4 Sep 2005: Vic Reeves, the original ‘comedy Dadaist’, reflects on country life, complete with sunbathing wife in white bikini and perpetually hungry son, the perils of drink and why he’d be more than happy to be Michael Palin.
Everything is not as it seems. Vic Reeves stands outside his Kent house brandishing a sword. On a blackboard behind him are the words ‘Can I have reggae?’ scribbled in white chalk. He looks well but there’s something unfamiliar about him. Perhaps it’s the sunglasses; without the Eric Morecambe-style black rimmed spectacles, he seems more normal. He looks trim in crisp, white linen shirt, jeans and brown Birkenstocks. The 46-year-old’s hair is short with dyed blond tufts on the top and grey near his ears. He appears more relaxed than in the past, less eager to be weird or odd or just difficult. If he is edgy at all, it is because he has to be at the wedding party of his old friend Jools Holland in a few hours’ time.
On a sun lounger in a corner of the garden, a few feet away from the adjoining graveyard, lies Vic’s wife of three years, 31-year-old Nancy Sorrell. The former Ann Summers model is sunbathing in a white bikini and there are rollers in her very blonde hair. She waves at her husband and his sword; he smiles and peers at a glass of freshly squeezed blackberry juice. ‘This is too tart,’ he says in his soft Darlington accent. ‘I’ll get some lemon squash instead.’ He disappears into the converted school house.
When he returns, we sit down at a wooden table beneath an umbrella. As we talk, his two children by his ex-wife wander past; 12-year-old Alice goes into the house to escape the late-August heat while eight-year-old Louis won’t leave his father alone. Louis retrieves his wooden sword and goes to the kitchen to make toast. But within minutes, he is back, wanting to sit next to his dad to eat. ‘Go and sit with Nancy,’ Vic urges gently.
Vic finds a tiny piece of chalk and fiddles with it. Occasionally, he draws little diagrams on the wooden table and then rubs them out. We talk about the jungle. He has recently been to Costa Rica for a new Sky One series called Final Chance to Save … where celebrities choose an animal they would like to save from extinction and then travel to its natural habitat to learn more about it. Reeves wanted to save tapirs, the strange, cute-looking animals that one zoologist described as being like ‘a watermelon on legs’.
So he took Nancy with him to the heart of the Corcovado National Park, a journey that Vic found exhilarating. ‘This little plane had to land on the narrowest landing strip you can imagine. Air traffic control is about 6ft by 5ft and the bloke outside is asleep. The hospitality lounge is a bit of corrugated iron on four sticks. The next day, we had to get on this boat and sail two hours along the coast on these waves the size of a house. You have to hang around the entrance of the park and wait for a wave big enough to carry you in.’ He grins. ‘It was better than any funfair ride.’
The couple slept on planks in a ranger’s station with an American scientist who has been studying tapirs for 12 years. At night, the cockroaches would run around the room and Vic had to tell Nancy it was the wood creaking. He is not sure she believed him. Vic is now an expert on tapirs; he spends some time using his chalk to explain their living and mating habits. He has always been fascinated by wildlife, religiously studying natural history books as a child; he mumbles that he gives ‘any charity money’ he has to Port Lympne Zoo, where he also saw his first tapirs.
Although Vic Reeves brings to mind images of drunken nights at private clubs, he has always been an outdoor person and someone who enjoys the country. Which is why he talks about his experience on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! last winter as a mere camping trip. ‘The point of that show is that the celebrities aren’t supposed to survive, but I’ve always been a camper. There are no snakes or dangerous animals in there because the perimeters are always monitored.’
Nancy was in the show from the start and Vic was later introduced as a surprise guest. But, he says, that was always part of the deal. ‘They wanted a married couple and they offered a huge amount of money, enough to get rid of some of the mortgage. It wasn’t difficult to decide. A big sum of money and a nice camping trip. I suppose they put Nancy and me in there because they wanted to see us having sex. As though we would say, “We’re gonna have a shag tonight; everyone come and have a look.”‘
Maybe it wasn’t so surprising that the producers hoped Vic would get it on with Nancy. After all, the tabloids have created a character who is in and out of marital trouble and very partial to a drink or two. In 1993, Vic married Sarah, with whom he had Alice and Louis. Towards the end of the Nineties, Sarah’s antics dragged Vic into the tabloids for the first time. Initially, the story was about Sarah and a builder called Keith; latterly, it was about her female personal trainer, with whom she had fallen in love. In 1999, Vic then announced he had fallen in love with and was engaged to Emilia Fox, one of his costars in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)
At some point, he split up with Fox and in 2001 met Nancy Sorrell on the set of I Love 1991. In January 2003, they were married and in 2004 they appeared on I’m A Celebrity. If he was hoping to live a quiet life, he wasn’t doing much to keep the tabloids away, apart from living in Kent, which hasn’t always helped anyway. He has been in the converted school house, which he bought from Tom Baker, for three years, but before that he did up Noel Coward’s agent’s house in Romney Marsh and then lived in a farmhouse in another Kent village.
