Filled With Birds: Catterick

 

Published in The Sunday Herald, February 15 2004

As comedy catchphrases go, “I know” might not seem one of the greats, but you’d be surprised. Last year, in the mouth of Matt Lucas, playing Andy, the wheelchair-user who didn’t need a wheelchair in Little Britain, those words revealed themselves as all sorts of funny. Of all the phrases Little Britain contributed to the national dialogue – “yeah but no but yeah but no”; “I’m a lay-deee” – Andy’s “I know” lodged deepest in my heart. After a while, though, in something like a recovered memory experience, I realised that part of the reason “I know” had become my favourite catchphrase of 2003 was because it had previously been my favourite catchphrase of 1999. Back then, it was a fearsome creature called Chris Palmer who was given to suddenly shrieking those words. How I could have forgotten him I’ll never understand. But now he’s come back, I suspect Chris will be haunting my dreams and my nightmares forever.

An enigma wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside a lot of curly black hair that looks extraordinary when he blow-dries it, Chris, who is played by Vic Reeves, is one of the central protagonists of what the BBC is insisting we call Vic and Bob in Catterick, but which Reeves and Mortimer would probably rather we simply called Catterick. When you come up with a title that good, you don’t want it cluttered up. Think about it: Humphrey and Ingrid in Casablanca. It just doesn’t have the same panache.

Chris has a moon face framed by a terrifying sable helmet of perm and beard, and, behind his tinted glasses, a look frozen midway between mean and petrified. He wears a black bomber jacket and supermarket jeans, and stomps around stiffly. He resembles what used to be called a Hairy Cornflake, but equally calls to mind police-wanted photos of the early 1980s. Often, he sits silently in the background, staring. He looks aggressive and moronic, but he can react with the enthusiasm of a child, he breaks easily, and he has Rain Mannish depths. Every now and then he will explode “I know,” like an odd, angry buzzard.

The other hero is Chris’s lonesome, troubled ex-soldier brother, Carl, played expertly by Mortimer in the manner of Kevin Costner doing a serious Noel Edmonds. As the story begins, Carl, who’s sitting in a train carriage filled, of course, with birds, has just returned from Cyprus, after 15 years in the army. That had me thrown for a while. Last time we saw Chris and Carl, five years ago, they were helping run the club that featured in “The Club,” the spoof documentary in Bang Bang It’s Reeves and Mortimer, the last sketch show Vic and Bob put together before disappearing into all those Shooting Stars and their Randolph and Hopkirk (Deceased) remake. How to account for that 10 year discrepancy, I wondered – before remembering this was Reeves and Mortimer, and so normal physical laws do not apply.

Like Randolph and Hopkirk, Catterick is a comedy-drama; the difference is Catterick works. Reeves and Mortimer’s revival of the old paranormal detective show was always funnier in concept than reality. It seemed uncomfortable, hobbled as a result of them trying to force their natural tendencies into someone else’s idea of what Saturday-evening entertainment should be. Catterick is the serene, violent, gloriously untrammelled reaction to that.

With a small, perfectly-formed freak ensemble (Morewenna Banks, Matt Lucas, Mark Benton, Reece Shearsmith, Charlie Higson and Tim Healy), it’s held together by a simple road-movie story: Carl has returned to find his son; Chris is helping; and they’ve become targets of a vicious murderer. Around this, though, the unique smell of Reeves and Mortimer is exploding again.

Catterick is formed at the point where Dada meets DIY meets a staggering commitment to Stupid. There’s the sense throughout of picking up throwaway ideas and running with them: a hardbitten New York cop stranded in the North Yorkshire force (a welcome return to action for Kinky John Fowler, another old Reeves and Morimer regular); the old “pull-my finger” fart gag, strainingly attempted by someone who doesn’t get it, until a bulge develops in what we have to call the wrong part of his trousers. Passing mention of a George Clooney poster is seized upon and turned into a main theme. A character is called “Dan Dan the Shellfish man.”

Sometimes, gloriously, characters begin to mime to pop songs that only they can hear, and Catterick suddenly becomes the next step along the road Dennis Potter built. When Mortimer and Banks start throwing shapes to Cockney Rebel in a jazz-fusion disco, it’s the best dance scene since Pulp Fiction.

Catterick is worth considering at length. Partly because there’s so much in it (I’ve not mentioned Lucas’ kinky boots and unfathomable accent, the poignant and disturbing Super-8 flashbacks, or the banjo soundtrack worked over by Jeff Beck). Mostly, though, because practically everything to have happened in British comedy since the early 1990s that has been in any way interesting or funny can be traced back to the influence of either Reeves and Mortimer or the Chris Morris-Steve Coogan axis of The Day Today. (I say practically everything to allow for that glowing niche occupied by Peter Kay and Craig Cash, who trace their influence instead to Coronation Street).

Reeves and Mortimer present themselves self-effacingly as just daft. They’re taken for granted, but they are giants. Watching a TV show that is unlike anything else, genuinely not knowing where it’s going, seeing it almost fall apart before your eyes and then spin on  – this is too rare to dismiss. Catterick might be the best thing they’ve ever done.