Funny peculiar: The curious world of Vic Reeves

John Walsh meets a comedy genius

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:10

You wouldn't let it lie. About this time of the evening, I like to slip a Caramac under a rabbit. I don't stock Curly Wurlies, as they are far too elaborate. True or false: Bill Cosby was the world's first black man. What are the scores, George Dawes? True or false: Niagara Falls is turned off at night. Always a pleasure, never a chore. Macaulay Culkin is a child, but can you name an adult? Uvavu ...

Never in the field of light entertainment has one man spawned such a collection of nonsensical catchphrases as Vic Reeves. Since the arrival of his Big Night Out in 1990, he and Bob Mortimer, his Ernie Wise-like foil and partner, have assaulted the nation's ears with gibberish, tomfoolery and unhinged persiflage. In succeeding shows, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, Bang Bang, It's Reeves and Mortimer, and their long-running "celebrity quiz show" Shooting Stars, the eager-faced, slightly creepy twosome brought the deranged horseplay of the schoolyard to a pitch of absurd perfection. While all around them, in the last decade, stand-up comedians have hogged the schedules with smart modern jokes, observational satirists have competed to be acidic and topical on Mock the Week, and Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen have pushed the boundaries of comic embarrassment, Vic and Bob just went their own sweet way, inventing new papier-mâché props (the Dove from Above, Donald Cox the Sweaty Fox et al) to hover over the set, or requiring their guests to do foolish things: Jarvis Cocker had to throw Babybel mini-cheeses at a poster of Judy Finnigan; the Irish actress Dervla Kirwan had to don a huge ginger wig and crawl around catching mice in her hair. They seemed to have, and to want, nothing to do with the mainstream of comedy, even while they invited some of its brightest (and most vulgar) talents, including Jack Dee and Johnny Vegas, on to the show.

Reeves is interestingly caustic about rival comedians. "I haven't heard about this Bruno film since it came out. No reports anywhere. Is it any good?" Did he enjoy the comedy of embarrassment, like The Office? "It's all right for about five minutes. It's quite easy. Before The Office came out, we did a 10-minute piece on Bang Bang set in a crappy club in Hull. I was one of those blokes with long hair and dark glasses who thought it was the best thing in the world. We got Les Dennis to come and do a cameo." So he more or less invented The Office? "That's right," he says, smiling. "We did the very first spoof on reality."

He doesn't like Michael McIntyre and his peers either. He thinks there are just too many stand-ups out there, making smart remarks. "We call 'em the 'Have-you-noticeds'. We wrote Big Night Out as an antidote to people saying, 'Have you ever noticed something everybody has noticed and isn't particularly interested in?'" But, I say, practically every comic at the Edinburgh Festival does that routine. "It's about the easiest form of comedy. It's just a warm pat on the back for everyone, saying, 'I've noticed that as well, can we be friends?'"

Whoa, savage. While the master of mayhem is presiding over a new series of Shooting Stars, seven years after the last one, he has not been idle elsewhere. A hefty coffee-table volume of his art works is published this month, called Vic Reeves' Vast Book of World Knowledge, which will be showcased as a new regular feature in The Independent Magazine starting next week.

It occurs to you that Reeves has always been rather keen to display himself in arenas other than comedy, to prove himself as something beyond a surreal madcap. He's been an actor (in Randall and Hopkirk Deceased), he's made a hit record (a version of Tommy Roe's "Dizzy" backed by the Wonder Stuff), he's mounted exhibitions of his paintings in fashionable art galleries, he went into the I'm a Celebrity... jungle with his wife, the model Nancy Sorrell, and he published the first volume of his autobiography three years ago. What does he really want to be known for, beyond the zany capers of the Sweaty Fox?

