This article first appeared in May 2013.
Readers of a certain age may remember the first time they saw Vic and Bob on television. For some, it may have been the 25th of May 1990, the fateful night “Britain’s top light entertainer and singer” Vic Reeves burst onto screens with an absurdly fast, lounge-act rendition of The Monkees’ I’m A Believer. In the background, his cohort Bob Mortimer looked on admiringly, dressed in the stovepipe hat and vast sideburns of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
For many viewers, this was a first glimpse inside the strange world of a comedy duo who’d already garnered a cult following in London pubs and clubs in the mid-1980s. Having impressed the likes of Jonathan Ross and Alan Yentob with their surreal, apparently semi-improvised comedy, Vic and Bob soon found a home on Channel Four with Vic Reeves Big Night Out, a compressed, televised version of their stage show.
As that first episode unfolded, Channel Four’s executives may have wondered how the public would react to this chaotic and frankly weird mix of cover songs, sketches, novelty acts and awkward catchphrases. Although some were quick to compare Vic and Bob’s humour to that of Spike Milligan, there really was nothing quite like Big Night Out on television, either before or afterwards.
The show hinged around the arrogant, dandyish Vic Reeves, the stage name and alter-ego comedian James Moir adopted and perfected during his years on the 80s comedy circuit. From behind his cluttered desk of horse brasses and random paraphernalia, Reeves oversaw a procession of guest performances and comedy routines, with most of the other characters played by his partner Bob in a variety of hastily-applied disguises.
Regular fixtures included Novelty Island, where a gallery of eccentric characters took to the stage to demonstrate their dubious talents – including one Graham Lister (played by Bob), Vic’s snobby, passive-aggressive arch-nemesis – and That’s Justice, where Vic and Judge Nutmeg (Bob again) would find members of the audience guilty for a series of unlikely crimes.
Across two series, a New Year’s special and a sell-out live tour, Vic Reeves Big Night Out also introduced The Man With The Stick, a character in a cardboard helmet who often stubbornly refused to reveal what he kept inside a carrier bag (hanging, naturally, at the end of a stick), a pair of ineffectual aromatherapists named Dr Richard Slater and Dr Richard Slater, a pair of squeaky-voiced brothers called the Stotts, and a pair of pretentious performance artists who called themselves Action! Image! Exchange! Then there was Les, the silent chap in the lab coat who harboured an irrational fear of chives and an equally unaccountable love of spirit levels.
Most of these characters and their actions defied logic, from the mad physical comedy of Talc And Turnips to the Living Carpets and their compulsive lies (“You know The Barber Of Seville? That’s based on my life”). But even in its most surreal moments, Big Night Out was held together not only by the unlikely, shambolic charisma of Vic Reeves himself, but also its variety show format. Strip away the surrealism, and the show was remarkably close to the sort of comedy that played in the music halls of 19th and 20th century Britain.
In taking this variety approach to comedy – something deemed utterly outmoded by the 80s and 90s – Vic and Bob created something entirely new and unexpected. The surreal bit of the duo’s act wasn’t always mere buffoonery, either, even though TV magazines at the time occasionally published letters from viewers arguing that it was (I’ll always remember a letter that appeared in a 1993 copy of TV Quick that described their show as “a load of old twaddle”).
Reeves’ love of art is a constant presence throughout Big Night Out and the shows he co-created afterwards, from the wonderfully loose drawings that appeared on The Man With The Stick’s Helmet to the illustrations that accompanied he and Bob’s wilfully absurd range of inventions, including a fridge with a direct access to the sea (allowing fish to swim up the pipe and into your home). Many of the sketches on Big Night Out felt uncannily like Dadaist pieces of live performance art; in some ways, Vic and Bob had more in common with artist duo Gilbert and George than their contemporaries in alternative comedy.
Like all surreal art, there was a thin, nightmarish streak running through Vic and Bob’s brand of dream logic. The childlike character Wavy Davy, who initially appeared to be a gentle soul who liked waving at various people and objects, gradually darkened as the shows wore on, until it was finally revealed that he was the Devil. Even Vic himself was revealed to have a murkier side to his character, having kidnapped The Man With The Stick’s children and driven him to murder: Big Night Out series two ended, disquietingly, with The Man With The Stick going on a shooting spree.
