THE INTERVIEW: PAUL WHITEHOUSE TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

Without Harry Enfield he may never have entered the world of showbiz. But without Harry Enfield he's gaining ground as a huge talent in his own right
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"a mate of mine made a fatuous comment about John Major and I went, 'Oh shut up Dave, that's rubbish', and he said 'Oh yeah, you're right'." Of such everyday conversational exchanges, the fabric of TV comedy history is woven. From this unpromising raw material, Paul Whitehouse fashioned one of the most poignant and enduring characters in the first series of his excellent TV programme The Fast Show: the man who stands at a bar with a couple of male friends, and whatever the issue under discussion - from the proper constituents of an all-time best England football team to the relative merits of different alcoholic drinks - finds himself condemned to an agony of uncertainty by a blizzard of conflicting opinions.

"I'm terrible like that," Whitehouse admits. "If someone says 'Oh, that's a really good film', before I go and see it, I'll probably think it is, but then if someone else says it's crap then a seed of doubt will be planted." Social insecurity is a big issue in The Fast Show. Another much-loved running joke involves the man who butts into his posher friends' conversation, embarrasses himself completely and then exits, grimly proclaiming: "I'll get my coat."

Whitehouse looks suitably pained. "I like to think I'm quite cocky, and at home in any company," he affirms. "But you're not really, are you? However much of a brave face you put on, you sometimes realise 'These people are just so much better than me at everything'." The fact that he says "realise" instead of "think" suggests that this is more than a mere show of modesty. As does his asking "That is the word, isn't it?" a couple of times after using specialist vocabulary and then laughing: "I know it's the word, so what do I need to ask you for?"

Paul Whitehouse's gradual emergence from the shadow of his better-known partner-in-laughter Harry Enfield has been accompanied by enough testaments to his humility and general good humour to turn a lesser man's head. "Oh, I'm such a great bloke aren't I?" he proclaims derisively. The regular Whitehouse speaking voice has a broad London accent, not a million miles away from a market flower stall, but there is a striking richness and flexibility to it, as if it might go anywhere at any moment. His face looks like it has seen a bit of weather too. But the hands which break just a single finger off the lone Kit-Kat lavishly laid on by the BBC publicity department are not those of a predator.

There is a gentleness about Whitehouse which belies his formidable powers of observation; the uncanny ear for everyday speech which has enabled him (in harness with Enfield and shadowy third man figure Charlie Higson) to create characters with a direct line to the nation's unconscious. Appropriately enough, given their subsequent exploration of lounge bar philosophy, he first met Enfield in a pub. In Well Street, Hackney, in the mid-1980s, Whitehouse was working for the council with the odd bit of plastering on the side. Little did he realise that the man in the corner doing the "passable" Prince of Wales impression would one day - Whitehouse affects a mighty grievance - "nick my lines and my characters and go on to make millions."

Apportioning credit for amusing pub conversations is an edgy business, even - perhaps especially - between friends. Cheerfully accepting that had he not hooked up with Enfield, he "would probably never even have got involved in the wonderful world of show-business", Whitehouse is understandably protective of his role in fashioning Stavros, Loadsamoney, Smashie and Nicey et al. He and Fast Show co-creator Charlie Higson (whom he first met during a brief and unconsummated flirtation with higher education at the University of East Anglia) evidently relish the chance to do something without Harry's name on it. Now they can turn on each other.

Whitehouse speaks on several occasions of "Thwarting Charlie," and is flushed with the success of a heroic struggle to stop his colleague incorporating topless women into an Italian TV spoof. It's a good job decency prevailed too, as the simplicity of the best ideas in The Fast Show's rapid-fire sketch attack is classical, not brutish. "There's not a lot of explanation, set-up, gags even ..." Whitehouse explains. "It's just 'Get in, see the character, do the catchphrase, and be gone before anyone really notices that you haven't actually done anything'."

BBC2 have been re-showing The Fast Show's debut series before putting on the second one. Whitehouse is "a bit worried people might get suspicious - 'Hang about, it's the same thing every week!' " But there's not much sign of that happening. The power of such immortal catch-phrases as "Let's off-road!" and especially "Suits you, sir" - the calling card of two obscene tailors whose unctuousness is leavened with a prurient and aggressive obsession with their customers' sex lives - only deepens with repetition.

Graciously keen to emphasise that The Fast Show is very much a team effort, Whitehouse is not above some innocent fun at his fellow performers' expense. He makes no effort to hide the fact that rosy-cheeked Midlander Mark Williams - "currently filming John Hughes' 101 Dalmatians with Glenn Close and Hugh Laurie" - was also the man in the heinous "We wanna be together" building society advert. And what of Caroline Hook (aka acerbic chat show hostess Mrs Merton) - is she really as scary as she seems? "Hard as nails" is Whitehouse's verdict. "Peter Hook [Caroline's husband, erstwhile New Order bassist and reformed wildman of rock] has got curvature of the spine from the pressure of the thumb."

Unlike several of his Fast Show colleagues, Paul Whitehouse has no dramatic training (unless you count his not quite legendary stint as The Slitherer, rolling around in a black bin liner on the first series of Vic Reeves' Big Night Out). He doesn't seem in the least bit bothered about this, though, and there's no reason why he should be. Whitehouse has extraordinary facial as well as vocal elasticity - he can look 20 years either side of his actual age of 37 with equal ease as the occasion demands - and he doesn't just play his characters, he inhabits them.

The cheesy grin, which won Whitehouse the unlikely accolade of "Baby Smile of the Rhondda Valley" at the tender age of four, still works for him. But there is something extraordinary, at times even disturbing, about the amount of emotional intensity he can bring to a two-minute comedy sketch. As Ron, the unhinged football manager or Ted, the gnarled and honourable old retainer horrified by the depth of his aristocratic employer's affection for him, Whitehouse conjures up levels of pathos that are almost too high to bear.

He makes no reference to any formative trauma that might be the root of this ability. His family - cheerfully pigeonholed as "Full-on proles with middle-class pretensions" (his dad worked for the coal board, his mum sang for the Welsh National Opera, "until she became mum") - moved from South Wales to suburban Enfield when he was four. Whitehouse is now a family man himself, living with his wife and two young daughters at the Highbury end of Islington in London (though he supports Tottenham not Arsenal).

"It is good you know," he observes, evangelically, of parenthood. "It staves off the excesses of showbusiness apart from anything else - the white powder that so many others seem to succumb to." There is certainly nothing of the show-business insider about Paul Whitehouse. "Because I never actually chose it as a vocation," he explains, "I still feel as if I tricked my way in: 'We got away with it, the fools have given us money for another series'." He doesn't seem at all intimidated by the BBC though. "We're like naughty little boys at school sitting at the back of the class really, and it's probably best for us that we stay that way."

Finishing his second cup of tea, and preparing to leave for lunch with his publicist in the corporation restaurant, Paul Whitehouse goes to get his coat. As he picks it up from the back of his chair he fixes the apparently uncontroversial garment with a speculative look and says: "Every dad in Islington's got one of these."

8 'The Fast Show, Series Two' starts on BBC2 on Friday at 9pm

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