Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer: Twin Peaks

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have been called the most influential comics of their generation. Now they're trying sitcom (with a little help from their friends). James Rampton met them in Maidstone
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The Independent Online

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have put their feet up. They've just lit the first cigarettes of the day, and are taking sips from their steaming, early-morning cups of tea. Our conversation has barely started when, with no warning, they launch suddenly into an impromptu comedy routine. A propos of nothing at all, Mortimer asks Reeves what quirk he would have if he were a TV cop. "I'd either have X-ray vision or a steel hand or the ability to mind-read," replies Reeves, quick as a flash.

Without a moment's hesitation, Mortimer picks up the baton. "I'd have beri-beri - 'He's the only one who can solve the crime, but he's only got six months to live.' In the opening shot, I'm coming back from Africa and not feeling very well. The doctor asks me how many berries I had out there. When I say 'Two', he replies, 'You've got beri-beri.' Over the six episodes, I'd be nearly dying, but in the end it turns out that I've only got beri, so all I need is a paracetamol. We'll write it up and then get a former EastEnder to star in it."

"I'll ring Channel 4 now," Reeves chips in.

This is, I can assure you, what passes for a perfectly normal discussion in Vic'n'Bob World. Although physically very different - the tall, dark and weirdly handsome Reeves contrasts with the shorter, wirier, fairer Mortimer - the pair share a uniquely bizarre world view.

We're spread across the sofas in the airy new offices of their company, Pett Productions, in, of all places, Maidstone. The walls are adorned with all manner of exotic pictures. Above Mortimer's head hangs a painting by Reeves of a pig wearing a hat and a moustache, and a photo of their long-term collaborator Matt Lucas (aka George Dawes) dressed up in a suit and tie above the caption: "Roy Oates, British Hoteliers' Association Manager of the Week."

Several Bafta awards are lined up on the sideboard, which they share with a flock of stuffed owls. Next to the sofa on which I'm perched stands a trolley loaded with a bizarre assortment of Victorian medical equipment - a fearsome-looking collection of drills and pipes and tubes and glass jars. Surely only Vic and Bob - or perhaps Damien Hirst - would decorate their office like this.

Reeves (whose real name is Jim Moir) is done up in a natty brown ensemble - plus those trademark Eric Morecambe-style thick spectacles - and exudes an air of natural-born cool. Mortimer, meanwhile, is attired rather more scruffily in a red tracksuit top and combat trousers, and is immediately more eager to please; it is he who solicitously fetches tea and biscuits and asks how my journey was. But together they mesh into one fizzing comic whole. Two hours in their company is like being treated to a private command performance. Gifted with an almost telepathic understanding, creative sparks fly, as they egg each other on to further heights of absurdity.

Since they burst onto the British comedy scene a decade and a half ago, Reeves and Mortimer have carved a reputation in such series as Shooting Stars, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Vic Reeves' Big Night Out as the most inspired act of their generation. In his recent book, Sunshine on Putty (Fourth Estate), the cultural critic Ben Thompson claims that we are experiencing a new "Golden Age of British Comedy", and credits Vic and Bob with starting an entire "post-alternative [comedy] epoch". Thompson detects their influence in everything from The All-New Harry Hill Show to Ant and Dec and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (prompting the thought that they also have a lot to answer for). As Thompson puts it: "this unique pair have demonstrated an all-the-more-uncanny-for-apparently-being-unconscious propensity for anticipating the future movements of the f comedic barometer". All of which helps explain the excitement surrounding their latest project, Catterick - which you may be surprised to hear is the duo's début sitcom - and which starts to air on BBC2 and BBC3 this month.

Fans will be delighted to discover their wilfully absurdist humour is to the fore (in one sequence, for example, Reeves's character flashes back - for no discernible reason - to a swan sitting in a wheelchair. Equally inexplicably, the characters frequently go all Pennies from Heaven on us and burst into songs by Chris Rea, Joni Mitchell and even Flanagan and Allen). For once, though, the duo have shaped the lunacy into a comprehensible narrative - something their detractors would say has thus far eluded them.

Reeves and Mortimer play Chris and Carl, a pair of bearded Yorkshire brothers who have not spoken for the past 15 years but who are reunited in their search for Carl's estranged son. In the course of their epic seven-mile odyssey from Northallerton to Catterick, Chris and Carl run into all manner of oddballs, played by a who's who of comedy talent. There is a sadistic hotelier played by Little Britain star Matt Lucas who, unaccountably, speaks with an Indian accent and is prone to resting his leg on tables. Then there's Tony (Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen), a ruthless murderer who torments his victims with items of personal hygiene. Catterick also boasts appearances from Charlie Higson (The Fast Show), Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), Tim Healy (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet), Mark Benton (Early Doors) and the marvellous Morwenna Banks.

But, as always with Reeves and Mortimer, it is their twisted but genuine relish of the English language that takes centre-stage. In one scene, we cut to a news conference being given by an American cop (Reeves, in another wig and glasses) who has come over to run the police service in Yorkshire. "I intend to make the county an environment where romance can blossom," he proclaims, "where children can play with their hoops, tops and jack in the boxes, where pensioners can guard their melon patches without fear of Huckleberry Finn-style moonlight attacks." Mortimer is delighted that the pair have finally succeeded in yoking their previously untamed imagination to something resembling a plot. In that, he avers, Catterick "is a departure. There's not a single sketch in it. We've never done a three-hour story before. It almost happens in real time, and it has a certain '24-ness' about it. It's got that same pace. At the top of each week, a voiceover says, 'previously on Catterick' - which we love."

