No one was more surprised than Bob Mortimer at the unexpected success of Gone Fishing, his BBC two-hander with Paul Whitehouse, now on its fourth series, in which the old friends sit on a riverbank ruminating on life and generally arsing about while attempting to land a fish. “In many ways, the show is the culmination of my journey back from sidekick Bob to standalone Robert,” he reflects, towards the end of his first memoir, And Away…, adding: “I could never have got there without my heart nonsense.” The poignancy of the show is the authenticity of its premise; long before they thought of pitching it for television, Whitehouse really did insist that Mortimer accompany him on fishing trips as an aid to recovery after a triple heart bypass in 2015, an act of generosity that Mortimer credits with giving him “the kick up the arse I needed” to get back on his feet.

The echo of that brush with mortality at the age of 56 reverberates through the book, though Mortimer is the opposite of self-pitying; throughout, he errs on the side of downplaying the various hardships he has experienced, as if he’s constantly seeking the elusive balance between sincerity and entertainment. If Gone Fishing, as he says, “changed [public] perception of me as a performer”, revealing a Mortimer that is a long way from the madcap “Bob” persona he inhabited as professional sidekick to Vic Reeves for most of his career, the memoir confirms this more thoughtful, reflective side.

The story of Mortimer’s 30-year showbiz career is remarkable not least because it hinges almost entirely on a chance meeting in a south London pub in 1988. Unlike most of the artists who later became his friends and colleagues, young Robert had never harboured ambitions to perform; he was a desperately shy boy who suffered such crippling social anxiety that he endured three years of university barely speaking to another soul. By the age of 30, he was growing increasingly disillusioned with his work as a council solicitor, a career he had embarked on after studying welfare law in a desire to make a difference. His only previous brush with the limelight was an abortive attempt at pub karaoke, but when an old schoolfriend invited him along to a local comedy show and he saw the first chaotic iteration of Vic Reeves Big Night Out, it was an epiphany: “What is he? Where am I? Who sanctioned this? I have been transported, in an instant, to a world of entertainment far, far away from anything I have ever witnessed before.”

“He” is Jim Moir and as the Vic Reeves show gathers word-of-mouth momentum and the attention of reviewers and TV scouts, so Mortimer becomes friends with Moir and is given small, mainly improvised parts as his straight man. “I have never minded… playing second fiddle,” he says, an outlook he attributes to being the youngest of four brothers, but there is a quiet pride when he talks about the first time Moir allowed him to contribute more of his own material to a project (not until their 2003 drama Catterick) that is the closest he comes to any suggestion of complaint about being in Moir’s shadow. “I suppose it must have eaten away at me a bit somewhere… or I wouldn’t have been so chuffed,” he confesses.

‘I have never minded… playing second fiddle’: Mortimer with Vic Reeves on Shooting Stars, January 2003. Photograph: Kieran McCrum/BBC

The fault that often afflicts comedians’ memoirs is a compulsion to be “on” all the time, as if anxious that the core readership of fans might feel cheated if the joke rate drops. And Away… can fall prey to this at times. There are sections based on Mortimer’s Would I Lie to You? appearances, where he mixes anecdotes from childhood or his previous career with daft fictions, but these lose something on the page and he has enough genuine stories to make the surreal, invented bits feel superfluous. I’d also have preferred fewer recollections of playground antics and more about how it felt to lose his father in a car crash at the age of six or his experiences of depression.

“I found that I no longer felt the need to just be the funny guy,” he says of his career since the heart operation. “I was actually better at just being myself.” The book, too, grows more confident in talking about serious subjects as it progresses and it’s the honesty and openness that he allows in Gone Fishing that make And Away…, by the end, an unexpectedly moving read.

And Away… by Bob Mortimer is published by Gallery Books (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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