(Photos: Chris Bethell)
"This is the tale of Murray Sterling…" sings Bob Mortimer in a faux-Scottish accent that's one part Mel Gibson in Braveheart and three parts Groundskeeper Willie. "His 18th birthday was fast approaching, and he knew he must escape the clutches of the island before that date, or he'd be forced to spend the rest of his adult life in the caves 'neath the island, digging for precious stones to adorn the Laird's numerous ceremonial capes and bongos."
I'm listening to Athletico Mince, a podcast co-created and co-hosted by Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson, which from episode one (it's now on episode 38) derailed immediately from its intended topic of football, and has since become a bizarre and engrossing world of idle chat, improvised tales and sketches that often prolapse mid-joke. In this odd world, the former England manager Steve McLaren operates as a carpet salesman, drives a clown car and owns a sensitive yellow snake called Casper who vomits everywhere. In another story, Michael Owen tries to open a restaurant called ISIS. At the end of each episode, Mortimer finishes by singing a "Scottish song" about life on a strange and magical island that does not seem dissimilar from The Wicker Man's Summerisle. The show has already amassed 4.4 million listens and counting.
This is not strange territory for Mortimer – or, at least, strange territory is where he feels most at home. To some extent, he and his life-long writing partner Vic Reeves kickstarted a golden age of British television comedy, which started with the birth of their flagship show, Big Night Out, in 1990 and ended shortly after Ricky Gervais' The Office. They were nonsensical, irreverent and intensely northern at all times. Their surreal sketches ranged from turning the pop star Morrissey into a monkey who reviewed electrical appliances, to making Masterchef's Lloyd Grossman a floating Frankenstein with cutlery for fingers.
Their quiz show Shooting Stars, which at its peak pulled in over six million viewers a week, once blessed a mainstream television audience with the sight of a confused Larry Hagman from Dallas being presented a "Fartridge" (it's half fart, half partridge). If other comedians of their generation held up a mirror to society, then Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves held up a watercolour painting of Sylvester Stallone staring at a potato.
While Vic Reeves has gone on to present documentaries, stage art exhibitions and written books, Mortimer remains something of an enigma. Apart from a few panel show appearances and some writing work, he hasn't really sought solo fame. Even getting this interview took six months of him wondering why the hell anyone would want to speak only to him. Not many people know much about his life, and yet, 30 years since he first graced our screens, his creativity is still quietly pumping like an understated garden fountain.
It's a sunny September morning when I first meet him at his manager's office in Fitzrovia, London. Bob is late, and when he arrives he does so in apologetic fashion. He's been trying to buy football tickets for the next Middlesbrough away game. There's a cheeky boyish look in his eye, even at 57 years old, like he's come from putting cling film over a toilet or pulling someone's trousers down. He shakes my hand with the hand not holding a Costa coffee and sits down. He whips out a vape, takes a long, deep inhale, and begins talking.
"That's the thing, you see," he says, "we were never good enough to write proper punchlines. Non sequiturs and that, we can write all fucking day. But bringing things to a conclusion is not easy." Non sequiturs flow out of Bob Mortimer like tea bags from a courthouse. It's very easy to write them. It's completely impossible to write them funny. Here's a tweet he posted last August, which has over 1,000 likes: "Just back from 2k run... top hat fell off twice but was easily recovered using my dancing cane. #sweetcorn."
You will never know why it's funny; you cannot deconstruct it or imitate it, and it often does not make sense, but deep down you know that it is, somehow, very and extremely funny. And you can see why – in this current age of anger, despair and the proliferation of politics and seriousness through almost every realm of life – comedy with an otherworldly nonsense to it would remain popular.
Bob was born the youngest of four in Acklam, a suburb of the northern industrial town of Middlesbrough. His father was a biscuit salesman who died in a car crash when Mortimer was very young, and they were all brought up by their mother, Eunice. Middlesbrough in the early 70s was a proper no-bullshit northern town. The type you'd expect to see depicted in a Ken Loach film or an Alan Sillitoe novel; the type southerners still think all northern towns are like, even though most now have a Slug & Lettuce and a European capital of culture bid.
