Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

A Little Chat With… Fred Aylward

Another little nugget transcribed from my radio archives, this time from March 2007. I was thrilled to interview Fred Aylward, who spent almost ten years as Les, the bald-headed, lab-coated henchman to Vic Reeves. Les worked his way from pub backroom appearances to TV stardom with Vic Reeves Big Night Out and ultimately Les Lives, his own series on BBC2. He loved the spirit level, but had a strange and inordinate fear of chives. Fred hung up the lab coat in 1996 and now lives in South London.

Am I right in thinking you’re working as an artist these days, Fred?

Yeah, art and design is my background, really. I went to Goldsmith’s College and all that.

So what are you working on at the moment?

At the moment it’s a set of celebrity dinner plates with the likes of Fanny Craddock on there. Do you remember Fanny?

Oh yes…

(Laughs) Well, she’s on there. I suppose there’s a comedy that runs through all my artwork, it’s all little cartoony things.

Presumably you exhibit as well, then?

Yes, I’m working towards a show later this year, in South-East London.

So how did you first get involved with Vic and Bob if you came from an arty background? Did you go to see their live show and get roped in?

No, I was there before Bob. Me and Vic – let’s call him Vic, otherwise it gets confusing, he’s known as Jim and all sorts of other things…

And Rod as well…?

Rod too, and in fact when I met him he was called ‘Chin’ but that’s another story! Anyway Vic and I shared the same day job, doing art and drama workshops with kids and old people. So that’s how we met, and then he started doing Vic Reeves as a twenty minute stand-up in some local cabaret venues. That was when he was possibly going to be called Craig Wildfowl, but he went with Vic Reeves in the end. This was in 1986, about a year before he met Bob.

So were you doing bits onstage with him at that point?

Yes, but not as Les. I was onstage as Pam Ayres, with a sort of cut-out mask. I was a Dalek at one point, and I was also a quick change mime artist – that’s what Vic billed me as. I changed from being a hippy into a skinhead under strobe lighting.

So had you ever performed onstage before all of this came about?

Before I met him I got up at a place called the Africa Centre with a megaphone, and read four really earnest poems about the starving in Africa. That was my stage debut, standing on a chair with a loudhailer.

I take this wasn’t part of a comedy night?

Oh no, we were raising money for charity! This was pre-Live Aid actually, about 1984.

So where did the character of Les come from?

We were doing stuff at Winston’s in Deptford, which is a tiny wine bar, then it moved to the Goldsmith’s Tavern, and I found myself clearing up – putting wigs in boxes and generally helping out backstage. So by the time it got to the Albany Empire, which was a proper theatre as opposed to just a pub backroom, he said ‘Look, we’re going to need a stage manager, do you want to do it as a character?’ And he said bring your white coat along… because I was an art technician at a school.

Right, so the lab coat was actually yours?

Yeah, but I said ‘I don’t wear a lab coat, I wear a navy blue apron’. And he said ‘Just get a white coat from the lab department, and you’ll be called Les’. So there I was… it was just a case of having a character come on and clear up. 

And there must have been a time during that when you couldn’t walk down the street without being recognised?

Well I was working in a school, can you imagine?! For the first TV series for Channel 4 I took every Friday off to do the filming, but I didn’t tell anyone. We just didn’t know whether it would be a success or not. Fortunately the series went out during the summer holidays so I didn’t have to confront the kids, but when I went back in September, I was going around nodding saying ‘Yes, it’s me…’

Did they bring spirit levels and chives in to taunt you?

Well I’d actually resigned by that point so I only had three weeks to work! And then we went on our first tour, around the North-East and so on – the college tour. It was all really fast, one minute Bob was a solicitor and I was working in a school, the next we were off on tour…

I did see you on that first tour, and you played at the old Newcastle Polytechnic Student Union. And I swear it’s one of the most tense things I’ve ever seen onstage… you came on as Les, and you cleared up between two sketches, and while you were there the phone rang on Vic’s desk…

Oh, yeah! (Laughs)

…and it just rang and rang, and this went on for about five minutes! And people were shouting ‘Answer it Les!’ and it just never seemed to end. And then it just stopped… I swear I almost fainted with the tension. It was sensational… it must have been like being with a rock band on tour?