He goes on to contend that we should not be deceived by the apparent strangeness of the inhabitants of this particular sitcom universe. Mortimer believes that, "these characters may look odd, but they're very much based in reality. At the beginning you think Vic's character is the village idiot, but by the end you realise he's a genius. The same as always really!"

Still, for all the buzz surrounding a new Vic and Bob project, there will be people who fail entirely to connect with their distinctive sense of humour - something the comedians themselves would be the first to admit. "People sometimes get ideas about us that are not of our creation," says Reeves, with more seriousness than usual. "Journalists, for instance, have always wanted us to be something we're not. They've said that we have a big student fan-base, but that's simply not true. We have loads of older fans as well. Increasingly, ladies in their mid-fifties seem to like us. They're certainly the ones that have the bottle to come up and talk to us in the supermarket. They get it."

Whatever your age, perhaps it all comes down to one question: do you find the idea of two adults endlessly arguing and hitting each over the head with giant hammers funny? f And the answer - judging by the viewing figures of up to five million for Shooting Stars - is that large numbers of people do. Mortimer reflects that coming up with nonsense is "what we've done day in, day out, for all these years - gratuitously challenging each other to say something more ridiculous. I know this sort of stuff leaves some people cold. We do have that 'love them or loathe them' thing that follows us. But I just love bollocks."

As if to underline the point, Mortimer describes their mutual passion for purely arcane information. "We discuss things like beetroot," he relates. "Jim'll come in and say, 'I had this really nice beetroot yesterday', and I'll say, 'How long did you boil it?' and he'll say, 'I did it for 10 minutes.' We're both really interested in things that other people would consider the dullest."

Then, of course, there's that other characteristic common to all the great double acts: a simmering sense of tension. Like Eric and Ernie before them (and to whom they're more often than not compared) Vic and Bob are - as the writer Paul Morley put it - "a mis-match made in heaven".

Leaning back on the sofa, Reeves uses a typically abstruse image to elucidate: "We're Siamese twins. In its entirety, that's what we are. In an amoebic way."

Springing to his feet with excitement - as he does several times during the course of our interview - Mortimer takes up the theme: "bickering is the be-all and end-all. Jim bullies me a lot of the time. Then in a funny way I get my own back, but Jim won't realise, so he'll still think he's the king of the castle."

For all their on-stage friction, it is obvious that Reeves and Mortimer, who were both brought up in the North-East, are preternaturally close. Ever since they first met some two decades ago - when an exasperated Reeves asked Mortimer, who was relentlessly heckling from the front row, to join him on stage performing his Big Night Out in a run-down pub in east London - the pair have seen more of each other than many husbands and wives. But though they have acquired the married couple's habit of finishing each other's sentences, they claim never to rub one another other up the wrong way. "We've never had a sore word between us, ever," asserts Reeves, who lives with his second wife, Nancy Sorrell, just a few miles from the house Mortimer shares with his partner, Lisa, and two children in bucolic Kent.

"We've got the same sense of humour," concurs Mortimer. "But I don't think that's enough. The intensity of working with someone like we do - that ain't going to happen just because you've got the same sense of humour. Without naming names, you read of these double acts that hate each other. I cannot believe they've stuck together. It must have been so shit."

The only dark period came when Reeves's first marriage collapsed and his then wife departed with another woman. Overnight, the comedian became tabloid fodder - much to his obvious discomfort. He protests that the tabloids have consistently misrepresented him. "They don't really want to write about someone as sordidly dull as me," he sighs, "so they invent a character. It's assumed you will be out on the town the whole time, going to all the premieres and so on." He's more likely to be at home, he says, "reading books" or painting (Reeves is also a well-regarded artist whose book of artwork, called Sunboiled Onions, was described by one critic as "a masterpiece of nonsense literature in direct descent from Edward Lear").

These days, according to Reeves, he and Mortimer have reached the stage where "we have a laugh with the idea of fame. We were doing a photo shoot recently and I said, 'I demand to have an apple presented on a doily when I get there'. They took it seriously. This apple on a doily arrived. You'd hope that people would realise I was having a laugh." He pauses before adding, with an eyebrow raised above those familiar spectacle-rims: "Gone out of fashion, doilies, haven't they? All the doily shops are shut."

We're back on the terrain where Reeves and Mortimer feel most at ease, batting light, ludicrous gags back and forth. Immediately, they launch into an explanation of how chuffed they are to have been invited over to Denmark to watch a recording of a Danish-language version of Shooting Stars.

"Danish is a beautiful language," enthuses Mortimer, "I can't wait to see the two Danes they've got playing us as quiz-masters. And I wonder if they've found an equivalent to Mark Lamarr and Will Self [Shooting Stars' previous and current team captains, respectively] - grumpy Viking types with a grudge." Reeves' fear is that the Danish Shooting Stars will be watered-down like Fitz, the American version of Cracker. "The US networks wouldn't allow him to be a fat alcoholic gambler with a collapsing marriage, so he had to be a faintly portly, really good-looking bloke with no personal problems whatsoever who was great at detective work."

At once, this triggers Vic and Bob back into their quirky-detective riff. "What about a British McCloud?" beams Reeves, a metaphorical light-bulb switching on in his head. "He's a farmer who lives on moorland and although he wears tights, he's still got all the answers. And he rides a sheep rather than a horse."

I feel a new series coming on.

'Catterick' starts on BBC3 from Sunday 15 February, and will air on BBC2 the following week.