"Introducing Nigeria's top light entertainer and seamstress...Vic Reeves!"
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/MiyaMany of the funniest, and most ground-breaking, TV comedies offer no concessions to their audience. Studio audiences were left baffled by early editions of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whose cast expected viewers to keep up and get the joke, to embrace their strange new world, and those who couldn’t were not worth worrying about. Such shows are both welcoming and off-putting; you get the joke and join the gang of outsiders, or you shrug your shoulders and snarl out of the window at the new scene you’re not quite a part of. The first episode of Vic Reeves Big Night Out begins with our titular host, immaculately turned as a 1990s twist on the dandy and teddy boy, arriving on stage singing ‘I’m A Believer’ by The Monkees, while Victorian architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel looks on admiringly as he holds a stuffed German Shepherd dog under one arm. No sign is given that this is a new series; the show looks like it’s been on for decades and this is the first time you happened in on the secret. A voice-over (Patrick Allen) introduces Reeves as “Britain’s top light entertainer and singer,” although it’s a sure thing that 99% of those watching have never heard of either of Vic, or his comedy partner Bob Mortimer. Those who had seen the Vic Reeves Big Night Out acts before knew the prescient voice-over had a point.
"Around this time, I like to slip a petrie dish under a squirrel."
That first episode, broadcast on UK’s Channel Four network on May 25th 1990, set the template for the show’s 14 episodes. A cross between a chat show, variety show and old-style vaudeville, Vic Reeves Big Night Out appeared the result of village idiots attempting to process forty years or so of TV light entertainment into 25 minutes by hiring that narcissistic DJ who plays at the local old folks’ home, with a couple of random lunatics as pretend guests, and hoping to foist it all off as a genuine TV program. Vic Reeves is that host, amiably attempting to keep a lid on the garbled proceedings, with both Reeves and Bob Mortimer playing the ‘celebrity’ guests or the bizarre characters who form the show’s supporting cast.
One regular feature, ‘Novelty Island,’ a talent show of sorts, if said show took place in a secure unit of an institution or a damp corner of a rundown library, showcased characters like Wavy Davy (a man who waved at things), Mr Wobbly Hand, The Stomper (who stomped in tune to music), Judith Grant, Mr Perkins and his Lovey-Dovey Doughnuts, and Vic’s nemesis, Graham Lister (Mortimer), a nasal, pedantic, retentive creep in a wig, a regular entrant whose first act involved dropping lard onto salt and pushing it through a cardboard mask of Mickey Rourke, and whose later appearances were even worse.
As for the rest of the show, imagine if every guest turn on The Muppet Show were actually The Great Gonzo and one of his chickens in disguise, and you’re getting near the aptitude of characters like The Aromatherapists (two men both called Dr Richard Slater wearing identical white clothes, advising viewers to inhale “essence of Turkish trampoline spring” to cure them of "biscuit, brisket and brine”); Action Image Exchange (political activists of the sort found performing plays before single figure audiences in a room Credit: Wikimedia Commons/JoJanabove a bar); Tinker’s Rucksack (a couple of folkie ramblers who of whom is clearly having an affair with the other’s wife); and perhaps most infamously, Talc ’n’ Turnips, two toddler-like men in dungarees making penetrating political and social points by colliding into each other, rolling around on the floor and nailing toy squirrels to wooden boards.
Assisting Vic in keeping order is Les (Fred Awlyard), a mute, bespectacled, bald man in a white coat, who ushers off guests and clears up the debris they’ve left behind. Vic often provides facts about Les, such as his famous love of spirit levels, his fear of chives, and that Les’ wife lives deep inside Les’ head.
Aside from Graham Lister, one of the more frequent visitors out of this strange retinue is The Man With the Stick (Mortimer again), who wears a large paper mask on which he has doodled scenes seen during the week (Rambo riding Milli Vanilli’s BMX, for example) and brandishing a very long stick, the end of which holds a covered object only revealed at the show's conclusion. Most of The Man With the Stick’s conversations with Vic involve Good Laugh Terry, a work colleague who rips off the naïve Stick Man in various ways (naïvety is a common trait in Big Night Out’s characters), to his ongoing ignorance. During the second series, we learn Vic has bought The Man With the Stick’s children, forcing them into mining bare-handed for precious stones, before selling them to Wavy Davy, who is actually Satan. The last episode, transmitted April 17th 1991, sees the deranged Man With the Stick gun down Vic and Graham Lister, before turning the gun on himself, bringing a rather unhappy end to fourteen episodes of some of the most delightfully off-beam comedy ever seen on British television.