It was just all so fast. Can you imagine, one minute you’ve got a full-time job and you’re just doing it as a laugh, and then you’re suddenly hurtled into the limelight. It was just like a car accelerating really fast. And then it crashed!

How did it come to an end? Vic and Bob moved to the BBC didn’t they, and you didn’t go with them…

I got a phone call from The Sun actually, asking how I felt about them going to the BBC. And that was the first I’d heard of it, so I wished them luck and then I got offered ‘Les Lives’ about the same time. We’d tried to get it on Channel 4, but they weren’t really interested once Vic and Bob had fled. So we did it on BBC2 in the end, as part of DEF II. And my career doing Les by myself began then, in 1992. We did the Riverside in Newcastle as part of their birthday celebration, myself and a guy called Peter Brook. We just did this half hour act between us, which was Les outside the Big Night Out.

So when was the last Les gig?

Glastonbury in 1995 was one of the last. I had a show called ‘Les Live’ by that point, which was an hour long…

Which isn’t bad going for a character that doesn’t speak!

(Laughs) Yeah, although it had other characters from Les Lives in it as well, including Peter playing the ukulele. It was a fairly musical comedy act – I suppose it had to be with no dialogue! And just before Glastonbury I did a day’s shooting at Pinewood Studio for the Today newspaper, and that was the highlight of everything for me – being driven to Pinewood for a day’s filming! The paper’s folded now –  nothing to do with me, I hope – but, you know… Pinewood was the home of the Carry On films and all that. It was fantastic.

The Big Night Out DVD came out in 2006, and you did a revival of the show for one night only to launch it…

Yeah, we did it in the old Raymond Revue Bar in Soho. I wasn’t going to do it because I was down in Cornwall, but Vic’s wife Nancy nagged me into it, so I came back and did a guest appearance as Les. It was a thirty-minute Big Night Out I suppose.

And I imagine the cream of British comedy were there to watch…?

They were, yes! Lapping at our feet! (laughs).

Do you miss it? Or are you happy working on your artwork these days?

I get sort of… (pauses) when we did that one-off, I thought maybe there might be some interest in doing more live stuff, but I’ve not heard anything. I don’t know if Bob and Vic are up for it, they might just want to move on. But I never say never. The white coat is here on a coat hanger, I’m actually looking at it as we speak!

You’ve still got it, brilliant!

There are about half a dozen, actually, we went through them so quickly. Can you imagine how dirty they get when you’re rolling around on the floor every night?

Has it still got the biros in the top pocket?

Yeah, and the spirit level… I’ve got all of it!

So what form does most of your artwork take? Are we talking painting, sculptures or something else?

I do ceramics. I had an exhibition called Sex Pots, which was sort of rude teapots and things… that was good. And I do portraits now in watercolour, cartoony things. People like Madonna with a Viking helmet on. And the Queen meeting Marilyn Manson, and they’re both wearing matching corgi print coats.

You need to set up a website so we can see all of this…

I do… and to get some of these bits of film on there, there’s a nice Glastonbury film somewhere.

What? Is this a great lost Les film?

Yes… and there’s actually a lost Big Night Out which I’m trying to track down. It was made by two film-maker friends of ours, and I think Vic and Bob have probably forgotten about it. This was in about 1987, at a place called The Venue in New Cross, and we played upstairs in a little bar. That would be a great long-lost treasure, I think.

It’ll be in a dusty box in someone’s attic somewhere…

Yes, probably mine!


  Craig Lancaster Marr wrote @

Les was great in VRBM – such a shame Vic and Bob didn’t bring Fred with them to the Beeb.

  thompsonshunter wrote @

I was Fred Aylward’s photographer in the above picture of him cowering from the ‘chives’. I was a photography student at Kent Institute of Art and Design in Rochester at the time .
Fred spent the whole afternoon with me that day. He even accompanied me to the student bar, the Nags Head. This was in 1992.

  thompsonshunter wrote @

Reblogged this on Dukesthompson's Blog and commented:
I was just thinking of Les from Vic Reeves Big Night Out. I remember photographing Fred Aylward as a photo student in 92.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: