He's delighted when a gag hits the mark as he moves effortlessly from the smooth-talking DJ Smashie, one of his favourite creations, to a near-perfect impersonation of Vic Reeves.
We’re here to talk about his latest venture, writing and starring in Only Fools and Horses, The Musical. His enthusiasm for the project is clear and, while he was surprised and somewhat overwhelmed by the task he’d been asked to undertake, the man regarded as one of the greatest shape-shifting comedians of his generation has a passion for comedy of all genres and believes his fans will welcome the new show as much as die-hard Only Fools followers.
He first wrote material for pal Harry Enfield before writing and starring in The Fast Show (below, left and right), the sharp, frenetic sketch show that revolutionised TV comedy in 1994 at a time when Only Fools went from broadcasting regular series to sporadic Christmas specials.
Paul and his peers, including writing partner Charlie Higson, Simon Day and John Thomson, were part of a new wave of comedy, starring in the zeitgeist show of 1990s Britain, with its rapid-fire format and a motley crew of characters espousing catchphrases by the dozen.
But meet Paul Whitehouse in the flesh and it’s obvious why he is such a good fit for taking over the mantle of John Sullivan, the creator and writer of Only Fools and Horses.
‘When Charlie and I started, we certainly weren’t writing in response to sitcoms like Only Fools and probably the biggest character that we did with Harry in those early days, even before The Fast Show, was Loadsamoney, and he’s not far off Del really. He’s a bit less pleasant than Del, without Del’s largesse and generosity of heart, but they are similar. There’s Del giving it all that,’ he mimes counting out the wads of money. ‘I suppose ours was a little bit more cynical in a way.
‘But I think they will cross over; people who watched us will have had a lot of affection for Only Fools and Horses when they were growing up. They might have thought The Fast Show was a bit hipper, but I liked Monty Python and I liked Dad’s Army; I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.’
Dad’s Army, The Dick Emery Show and Pete and Dud were all part of Paul’s childhood comedy heritage, growing up in the London suburb of Enfield. His family had moved here from the Rhondda Valley when he was four. Paul didn’t talk for the first few weeks after the move, then came home from school one day and said in full mockney, ‘Mum, I wanna go to Sarfend!’
The estuary twang stuck, as did his ability to mimic other accents, swinging between a charming Welsh lilt on holidays in the Rhondda before reverting to pure Alf Garnett back in North London.
He met Charlie Higson at the University of East Anglia where they formed a band, before Paul dropped out after the first year and went to work for the council in Hackney. When Higson graduated, he came down to live with Paul, and the friends worked as a plasterer and decorator team. (Charlie also played in his new punk-funk group, The Higsons.)
It was while they were working as tradesmen on a house owned by comedians Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie that they became inspired to start writing comedy.
‘We had lots of influences at the time, but someone who never gets credit for it is the DJ Steve Wright and his show's funny little characters. We had the radio on all the time and they were a welcome relief and a bit of fun. They said pretty well the same thing every day.’
The list of characters they listened to on the Steve Wright show ranged from Diamond Geezer to Dr Fish-Filleter to Gervais the Hairdresser. Not hard to see the similarities there with ‘Unlucky’ Alf, Ron Manager and Rowley Birkin QC, just a few of Paul’s characters who made their way into The Fast Show lexicon.
At around the same time, they became friends with Harry Enfield. Enfield already had a stage act and when he began appearing on Channel 4’s Saturday Live, he asked them to write for him. Paul created Stavros, the London-based Greek kebab-shop owner, and then Loadsamoney, the Thatcher Essex boy made good. Appearances followed on Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, before Paul starred alongside Harry in Harry Enfield and Chums. The plasterer’s trowel had been hung up for good.
Paul has four daughters and lives with his partner, Mine. Despite turning 60 last year, he is a live-wire of energy. Slim and fit – he has taken up exercise in a big way since having three stents fitted into his coronary arteries to help the blood flow more freely. There is something of the perfectionist in his manner, and you sense that behind the joking and the bloke-ish front is someone who agonises over his work, and is meticulous about detail.
