He is one of Britain’s most instantly-recognisable comedians; a man who combines an anarchic sense of daftness with the ability to concoct the most outrageous falsehoods that just happen to be true.
Whether working with his confrere Vic Reeves, peddling porkies – and Bob Mortimer loves his prized pork pies, even presenting one to Damon Hill before a British Grand Prix at Silverstone – or fishing with former Fast Show maestro Paul Whitehouse, this fellow has blazed an idiosyncratic trail to national treasuredom.
Yet while his story occasionally reads like it has been created by 100 monkeys using 100 typewriters in a doomed attempt to write Hamlet, there’s a greater truth about Mortimer that emerges with true poignancy in his new autobiography, And Away…
And that’s the underlying hint of tragedy at the heart of his story and the constant questioning of where he fits into the grand scheme of things.
His father, a biscuit salesman, died in a car crash when Mortimer was only seven and, shortly afterwards, he accidentally burnt down his family’s home with a stray firework.
If it sounds surreal, it was just one of the many anecdotes he has related on the show Would I Lie To You and left the audience in hoots of laughter.
He has never fitted into the mainstream
For the first half of his life, he wasn’t just painfully shy, but seemed to drift from one ill-fated project to another, whether launching a short-lived punk band called Dog Dirt or earning the monicker “Cockroach King” when working as a solicitor in London.
Even after he met Vic and the pair gradually began to establish a reputation for zany, left-field, off-the-wall or downright ridiculous antics in such programmes as Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, Shooting Stars, (a re-make of) Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Catterick, Monkey Trousers and House of Fools, Mortimer often wore the expression of somebody unsure if he was on the verge of a windfall or a catastrophe.
Comedy commissioners are the gatekeepers to the TV comedy slots. Some of them have a sense of humour, some of them do not; it’s just the luck of the draw.”
But, along the way, he has been influenced and inspired by different bands, comics, events and parts of the world.
One suspects he might have kept these to himself until he was diagnosed with a heart condition that required immediate surgery in 2015.
His treatment and recovery might have left him with ample time to ask himself, in his mid-50s: Who am I? What defines me? and other questions he almost certainly didn’t waste breath on, because he isn’t that pretentious or self-absorbed.
Instead, Mortimer married his partner of 22 years, Lisa Matthews, 30 minutes prior to receiving his heart surgery after getting permission from the registrar to move the date forward.
It was another of the spur-of-the-moment chapters in his scatter-gun existence, but it summed up his attitude to dealing with adversity.
The book testifies to the many celebrities he has encountered and worked with – from Sting to Noddy Holder, Paul Gascoigne to the late Dallas actor, Larry Hagman – who promptly sacked his agent after his appearance – and David Tennant to Sir Derek Jacobi, the latter of whom genially called the bold Bob a c-word and it didn’t stand for comedian.
But, throughout his career, he has never been fazed by meeting the famous – apart from Middlesbrough footballers who reduced him to a quivering bag of nervous silence.
Orange was the only fruit for Bob
Predictably, perhaps, university was not a bundle of laughs for the youngster. If it’s true that no man is an island, Mortimer was in the Manhattan, Rhode or Staten class.
But he was thrilled and captivated in the most unexpected setting after watching a concert by an unheralded group from Scotland at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall.
He recalled: “One night, we went to see an up-and-coming indie band called Orange Juice (fronted by Edwyn Collins).
“They didn’t arrive on stage until well after midnight and most of the punters had left, but (his student friend) Ben and I stuck it out and we were treated to perhaps the best gig that I have ever seen.
“Music comes and goes, shines and fades as you get older. But the Orange Juice album You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever has never left me or faded from my view.
“It has been a regular, uplifting companion for almost 40 years.”
That’s one of Mortimer’s most obvious qualities: old friends aren’t discarded, but clasped close.
If he forms a bond, be it in childhood, adolescence or even now, on his travels with Whitehouse, he clings on to these people. They matter to him.
The perils of ‘experts’ judging what is funny
Mortimer is nothing if not honest in his appraisals. He frequently recounts moments where he froze on set, fluffed his lines, or felt out of his depth in ‘serious’ roles.