"What's on the end of the stick, Vic?"
Before VRBNO arrived on TV, its two stars were barely known outside the South London comedy circuit, far (in spirit if not in distance) from the comedy clubs of the West End, or the usual UK comedy breeding grounds of Edinburgh, or Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Vic Reeves is actually Jim Moir, from the town of Darlington in the north-east of England, with Bob Mortimer hailing from the nearby larger town of Middlesbrough. Moving to London in 1979, Vic later found work in the mid-eighties booking acts for a nightclub, and decided to simply write and perform the entire evening’s entertainment himself, in a three hour show which slowly morphed into the weekly ‘Big Night Out.’ Bob Mortimer, a practicing solicitor, came along first as an audience member, then occasional contributor and finally full-time comedy writing partner and performer. Each 25 minute edition of VRBNO is essentially a boiled-down version of those late 1980s club nights in South London.
The effect of those first six episodes in 1990 was extraordinary. Although always a show which attracted plaudits and not high audience figures, the fans who took to VRBNO did so in a big way, creating a cult almost overnight. It was once said of the Velvet Underground that they did not sell many albums, but those who did buy formed a band, and in a similar way, VRBNO had a massive impact which belied its mediocre ratings, inspiring new comics and taking comedy away from the highly politicized 1980s and into a more linguistic and playful arena.
Critics have strained themselves in finding comparisons and sources for Reeves & Mortimer’s TV debut. “They were described as...the first postmodern double act,” comments biographer Bruce Dessau, and their show “combined the free-form spirit of punk with an unashamed love of the variety circuit.” William Cook referenced Edward Lear, John Lennon and punk poet John Cooper Clarke, settling on “Monty Python, stripped of its public school pomposity.” NME journalist James Brown saw influences of the Marx Brothers and Hope & Crosby, calling Big Night Out “a celebration of playground imagination and high-camp slapstick, an exploration of insanity.” Ben Thompson went for “the insurrectionary fury of the eighteenth century mob with the icy hauteur of the pre-revolutionary aristocrat,” and based his book Sunshine on Putty around the idea that VRBNO kick-started the 1990s renaissance of British TV comedy which culminated in the original BBC version of The Office.Credit: Wikimedia Commons/cyclonebill
As for Vic & Bob (it’s a measure of the fondness in which they are held in that the pair are often referred to by their first names), the second series of VRBNO cemented their success and saw their popularity – among those who loved them to begin with – soar to new heights. 1991 became their Big Year Out, with a sell-out live tour, a comedy book Vic Reeves Big Night In, and for Vic, a brief pop career, including a the no.1 hit single ‘Dizzy’, a cover of the Tommy Roe song recorded with indie band The Wonder Stuff, and an album, I Will Cure You, which reached no.16 in September 1991.
"You know, I thought Eartha Kitt was a gardening set."
However, Channel Four, who’d rated the pair highly enough to award them the 1990-91 New Year’s Eve handover show, saw only one more show from the duo, the endearing suburban-eccentric The Weekenders (1992), before Vic & Bob decamped to the BBC for two series of The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer (1993-95). This show, with more of a traditional sketch format, saw appearances from two of the most popular Big Night Out characters: The Stotts, perennially startled and redundant brothers from a small northern mining town who attempt their own versions of popular TV shows, which collapse into incompetence and bickering; and Greg Mitchell, a stuffed Labrador puppet forever duped into petty crime or stupid decisions, and worrying that his wife will kill him as a result.
Vic and Bob continue to make shows for the BBC, and a new series of their ‘sitcom tribute’ House of Fools will air early 2015, although their most popular work remains the spoof celebrity panel show Shooting Stars (broadcast at various points between 1995 and 2011). Although British, theirs is a curiously ‘English’ form of comedy, where imagery and words are more important than punch lines and routines, where a strange but rather sweet fictional world is crafted around slapstick, stuffed animals, bric-à-brac and a unique comic sensibility. Vic Reeves Big Night Out is the show that started it all, and a new age of British comedy.Credit: Tim Cook