"The more cynical commentators on our careers would say that the northern accent has been the basis of our success," says Bob. "There's a certain authenticity to the voice – which isn't to my credit; I was just born there. Whenever I go back to Middlesbrough now, it always hits me immediately how fucking obsessed people are at making you laugh up there. Obsessed so much it can get on your tits. I think there is something in that, in being from the north. It's a real currency. I think the people in the north are genuinely lovely. I know amongst them there are Brexiters and twats and violent people, but in a very general way, I think they are lovely. You can take the piss out of a Geordie and he's absolutely fine with it."
After graduating from the University of Sussex with a law degree, he had no idea what his next step might be. Leaving the comfort of the north for three years had exposed him to challenges he hadn't quite expected. He suffered bouts of depression and began to suffer from crippling social anxiety. "It was just, like… fucking awful," he says. "It's like you're walking in a cloud, and life is just shit. I came back from university, and shyness had basically fucked my life. I'd realised I don't work out there in the real world."
Mortimer moved back home to Middlesbrough and got a job as a bin man. On his first day, he found himself working his local neighbourhood with a man he describes as "the hardest man in Middlesbrough, a fucking beast he was, hell of a size! I remember once a dog bit him under a gate when we were getting the bins. He grabbed the dog, kicked seven shades of shit out of it, put it in the bin and turned it upside down on the front step. I have no idea whether that dog was alive or dead."
As he emptied the bins, Mortimer would need to scream out the name of the truck driver, Archie, to come get the bags he'd collected. "You had to fucking do it," he explains. "You had to, in public, scream 'ARCHIE!' There was a rhythm to it. The first time, I remember sweating, thinking: it's gonna be me next that needs to shout 'Archie'. But you've got to do it. And so I finally screamed it… 'ARCHIE!' And it was fine. My world didn't crumble down, my life didn't fall apart, nobody had a go at me; it was just incidental. That was so liberating for me. From that moment on, I could shout 'Archie!' all over Middlesbrough."
Eventually, Mortimer found his way to London, where he spent nine years working as – what he calls – a "shit solicitor" for Southwark council. One night, a friend took him out for a pint to a pub that was then The Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross. In a tiny room upstairs, a drunk Mortimer found Jim Moir (an art student at the time, and known by his comic name Vic Reeves) performing something. He was wearing a Bryan Ferry mask and tap dancing with planks attached to his feet, in front of an audience of only four or five people, all of whom he knew personally. Bob was in awe: "I'd never seen anything like it."
Mortimer recalls one night when Reeves slowly ate a yoghurt onstage and kept saying "Mmm, lovely yoghurt" until a heckler finally told them to fuck off.
He went back the following week. Each night, Reeves would let anyone volunteer to stand up and do something during the performance. One night, he asked Bob to come up at the end of a joke and present him with a dinner table-sized cheque for £8 million for "ill kids". At the age of 31, this was Mortimer's first ever experience of comedy performance. Within days they were writing together.
I say writing; there was little writing involved. Their work relied on ad-libbing. Each week they performed up to two-and-a-half hours of comedy together on a Thursday night in the pub, most of which was written between the hours of 5 to 7PM that day. Their comedy was abstract in form. It barely had any structure and never really had punchlines. Notes were bare and would consist of things like "Man with stick, wolf" – the rest happened in the moment. Sketches would begin, peak and then simply drift off and stop. In one sketch, the pair would wear Sean Connery and Jimmy Hill masks and toss talcum powder around to a soundtrack of trad jazz. But something about it worked. Mortimer recalls one night when Reeves slowly ate a yoghurt onstage and kept saying, "Mmm, lovely yoghurt" until a heckler finally told them to fuck off.
Anyone who witnessed it immediately brought more friends the next week. Their audience doubled and then tripled. Upstairs in the pub became downstairs in the pub, and downstairs in the pub became a nearby theatre. Jonathan Ross, Jools Holland, Paul Whitehouse, BBC commissioner Alan Yentob and Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade became regular punters. Unbeknownst to Reeves and Mortimer, they were auditioning for their future. Within 16 live shows, Vic and Bob were commissioned for national television.