Did he, I ask, leave London because of the constant lure of going out and drinking too much? He looks bemused. ‘Drinking? What? I think people drink a lot more outside London. I don’t drink a lot anyway.’ Well, he drinks enough to be currently banned for drink-driving. In March this year, he nipped down to the local pub to get some cigarettes and, despite the fact that he had been drinking, he took his vintage Jaguar. He bumped one of his neighbours’ cars but didn’t notice and drove off. He was handed a 32-month ban and a 100-hour community service punishment order, but the ban will be reduced to two years if he pays £200 to complete a drink-driving rehabilitation course.
I am a little surprised at how open he is about the whole incident. ‘The pub is about a quarter of a mile away and there’s never anyone on that road.’ He absentmindedly draws a cross with the chalk. ‘But I’m not going to do it again. I’ve already done the community service – I just went and worked on a theatre-building project in Maidstone for a couple of weeks, which was good fun – and I will do the course. But I can’t imagine what they’ll say for the 16 hours. Anyway, I’m a stoic; they could have tortured me for two weeks and I wouldn’t complain.’
He is smart enough to know that once the tabloids decide on a celebrity’s character, they run and run with it. He remembers a journalist going round to his last house and being surprised that there was art on the walls (some of it his, dating back to his art school days). ‘They expected me to live in a big Noel Edmonds house with jukeboxes, flamboyantly waving around bottles of whisky,’ he says, looking appalled.
Nancy wanders by. ‘Do you like my curlers?’ Vic frowns. ‘Excuse me! I must go and turn the apple pie off!’ He dashes off and I can hear him in the kitchen talking gently to Louis. ‘Don’t touch, it’s really, really hot.’ He emerges a few minutes later, followed by his son, who has a bowl full of steaming pie. ‘We went down the lane this morning to pick apples and blackberries. I made a coulis out of the blackberries and chucked it on top of the apples.’
Country life seems to suit Vic. He is so relaxed and at home here that he could actually have retired, but he hasn’t and isn’t contemplating it. It’s a long time since he made his television debut with Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out back in 1990, and was immediately cast by the press as ‘Dadaist’ or ‘post-modern music hall’. It’s 20 years since he changed his name from James Moir and first met comedy partner Bob Mortimer, who heckled him one night during his weekly show at the New Cross tavern in south London.
Vic and Bob are doing a one-off Big Night Out show at the Raymond Revuebar on Friday. Although Vic can never quite remember if he met Bob in 1985 or 1986, it’s an anniversary celebration of sorts. The tickets will go to their comedy friends and the show will then be released as a DVD. If it’s a success, Vic and Bob may go out on the road with the Big Night Out, but he is naturally wary of using it as a way of saying: ‘Remember us?’
Without going back to the past, Vic has lots of ideas for new shows he could do with Bob (who, incidentally, lives 12 miles down the road) but is finding it a tough sell. ‘Comedy costs too much; it’s easier to put people in a house or on an island. I can’t be bothered with reality shows; I’d rather go and look through someone’s letter box.’ He sounds disappointed with television and for the moment has transferred to radio; he is set to start a show on Virgin radio on Wednesday and Thursday evenings after sitting in for Suggs. He insists he won’t be nice about records he hates (Virgin has a strict playlist).
Despite his enthusiasm for radio, it would be surprising if Vic didn’t miss the old days just a little bit. I ask him about the success of Little Britain, about what it felt like to watch Matt Lucas do so well after all that time he spent dressing up as a baby on Vic and Bob’s eccentric game show, Shooting Stars. ‘I really liked it when it was on Radio 4. But I can see why it’s so successful because it’s brilliant and there’s not much competition. I was talking to Matt the other day and he was saying if it wasn’t for me and Bob, neither him nor David [Walliams] would have made Little Britain. We do seem to have apprentices on our show who then go off and find success; it happened with Paul [Whitehouse] and Charlie [Higson] with The Fast Show.’
I ask if he really envies Lucas and Walliams’s current hit status. ‘Well no, we’ve had our success. When we were at our peak, it was like the Beatles. I’ve had a number one record [a cover of Tommy Roe’s ‘Dizzy’ with the Wonder Stuff]. It was great to have been there, but it’s never going to happen again.’
It is time for them to get ready for Jools Holland’s wedding party. Nancy is still in her rollers and bikini, the kids are in shorts. A driver is coming to pick them up and take them the short distance to Holland’s house. Vic is trying to waste time. He points to the blackboard. ‘We’ve been doing spelling competitions the last few nights. I’m the champ, the spelling bee.’ I ask what ‘ Can I have reggae?’ means. He laughs. ‘That would somehow be perfect. But it says, “Can I have 12 eggs?”‘
Vic pulls a face. ‘I’m not sure I can be bothered to take a shower. I had one last night. Does that count?’ ‘No, it doesn’t,’ says Nancy.’ It’s hot and you were hoovering this morning.’
Delaying his trip to the bathroom, Vic looks serious for a moment. ‘You know, what I’d really like is a nice sitcom on Friday night and the rest of the time I’d be happy being Michael Palin.’
· Final Chance to Save … starts tonight at 8pm on Sky One; Vic Reeves’s programme is on 11 September.