That violent ending signalled not only the end of Big Night Out, but also Vic and Bob’s involvement with Channel Four. At the height of their popularity, with the pair making repeated appearances on talk shows and adverts, and Vic having scored a number one hit single with his cover of Tommy Roe’s Dizzy, Vic and Bob decided not to make a third series of Big Night Out. And when their sitcom pilot The Weekenders wasn’t granted a full series at Channel Four, the BBC swooped in, offering them free license to create pretty much whatever they wanted.
The result was The Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer, a new show that abandoned almost all the characters and catchphrases of their earlier work. The live audience was gone, too, and the atmosphere of the show shifted. For one thing, Bob now had equal billing, and sat at another cluttered desk with Vic. The format this time wasn’t based on music hall comedy, but more on the sketch-based humour of The Two Ronnies – albeit still filtered through their own wild imaginations. The series’ opening song, Things That Irritate My Mind (a curious reworking of The Windmills Of Your Mind) was like a manifesto for the next six episodes: for half an hour each week, we’d be given a guided tour of life and modern television, as seen from the perspective of Vic and Bob.
To this end, we got regular parodies of BBC institutions such as Antiques Roadshow and Noel Edmonds, a brief sitcom about the members of Slade and their misadventures at home, some short arthouse films about a pair of flatulent Frenchmen, and a quietly sinister country singing duo called Mulligan & O’Hare.
The absence of a studio audience and an expanded budget allowed Vic’s creative mind to soar to more bizarre heights, resulting in some captivating combinations of comedy and artistry: a spring onion playing an electric guitar in a forest. A group of stuffed dogs recreating a famous painting by Edward Landseer. A man with a peach for a head splits his cranium open to reveal a gigantic, rotating worm hanging inside it.
In all their work together during this period, including the hit game show Shooting Stars, which first aired in 1993, Vic and Bob created a world that is sort of recognisable, but entirely their own. It’s a world where familiar people and situations are distorted almost beyond the point of recognition, which is often what makes it so sharply, devastatingly funny. Noel Edmonds appears as a grotesque, misshapen figure who laughs ferociously at double entendres. Soul singers Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye appear as a pair of Punch and Judy-style puppets who also happen to be agony aunts. Most memorably of all, restaurant critic and TV presenter Loyd Grossman was imagined as a floating, terrifying spectre with a pale, domed head.
Although even their most ardent fans would admit that not everything they created worked from a comedy standpoint, the moments where their humour hit the mark were almost too numerous to count. From the bit where Vic fell through the roof of a shed in Big Night Out, only to emerge triumphantly from its door and break into a rendition of The Smiths’ Panic, to the anarchic celebrity challenges on Shooting Stars (Jonathan Ross cowering in a bin while Vic and Bob belted it with cricket bats was an early highlight), their comedy was childish, mischievous, playful, utterly individual, and shot through with an unmistakeable love of words.
For more than 20 years, Vic and Bob have collaborated to bring us classic TV comedy moments such as these. And aside from their individual flashes of brilliance, they’ve provided a platform for other actors and performers, too, including Caroline Aherne, Charlie Higson and Matt Lucas. Without Vic and Bob, it’s inarguable that the British comedy landscape would be entirely different.
This appreciation has barely scratched the surface of Vic and Bob’s careers to date. I haven’t mentioned Uncle Peter, or the Stotts’ extraordinary interview with Damon Hill, or the wonderful chaos that would result when they appeared on a mainstream TV show in the 90s (“We’d like to say hello to our friend Alan Davidson, who recently got out of jail for a terrible crime,” Vic said on Saturday morning TV show Going Live, much to presenter Philip Schofield’s disbelief). Or what about the time they appeared on Comic Relief, and sang Without You while imbibing 75 pints of lager?
So given that Vic and Bob’s career spans such a huge gulf of time, and takes in live variety shows, sketch shows, game shows and sitcoms, is it even possible to sum up everything that’s great about them in one brief clip? Probably not, but I’m going to try anyway. The moment below (taken from the opening of The Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer series two episode five) is, for me at least, an example of everything that’s wonderful about Vic and Bob’s comedy: it showcases their singing, dancing, some Reeves-designed owls, a cluttered desk, and the clear, genuine friendship that lies at the heart of their double act.
One owl? Get out of here. Two owls? Now you’re talking. Vic and Bob, for your decades of the strange, the unexpected and the downright hilarious, we salute you.
Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out starts tonight at 10pm on BBC Four.