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Maggot Brain - John Lahr vs Vic and Bob, 1991

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are going on tour again in November. At the height of Big Night Out mania in 1991, I went along with my friend Dom to one of their shows at the Hammersmith Odeon (the “Brown” tour). I seem to remember I enjoyed it and he didn’t. Lots of audience members had come dressed as Les. It’s unconfirmed whether Les will be joining the reunion but maybe you will.

Later that same month Channel 4 broadcast Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Tour, a recording of the same show at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle (subsequently released on VHS). The programme was reviewed angrily in the Independent on Sunday by the comedy historian John Lahr. I remember being quite taken aback at the time by the sheer viciousness of what Lahr had to say. With his references to “deracinated, impoverished fun” and “the terrifying bray of the new philistines”, not to mention labelling the entire crowd “maggots”, rarely can a reviewer have expressed such a visceral loathing for both act and audience.

To my knowledge that review has never appeared online but I’ve never forgotten it – a real-life Peter-Finch-in-Network moment. So here is an excerpt, originally published on December 29 1991. Many thanks to John Williams @WorldofTelly for tracking it down, along with the two letters that follow.

(And please someone, commission Lahr to review one of the November shows…)


“…In The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (BBC2) Eric Morecambe was back among us, wiggling his black-framed eyeglasses to camera, slapping Ernie’s podgy cheeks with both hands, and creating genuine moments of joy. It was wonderful, poetic hokum. There were Eric and Ernie – totems of an earlier generation’s Christmas cheer – having the time of their life again.

Morecambe and Wise, like all great music hall turns, made a spectacle of their prowess. But Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, voted this year’s best variety performers at The British Comedy Awards (ITV), sent up expertise in Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Tour (C4). They danced but couldn’t dance; they sang but couldn’t sing, their characters had no character, they used language but the language had no sense or shape or wit. The laughter of the old-guard comedians was driven by terror; the incessant mockery of Reeves and Mortimer is driven by tedium. The goofiness of their sound-bite routines takes liberties not so much with life as with the formulas of television entertainment: the talk-show host (Reeves’s own button-down persona sat behind a desk), the quiz show (”Judge Nutmeg”), TV celebrity guest (”The Man With A Stick”), the pop folk song (”Oh, Mr Songwriter write me a song on your trumpet”), the TV critic (the dog puppet ”Greg Mitchell”). It is deracinated, impoverished fun.

This show mined the deep vein of the younger generation’s nihilism. ”I’m a little down in the dumps, Vic,” said Mortimer. ”I put a spoon in the knife drawer.” The Newcastle audience howled. Nothing mattered. Nothing made sense. There was just the horse-laugh in the void, the terrifying bray of the new philistines. ”What do we say to the Man With The Stick?” shouted Reeves to the fans, who shouted happily back ”What’s at the end of the stick, Vic?”. At the finale, when Reeves sang his No 1 hit ‘‘Dizzy’‘, the audience leapt into the aisles imitating the whirling dervish of the performers with a St Vitus dance of their own. They thought Reeves was magnificent, the way a glowworm must appear to a maggot.”

NOTE: Reading this again now, Lahr makes the show sound completely brilliant.

The following week the Independent on Sunday printed two letters from readers responding to Lahr.

“JOHN LAHR’S review of Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Tour (29 December) was as bizarre, and in many ways funnier, than the show itself. The splendid pomposity of his comment that ”the show mined the deep vein of the younger generation’s nihilism” brought to mind Ronnie Barker’s harrumphing colonels (retd); the intellectual asperity of ”the horse-laugh in the void, the terrifying bray of the new philistines” recalled some of the better spoofs on the self-conscious seriousness of lit crit programmes; and the observation that ”they thought Reeves was magnificent, the way a glowworm must appear to a maggot” was gratuitously rude and, I imagine, entomologically contentious. If Vic Reeves is mining anything, it’s nothing more threatening than a national affection for the ridiculous – and plenty of comics and writers have chipped away at that vein.”

Erik Brown, Beckenham, Kent

“THE HUMOUR of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer is surreal and satirical, and its roots lie in Python and Milligan. They also write their own material and are original. I don’t expect my mother to like them or John Lahr.”

G Tewse, Tynemouth

NOTE: I like to think that on Friday morning at 9am, Erik and G will be hitting refresh on their laptops and trying for tickets, older but no less maggot-like.

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