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Bob Mortimer: “My doctor told me that I would have heart attack on stage”

Bob Mortimer has spoken exclusively with The Big Issue about making it through a triple heart bypass, working with Paul Whitehouse and his enduring friendship with Vic Reeves
Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer Photo: Owl Power / Parisa Taghizadeh

“My doctor told me that I would have had a heart attack on stage. He looked at my tour schedule and said I would most likely have gone down in Southampton.”

The year was 2015 and it was shaping up to be a big one for Bob Mortimer. Alongside his comedy partner Vic Reeves, he was all set to embark on a 25th anniversary Poignant Moments tour – celebrating the longevity of a comedy duo who went from upstairs at a pub in New Cross to TV  in record time with Big Night Out, and have shaped and changed the comedy landscape ever since.

If it wasn’t for the impending mammoth tour, playing concert halls across the UK, Mortimer admits he would have ignored the chest pain he was experiencing. It’s what men so often do, trained by years of ‘manning up’ and ‘boys don’t cry’.

Four days later they were cutting me open

Instead, he came face to face with mortality.  And it shocked him.

“When I came home from being told I had to have heart surgery, it feels so dramatic. You think it is over. Heart surgery just sounds… it was weird, the things that would make me cry were my favourite egg cup, my cats,” says Bob, when we meet at the Union Club in Soho.

“Four days later they were cutting me open. I was 95 per cent blocked. It is amazing when you see the pictures, because it is an  incredibly resistant organ – if there is a gap it will fucking push that blood through it.”

Middlesbrough-born Mortimer, who turns 60 next year, is fun, youthful, and entirely unstarry, despite being “dead posh” since he left Peckham to live in leafy Tunbridge Wells. And he’s made a full recovery. At his first show after his triple heart bypass, a ramshackle warm-up to test new material at the Leicester Square Theatre, he regularly looked at the monitor on his wrist to check his heart rate.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer by the main bar of the Hacienda, Manchester 1989
On a Big Night Out with Vic Reeves in 1990. Image: Getty

“Me and Jim [Moir, aka Vic Reeves] watched it going up before the show as the nerves kicked in!”

The second half of the tour went ahead to great acclaim. And the pair are all set to record new episodes of their iconic breakthrough show, Big Night Out, to air later this year.

“I am really looking forward to it because it is fucking nuts,” he says. “It is fucking nonsense.

“We were not expecting to get the show. We are certainly not expecting to get a second series. So it really is exactly what we want to do. We did a pilot last year and we put in a spoof of First Dates, just as a nod to the mainstream. This time we asked permission not to do any of that. It could go either way.”

Gone Fishing

But first, we see Mortimer in a whole new arena, with a different comedy partner. Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, as the title suggests, features the funnyman alongside fellow comic Paul Whitehouse visiting various rivers across the UK. Two men talking and fishing. That’s it.

If the show is about anything, it is about male friendship. We see the way emotion is hidden beneath jokes, any excuse to avoid difficult subjects is latched on to – a timely tench interrupting Mortimer’s discussion of his triple heart bypass in episode one. But Mortimer is serious when he talks of Whitehouse, who had a stent fitted following his own heart scare – lifting him out of his post-op slump.

“Paul brought me out of my malaise,” he says. “I have always been a bit of a recluse, but I really was after the heart thing. And everyone knew.

“He is an extraordinarily lovely human being and sort of enticed me out under the guise of fishing. I don’t fish but had always wanted to after doing it as a kid. We went fishing for the pleasure, him teaching me to fish.

“He is very serious about it. And I like that. The show is quite authentic. We were fishing in some lovely places. Then me and Paul went to the BBC and said that we had these lovely days and found it really interesting – these two old men, thinking about what is friendship like when you are that age.”

And how does it compare to the intense friendships of youth?

“I look back on my friendships before this and I have great friends, but what that actually equates to is occasionally bumping into them somewhere and maybe going to someone’s birthday do and catching up with them,” he says.

“That is not what friendship was when I was younger. It was a right laugh having a friend when I was younger. I found myself fishing with Paul and recapturing a bit of what it was like to have a proper friend. Passing our time together. We are at a crossroads in our lives. We have both been told it is the beginning of the end. And it made us think we should do this for telly, because it was interesting.”

Mortimer’s friendship with Whitehouse goes right back to Big Night Out’s early days. Whitehouse was a friend and painting and decorating partner of Charlie Higson, who’s university pal was part of Vic Reeves’ gang.

I don’t talk to anyone and haven’t for 30 years

Surely Mortimer bares his soul to his old pal Reeves, who he describes as “honestly, a fucking genius”, in between writing their madcap, farcical ‘nonsense’?

“No. Never. What can I say, it is weird, isn’t it?” he says.

“I don’t talk to anyone and haven’t for 30 years. I mean, I have very close friends – I am very close to Jim [Vic] and we write most days.

“If there was a fly on the wall, actually we probably do talk about things, hidden under layers of work and jokes. So I do have this friendship with Jim but it is mixed in with work. There are all hidden subplots. We are actually there to write something – and I suppose me and Paul were there to catch fish.

“I soon learnt that fishing has nothing to do with catching fish,” says Mortimer, very much the angling amateur of the partnership.

“The best day we had was for the last show. We don’t catch a thing. But that did not matter in the slightest.”

If every bloke went to the doctor at 50 and asked for a treadmill test, it would save so many lives

Instead, the fewer fish, the more talk of ailing health and ageing and why men don’t get themselves checked out by doctors.

“I am a bit evangelistic because fellas are such fuckers for it,” says Mortimer.

“I asked the nurse what the typical profile on the ward was, of the heart attack person. She said ’55-year-old marathon runner’. Looking back I realise I was absolutely set for it. I was so tired of an afternoon.

“I just wish more people were aware of it. Because if every bloke when they were 50 went to the doctor and asked for a treadmill test, it would save so many fucking lives. You get on a treadmill, they moniter you and see how quickly the blood is going in and out of your arteries, and they can say, ‘You’re fine, son’. And you can forget about it.”

For Mortimer, he had a lucky escape – and he’s filling his time with the things he loves. “I got married before my op, I got a special licence. It is hard not to think about what you might have missed. But it is a little bit of a gift as well. Do you like football?”

And off we go, into reveries about Middlesbrough and Derby County, our respective play-off disappointments and lifelong love of the game. From life and death to something famously much more important in a heartbeat…

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing airs on Wednesdays on BBC Two at 10pm and is available on the iPlayer  @adey70

Image: Owl Power/Parisa Taghizadeh