This year, as friendships were challenged and restricted like never before, millions took comfort in watching Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse fishing and chatting on rivers across the country.
Serious issues – mental health, physical health and older men’s reluctance to seek medical help – were discussed, bread was broken, jokes were shared, and insults were liberally exchanged as we watched the deep bond between the pair of veteran British comedians grow ever deeper.
In a year of sadness and loss, when our need for connection and interaction and care has been felt so strongly, these two comics showed how friendship should be done.
After a sweary hurry-up text from Whitehouse, we are joined on a Zoom call by Mortimer, who offers old-school Party Ring biscuits and haircare tips, before casting his eye around his pal’s front room.
“Why haven’t you got your fire on, Paul? And what’s that in the corner of the room? It looks like a huge embryo.”
There’s a joyous, easy back and forth that feels like it could go on forever, such is the nature of real friendship, but Bob eventually intervenes: “Sorry, we’re being arseholes. How can we help?”
It is precisely their mix of humour and health chat, philosophical ponderings and playful invectives that we want to talk about.
The TV funnymen have been friends for decades. When Mortimer was struggling after a triple heart bypass in 2015, it was Whitehouse, who has had serious heart-related health problems himself, who dragged him out of his malaise. He suggested a fishing trip.
Five years on, they are still fishing. Only now we can listen to their life-affirming river bank chat with three series of BBC Two’s Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing already broadcast, another commissioned, and a new Christmas special imminent.
The Big Issue: You brought so many of us such joy this year. Did it feel like the show connected in a new way during the pandemic?
Bob Mortimer: What we put on screen is the essence of what really matters – it’s the outdoors, it’s friendship, it’s health. All the really important stuff.
Paul Whitehouse: It struck a chord because it comes out of a very genuine place. It’s exactly what happened in our lives. There’s no contrivance. Luckily, instead of looking at us and thinking ‘you lucky bastards’, people identified in a positive way and thought, ‘we must embrace and treasure our friendships’.
BM: We had no intention of the show being about men’s health. But it turns out that when two old fellas sit down for eight hours, it does become part of the dialogue. That hints at the importance of maintaining your friendships.
PW: And the joy of having fishing and a bit of humour is we don’t dwell on the misery, we undercut it with something funny, the excitement of a fish or the beauty of the places we visit.
— Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing (@MWGoneFishing) November 27, 2020
In the latest series, Paul, you said you don’t like birthdays or Christmas. Does that get addressed in this festive episode?
PW: For a show off, I really don’t like being the centre of attention in real life.
BM: Why are you the centre of attention at Christmas, Paul?
PW: On my birthday! I’m not the centre of attention at Christmas because we all know Christmas is to celebrate the birth of our lord Jesus Christ, don’t we Bob, and not to say, isn’t the new John Lewis advert good and look what I just got off Amazon Prime.
BM: We hang the Christmas show on trying to convince Paul that Christmas is worth celebrating. We also take a trip to my youthful Christmases, which are a bit bittersweet. We visit the house where I grew up, which is quite sad for me.
PW: It is very moving – I could very easily be your mate as a kid there. That is what I felt like, not two old men.
BM: I have visited a couple of times before, but it was lovely to go with a friend so I could articulate what I was thinking. It made it an entirely different experience, so again it is an example of friendship. There’s a sort of undercurrent to Gone Fishing – it is about caring. It’s about Paul helping me and caring for me. There’s hints of caring about our environment and there’s even a hint of care in my silly cooking bits.
PW: You provide food and shelter, Bob. They are two big ones. All I do is say ‘there’s a chub, let’s go and catch one’. My beef with Christmas is that it twisted out of all recognition into this monster. I say, don’t I Bob, that me, The Grinch and Scrooge are now on the right side of the argument – it is you lot in your capitalist orgy…
What got you through a year in which lockdown brought isolation and despair for many?
PW: I’ve been doing exercise rehab for my heart for years, but I racked it up during lockdown. I do structured exercise for an hour and try to get my 10,000 steps in. I got a puppy for my youngest girl. It’s not a lockdown dog – lockdown dog, that’s a strange yoga position, isn’t it? We applied before… Is that what you do, Bob?
BM: You apply to the government, yeah.
PW: They said we could have one but it turned out to have a heart defect. How apt.
BM: I’ve got through it by watching vast amounts of television.
PW: Even more than usual?
BM: More than usual, Paul. But I’ve told myself with my television and my son with his video games, let’s do this guilt free. Let’s just give into it. And I’m writing – would you call it an autobiography if you’ve written it yourself? – which I never thought I would do. Seeing all these empty months ahead of me, I thought I’d give it a go.
How have you stayed in touch this year?
BM: I hate social media for what it’s done to our culture but I have found a lot of comfort in it. And Mr Paul Whitehouse texts every day – he’ll call me names and reminds me I’m a worthless individual to cheer me up. I have a friend I always have a morning chat with and a lot of my extended family have come on to WhatsApp, so social media has been a positive thing.
PW: It’s easy to slag it off, isn’t it? But it’s not the actual airwaves, it’s the vitriolic individuals on the other end that give it a bad rap. We have also been very lucky to have been able to work.
BM: I felt like we were the luckiest people on God’s Earth when we went up to the Lakes. It was empty.
PW: You know when you play hooky at school? It was like that. We had access to the countryside when not many people did. This year people really picked up on what the series represents – which is the beauty of the countryside and the friendship.
Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is on BBC2 on Sunday December 13 and all three series are available on iPlayer