He and Vic didn’t need a script and although some of their TV directors grew anxious about the duo’s ad-libbing streams of consciousness, they were happy with the results.
They recognised the humour wouldn’t appeal to everybody and, in some cases, would only tickle the funnybones of a minority, but at least they were creating something new.
Not everybody shared that perspective. Not even senior executives on the major channels, as Mortimer found out later at the Edinburgh Festival.
Let’s call him ‘Rich Bilberry’…
He said: “One of the comedy producers on Channel 4 – I shall call him Rich Bilberry – didn’t think we were funny at all.
“He thought that we should have been given a little slot in a comedy compilation show that he had commissioned, instead (of the pilot for Big Night Out).
A few years later, I was one of four judges at the Edinburgh Festival’s new comedy talent show, So You Think You’re Funny?
“It was a prestigious competition and a big leg-up in the business for the winner.
“Rich Bilberry was a fellow judge. The first person up on stage was a young lad from Bolton called Peter Kay. I thought he was magnificent.
“When we retired to our judges’ room, I instantly declared that Peter was the clear winner. Bilberry’s response? “Why? All he did was tell jokes.
“It was a three-to-one decision in favour of Peter.”
Talents had doors shut in their faces
“Comedy commissioners are the gatekeepers to the TV comedy slots. Some of them have a sense of humour, some of them do not; it’s just the luck of the draw.
“I shudder to think of some of the talented people who have had the door shut firmly in their faces by them.
“Fortunately for us, (Channel 4 head) Michael Grade stood firm and insisted that we be given a series of six half-hour shows to be broadcast at 10.30 on Friday nights.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Gone fishing with his friend
On the face of it, the notion of two middle-aged codgers, recovering from different heart problems, venturing on various outings to pursue their fondness for angling doesn’t sound like an instant ratings winner.
And even Mortimer and Whitehouse had initial doubts when they discussed pitching a series about their forays on to the banks and braes of Britain.
Thanks to Scotland, it is probably the best show we’ve ever done and that’s down to the extraordinary environment.”
As the former recalled: “On one trip, as we walked along the river at the end of the day, Paul mentioned to me that our little fishing adventures might work as a TV show.
“Something akin to Great Canal Journeys with Timothy West and Prunella Scales or an unscripted version of The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
“In the bar that night, we discussed it further and the truth of it is, we wondered if we could actually be bothered and if it would ruin our enjoyment of these special days.
One of us might keel over on the riverbank
“But, after some telephone chats together, we decided to go straight to the controller of BBC Two, Patrick Holland, and ask if he had any interest.
“We didn’t have anything in writing, we just hoped our enthusiasm would win him over.
“Paul suggested that we pitch the show as factual commission and not comedy. It would not be scripted, so the chances of it satisfying a comedy audience would be slim.
“He also reckoned that the key to the show was our respective heart problems and the jeopardy that one of us might keel over on the riverbank.
“I had no idea what the show would be, other than a general feeling that people might enjoy our company while we showcased the beauty of the British countryside.”
He was right, although the public haven’t just relished that aspect of the programme, but savoured the pathos, patter and poignancy the pair have brought to proceedings.
The genial twosome have travelled all over their homeland and been mesmerised by the spectacular scenery in many different places.
However, Mortimer believes that the episode of Gone Fishing they recently filmed in North Uist was their best show ever.
The first episode of the fourth series featured their experiences in the Western Isles, where they were simply blown away by the wildness and remoteness of the landscape.
It’s appreciating that life is worth living
Mortimer said in the aftermath of the filming: “It is the most extraordinary place we have been.
“Thanks to Scotland, it is probably the best show we’ve ever done and that’s down to the extraordinary environment.
“Paul knew that if I didn’t get out of the house, I would just be watching TV on the sofa all day.
“The show got me out and about and appreciating that life is worth living. It’s just a reason to go somewhere pretty and pass the hours.”
But it’s about more than that. Gone Fishing is delving into the depths of contrasting characters whose friendship is like that of two of Bob’s heroes, Laurel and Hardy.
Scratch beneath the surface and these lads don’t just like one another. They love one another and it’s brought us an escape from an angrier, more unhappy world.
- And Away… is published by Gallery Books UK.