Were his twin 13-year-old daughters not studiously homeschooling themselves, or his twentysomething son not living at home, Vic Reeves might not have noticed the lockdown. Life, he says, has not really changed. Every day, as he always does, he gets up at 6am, has breakfast, then goes into his studio to paint, emerging about 4pm. "We don't really go out much," he says on the phone from his home in a Kent village.
He is planning his next painting, a “still life” featuring a Renault 4, the German electronic band Kraftwerk, a goldfinch and a pineapple. “I love pineapple,” he says in his soothing northeast-of-England accent. “You know, pineapple’s great on ham, and just on its own, and in a drink.” The slightest, perfect pause. “It’s a very versatile fruit.”
I don't know what to call him. He is famous as Vic Reeves, from his gloriously nonsensical and anarchic comedy shows. His mum calls him Rod (his middle name). In the 1980s he would introduce himself at parties as Jim Bell, one of his many stage characters. His wife, Nancy, and his comedy partner, Bob Mortimer, call him Jim – his real name is Jim Moir, which is what he wanted to be billed as in The Big Flower Fight, the new reality show he presents. But despite his efforts over the years to escape Reeves, it has not happened. Reeves it is.
The Big Flower Fight is Netflix’s answer to the well-worn format of taking a wholesome hobby and making a gruelling competition of it. This is not flower arranging but giant floral living installations – in the first episode, the 10 creative couples make giant insects decorated with a whole nursery of plants. There is a lot of chicken wire and moss. The winning team will have a sculpture installed at Kew Gardens, in London.
Reeves, who hosts the show with the comedian and actor Natasia Demetriou, sees himself primarily as an artist. He thinks of this as a show about art rather than gardening. “I love seeing people create,” he says. “It’s watching people who are passionate about making, and there is a lot of drama in there as well. I’m not saying a punch-up, but there were words said.” This is not about making a bunch of delphiniums look nice in a vase. “You’ve got big metal frames and welding. Then the beauty that comes out at the end of it, it’s incredible. It’s quite brutal at times. Things go wrong. When things collapse, it’s heartbreaking, but great drama.” He laughs, delighted. Did he ever see himself presenting a reality show? “I mean, it’s really easy. If you’re really into it, which I was, then you just get excited about it.”
A few years ago, I started sending postcards to people, because I thought it was quite a good thing to do. And I got texts back from people, which is awful, isn't it?
Reeves, who is now 61, seems to be part endearingly grumpy old man and part childish buffoon. He doesn’t have a computer or do email. “A few years ago, I started sending postcards to people, because I thought it was quite a good thing to do. And I got texts back from people, which is awful, isn’t it?” But the other day he was “trying desperately” to do a handstand (and failing: “I think that’s probably more to do with the immense bulk that I’ve accrued over the years”).
Reeves and Mortimer brought their surrealist comedy to TV with Vic Reeves Big Night Out, which started on Channel 4 in 1990. Through a variety show of sketches, songs and general weirdness, it introduced Reeves, “Britain’s top light entertainer”, to the nation, along with Mortimer and their lab-coat-wearing sidekick, Les. They moved to the BBC in 1993 with The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer – the bigger budget meant less of the shambolic DIY charm, but even more bewildering insights into their imaginations – and then, in 1995, the spoof panel show Shooting Stars.
Their work was unlike anything else (unless you had been a Dadaist hanging about the Cabaret Voltaire in 1910s Zurich). This was partly because Reeves didn't watch any of his comic peers: "That's what made it unique, because you do it from a totally naive point of view." He grew up in Darlington, on the outskirts of the town – his childhood was spent running around the fields and collecting birds' eggs. His first double act was formed at school with another boy named Rod. "We created our own comedy. As far as I remember, we made it up. I didn't really watch TV, so there was no influence. I like attacking subjects without any prior knowledge of anything."
If he wanted to watch TV, he had to make the case to his parents, who would decide if it was worthwhile or not. Did they never sit about together and watch TV? “Saturday-night entertainment then was as awful as it is now,” he says with a laugh. After school, Reeves started a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at a factory. He wrote in his autobiography (volume one – he says he keeps meaning to do volume two) that the older men there “looked like they were slipping into a kind of boredom-induced madness”.
Reeves left in the 1980s, moved to London and started running clubs in pubs and bars: one was a classical music club, "which was a terrible failure"; another, in the West End, seemed to consist of celebrities doing egg and spoon races (he remembers Boy George taking part). When a friend asked if he wanted to take over his comedy club, Reeves agreed. Instead of booking the acts, he thought he would perform himself, "to see if I could get away with it". Does he remember the first show he did? "I had a cardboard box with a picture of Sylvester Stallone taped to the front of it." He laughs. "It was really like a performance piece."