we met in london's groucho club. The club has been refurbished over the summer and plastic sheeting protects the stair-carpets from harm. "Nice carpets," says Reeves, eyeing the polythene. "So that's where the millions have gone..." We settle in the upstairs bar with glasses of white wine. (Did I expect him to order something wacky and surreal?) Reeves, at 50, looks a very conventional figure, quite the country doctor in his Vivienne Westwood tweed jacket, muddy-coloured trousers and chocolate cord waistcoat. Behind his sensible spectacles, his shrewd eyes gaze at you appraisingly – and you can't help thinking: these eyes see the world as a damnably peculiar place. As readers of The Independent will discover over the weeks to come, his Vast Book of World Knowledge is full of pompously delivered erroneous facts and misleading advice about the universe. Arranged alphabetically, his subjects include the Barn Owl ("It only lives at night, feeding on varmints and loose macaroons. It makes its nest in milk bottles"), the Human Head Louse ("Should you ever be unfortunate enough to have your head invaded by headlice, you will be ostracised from your barracks, mocked by women, oppressed, persecuted and maybe even shot") and Pop Stars ("Girls and boys flock to hear him shout his songs using a device called a 'Micro-Phone'. When he has finished shouting, he will become drunk off of brandy and begin to act the giddy-goat in a swimming pool"). Whether you laugh yourself sick at these scrawls, doodles and watercolours with their po-faced captions, or conclude they are the work of a bored, nose-picking schoolboy, you must admire Reeves' energy.

"I went to see my new literary agent and she said, 'Have you thought of doing a kids' book?' I said, 'I don't want to write The Hungry Caterpillar, and I don't wanna do teen novels, so what's left?' In this café where we were sitting, there was a picture of an antelope, and I said, 'What about A for Antelope? I could do 10 pictures of things whose names start with each letter. We started off thinking it might be a book for 10-year-olds, but changed our minds. So I did 30 pictures and we hacked around all the publishers, before Atlantic Books came up with the best offer – and I'd already decided they were the only ones I'd like to go for a drink with." Things moved fast. "I did 260 illustrations, quite quickly, sometimes 10 a day, sometimes only three. I just did it non-stop."

It is, I remarked, a wildly eclectic collection – some of the pictures could be childish daubs, done to amuse Class 4B at breaktime; others are much more accomplished. There's a muddy night skyscape with a light plane shuddering its way through nasty clouds; it's called, suggestively, The Onanist, but Reeves will not elaborate. There's a very polished drawing of Charles Lindbergh of which he's proud. "I went to art school," he says. "I can draw in that style. I put that in so that people wouldn't complain my stuff is just a lot of childish scribblings."

Imagine. Leafing through this torrent of anarchic montages, funny drawings of yaks, sea cows ("They love to dine on cucumbers discarded from cruise ships, which has led to the myth that sea cows play tunes on bright green aqua clarinets") and sausage baboons, blotchy abstracts and Heath Robinson-like inventions, you notice three things. First, Reeves is perversely bad at drawing nostrils – they tend to resemble little tubers that stick out the side of noses. Why? "I just did it once and it made me laugh. Anything that makes me laugh or weep, it goes in again and again. I thought, nobody else does noses like this ..." Second, his montages are strangely reminiscent of Peter Blake's, randomly combining Victorian sepia images, children's comics, teen-romance cards and plastic animals. "My studio is basically a massive collection of shit in a shed at the end of my garden. You know, stuff I've picked up from boot fairs, 1967 copies of Penthouse, rubbish that I might use at some point, shelves of paints and a big sofa covered in Union Jacks that I got off the internet." And third, that there's a genuinely wild and extravagant talent at work in Reeves' imagination, a real determination to create something that's distinctively his and nobody else's.

How familiar is he with the real, art-historical Surrealists, like Magritte? "I'm very familiar with them," he says, bridling slightly as if there could be any doubt. "Though I prefer the Dadaists, like Max Ernst. I like what they got up to. I thought Tristan Tzara was very funny, carrying toilet rolls under his arms. I'm not that big a fan of Magritte. When I was young, I preferred Salvador Dali – all the kids had Dali posters on their wall. And I loved Large Door and Shannon De Loo."

Suddenly, I had no idea what he was talking about. Who were these people?

"They're these films Dali made with ..."

