A few nights ago I was watching a documentary about Jo Brand’s career and part of the discussion centred around what makes a comedian. Brand said that somewhere in most comedian’s lives is something tied to a sense of loss; there’s something missing that they are trying to make up for. I felt that intensely as I was reading Bob Mortimer’s autobiography. In his head, possibly the key moment in his life was the death of his father, aged seven, and lots of what follows plays through that emotional prism.
One of the very first things he says is that he has always been “a shy one”. The chapter headings contain fragments of song lyrics, and the start of chapter two uses the opening lines of Ask, by The Smiths. Much of his life is defined by himself in terms of that shyness, and his perennial struggles against it. It’s a thing I understand all too well, though unlike him, as the youngest of four brothers, I grew up an only child, not having to compete for attention.
Part of the attraction of reading is the fact that Bob is a Middlesbrough lad, so I recognise some the places he talks about in his early years, especially when he reminisces about being on the bins, or being about and about in town. He’s a decade or so older, so while there’s some crossover, there are certainly differences in what our experiences of the town would have been at that time, so that interests me too.
I also like the trick he uses a couple of times of dropping a few anecdotes into a chapter about a period of his life, whether at school, or early in his legal career, and in the style of Would I Lie To You, declaring that there’s a red herring in there just to keep things interesting. It works, beatutifully.
But the principal feeling I get reading this book is love. Robert Mortimer is a quite amazing man, and the way he describes his life is without histrionics or bluster. It’s very funny in places, but often it’s deeply moving. He continually undersells himself. There are things that he drops into his story with little fanfare that others would handle rather differently. So he underplays his academic achievements, and tries to convince us that comedy’s gain wasn’t really the law’s loss at all. But when you see what his career’s been like, you realise what a decent and compassionate person he is, with no little skill, and an abundance of heart. What is also interesting is how he thinks of his relationship with Jim Moir, the man who he’s been with professionally for three decades. It’s clearly a kind of love story, and one where he has often felt like the junior partner, but not in any kind of resentful fashion. It’s almost heartbreaking sometimes to listen to this gifted, funny man confess how often he has thought so little of his own talents, in what is an almost epic case of imposter syndrome.
He likes people a lot, so he’s nice about almost everyone. If you’re expecting a warts and all exposé of the dirty underbelly of British comedy over the last thirty years then you’re going to be disappointed. Like a lot of introverts (which he very much seems to be) he has few close friends, but the ones he has are there for the duration. His love for all of them comes flooding out of the pages. So does his love for his late mum, though there are some more complicated emotions mixed in with that. Even those do not reflect badly on him, as far as I’m concerned.
In fact, the only person I can recall him even being slightly sniffy about is one specific Channel 4 comedy producer in the early 90s whose name I won’t share here, because you should read it for yourself. Even then, it’s not particularly personal, just a comment on his professional judgement. He talks about his wife, his family, his friendships, his relationships with such tenderness, humility, and self-effacement. There’s a constant sense that he feels incredibly lucky to have these people around him. The thing that he never says, but which must be true I think, is that I think all of them probably feel exactly the same way about him. I’m glad we’ve got him too. I like him very much, even more so after reading this.