Why Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield had to stab BBC2 in the back

They became household names on BBC2, but now they present a merciless spoof tribute to the channel. Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield tell James Rampton why they couldn't resist the chance to bite the hand that feeds them

Paul Whitehouse sums up how he and his long-term partner Harry Enfield approached the task of producing Harry and Paul's Story of the 2s, a spoof history of BBC2. "Harry and I only do three impersonations each. They just put us in a different wig for each sketch!"

There is, of course, rather more to the show than Whitehouse's self-deprecating summary indicates. Between them, the comedians play more than 150 characters, including John Cleese-Shop-Sketch, Germaine Dreary, Joan Bakewell Tart, and Gerald Manley Paxman.

Linked by Simon Schama (played by Enfield), Harry & Paul's Story of the 2s sprints through the past half century in just an hour, offering a bravura send-up of more than 50 BBC 2 shows along the way. These include such landmark programmes as The Forsyte Saga, I, Claudius, Boys from the Blackstuff, Grumpy Old Men, QI, The Apprentice, The Office, The Young Ones and The Old Grey Whistle Test – renamed here "The Old Grey Wrinkled Testicle".

During the show, which goes out at 9pm on Sunday 25 May as part of the channel's 50th anniversary celebrations, the pair get to rummage around gleefully in the dressing-up box. Whitehouse delivers a priceless Mary Berry ("Wouldn't I make a wonderful queen?"), while Enfield appears to have slightly too much fun as Margaret Thatcher.

Harry & Paul's Story of the 2s underlines the duo's ability to conjure up characters before our very eyes in a matter of seconds. It also helps explain why Johnny Depp, albeit with more than a hint of hyperbole, once called Whitehouse, "the greatest actor of all time".

Enfield and Whitehouse do not disappoint in person. When we meet in a central London bar, it is like being treated to a command performance – to an audience of one. Like all the best double acts, they are constantly bantering, ever eager to top one another's punch lines.

At one point, 52-year-old Enfield recalls that Whitehouse initially had some difficulty "finding" the character of Nigel Lawson. "The way Paul eventually got into character was by repeatedly saying, 'I was right about everything'."

"We'll be like that in a few years' time," Whitehouse chips in. "In fact, we're like that already. I'm right about everything!"

Harry & Paul's Story of the 2s exhibits a refreshing willingness to bite the hand that feeds it. Enfield jokingly observes that after the channel gave the duo their break almost a quarter of a century ago with Harry Enfield's Television Programme and subsequently remained loyal to them with Harry Enfield and Chums and then Harry & Paul, "It was only right that now we should stab BBC2 in the back."

It is perhaps a sign of the channel's confidence that it is happy to let its two most mischievous stars rip into it with gay abandon. The show certainly does not hesitate to stick the boot into some of BBC2's most revered programmes. For instance, in one skit, a Monty Python character says the sketch he is performing in is, "very long indeed", and will be revived, "every decade for the next half a century, when it's definitely past its sell-by date".

Whitehouse, 56, jokes to Enfield that John Cleese, who is singled out for particularly satirical treatment, "Will be coming after you. We're getting our apologies in now!"

"But you're allowed to take the piss out of John Cleese," Enfield retorts. "He can take it!"

The duo maintain, however, that their mockery stems from an innate fondness for BBC2. "Some people will probably be slightly offended, but they shouldn't be," Whitehouse contends. "They'll pretend to us that they think it's funny and then seethe in private.

"But it all comes from a place of affection. It sounds like a cliché, but I've always loved BBC2. We grew up loving most of these programmes. If I had to have only one channel, it would be BBC2. We take the piss out of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers because we love them."

Never more than 30 seconds away from the next gag, Whitehouse carries on: "Anyway, comedians are great at laughing at themselves, aren't they? They're the most kind-hearted, generous people. They're so good at laughing at others – ergo, they must be good at laughing at themselves. None of their behaviour comes from a place of insecurity and bitterness, just warmth and fellowship!"

Enfield adds that a skit comparing himself to the very mainstream sketch comedian Dick Emery is, "Crueller than anything else in the show. We're nastier about me than anyone else."

Harry & Paul's Story of the 2s also addresses subjects that may not be particularly comfortable for the BBC. For instance, it does not shy away from tackling the fact that allegations of sexual assault by some BBC stars in the 1970s were not taken seriously at the time.

In a parody of Call My Bluff, the panellists put forward various possible explanations of the word "paedophile", before Robert Robinson (Enfield) emphatically declares that, "There is no such thing as a paedophile."

"That was the attitude in the BBC during the 1970s," says Enfield. "The Call My Bluff sketch is not gratuitous. It's a nod to what was never confronted back then. If we don't confront it now, then it's yet again not being acknowledged. It would almost be more contentious if there weren't some kind of allusion to it in this show. If I were a journalist, I'd ask, 'Why didn't you cover it?'"

So what's next for the duo? After four series of Harry & Paul, Enfield is not sure if they will make another. "We feel we're getting to the end of that. We're too old for sketches now."

What is more certain is that Whitehouse will be making a BBC2 adaptation of his well-received Radio 4 sitcom, Nurse, in which he plays most of the patients visited by a community psychiatric nurse (Esther Coles).

Enfield jokes that his collaborators on Harry Enfield and Chums, Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, went off to make The Fast Show in 1994 because, "They needed to get away from my ego. Paul's next series, Nurse, features a lot of actors, but not me. I wonder who he needs to get away from again ..."

Of course, the fact that Enfield and Whitehouse so relentlessly take the rise out of each other only underscores the strength of their relationship. They say things to each other that only very close friends can get away with.

Enfield and Whitehouse have been working together since they first met in a Hackney pub 30 years ago and started developing such iconic 1980s characters such as Loadsamoney and Stavros for Channel 4's Saturday Live.

Enfield puts the longevity of their partnership down to the fact that, "We have a very good way of writing. We get together in the morning, and then about 10 minutes later Paul will say, 'Shall we go and have lunch?'"

Whitehouse's take on their enduring collaboration is that, "It's very simple. It's based on the fact that we make each other laugh."

"And the fact that no one else will work with me," Enfield chimes in.

"It's true," Whitehouse concludes. "When I found myself laughing at one of Harry's jokes the other day, I quickly rang the hospital and said, 'Can you fit me in, please?'"

'Harry & Paul's Story of the 2s' is on Sunday 25 May at 9pm on BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected