At 16 I loved football. But I was also realising that I was too skinny and too wayward, and just not good enough to be a footballer. When I was a child, that was my obsession. Some of the epic games I used to play in the street when I was a kid – I can still feel the adrenaline and the passion and the joy. They lasted for hours, like those medieval games that went on for three days, until somebody died. But I think maybe even then I had an idea I might not be good enough. I tried though; I really worked on my left foot. I’d spend hours out kicking a ball against a wall. I thought, if I’m two-footed that will give me a definite advantage. But by 16 I knew. My hair had started growing long. And I was a bit more interested in Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, playing the guitar and the ladies.
I wasn’t an angsty teenager at all. Obviously we all have those moments of internal anxiety – maybe I was just good at covering it up. Because I was always quite a loud, cocky little sod, and I had quite a lot of friends. I don’t remember any moments of teenage despair. I remember being a pretty happy suburban boy.
When I was quite young I had a girlfriend who was quite exotic. She was part-Irish, part-Jamaican and part-Chinese. And she was very… let’s say welcoming. It turned out she was welcoming to lots of people, including a couple of my best friends but… I think I owe her a lot really. She was great for my self-esteem. I was always conscious of being skinny and a bit wimpy. And she was very beautiful. And I suppose that did give me… a veneer anyway, of confidence. I mean she was trouble, obviously, but it was the ’70s and I don’t think you expected complete fidelity in the mid-70s. I was a creature of my time. She might have caused a few pangs of jealousy, but I never thought, you were the love of my life, I am now heartbroken. I was very fortunate in that respect.
I was a big fan of Monty Python, as everyone was. I remember Michael Palin saying once, for a few years we encouraged teenage boys and girls, especially boys, not to fight each other and to behave in a daft way instead. And you can’t really achieve much more than that. I think the funniest creature of all, and I can only speak for my gender – I was at an all-boys’ school – is a 14-year-old boy. They’re so bonkers, and they haven’t yet met all the friendly welcoming women, sexual maturity hasn’t quite come yet, the woes of adulthood feel too far away to even contemplate, so they’re in this kind of limbo world where humour and silliness is so important. It’s a sort of glorious period of nonsense. If you enjoy it, you can access it for the rest of your life. Maybe that’s where all comedians stay, maybe that’s where we get stuck, but it’s a nice place to be stuck.
Charlie [Higson, an early friend who would go on to be Whitehouse’s longtime collaborator] and I had a mutual bond. We made each other laugh a lot. He would make up these weird rambling shaggy dog stories and they’d always end with the same line; “I know that, but did you know that?” It makes me wonder – and I’m just thinking of this now talking to you – maybe that notion of the repetition of a phrase, a catchphrase, was in us then and it became a big part of our early sketches. I mean I don’t want to read too much into it, but we certainly knew the importance of, or understood the value of, a catchphrase when we started doing The Fast Show.
Before I started painting and decorating with Charlie I worked at Hackney Council with a guy called Danny Wiseman. He’s a very funny bloke. I’ve nicked loads off Danny over the years. Everyone’s got a mate who’s funnier than them – Harry [Enfield, who Whitehouse and Higson wrote for in the early days; Whitehouse created legendary characters Stavros and Loadsamoney for him] used to say I was his – and Danny was mine. I owe Danny for Suits You Sir and Ron Manager [popular characters on The Fast Show]. Ron Manager was based on Alec Stock, who was Fulham manager for a while. He would always over-elaborate. “Ooh, FA Cup final day is it? Get the bunting out. Boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts. Marvellous.” Danny and I used to do that to each other all the time. He is absolutely that archetypal, quintessential 14-year-old boy.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone… well, my dad died a couple of years ago. It wasn’t very nice but he wasn’t hospitalised for overly long. My dad’s of a generation that doesn’t do this but he was able to tell me he loved me and I was able to tell him. So that was lovely. But when we moved from Wales to London when I was a nipper, we brought this boy, Edward Evans, with us. He lived down the road, one of 14 kids. And he was sort of my brother. He joined the army, got out of that pretty quick, went back to Wales, became a miner, became an NUM rep. And he died last year. I tried to get him to come up and see Only Fools [and Horses, Whitehouse wrote the 2019 musical version with Jim Sullivan, original writer John Sullivan’s son] because he was a big Only Fools fan. But he was too ill to do the journey. So I thought, right, when I finish this run I’ll go down and see him. But I didn’t get down in time. It was very sad. I went to his funeral and it started with the line “A working class hero is something to be.” He was such a giant in the community and a lovely man. So that’s the thing that I really regret. I would love to have spoken to him face to face before he died.
I don’t fear mortal illness or anything like that [he has suffered serious heart and bowel problems]. Yes, I want to prolong my life as much as I can but only to the point where I can still do what I enjoy doing and be around for people. Obviously I’m getting older and I’m conscious of my own mortality but I do think that if you put in the exercise and eat well you can prolong your active life so much. I used to be the antithesis of that. But that’s what I tell my younger self; put that fag out, get your hair cut, put that can of Coke away… what’s the substance I’ve just found on you? That’s going down the toilet. Get yourself down the bloody gym. And he’d laugh in my face and say, shut up old man.
There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
I’m a pretty positive person and I get that wholeheartedly from my mum. She’s a very, very positive person, almost annoyingly so. She thinks everyone is intrinsically good, and because she thinks like that, and relates to people like that, generally people are nice to her. So it’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Even deep in the grip of Alzheimer’s she’s still got it.
Life would mean very little to me without my kids. They’re the thing I think about all the time. But if I could go back to one single moment of deep and unstinting joy, with an almost spiritual dimension, it was when I was in Corfu when I was 22. I’d gone out early in the morning, my friends were in the house, and there was no one around. So I was lying on the beach, the sun was just hotting up so it was warm but not too warm, the low light of the sun was glinting off the surface, and I was listening to Aretha Franklin belting it out and I was thinking, there is nothing better than this.
I’ve just taught my youngest girl to ride a bike. And as she rode off for the first time I saw the joy and the feeling of freedom in her face. And I suddenly remembered the first time I rode my bike. I drove off and I looked back at my house, and saw my mum and dad, and I went, “See ya.”
Series Three of Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing started on August 23 on BBC Two. Two 25th anniversary Fast Show retrospectives, Just a Load Of Blooming Catchphrases and More Blooming Catchphrases, will air on UK Gold on August 29 and 30