Bob Mortimer: Sing When You're WInning
"Do you want to speak to me as well?” enquires a cigar-chomping Vic Reeves.
“No, you don’t. He knows f**k all about football,” interjects his comedy partner, Bob Mortimer, marching me into a boardroom at their management’s offices in Soho, central London. Reeves slopes off with a promise to check in on us later.
Inside, Mortimer’s bottom hasn’t touched the sofa before he launches into a diatribe on football, throwing himself around like an excitable kid as he talks. “The game is in a strange state at the moment. Sadly, I feel my fanaticism waning,” he sighs deeply.
“It’s wrong, but I can’t help it. It just isn’t the same as when I was a kid. We knew we were never going to win the league, but we were more passionate and it seemed to mean something. The support is not as genuine as it used to be. Fans couldn’t give a f**k now. We played Man United in the cup and there were only 17,000 at the Riverside. Their hearts aren’t in it anymore. The passion has gone.”
Middlesbrough have come a long way since the 1970s, when Mortimer was a regular at the old Ayresome Park. They’re in the Premiership (for the moment), play in the new Riverside stadium and boast respected internationals in their side. But the changes have left Mortimer cold.
“There used to be something enjoyable about watching local kids getting into the team. I saw Stamp, Campbell and Windass playing in a game recently and it made me incredibly nostalgic for those early years where you just had honest, local lads in the side. I don’t mean to be xenophobic, but it means a lot more to me to see a young local lad like Campbell score than f**king Ricard or Boksic.
“I’m just sick of old or useless players turning up at Boro and earning ridiculous money. Emerson was the worst. He would stroll around the pitch with the look of a man who clearly couldn’t give a f**k.”
At 18, Mortimer travelled the length of the country to Brighton to study law at the University of Sussex, but his passion for Middlesbrough remained as strong as ever and even became a badge of honour and defiance among the university’s Home Counties set in the late-1970s.
“Back then, to announce that you were a football fan was to risk being labelled an arsehole. In my first week at university I was invited to a new law students’ meeting. I wanted to say something about myself so I wore a Middlesbrough shirt. I walked into this room and they were all there in suits and black ties. They all turned around and you could see them thinking, 'Who is this wanker?'”
He might pine for the days when football wasn’t as universally popular, but Mortimer admits his favourite moment as a Boro fan was only five years ago when he recorded the club song for the 1997 FA Cup Final against Chelsea. It was a cover of Chris Rea’s Let’s Dance, with the obligatory footballers trying to sing in the background.
“As s**t as that song was, it was a lot better than Suggs’ Chelsea song,” he beams with pride. “They played it at Wembley before the cup final and it was a truly f**king wonderful sight to see 40,000 of my fellow Boro fans dancing to that song!
“Then that f**ker [Roberto di Matteo] scores inside a minute and kills the game...”
Reeves knocks on the door and slips quietly into the room, taking a seat in the corner. The duo have shared a comedy partnership for over 15 years, spawning such shows as Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and the revived Shooting Stars [since revived again], but they have never shared a love of football.
How on Earth did football manage to pass him by? “I’ve never really been interested,” shrugs Reeves.
“I’ll tell you how little he knows about football,” laughs Mortimer gleefully. “He came with me to the FA Cup Final in 1997, and Boro were losing 1-0 when Gianluca Festa scores just before half-time – but it’s disallowed. Boro fans were pretty down at half-time, but Jim’s knowledge of football not being so scientific, he was perfectly happy that the score was 1-1.”
“Well, my claim to fame is my first girlfriend’s dad was a footballer and he broke Duncan Gough’s... no, that’s not his name... Brian Clough’s leg and finished his career!” counters Reeves, though he cannot recall the names of either the girl or her dad (who was called Chris Harker).
The new series of Shooting Stars has the duo back in the role as quiz-masters for the first time in four years, but while it features a parade of comedians, actors, writers and television presenters as contestants, there are no footballers.
“To be honest, it doesn’t really appeal,” confides Mortimer. “Gazza would be good – he’s f**king great – but then again, I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s not what he seems. There is a big façade with him: he’s obviously decided to cope with everything by playing the role of a daft c**t. There is much more to him than meets the eye.”
Then he’s off again. “I’ll tell you who my all-time hero was. Juninho. He was f**king brilliant. He was different, because you could see he cared. I was told he couldn’t dress himself after the game that got us relegated in 1997 because he was so distraught.”
Reeves, beginning to feel slightly left out of the conversation, attempts to change tack. “I know about Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti,” he chips in proudly. Mortimer casts him a bemused look, before ploughing on with his eulogy for Juninho. “He had the most amazing body: he was a little chap but had really long legs. He could lose defenders, who were left to scratch their heads and think, 'Where the f**k has he gone?' His legs were the queerest things.”
Sensing an opening, Reeves jumps in: “Jack Charlton was the Giraffe, wasn’t he? So who else has got nicknames now?”
“There aren’t too many now. There was Sniffer Clarke, Chopper Harris – but not any more,” says Mortimer.
“Nobby Stiles. That wasn’t his real name, was it?” replies Reeves.
Mortimer stops and laughs at his partner’s random contributions before considering the brief reign of Steve McClaren at the Riverside. “The jury is out on him, but he hasn’t made a great start, has he? You know you’re not going to have a good season when you have Noel Whelan up front. Look, I’m not saying he’s s**t, but you win things when you have Vieira in your team, not Noel Whelan. McClaren will do all right – he’s organised that defence – but we need someone who can score goals.”
Having exhausted his football knowledge and used up his one anecdote on the subject, Reeves sits back and listens while Mortimer pours his heart out about Middlesbrough, delivering his signature verdict on his club: “We’re f**ked!”
“Thank you, Bob,” laughs Vic. “I found that very interesting.”
Words: Sam Pilger. From the April 2002 issue of FourFourTwo.