In early 2021, with the pandemic still very much part of all our lives, I reached out to Will Self and invited him to interview for the then pre-launched Capers Magazine. Will agreed and the results were quite astonishing. For a start, my tone and line of questioning did not go down well with this heavyweight intellectual: it was a misjudgement on my part to think, as the editor of a comedy magazine, that asking jokey questions to such a serious man would have ended in anything other than verbal brutalisation – this is what happened and, reading the interview back, it’s wholly deserved. The second important aspect of the interview is Will’s comments about Bob Mortimer. This aspect set off months of research and endless attempts behind the scenes to speak with producers, agents, high-end comedians, TV execs, and anyone who might have been involved in what could turn out to be a national scandal with a beloved comedian at the centre. The results of that investigation can be seen in the resulting article, The Bad Smell of Bob Mortimer.
This interview is fascinating in itself, and I have gone against my instincts to edit out some of the more brutal verbal slaps to my stupid face for the sake of keeping the integrity of the piece – however uncomfortable that may be for me…
David: Hello Will Self, thanks very much for joining us for the grand launch of Capers Magazine. We seem to be approaching a move back to relative normality after 12+ months of madness: what has your experience of lockdown and the whole Coronavirus debacle been?
Will: I have a serious underlying health condition, while my ex-wife – and the mother of my two younger children – died of cancer in October, 2019. With the onset of the pandemic only four months later, notwithstanding any views I might personally have had about the wisdom or otherwise of the British Government’s various measures, my personal imperative became to stay alive – not wishing my children to be doubly orphaned. To that end, it’s been a very quiet year indeed; with the longest journey I’ve made being a three-day 110 km cycle ride. That noted, as a writer and an inveterate urban walker, the lockdowns have given quite as much as they’ve taken away – and with a difficult bereavement to cope with, this period of reclusion and quieter, slower, more local living has been personally welcome, if politically very much not so.
David: You are well known in the literary world for being a sesquipedalian – as more of hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian myself, I have no idea what any of these words mean. From your good big vocabulary, what is the funniest word and why?
Will: I think coinages of one’s own are always funnier that words already in useage, for the reason that they expose the underlying arbitrary nature of the signifier (and the signified) itself. I have a fondness for my own ‘grint’, a fusion of grot, gunk and snot. Although I concede the notoriety of the actor who played Ron Weasley has rather eclipsed my neologism.
David: You starred as a team captain on Shooting Stars in 2002 for series 5. Where does that rank in your career in terms of significance?
Will: A cursory internet search would have told you that I was a team captain for series 4 as well as 5. I can only return your insult by asking: where does this interview rank in your career in terms of significance?
David: Shooting Stars is sort of cross between a parody of shonky 1970s game shows and the anarchy of The Young Ones: are you a fan of anarchic comedy and/or 1970s game shows?
Will: I’ve re-watched the Young Ones many times – it’s a great show that captures the demise of youth-led counter-culture in this country in real time. I had to suffer 1970s game shows in real time as well – and I don’t want to go back; but I don’t think your description of SS is altogether fair – it’s too reductive, and doesn’t capture the many other influences – Dada, Surrealism, Ivor Cutler, Spike Milligan et al. – present in Reeves’s and Mortimer’s comic universe.
David: Would you mind explaining the situation led to Will Self – leading novelist, respected journalist – being offered a spot on Shooting Stars with madcap monkeyshiners Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer?
Will: I used to drink with Jim Moir (Vic Reeves) in the Groucho Club – and he offered me the gig spontaneously late one night. I think he was pretty surprised when he woke up the following morning and realised I’d accepted. My late wife was pregnant at the time with our second son, and it looked like the sort of gig that would afford me decent paternity leave – unlike freelance writing.
David: Which of the guest panellists did you connect with the most or find most funny?
Will: I couldn’t really remember any of them much until I read that question and consulted the Wiki entries for the series (something which, I believe I may’ve mentioned already, you conspicuously failed to do). I did recall Katy Price (Jordan) quite well, because she seemed so very unhappy – as did quite a few of the others. Many of the guest panellists belonged to that class of people known as ‘television personalities’ – an ascription that rivals ‘military intelligence’ when it comes to being flagrantly oxymoronic – and I think the internalised contradiction, combined with their external objectification is difficult to bear, even as they continue to pursue that notoriety which they felt would cure what ailed them in the first place.
David: What was it like having Clement Freud on your team?
Will: Interesting. I actually knew the Freud family well growing up. Now, of course, Freud’s posthumous unveiling as a paedophile has retroacted into any perception of him as being remotely funny; and while I can’t say that it altogether came as a surprise to me – the unveiling, that is – at around the time that episode was recorded I was still finding him amusing.
David: Being surrounded by jesters on the show – Vic & Bob, Jonny Vegas, Matt Lucas – did you feel any pressure to be funny from your juxtaposition as the relative straight man?
Will: What distinguishes them all is that they’re very funny physical as well as verbal comedians – obviously I couldn’t compete with them on the former, but I felt I could hold my own when it came to mordant wit, delivered with some alacrity.
David: I was under the impression that – like Mark Lamar before you, and Jack Dee thereafter – your role was as a sort of lugubrious or grumpy foil to Vic & Bob’s silliness. But I read recently that you only appeared grumpy because they kept cutting your best gags from the final edit. What’s that all about then?
Will: Oh, yes, my finest apercus and most polished pasquinades all ended up on the cutting room floor – it was their show, and they didn’t want to be upstaged. I bear no ill-will though: this was their metier – I was only a carpet-bagger, passing through.
David: I always get the impression that Vic is in charge: what is it like to work with those guys? Are they narcissistic comedy monsters or a pair of lovely boys?
Will: Neither. A cursory web search (have you tried this? You simply summon what’s called a ‘search engine’ to your browser – many people favour one called ‘Google’ – and then insert your search terms into the search bar; in this case ‘Vic Reeves’ and ‘Bob Mortimer’ followed by ‘interview’), would have told you that both are quite complicated and thoughtful men – not to be reduced to mere stereotypy.
David: Of the many great sketches you performed on the show, which was your favourite?
Will: I did like the Hernia Hotline sketch – although at the time I did voice some uneasiness about Bob Mortimer appearing in brown-face, and in retrospect this was unacceptable: he shouldn’t have done it, and we shouldn’t have appeared with him. I wonder how he feels about it now.
David: Part of the charm of the Shooting Stars sketches is that they are performed in the most part by non-actors who fully commit to getting the laugh: is comedy acting a thing that comes naturally to you?
Will: Hmm… see above: Mortimer, Reeves, Vegas and Lucas are extremely able comic actors – and actually, I trained as an actor and worked as a stand up comedian as well. If the sketches have an amateur air it’s entirely intentional.
David: Finally, what are your thoughts on the state of modern British comedy? Are there any new comedians that tickle your ribs?
Will: I don’t have any thoughts about modern British comedy at all – I’ve long since ceased to find anything remotely funny, as a cursory web search would’ve told you. I mean to say, up until the pandemic if you Googled my name you got ‘Will self-driving cars take my job?’ And if you Google it now you get ‘When Will self-isolation end?’… Look, I know it isn’t all about me – but sometimes it does seem that way.