How We Met: Trevor Neal and Simon Hickson

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The Independent Culture
Trevor Neal, 30, was born in Dorchester and studied drama at Manchester University. There, in 1981, he met Simon Hickson, who is a year older and comes from Salford. They formed a comedy double act called the Devilfish Horn Club and moved to London, where they live (separately) south of the river. Under a new title, Trev and Simon, they spent four years on BBC1's Saturday morning Going Live show, and are now on its successor, Live and Kicking. In August their shows at the Edinburgh Festival were sold out. Their latest video is The Blimey That's Good Tour . . . and more]

TREVOR NEAL: We were up at Manchester University. We were both doing the drama course. Well, he'd actually been there a year ahead of me. The first time I came across him was when the drama department put on a Christmas show. I had the part of a squirrel on a skateboard who told gags. Simon, I think, played the grocer. I can't remember much about it. All he sold was meat and potato pies and Vimto. That was his running gag.

I can't remember the actual moment. I just have this vision of him hopping around this pantomime set, shouting about Vimto. Because he was a year older, he was in a different group of mates. All the first years had total respect for anyone older. I was a South Coast soulboy with a big floppy hairdo. A lot of burgundy clothes which I look back on with dread. It was all greys and burgundies. You'd wear grey tapered trousers and burgundy shirt with maybe a grey tie. But I've been through every fashion going, I think. I certainly had at that time.

I was feeling a bit alien, going to the Manchester environment, which I think Simon was a representative of. It was very much a Joy Division-esque group of people. Simon wore what I called then a long old man's overcoat, and an old man's suit and tie. And I think he even had an old man's hat to go with it. As far as I was concerned, he looked like some sort of eccentric freak. So did all the guys, who looked very dowdy in their big overcoats. Although I'd been into punk, I'd never got into Joy Division. It was too bleak and obscure for my liking.

I worked out this very dodgy stand-up routine on my own. This was around the same time. I was doing some stand-up, and Simon was on the same bill with a triple-act called Larry, Barry and Tim. It was very sort of nonsense one-liners. At the time it seemed very alternative, very, very strange. I think they left some people bemused. I was very nervous.

My act was observational comedy, which, looking back on it, I would find very cringy. There was a kind of mutual piss-taking going on, and I think they thought I was a bit straight. My dad was a policeman, my mother was in social services, and my brother worked for the DSS, and I just thought, naturally if I ended up being a criminal we could work it all in together and keep it in the family. I think that was one of my first jokes.

So I used these things as ways of laughing at myself.

Simon's sense of humour is an interesting combination of surreal, weird ideas, and puns, and he's very good at putting the two things together. We worked as a trio before we became a double-act. There was this guy called Phil Dennison who worked with us. Now he's kind of an artist and writer, and he does some stand-up as well.

We'd been doing some gigs locally, and we'd built up - not a following, but some people, I think, thought we were all right. When we weren't dying, when it didn't go badly. Sometimes it went well. So that gave us enough confidence to think we might be able to do it, or try to do it, for a living. But I don't think Phil was that interested in taking it seriously - it'd always been a bit of a laugh. It was not a big deal. We just decided it wouldn't carry on as a threesome.

We had made this contract to work as a double-act. But I still had a year of my course to go, so in the meantime Simon got a job to bide time for a year. He suddenly got this wage, so each week he'd bring home a bottle of whisky - the . weekends used to be great. Then Simon packed in his job. We went to Edinburgh. Did an hour's show. We took the piss out of other double acts like Cannon and Ball and so on. Our parody was called Burke and Head; it was a bit like Abbot and Costello. I played up the more aggressive side; Simon was much more the buffoon. We got some advice from some of the other performers - people like Phil Nice and John Hegley. Their advice was to move to London. Which, at the time, Simon was appalled by.