It was here that the character Vic Reeves emerged. "I think my idea was that I was going to play a sort of northern working men's club compere, that kind of thing. I thought a good name was Vic Reeves, which was like Vic Feather, the union boss then [he was general secretary of the TUC from 1969 to 1973]." Within weeks, Jools Holland had spotted him and got him on his TV show The Tube. He moved to a bigger venue – the Goldsmith's Tavern in New Cross, south London – which is where he met Mortimer, then a solicitor, who had come to see the show. "It was kind of like a free-for-all, so I roped Bob into doing stuff there."
Reeves and Mortimer were part of the comedy explosion in the '90s. "The phrase was 'Comedy is the new rock'n'roll', and we were always on the front cover of the NME," says Reeves (they were on the cover twice and featured in the magazine regularly). "Because we referenced modern pop culture, we were the indie kids' favourite." They even became pop stars themselves: Reeves's version of Tommy Roe's Dizzy, recorded with the Wonder Stuff, got to number one, while Reeves and Mortimer (and EMF) hit number three with a cover of the Monkees' I'm a Believer. On tour, he says, "you'd be in a hotel, like in Liverpool, and outside the hotel there's about 300 kids all shouting and screaming".
How rock'n'roll were they? Was there drink? Drugs? "Oh yeah. All that," he says. He would smoke weed, but it was mostly drinking. "Lager, that was our main vice. Lager and fags, very working class." Is it true they took a gun on tour (Mortimer told the comedian Richard Herring this when he appeared on his podcast)? "Yeah, we did. It just had blanks in it, but we used to . . ." He breaks off in laughter. Whenever they crossed a border, or sometimes a county line, "we'd fire a pistol off. When we went to Scotland, it got fired off a few times." Why? "I don't know. Firing a pistol with blanks in is good fun." The gun came from a military fair, he thinks.
"We used to get dynamite as well. I don't know where that came from. I remember we had an office with Jools Holland in Greenwich and we set off a rocket. It flew off, went haywire and went in through Billy Idol's dad's bathroom window." The combination of events is so strange, so Reeves, that I don't know if he is making it up. But we both laugh.
Did their antics – the drinking, the tomfoolery – ever get out of hand? “No, I haven’t got it in me to drink that much,” he says. Reeves and Mortimer went back on tour a couple of years ago and barely drank at all. “In the ’90s, you’d have a drink and then the next day you’d feel awful and then you’d have a drink to make yourself feel better. It was quite depressing, really. You get older and it’s brilliant – you go: ‘Let’s go and have a detour to this pork pie shop.’”
He has watched comedians become superstars and sell out arena tours, but he has not felt envious. "There are two things about people who do arenas," he says. "They like the money and they like the adoration. And Bob and I are neither of those people." They did an arena show in Leeds "and I thought: we're really not in touch with anyone here", he says.
Mortimer has said Reeves is fairly shy and that it was hard to get to know him at first. Is that right? “We both are,” he says. If you went in for pop psychology, you might suggest Reeves – the brash ringmaster of anarchy – was a bit of an outlet for its quieter creator, but Reeves disagrees. “Vic Reeves is not a character I would like to be like. He started off as a kind of boastful northern club compere and then ended up as a really gormless idiot. Vic and Bob are pretty stupid; Vic is slightly more stupid than Bob.”
Reeves’s thigh-rubbing in the direction of female guests on Shooting Stars was always meant to be uncomfortable, but these days it looks unconscionable. “Yes,” he says. “I don’t even know what it means. I think it was kind of lasciviously anticipating something.”
When he appeared on Celebrity MasterChef in 2017, many people on social media were incredulous that Vic Reeves was not his real name. “Some people do think that that is actually me doing Shooting Stars and Big Night Out and that’s what I’m like,” he says. How much of his personality is in Reeves? “Absolutely none. He’s the anti of what I am.”
His and Mortimer’s double act has survived, he says, “because it’s completely democratic. If one idea is suggested and falls upon silence, it’s brushed to one side without any regrets.” They have never fallen out. “We’re the most unargumentative people ever.” They are supposed to be making a film together in October, something they wrote about 10 years ago about Michael Jackson’s white glove, “which is the holy grail for collectors. It’s like in search of the holy grail, but we know where it is and we have to get it. It’s all about celebrity memorabilia as a religion.”
Reeves has taken acting jobs – he was in Coronation Street for a few months – but he says he never had any ambition to become a solo comic. “I couldn’t ever stand up in front of an audience on my own and talk to them. It would be awful; I couldn’t bear to do it.” His voice rises. “It looks terrifying. With Bob and me, we just act out little plays.”
He still doesn’t follow comedy, nor the politics surrounding it – such as the idea that there are some things you shouldn’t joke about. “When people say you can and can’t say things, I don’t know who’s the authority on it,” he says. “As long as you’re kind, as long as you’re not upsetting anyone. But that’s a natural thing, isn’t it? I would never do anything if I thought it was going to upset anyone.”
He wants to get back to his painting. The one with the pineapple came to him when he was in a dreamlike state. “I wake up in the morning with a new idea – that’s how my paintings exist, really, in half-sleep.” It sounds amazing, I say. “It is!” he replies, sounding delighted. – Guardian
The Big Flower Fight is on Netflix from May 18th