Their reign over TV is now part of British comic legend. Where most comedians would create one or two cult classics in their lifetime, Reeves and Mortimer created a whole library of them: The Weekenders; Catterick; The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer; Bang, Bang, It's Reeves and Mortimer; Shooting Stars; Monkey Trousers; and House of Fools all became some of the weirdest programmes each broadcaster would ever air. Much like Mortimer still does on Athletico Mince, their characters and comedy were completely detached from reality, except for the occasional celebrity they chose to poke. Reality bored them. "We were just fucking kids desperately trying to cling onto our childhood," laughs Mortimer. They'd rather write about a world where everyone is on skis and people have "massive fucking ears"; where all Geordies wear bras and get aggressive when you point it out.
"I've wanted that world since I was six years old," he explains, smiling at a bit of wall just above my actual eye line. "I mean, imagine if there was at least a little comfortable place you could go to now and then, where everyone is sat around in big pointy shoes, talking in high pitched voices and saying, 'How are you today? Lovely to see you, have a cup of tea.' It would just be a lovely place to go to."
In 1998, the pair were given a primetime slot on BBC1 on a Saturday evening; the type of slot that now goes to Ant and Dec or The X Factor. The millions of families who tuned in for the first episode witnessed this scene: a boy of around 15 years old, in a Reebok tracksuit and boxing gloves, punching a garden shed. The camera pans and a studio audience cheers, supporting him frantically. Reeves and Mortimer, in ill-fitting suits, leap between the punches of the boy and the sways of the shed, shouting that he must punch the shed until it was below the height of an average Alsatian. The boy punches and kicks and hooks and haymakers the shed, and it sways and begins to fall apart. Then the camera pans to a seated jury made up of male horse jockeys, who cast a quick vote on whether or not the challenge was successfully completed.
"We had millions watching a young lad box a shed… I hope you can understand our sense of how amazing that was," smiles Bob. The show was called Families at War and it was not renewed for a second season, but, in a way, it remains a visionary gameshow comedy: art (of sorts) without any compromise.
I ask Bob what his life would be like if he hadn't met Jim Moir that night in New Cross. "I wonder that occasionally, when I'm on a bus or something. I sit and think, 'Fuck, if I hadn't have gone to that club. Fuck…' Because Jim's a genius. A lot of comedians aren't. They are incredibly clever, incredibly hard working, really gifted or incredible mimics, incredible wordsmiths, but Jim is a fucking genius. Not being boastful, but I've met loads of people in this industry and occasionally you meet a genius, and he is a genius. It is extraordinary, the content in his head."
In October of 2015, just months before he and Reeves were to go on their anniversary tour together, Mortimer lay still but conscious on a hospital bed in intensive care and strongly considered the possibility that he was about to die. He'd just come out of a triple heart bypass, and was recovering badly. The doctors had deflated a lung to access his heart during the operation, and the subsequent re-inflation had loosened 43 years worth of tar from smoking. That tar was now slowly oozing out of his mouth as an endless and gelatinous black slug, blocking the passage of air as it slithered and dripped down his chin. Helpless, he fixed his gaze on a tiny television at the other end of the hospital ward, where Middlesbrough were in a penalty shootout with a superior Manchester United team, to decide who would progress to the next round of the English League Cup. 'I've got to fucking hang on,' he thought, '… to see if Grant Leadbitter scores this penalty.'
Thankfully he recovered, and the tour was resumed later in the year. When I ask if his near-death experience had any profound effects on him – whether it made him think more seriously about life or his legacy as a comedian – he quickly shakes his head. What made him upset wasn't the fact life was rapidly evacuating him like sand through a sieve. What made him sad were the things he ignored on a daily basis: his loyal egg cup, stood proudly on the shelf; the tea towel that hangs resolutely from his oven. "These were the things that really mattered to me, that I really had a connection with," he tells me. "You know? Good honest connections." When his wife was out, he would whisper "I'm really going to miss you" gently to the tea towel.
"For one minute," Bob says, "I couldn't give a flying fuck about life or work or legacy or any of that…" His face straightens, he looks me right in the eye and, for just a second, his jocular demeanour looks like it might slip for the first time in our two-hour conversation to reveal a deeply serious Bob Mortimer. It's uncomfortable, like seeing your dad get upset for the first time. But then it's over.
"Although, I do see the tea towel now," he says, cracking a school-boy smile which looks like the dam holding back full-on laughter, "and I'm beginning to ignore it again."