He’s been enjoying something of a second career as a character actor in films such as the recent King of Thieves, and cameos on Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin and forthcoming adaptation of David Copperfield.
And he was certainly worried by the enormity of the job that lay ahead of him when he was asked to collaborate on bringing Only Fools to the West End stage. ‘It’s quite difficult to overestimate the importance of Only Fools and Horses to the TV viewing public in this country; it’s become such an institution.’
What made it such a success, does he think? ‘The brilliance of the writing and the characterisation. The cast were great and they brought so much to it. I know as a writer I can write something with Charlie or Harry, and we’ll think that it’s funny – and then you’ll get an actor in and they raise the bar.
‘I think about John Sullivan writing on his own, thinking, “How can I keep Marlene’s story in here, or what happens to Cassandra at this point?” What a creation he made without a collaborator. I’m useless without a collaborator. I couldn’t write anything worthwhile without somebody else.
‘So, I did think about John. I’d wake up at three o'clock in the morning and think, “Quick, that line might work,” and write it down. Then in the morning I’d check, and it would be rubbish. Or it might have been a little melody for a song or a chorus and I’d bash it down and that’s when I'd think of John with his lonely typewriter.’
Sullivan had started working on the idea of a musical version of his creation before he died in 2011. ‘I don’t know why he thought to do a musical, but I wonder if it’s the only way he could think to take it away from the TV series and say, “I can still do something different with these characters”. And the music, the intro and the outro to the series, are sort of seminal songs now, so a musical makes sense.’
Paul worked with Chas Hodges of Chas and Dave to compose tunes for the musical before Chas died suddenly last year. John’s son, Jim, has also been involved in the project.
‘Jim and I were very conscious of trying to get in as many of everyone’s favourite scenes as possible. It’s like if Led Zeppelin reformed and produced a concept album. Fans would say forget it, do the hits. People are coming up to me and saying, “Have you got the chandelier scene?” Well, no, we can’t smash a chandelier every night, but we can allude to it by mentioning that Phantom of the Opera (in which there is a falling chandelier) is just across the street. I was so happy when I got that one in.’
He plays Grandad in the show. ‘I wanted Grandad in it, as I thought he was a very sympathetic character and it allows me to explore big themes like life, death and the universe. But we might also get a glimpse of Uncle Albert.
‘And we’ve got in Boycie and Marlene. Jim has written some lovely songs – a very touching and funny one about Boycie and Marlene trying for a child. We tried as much as possible to keep that feeling of Only Fools, which sometimes could get quite sentimental, but before it got unduly mawkish they’d pull the rug from under you with a joke, so you never felt that they were really milking it.’
Poignancy is also bobbing away near the surface in BBC Two’s Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, the big TV hit of last year, which saw angling fanatic Paul teaching his old chum Bob Mortimer how to fish on trips around the picturesque British countryside, enjoying heart-healthy food and discussing recent health scares.
Its success has been as much a surprise to Paul as being asked to write Only Fools. ‘I think people can see it’s not a contrivance. There’s no voice-over; we did that consciously, and I think you get the impression we genuinely like each other. We are very comfortable in each other’s company. We try to make each other laugh sometimes and sometimes I ignore him and I’m quite grumpy with him.’ And at other times, there’s an almost paternal care for his friend.
One of the most moving moments in the series was the dedication to Paul’s dad in the closing credits of one episode. Paul learnt to fish with his dad, who died last year. He took in the rushes of the series for him to see in hospital, but says he was too ill to really take it in. ‘I really lamented that, because he would have adored it. He comes into my mind every day.’
There is an endearing quality to many of the characters Paul created, however dysfunctional or troubled. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch, after all, to see why he was the perfect choice to bring John Sullivan’s beloved creation to life on the stage.
‘Actually, some of the most successful characters we had on The Fast Show were quite slow, like Ted and Ralph. Again, there was a lot of heart. If you haven’t got heart, if you are just cynical, it doesn’t work, and we invested our characters with heart in the same way that John did with Del and Rodney. That’s why we all love them so much.’
Only Fools and Horses, The Musical previews from 9 February at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, onlyfoolsmusical.com, 020 7930 8800