We speak to the artist formerly known as Vic Reeves as he launches his Manchester art exhibition
It’s the early 90s and I’m curled up on a vomit-green velvet armchair in deepest Lancashire for a Friday night ritual: TV and snacks with my dad. Flying Saucers, Drumstick lollies and Skips washed down with Dandelion and Burdock. Armchairs pulled up side by side close to the telly. Heaven.
I think Mark Smith was probably the greatest poet that there's ever been
In those days, Channel Four was brilliant. It was irreverent, weird and a little bit rock 'n roll compared to the other three far more corporate channels. When a pair of cheeky faced Yorkshiremen leapt onto our beloved small screen wearing 1950s suits and talking about corned beef, Shire horses and Midge Ure’s deodorant this pair of silly billies were smitten.
We joined in the audience participation, cheering the entrance of Vic’s hapless assistant Les, asking “What’s on the end of the stick, Vic?” as the man in his hand-illustrated helmet appeared on stage, and joining in the many theme songs (“Spin spin spin the wheel of justice, see how fast the bastard turns”).
Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out changed our lives and its absurd catchphrases weaved their way into our family vernacular. They still surface now at the Christmas dinner table, still met with a dramatic roll of the eyes from my mum - who never quite got it.
Since then, Reeves and Mortimer have become national treasures, catapulted into the mainstream with Shooting Stars - and launching (or relaunching) many other people’s TV careers in the process, topping the charts with indie-pop scruffs The Wonder Stuff, and spawning myriad spin-offs and side projects. But what a lot of people perhaps don’t know, is that Jim Moir, the man behind Vic Reeves, started out as an artist. This is what brings me to finally meet him, under his real name, on the eve of his art exhibition at Manchester’s Contemporary Six gallery.
As the story goes, Jim Moir blagged his way into art school in London before launching his comedy career, which he describes more as performance art. He refutes my suggestion that art school might have been full of twats, telling me “I made some great friends there. If you there with people who like doing what you're doing, then you're with people who you should be friends with” but admitting that twats did feature in and around the London scene generally, “There's a lot of people who take it too far too seriously.”
Serious is not a word you’d associate with Vic, and I wonder if he’s going by Jim these days because he does actually take himself seriously as an artist. His art may, at times, be as absurd and abstract as his comedy (a series of line-drawn superheroes on the loo and plenty of weird self-portraits feature amid tender watercolours of garden birds) but this is no whim of a bored celebrity. Art, it’s clear, is extremely important to him. Was comedy always just the day job?
“Yes, it was,” says Jim. “When I started doing comedy it was kind of a sideline to my artwork. I've never not painted. Now I've got to a stage where I thought, I've done the comedy. I've done the TV. I'll just do bits on TV and film if I want to do it. But all day long I'm going to paint pictures. That's what I like doing.”
Over the course of our meeting, we talk about everything from his favourite vegetable (“Brussel sprouts” though onions get an honorary mention and he tells me he did a popular painting of asparagus once) to his love of birds:
“In the 60s and 70s, it was pre phones and looking at things on screens. So we looked at real things. It was birds where I grew up because it was rural. All my friends used to collect birds eggs, which is a terrible thing to do but that's what we did. It never really left but it came back in - I'm not going to say old age because I'm hoping I'm not there yet - but it came back after a lull.”
If Manchester was a bird, I ask, what kind of bird would it be? “Crow” he answers, quick as a flash.
“I’m thinking of Manchester in the older sense. It's a very lively, dark bird. Mysterious - and friendly in a lot of ways. Crows are more friendly than you think.”
And more intelligent than they look, I interject. “Yes. You've got it there,” says Jim. “Because Manchester is the most intelligent city on the planet. Manchester's produced the best stuff artistically that there's ever been.”
Manchester shows itself as Jim’s muse in many of his artworks. A huge, colourful pop-art painting of Stan and Hilda Ogden draws you in when you enter the exhibition at Contemporary Six, beside it is another of fellow Corrie favourite Ena Sharples. Behind him, as we chat downstairs, is Carrier Bag Man - an homage to The Fall song Carry Bag Man with lyrics woven into the artwork.
“I think Mark Smith was probably the greatest poet that there's ever been." says Jim, "He never would be considered that, you know, over people like Wordsworth but he is.”
“Manchester's always been at the forefront of everything.” He continues, "I've been around the world and seen some places but Manchester is the hub of the world, as far as I'm concerned. I see in Manchester an absolute honesty, and humour and love and direction and artistic output that is like nowhere else in the world.”
Jim tells me he’s spent a lot of time in Manchester over the years, living in hotels while filming TV stuff like Hepburn, Eric & Ernie and House of Fools and hanging out with his many Mancunian friends. He loves it as a city for shopping and dining though he can’t remember the name of his favourite restaurant except that it’s a Thai place in a basement on the outskirts of Chinatown ("It's got a Thai beef salad which blows your mind”). We talk, too, about Afflecks, where you will often find him and Nancy browsing.
“I went to Afflecks for the first time in 1990 and bought one of those Co-Op T-shirts that Ian Brown from the Stone Roses had on. I really wish I could get one of those again.
“Talking about The Stone Roses, my friends were [in a band] called Boys Wonder in the 80s. They were on at Ravensbourne art school. So I went to see them there. There were third on the bill. Top of the bill was the Bay City Rollers and second was the Stone Roses before anyone had ever heard of them. The Bay City Rollers and the Stone Roses. That was a night.”
So I came to talk about Jim and what he wanted to talk about was how much he loves Manchester, his favourite city.
“The main thing is the people and their sense of humour and their, kind of, disregard for the rest of the world. Knowing that people in Manchester are great. The art scene, the music that comes out of here, The Fall, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks and so much more - it's always come out of Manchester and then influenced the rest of the country and the world. I love the fact that it rains here. I love the fact that it's in a big dip and it's surrounded by hills that produces rain, which is a much-maligned weather feature.
"I like the fact that I've been invited here and I like Manchester Art Gallery. I think it's massively unappreciated and unpretentious. And that's another thing I like. People in Manchester don't go around blowing trumpets. Like some other cities. I could mention - Liverpool."
Jim would like the Manchester Tourist Board to know that he is available as a spokesperson at any time.
You can check out Jim Moir’s brilliant art exhibition Return of the Gas Miser at Contemporary Six art gallery until 27 November 2021. Entry is free.
Contemporary Six, 37 Princess St, Manchester M2 4FN
Main image: Baiba Auria
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