Mortimer and Whitehouse: ‘The jeopardy of Gone Fishing is that one of us will drop dead on the riverbank – that’s TV gold’

Ahead of their Christmas special, the comedy legends talk to Ed Cumming about life, death, and why there’s nobody funnier than a 14-year-old boy

Sunday 13 December 2020 08:07
Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer on the River Tees
Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer on the River Tees

think you fear Christmas, Paul, because it’s marking off time,” says Bob Mortimer. “There is a bit of that I suppose, Bob, because you keep saying it,” Paul Whitehouse replies.

Technically speaking, this is a Zoom interview about the upcoming Christmas special of Gone Fishing, but only in the sense a sheepdog could be said to be interviewing the flock. Bob and Paul were mates for 30 years before Gone Fishing began, and have spent a lot of time together over the past two and a half years. They finish each other’s sentences, jab each other good naturedly, and occasionally even defer to the other’s expertise. The most any interlocutor could hope to do is occasionally nudge the conversation back on course.

“I’m quite shallow,” continues the 62-year-old Whitehouse. “I have no fear of my own mortality. Apart from my little brush with the colectomy and the heart disease, I was ticking along quite happily. Then you come along and say, ‘You’ve only got 15 more of these left, Paul,’ and I wonder who is really the Grinch around here.”

They joke about dying, but a sense of mortality has underpinned Gone Fishing since its debut in 2018. It came about when Mortimer was recovering from a triple heart bypass operation in 2015. To get him out and about again, his old mucker Whitehouse, a keen angler who’d had similar health problems in the past, invited him fishing. They quickly wondered if their unstructured ramblings might be worth filming, and pitched it to the BBC, initially as a factual series.

“That’s how we sold it,” says Whitehouse. “We’ve got this show and we’ve both got heart disease, so with a bit of luck, the jeopardy is that one of us will drop dead on the riverbank, and that’s TV gold. So far it hasn’t happened. We keep dragging it out.”

The format, if you can call it that, couldn’t be more basic: the two men pitch up to a picturesque riverbank somewhere in the UK, usually in pursuit of a specific fish: tench in the Norfolk Lakes, pike in the Test, salmon in the Tay. Paul teaches Bob about fishing, Bob finds them local accommodation and prepares a “heart-healthy” dinner. Along the way, they muse on whatever comes to mind, silly and serious, while the camera lingers lovingly on the water, trees and even the occasional fish.

It was an instant hit, a new departure for two comedians who came up at around the same time, in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Whitehouse, a gifted mimic from East London with an impeccable sense of timing, started out as a decorator before turning to comedy after working on a house where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were living. His big breaks were the sketch shows he made with Harry Enfield that evolved into The Fast Show and later Harry & Paul. Mortimer worked as a solicitor for Southwark Council, after a spell as a binman, before he started appearing at comedy nights with his friend Vic Reeves. Their brand of surrealistic, anarchic humour transferred seamlessly from the stage to TV, in the game show Shooting Stars and The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer.

Although Whitehouse and Mortimer's styles of humour are different, they were both working-class comedians, with radical sensibilities, who broke into a world dominated by graduates. For viewers who remember their heydays, which is more or less anyone who watched TV in the Nineties, Gone Fishing offers nostalgia along with its low-key charm: two understated titans of British comedy enjoying each other's company. But Mortimer says the programme has attracted younger viewers, too, who presumably just think of these two presenters in their sixties as amiably low-fi amateur fishermen.

“I don't know why younger viewers are watching it,” Whitehouse says. “Don't they have anything better to do?”

The Christmas special includes a few festive set pieces, with the loose conceit that Bob loves Christmas and Paul doesn’t. Standing outside his childhood home in Middlesbrough, Mortimer remembers being told, aged seven, that his dad had died in a car crash. They interview Chris Rea, a fellow Smoggie and Christmas icon who has had his share of medical complaints. On the whole, though, it’s more of the same warmth and gentle humour that viewers and critics have loved since the first episode.

Gone Fishing was never supposed to be amusing, and I think we’ve delivered on that promise,” jokes Mortimer. “No, it was brave of the BBC really. It feels like a slightly new format, which is actual reality TV. I don’t think we realised what a great bit of casting the British countryside was.”

“Yes, I’m glad he or she was available,” Whitehouse says. “A team works hard to make the show look beautiful. But there’s zero script or preparation, or voiceover. I think people can tell that we’re just mucking about on the riverbank and anybody could do it. We just have a vague notion of what we want to talk about, like, ‘Can you focus on childhood?’ which I usually forget immediately, because I can't be bothered, and refuse to go along with.”

