acknowledge that not everybody "gets" his comedy, and he explains that, while writing, he and Mortimer have to rein in the wilder excesses of their imagination with a grading system. "We say, `That's level five: people won't understand that.' We now know that, to be broadcast, a show has to be at least 30 per cent level one, and your level five had better not take up more than 10 per cent."

There is much more level one in his latest offering, the relatively sane Vic Reeves' Rogues Gallery, which starts on the Discovery Channel on Thursday. In this entertaining 10-part series, Reeves interviews 10 historical scallywags (all played by him), including Dick Turpin, Rob Roy, Deacon Brodie, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard.

Reeves has always been fascinated by such rascals - when he recently appeared on Celebrity Mastermind, his specialist subject was "the golden age of piracy, between 1680 and 1720". The passion was kindled in his childhood, when he adored the Sinbad films. "I love all that," Reeves says. "That sort of adventure is so appealing - the lure of the sea, the primal urge to get out on to the water. Those sorts of story tear you away from your bedroom and off to the high seas.

"I love any yarn that contains that kind of swashbuckling-ness - or should that be `swashbuckling-osity'? I sound like George W Bush! As they get older, most people lose that passion for adventure stories, but I never have. I haven't grown up!"

He continues: "We all like that naughtiness - `That's not what I'd do, but I like reading about it all the same.' It's a Boy's Own thing - we like to peep at what these scoundrels get up to. If someone had said to me as a kid, `You can spend all day dressed up as a pirate or a highwayman', it would have been a dream come true!"

One of the aims of the series is to demythologise those figures. In the first instalment, Reeves sets out to debunk the legend of the 1730s highwayman Turpin. "In the past," he muses, "he has been portrayed by Richard O'Sullivan and Sid James, and people think of him as a lovable character who made this romantic ride to York on Black Bess. But we're dispelling that myth - it's nice to blow that gaff."

Turpin's heroic image stems from a 19th-century novel that mythologised his exploits. "In the 19th century, writers such as Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott and Harrison Ainsworth were searching for characters they could glamorise," Reeves continues. "They were looking for any bit of rough they could put into a bodice-ripper to turn on the ladies. Ainsworth could have picked anyone, but he happened to choose Turpin. The writer romanticised him by making up a whole load of stuff about his life. It was like the glamorisation of the Krays - there was nothing at all glamorous about Dick Turpin. He was just a murdering thief. In our programme, we remind people that his gang beat up an old man while his maid was raped upstairs. Dick Turpin was not a nice man at all."

In his next project, Reeves will be reunited once more with Mortimer. The pair are co-writing, co-starring in and co-producing Monkey Trousers - isn't that a classic R&M title? - an all-star sketch show that will be going out on ITV1 in late February. "One of my favourite sketches is where I play a vicar who doesn't believe a word of his sermons," Reeves reveals. "He reads them all with a questioning voice: `And then Moses parted the Red Sea - as if!' In another sketch, Bob, Mark Benton and I play these astronauts who never get off the launch-pad. They have forgotten to put petrol in their rocket and have to go down to the garage to fill it up."

So why does Reeves think that he and Mortimer have endured so long as a double act? He reckons that viewers are drawn to the tensions between the on-stage duo, who like nothing better than whacking each other round the chops with a giant frying-pan. "People like to be voyeuristic and look at others bickering," Reeves asserts. "That's part of any double act, from Laurel and Hardy onward. We're inseparable, but irritated by each other's presence."

Off screen, of course, the two comedians couldn't be closer. They met in the 1980s in a dilapidated east-London pub, when Reeves, fed up with Mortimer's constant heckling from the audience, invited him on stage to help perform Big Night Out. They now live near each other in Kent, jointly run a production company and spend more time together than many married couples. As Reeves puts it, "If we film two minutes, we've been together 48 hours doing it. We write together every day. We have to get on. You hear rumours that some double acts can't stand each other. That can't be true."

The closeness even extends to taking camping holidays together. Reeves smiles as he recounts how the duo are on the receiving end of some pretty rum looks from their fellow campers "when they see two fortysomething blokes emerge from the same tent of a morning and loosen off with some star-jumps".

`Vic Reeves' Rogues Gallery' starts at 8pm on Thursday on Discovery