The penny dropped. L'Age d'Or and Un Chien Andalou, two surrealist masterpieces directed and co-scripted with Dali by Luis Bunuel. Heavy influences indeed on the art student from Leeds.

"But when I went to art school," Reeves concluded, "it was all Gilbert and George and Louise Bourgeois."

The story of Reeves' art education is a slightly dismal one. Born Jim Roderick Moir in Leeds in 1959, he moved with his family to Durham when he was five (a terrible emotional wrench, according to his memoir, Me:Moir) and went to school in Darlington but left without any qualifications. "I wanted to go to art school but me dad said no. He's from a very working-class background and thought people of our sort don't go to art school." Instead, young Moir went to work in a factory. "I did an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, until I thought, I don't wanna do this, this isn't me; and I fled." He got a job as a factory inspector in order to move to London, where, in 1983, he took a part-time art course at a local college, "doing shows and paintings and videos. I tried to get into Goldsmiths, but they wouldn't let me in – I was already doing things that students were doing when they came out the other end." With admirable determination, however, "I crept into all the lectures and no one spotted that I was an imposter."

His self-education continued as he took to, shall we say, pastiching the classics. "I was such a forger. I was copying Rembrandts and Davids and Turners, really just to see how they painted and how they worked. I think I've two Fighting Temeraires left..." As his TV career took off, after 1990, he kept on his dabbling in art, "trying things out, doodling around," and persuaded provincial galleries to exhibit some of them. In 2000 he displayed work from his book Sun Boiled Onions, and in 2002 the high-profile Whitechapel Gallery in London's East End put on a Reeves spectacular. "It was mainly a big collection of photos of caravans I'd taken, with the names of celebrities written underneath. The one captioned 'Tyson' was broken to bits, smashed to pieces. I was suggesting he'd thrashed around inside it and punched it to death. The gallery said, what d'you want to call the show? I said Doings – or perhaps Doinnnnggggs – because it suited some glorious photos of dog shit I'd taken with me Leica M6. I was just messing about with it, and the pictures really looked beautiful." Did they sell well? "Nobody bought the dog-shit ones," he said sadly. "The caravans sold well, but not the dog shit. Mystifying, isn't it? Not wanting dog shit all over yer wall?"

His use of that Doinnnnggggs reminds you that, whatever Vic Reeves does, there's always a 10-year-old schoolboy lurking beneath the surface, making daft jokes, lasciviously rubbing his knees in the presence of a pretty woman, vividly able to recall, in his memoirs, the world of his early childhood when he was entranced by his Johnny Seven gun and the adventures of Fireball XL5.

Had he been nervous, in the 1990s, about presenting himself as a serious (or at least half-serious) artist? "Serious? Well now – would you say Gilbert and George were serious? Or John Currin – he's done some great paintings but you can laugh at them as well. The thing is..." – he pauses for dramatic effect – "When I started doing Big Night Out, I thought of it as performance art, like Gilbert and George's singing sculpture. But it ended up as a TV show. So it would be pointless now for me to say to people, 'Look at this earnest piece of art'. People would be looking for the twinkle in my eye and, if they didn't find it, they'd say, 'What's funny about that?' There's no point in my delving into that area. If I do a really earnest piece of work, I leave it hanging at home in my bedroom."

He paints every day, and is now working on another book, on the subject of Great Britain. In 10 years' time, he says, he wants to be known for his writing and painting, rather than for his comedy. And does he then want to be taken seriously as an artist – as, say, Ronnie Wood is taken seriously in some quarters?

Reeves looks a touch dismayed by the question. "I know Ronnie Wood. He's a mate of mine." Pause. "But I think I'm better than he is." And for a moment you can see young Jim Moir back in the school playground in Darlington, aged 10, game for a laugh as ever, but dreaming one day of being the chap with his name in lights, the guy running the show where he gets to subject the other, lesser funnymen to disdain and ridicule.

Vic Reeves' 'Vast Book of World Knowledge' is published on 1 October by Atlantic Books, £19.99. To order your copy at a special price, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897.

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