‘Catterick’ revisited

❉ An appreciation of Vic and Bob’s glorious folly, a sustained three-hour story made by the kings of non-sequitur comedy.

In the bar area of a North Yorkshire hotel, a bearded man wearing glasses and a bottle-green satin jumpsuit is playing a beguiling flute piece called ‘Dreams of Parsimony’ to a small audience  consisting mostly of regulars from his local pub. They clap throughout, particularly whenever he raises his right knee higher and higher. When he finishes, the applause now tumultuous, he leers into the mid-distance and in a thick, high-pitched accent he mutters to himself, “I know!”. This is Chris Palmer and this is Catterick.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Vic & Bob first hit our TV screens and in all that time there’s been a constant conundrum: what kind of show suits them best? By nature their talents are free-wheeling, restless and unusual, so it’s been tricky to find the right format for them. Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out was essentially their original above-a-South-London-pub live show transferred into a studio. After two series, Channel 4 wanted them to carry it on, alongside a full series of their story-based pilot The Weekenders and a new music programme called Popadoodledandy. Instead, they decided to nick off to the BBC to make The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, a tighter, slicker cousin of Big Night Out. It was a fine show, but after two series they’d got bored of that too.

Fast forward to 2004 and Vic & Bob’s career had continued to flit about wildly. There had been another single series sketch show, Bang Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer, and they’d starred in, albeit not written, the underwhelming BBC reboot of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). They’d undoubtedly become much-loved performers but were perhaps slightly ghettoised. There was a sense that the mainstream was theirs for the taking if the right vehicle could be found. Certainly that vehicle wasn’t Families at War, their prime-time BBC One game show which fell awkwardly between two stools and stayed there.

There’s an elephant in the room here, of course, and it’s an elephant with a dove above it. Their BBC Two quiz show Shooting Stars started life as a bit of fun with their celebrity showbiz mates as part of an ‘At Home With Vic & Bob’ evening of programming over Christmas 1993. The BBC latched on to the format, though, and it went on to become a career banker for the pair, running for eight series over assorted revivals. It had its moments, loads of them, but it could also be scrappy and slapdash and was never quite prime Reeves and Mortimer. Die-hard fans could be forgiven for cursing the announcement of each new run and wishing they’d knock it on the head and get back to the proper stuff.

Which is where Catterick comes in.

For all their popular aspirations, Catterick is probably the least-seen of all Vic & Bob’s shows, and it wasn’t what it was initially intended to be. Around 2000, the pair had taken time out to consider their next move and they wrote Catterick as a potential feature film. With their trademark surreal (aka daft) humour, it told the story of two brothers, Carl and Chris Palmer (Bob and Vic, respectively). They hook up once Carl gets out of the army and head off in search of his long-lost son Paul, only to tangle with a violent criminal along the way. This character, Tony, was tailor-written for Paddy Considine. Having struggled get it funded as a film, Vic & Bob offered the project to BBC Three who commissioned it as a series. Duly re-jigged as six half-hours, Catterick debuted in February 2004.

Today it still carries the charge of Vic & Bob doing something outside their comfort zone, namely an extended narrative. As you’d expect in the circumstances, not everything works, but there’s plenty that does, and it was a boon for long-time fans who longed for the pair to head in the direction of The Weekenders. It’s a sustained three-hour story made by the kings of non sequitur comedy.

The cast consists of the usual suspects – Matt Lucas, Charlie Higson – alongside Mark Benton and Tim Healy, both of whom fit perfectly into the peculiar Reeves and Mortimer universe. As Tess, Morwenna Banks is reliably marvellous too. In the event, Paddy Considine was too busy with film roles to appear as Tony, so Reece Shearsmith stepped in. He makes for an able replacement, adding to his wide portfolio of Deeply Angry Men. Mark Gatiss gets a cameo too, but thankfully Catterick doesn’t fall into the trap of being a tenth-rate League of Gentlemen clone like so many BBC Three shows of the time. Vic & Bob’s comic vision was quite distinctive enough on its own, thanks very much.

