Bob Mortimer: ‘As a kid I’d put 17 spoons of sugar in my tea’

The co-star of TV’s Gone Fishing remembers childhood diets, ‘pocket meat’ and getting married on the day of his heart op

I eat a tin of sardines every day. I had one just a few minutes ago. Kippers or smoked haddock are a nice treat. I have quite a thing about having a fish on its own on the plate.

Before we did Gone Fishing,

Paul Whitehouse and I sort of knew that “heart” would become a bit of a label for us [Mortimer had a triple bypass in 2015; Whitehouse had stents fitted the same year]. Now we get so many tweets about people who’ve made their dad get their heart checked. We have a lot of other ailments but I expect we probably won’t talk about them as much.

Dad died in a car accident when I was six. I’ve since discovered that in situations like that, one of the children – often the youngest, like me – will take on the role of “hero child”. Not out of any grand gesture necessarily, it just tends to happen. I’d peel spuds, top and tail gooseberries, dish out tripe and generally be Mum’s kitchen helper. She often said: “If you can’t cook eggs, Robert, you can’t be a chef.” My scrambled, especially, are very good.

I used to like getting cups and putting tiny bits of food and liquids in them. I’d grow mould plumes in the dark wardrobe of my little back bedroom. Not to eat them, mind – just to admire the growing power.

Mum was a cook for most of her life. During the war, she’d been with the Ministry of Food, going around the country showing people how to best use egg powder. That frugality lasted – I remember as a kid, when we visited the butcher she’d often ask for lots of “bacon bones”.

In the 1950s, my mum ran hotels with my dad – him doing admin, her the food. I’ve sat outside a few pubs they ran, like the Bell Inn in Epping, and wondered about them working together. After Dad died, Mum was teaching cookery at a secondary school. She’d cook all day, so didn’t really want to cook again for four boys when she returned home knackered.

I once accidentally set fire, with a sparkler, to a box of fireworks and threw them from the living room into Mum’s kitchen. They scorched the Formica and the lino, so I got down on my hands and knees, crying, and cleaned the marks with a Brillo pad, then half an hour later walked back into the living room, which was ablaze. You’d think you’d get a right rollicking from Mum for burning the house down, but it was too desperate a situation and her priority was not to shout at me at all.

When I went fishing with mates as a kid I’d usually have strawberry jam or banana sandwiches on Mother’s Pride with sugar sprinkled all over. At one point I was putting 17 sugars in my tea. I know it’s unbelievable and I do wonder sometimes what my mum was thinking to allow it. The weirdest thing was that if I had 18 teaspoons it was too sweet. I suppose if I was trying to analyse it, losing my dad was more upsetting than I would have realised, yet I got quite a kick out of sugar.

We tend to head down to Hampshire to fish. I’ll set off with no food at all, but on the way down I’ll pick up my pocket meats – scotch egg, sausage roll – and a lump of cheese. All the things I’m not meant to eat in my pocket to nibble during the day. Nic Roeg said, “You can get away, but you can’t get away from yourself”, but I can look at my watch, expecting half an hour has passed and realise it’s been hours and I certainly think in those hours I’ve got away from myself.

I launched Cadbury’s Boost bar

. For years and years my mum had asked, “When are you going to go back to your job as a solicitor?” But once she saw me in Boost commercials she realised I could make a living outside law. They were expensive ads; filmed in the south of Spain with loads of cowboys and a big catering budget. It was lobsters in tents in the middle of a desert brought to me with sparkling wine.

I can’t remember ever cooking food to impress a woman. The idea’s quite cheesy and sort of makes my skin crawl. But I sometimes make a special effort to impress my cats, with chicken liver or something. It’s tricky to know if a cat’s impressed. They might give me a little look, a glimpse at least. That’s cat ownership for you.

There’s lots of food in the new series of Big Night Out. We have a hotdog sausage, its appearance activated by buzzer, which we use as a full stop in medical arguments between doctors. We’ve often used slices of white bread as facial disguise, with holes for our eyes. It’s benign, because no one wearing bread means you terrible harm. We look for items, often food, which have a benign feeling. Corned beef, for instance, seems very useful for what we do. In the last series we ate a whole can while sexy music played.

I got married at a registry office, at 9 o’clock in the morning, and was crying during the ceremony. I had to be at hospital at 10.30 for my heart op, so we had time to go for a great big cafe fry-up, meant to be my last, although it hasn’t been, if truth be known. When I arrived at the hospital the nurses presented me with a big chocolate cake as a wedding present. I thought it a little odd on a heart ward, but my old pipes were about to go, so there was no point being kind to them.

I always put prunes in my salads. Or pears, water chestnuts, celery. Those sorts of stringy foods. I’m not trying to be scientific, but I’ve been told by the experts who look after me that the body uses bad cholesterol to digest that stuff. Then you shoot out your bad cholesterol, basically. Happy days.

In my kitchen is an old-fashioned sweet jar with a cow’s heart in it with an arrow through it. It was given to me as a gift after my operation. The blood red of a heart and the chrome silver of the arrow are a useful reminder of the damage you could do to your heart in a kitchen.

My favourite things

Because of heart disease I should avoid steak and kidney pie and stilton cheese, which is about number three in cheeses with the highest amount of fat. But if I was talking honestly, either would be my favourite.

Dish to make
A three-egg omelette, per person, with one and a half egg shells of milk, half a shell of butter, in a hot pan with a bit of lard. Push it away, then pull it back. If you don’t like it runny in the middle I’ll pop it under the grill for 30 seconds.

The Cleveland Tontine, next to the A19. An unassuming looking, but extraordinary place; its black puddings are brought over from a French market. One of the only places I’ve eaten what couldn’t be recreated by Mum.

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is on Fridays at 8pm on BBC Two


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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