Vic Reeves: Interview
Yet for all his northernness, it was London that made Reeves’ success possible. Specifically south London, where the enthusiasm of New Cross audiences propelled ‘Big Night Out’ on to television. Reeves has never lived north of the river. ‘I didn’t like north London, I didn’t see what it had going for it. South London had real people.’ Arriving in London in the mid-’70s, he shared a flat opposite Brixton Prison. ‘When I used the phone box I had to queue with prisoners’ relatives. I’d be worrying: Can I get to the phone before someone smashes it up? We’d drink in the George Canning or at the Half Moon in Herne Hill. I saw U2 there. I wasn’t impressed – they looked like they wanted to be punks but they weren’t. Bono’s haircut was atrocious.’
Reeves’ own musical vehicle, a band called Design for Living, had better haircuts but failed to find U2’s levels of success. ‘It was poppy rocky jazz-fusion nonsense. Then my granddad died and left me 300 quid, so I bought a saxophone and busked on Waterloo Bridge. I thought if I played some freeform jazz, I would get away with it. I would honk like a maniac, wearing sandals, beret and a little goatee beard.’ Reeves got on stage with Rip, Rig and Panic, journeyed across the river to join in the Notting Hill set around The Slits and ‘took Pro-Plus, which gave me caffeine shakes in the pub’.
Initially Londoners failed to warm to Reeves’ unique demeanour. ‘We had a council flat in Bermondsey and our front door got egged because we were from the north. I was chased through the streets by cockney barrow boys. I tried to reason with them. “Why do you want to attack me?” “Because you’re a northerner.” “Oh fair enough then, go ahead.” They started to punch me, but I ducked down and ran off – I was a quick runner. Then I moved to the Pepys Estate with my friend Graham Bristow and that was rough. We were accused of being communists because I wore a flatcap and then gay communists because we were both northerners and we’d been to the pub together. So we were clearly gay. Someone put an axe in the door.’
Understandably, Reeves fled south London’s angry working class and moved to middle-class Blackheath. ‘I got a flat in a Georgian house with a fantastic view of the Thames. I had a telescope focused on Big Ben and if anyone asked the time I’d say: “Have a look through there.” The landlord was a cellist who I dubbed Botty-chelli. He was quite portly. He’d polish door knobs in his tiny blue Speedos or be in his bedroom, which was quite a lacy Victorian affair, playing the cello and looking out the window.’
Flying eggs, axes, portly cellists in Speedos… it was these surreal encounters between north-east England and south-east London that would ultimately create the Reeves phenomenon.
‘I think people in the south still have that north-south divide – not a grudge, but a feeling that northerners are comical. “Let’s go and see that bloke, he’s got that rather comical accent.” It would have been harder to make it if I was a Londoner.’ But when he did make it, Reeves moved to Kent. ‘I miss it. I was thinking of bringing [my wife] Nancy to Blackheath, but have you seen the price of houses there now? My plan before I expire is to go back to Yorkshire, get a nice stone cottage then fizzle away. Have you seen the birds at Bempton Cliffs? Wonderful. I took my wife to see them, but they’d all gone. Wrong time of year.’
Still not an expert birdwatcher then.
Vic Reeves’ childhood memoir, ‘Me:Moir’, is published this month by Virgin Books at £18.99.
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