The direction doesn’t always do justice to that vision, though, or possibly the budget couldn’t deliver it. The crime / thriller moments might drive the plot but they often feel enormously jarring. And while we’re carping, the banjo-drenched soundtrack, by ex-Wildhearts member Willie Dowling (with guitar parts by Vic’s neighbour Jeff Beck), is an intrusive clanger, signalling Funny Bits and Dramatic Bits all too forcefully. Maybe this tonal jitteriness was down to Catterick being the only Vic & Bob series ever to come without an audience laugh track.

Elsewhere, though, there’s an evident, genuine love of music. Each episode includes a Dennis Potter-style musical number in which characters mime along to songs ranging from Miss You by Flanagan and Allen to Only My Soul by Free. Perhaps this was just one means of stretching a feature-length script out to six episodes, but it works wonderfully.

Even beyond that Free tune, there’s plenty that speaks of Vic’s love of vintage rock and prog. In the opening episode, a pensioner scrawls Ginger Baker’s name on a bus window, and just like the 1972 Yes epic, the Palmers’ local pub is called ‘Siberian Khatru’. There’s a strong whiff of Jethro Tull to ‘Dreams of Parsimony’ and Carl Palmer’s name was probably no accident, either.

The show’s North Yorkshire setting is undoubtedly a nod to Vic & Bob’s spawning ground, as they both grew up within twenty miles of Catterick itself. In fact, this is probably Catterick’s magic ingredient. It is, like them, thoroughly Northern – unlike so much of their output. For all its charms, Shooting Stars always felt like Reeves and Mortimer larking around with their metropolitan media mates – your Mark Lamarrs, Ulrika Jonssons and Will Selfs. Later House of Fools surrounded them with plummy Southern characters like Beef and Julie (played – brilliantly, mind – by Matt Berry and Morgana Robinson). Even Vic’s fictional brother Bosh, with his heavy North-East accent, was portrayed by Hammersmith boy Dan Skinner. Catterick, though, plugs them straight back into the source, filmed on location and populated with locally-born types such as Mark Benton, Tim Healy and Reece Shearsmith. Just as Carl Palmer is going back home, so too are Reeves and Mortimer.

Of course, what really makes Catterick sing is Vic & Bob themselves. In particular, this is Vic in excelsis, in the contrasting roles of Chris Palmer and Detective Inspector Keith (“MY GAHD!”) Fowler. Both had featured in embryonic form in The Club, the mock-docusoup from Bang Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer five years earlier. Vic’s clearly having the time of his life playing full-blown characters. After all, wasn’t the ‘Vic Reeves’ of Big Night Out just the character of a childish, petty light entertainer and singer, brought to life by the real-life Jim Moir?

Yes, Catterick can ramble, and for a supposed ‘road movie’, much of the running time sees the main characters staying put in a hotel. The mooted film version would surely have been tighter and had more momentum, and it’s so tantalising to wonder how it could have looked on a big screen canvas (might Shane Meadows have directed it?). Nevertheless there are memorable lines a-plenty here (“A dog that piddles brandy? We are rich beyond our wildest dreams!”) and a host of other delights, from a blatantly home-made attempt at the ‘bullet time’ effect complete with visible wires, to some glorious cameos from old-timers: weapons-grade swearing on the top deck of a bus from Dora Bryan, and veteran Durham-born character actor Frank Jarvis as a Siberian Khatru regular who simply gawps and says precisely nowt. All this, and a character called Sgt. Mingemunchington too.

A second series was never an option – Catterick tells a complete story with a satisfying pay-off – and unless you count their sitcom House of Fools, narrative-based stuff isn’t a direction that the pair have chosen to pursue. Instead, in the years since, they’ve revived hardy stand-bys Shooting Stars and Big Night Out. One day, perhaps, they’ll let rip with a movie project or another filmed series. Should that never come to pass, though, Catterick will still stand as a glorious, cherishable folly that deserves to be much more widely known. It might just be the purest, most visionary, most Vic & Bob show we’ll ever get.

❉ ‘Catterick’ was originally broadcast on BBC Three 15 February – 21 March 2004. Buy Catterick [DVD] from Amazon’s DVD & Blu-ray TV Store: https://amzn.to/2v4SLfN

❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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