We moved to south London. We took this video of ourselves into the BBC and tried to persuade the editor of what was then Saturday Superstore that we could do the job. And he didn't believe us - we had a half- hour video, and he said out of the half hour there was only one joke that was suitable. We convinced him by saying basically that our sense of humour would carry us through. So some of the more dubious adult references or swear-words or political references would go, but the sense of humour would stay the same.

SIMON HICKSON: I was the grocer. There was something about pies. So I must have been a kind of butcher / baker all-in-one kind of character. I was a year ahead of Trevor. My memories are more of getting to know him than meeting him. In my second year, which was his first year, I was actually - this is going to sound awful, but I was out of action for quite a while because I developed this thing - I've got very loose joints and so I developed what was verging on arthritis, and for the first 10 weeks of that year I kept very much out of things and was staying in bed most of the day. And also I was hideously shy. I just about knew people in my year. I avoided the new first-years like mad, so maybe I seemed aloof, or whatever, but actually I was, like, frightened of people.

So eventually I got to know Trevor. I always used to get involved in performing, but wasn't very good at talking to people. He used to have this - no doubt trendy at the time - wedge hairstyle. It made him look quite squirrelish. His hair seemed to be much redder than it is now. I used to buy all my suits with a friend of mine called Alexander. His parents lived in Harpenden. We used to go to Oxfam in Harpenden and buy our suits there, always hoping we'd buy an old suit of Eric Morecambe's, 'cos Eric Morecambe lived in Harpenden, and used to take all his old clothes to the Oxfam there.

When I was in the first year I used to wander around in horrible cords and tank-tops, and Trev in the first year brought with him this vaguely mod sort of regalia. I remember him having quite tight Sta-prest trousers, and Ben Sherman shirts, and things like that. We both had, at some point, those suits that were fashionable at the time - very thin light grey jobs, which were horrible. And I think Trev had some kind of purple gear as well. Vaguely purple. Trev had more flair for fashion than me. Still does.

One of my first impressions of him was at a party. I used to go to parties and just stay in one place and not move. So I most probably seemed aloof, whereas I just didn't like to move much. So I was at this party, and Trevor arrived with a 'friend', in inverted commas. I always torment him with this, and years afterwards, he denies that this person was really his friend. Trevor came in, followed round by this guy who had face paint all over his face and the word 'fuck' painted across his forehead. It definitely affected my attitude towards Trevor, and to this day he'll deny it. He'll just say that he turned up at the same time, not that they were these big mates.

My main memory of getting to know Trevor - when we started to become friends, or saw more of each other - was when we were in this play together by Moliere called The Forced Marriage. We'd rehearse and then we'd go for a drink or whatever. The main thing I remember about that was that on the way to rehearsal - I was very late and running along - I fell, and went flying into this concrete bollard and cracked a rib. Trev was just getting to know me, but took great delight in making me laugh. I don't think he wanted to cause me pain. But it was just watching me trying not to laugh.

Trevor's act was like a sit-down act as well. There were little set- pieces. He used to do this thing sitting at a phone where he was working for the Samaritans. The main thing I remember, which was very funny, was so cheap, the cheapest joke going. He used to start it off sitting there reading a porn mag. The phone would ring and he would quickly get rid of it. That's something else that for many years I've been able to torment him with. This was a long time ago. And he doesn't have the magazine any more.

In a weird way, we've come full circle now we're doing TV stuff rather than live stuff. Now we're getting to a point where we're acting as ourselves, rather than character stuff. Now we meet and sit down and work at it, whereas when we were doing university we never thought of it as being work. It used to be quite stressful, though, because we used to not have any idea of what we were doing; we'd work it all out in the afternoon. I think we've managed to maintain that, which is good. You read about so many comedians, and there's no room for improvisation, because everything's so carefully worked out.

I think, ultimately, Trev is the more disciplined of the two of us, and is great at getting things done. I can be really lazy as well. It would be so easy to avoid doing things.

I think we have a similar sense of humour. I will write things that are maybe not funny, maybe not jokes, they may be quite bizarre things that have just occurred to me, and I think they're funny, and I need someone else to point out to me that they're basically crap.-

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