“I’m aware we are meant to be making a television programme,” Bob confirms, “so I’ll go over to Paul, who doesn’t really want to speak to me, and I’ll say something like, ‘Have you ever got down on your back and looked underneath a horse?’ It wasn’t our intention to make people laugh, but because we’re both wankers we can’t resist showing off a bit. If we’d intended to be funny, though, I don’t think we’d have dared turn up without a script.”

Mortimer and Whitehouse in Gone Christmas Fishing

They say they film for three or four hours for the fishing section of each half-hour episode, and a bit more on the accommodation and cooking, but they don’t reshoot if the camera misses something.

“The show dictates its own pace,” Bob says. “It’s like... I can’t think of the word.”

“If you’d gone to Oxbridge, Bob, you’d say it was organic,” Paul chimes in.

“Would I?”

“You might.”

“I find it so difficult to socialise with people who are really intelligent.”

“What are you saying? I’m probably the most intelligent person you know, so you’re saying it’s difficult to spend time with me.”

“When you were a great big leftie advocate, I would worry I was going to say the wrong thing.”

“You were a libertarian anarchist!”

“Yeah, but a quiet one.”

“If you had any guts you’d be in Trafalgar Square now, not wearing your mask. In 1978 you’d have been up there: ’Lawyers against the lockdown.’”

It’s a rare nod to the world outside, either in conversation or the series. The Christmas special refers to the difficult year, but they don’t labour the point.

“We’re conscious of not mentioning it too much because perhaps more than any other show around at the moment, it’s a lovely break from what’s really happening,” Mortimer says. “It’s trees and birds and beautiful music and photography. But reflecting on the year, we did mention it’s been a strange old time. There was a popular tweet, which said that there hasn’t been a lockdown, all that’s happened is middle-class people have stayed at home while working-class people bring them things. That’s been our experience, really.”

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in 1995 (left), and Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in 1994’s Harry Enfield and Chums (right)

It’s also a strange old time for Whitehouse and Mortimer, who’ve found an unexpected new direction. They’ve never had any trouble making people laugh, but with Gone Fishing, they make their audience think and feel, too. Viewers write to them to say the programme has helped them recover from their own conditions, and encouraged them to open up to their friends and family.

“Given the germination of the programme, we knew it was going to have a level that might go beyond our usual stuff,” Whitehouse says. “It resonates with people who’ve had illnesses and problems of their own. It’s not just a couple of catchphrases and falling over, much as we liked that. We get some extraordinary communications. It’s very touching.”

Mortimer adds that it has been liberating to move away from pure comedy. “It’s a different experience. Instead of saying they enjoyed it, they thank us for the show, which is nice. It’s age appropriate, too. Comedy is and should be a young person’s game, constantly replenishing itself.” Where does he see the new Whitehouses and Mortimers emerging?

“Without much knowledge, I’m assuming YouTube,” he says. “The way into comedy used to be Oxbridge, university, intelligence, satire and all that business. The daft lads, the genuinely funny lads, couldn’t get into that loop. I expect there will be some crackers coming off the YouTubes and that.”

Whitehouse agrees. “Bob and I are both of the opinion that the funniest creature on Earth is the 14-year-old boy. Trapped between childhood and no sex, you’ve to come up with something, and daft comedy usually rears its head just about then. If you can expose that without having to go through TV companies, that’s quite a healthy situation, isn’t it?”

As for them, they are happy to keep casting and chuntering as long as viewers will have them. A series abroad has been mooted, but they’re not sure Slovenia or France would be as appealing for their audience. “We’ve talked about it,” says Whitehouse, “but I think one of the reasons Gone Fishing is popular is that the fishing is on our doorstep. Even the more highfalutin places are available to anyone at certain times of the year. It’s sometimes expensive, but no more expensive than you’d spend going to the football. Bung in a meal and a ticket for a son or daughter and you’re paying the same as you’d pay to fish some of the top beats.”

When he’s finished, Mortimer turns to ask me a question.

“Do we sound old, Eddie? Do you feel like you’re talking to a couple of old men?”

Not really, I think. Mortimer and Whitehouse still seem entirely young at heart, whatever their doctors tell them.

Gone Christmas Fishing airs tonight (13 December) at 8.10pm on BBC Two

Gone Fishing by Bob Mortimer & Paul Whitehouse (Blink Publishing) is out now

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