All-conquering comedian Jack Whitehall doesn’t really need to bond further with his dad, Michael. As fathers and sons go, they’re cool, as in warm. Apart from some routine teen turbulence seven or eight years ago, they’ve been enviably close, sharing not only a surname but the jokes by which the 25-year-old has made his name. Jack says he was a nightmare, but his father disagrees.
One thing leads to another. A couple of years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, Whitehall senior started figuring in his son’s stand-up shows. He became a sort of Mr Grumpy, an absent chorus of fogeyish wit and vague disapproval. Then he started appearing on stage and before they knew it they had turned into a double act. They’ve even written a joint memoir called Him & Me.
Michael is 73 and in good order, dapper and well- stocked after nearly half a century as a top theatrical agent. Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Edward Fox, Tom Courtenay, Daniel Day-Lewis – you name them, they were all on his books at some point.
Jack has described his father as the funniest man in the world, and you can see what he means. Michael fast-forwards through the “downstairs” scenes of Downton Abbey because he can’t wait to get to “the Hugh Bonneville stuff”. He’s probably not the only true-born Englishman to harbour such guilty secrets, except that he’s not harbouring them at all. He’s sharing them.
Meeting him, you wonder if you have might have run into a new Victor Meldrew who’s been hiding all this time, but the parallel doesn’t quite hold. What Michael Whitehall peddles is more benign carping than old man’s rage. The pair seem to be enacting naturally that old comic construct of the “child” being centred and sorted while the parent is still all a-quibble with the world. Think Ab Fab or Steptoe and Son.
So, Jack, what’s your dad really like? Jack looks at the old boy, as if for permission that he doesn’t really need. He gives his reply directly to his father. “Obviously, when you meet people you are far warmer and more charming than you are at home. But if it were just the two of us, sat on the sofa watching TV, so I was your audience, it would be different. There would be no airs and graces. The kind of thing you would say if, say, Danny Dyer [the colourful new EastEnders actor] came on – that’s the kind of stuff you’ll be saying in the show.”
This domestic duetting sits at the core of a new BBC3 series called Backchat with Jack Whitehall and His Dad, in which Jack will sort-of interview famous people, like his godfather, Nigel Havers, and Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, while Michael will make Dad noises from the sidelines. For the series, Michael sees his function as “sitting in a button-backed chair, passing comments…
I shall be all over Jeremy Paxman like a rash. I’ve known him a bit and he’s exactly my sort of man; whereas Danny Dyer…”
“One of the finest actors there is,” interrupts Jack.
His father makes a “Hmm…” face and moves swiftly on, anecdotal and comfortable: “When we did the pilot, we had a chap from The Only Way Is Essex. His dad has a club in Essex. I asked, what sort of club, because I’m a member of one, the Garrick, and he said he’d never heard of that one. I said it was very difficult to get women in, and he said, ‘In my dad’s club you can’t go in without women.’ He said, ‘We don’t even let people in unless they’ve brought four or five women with them.’ ”
Ask them whether their relationship was always as good as it seems to be now and they say yes, but with different levels of conviction. Jack sounds a little more certain than his father. Both have retained the slight formality of the public schoolboy.
Michael went to Ampleforth and Jack, after Oxford’s elite Dragon Prep, to Marlborough. After that, there was a brief period of study at Chelsea School of Art. Difficult days, says Jack, as he was longing to be independent, however convenient it was to live at the parental home in Putney, south-west London. Michael takes issue with the “nightmare” label, but concedes that the boy could be “a little difficult”.
What was great, concedes Jack, was growing up in a house where such characters as Havers and the late Richard Griffiths – another godfather, whom he describes as “a genuine inspiration” – were regular visitors. In fact Havers was at the birth, turning up at the Portland Hospital in a dinner jacket. Jack was apparently conceived on the night of the great storm in 1987. As a boy he was already making telly appearances and coming to share his father’s adoration of Norman Wisdom.
In their joint memoir, there is a wonderfully comic sequence in which the teenage Jack is trying to hide a girlfriend under the duvet while his father comes into the bedroom with the boy’s younger sister Molly (now 23 and in PR) and brother Barnaby (20, in recruitment), declaiming from an article in the Daily Telegraph in the hope of instilling its wisdom into the children. Jack’s girlfriend remained hidden.
Yet Michael could be as mischievous as his son. When Jack kept on failing to get picked for his school’s football team, his dad told him to complain to the headmaster that the coach had been touching him. “It worked in my day,” he said.
“What, and get him arrested?” said Jack. “No, they’ll just move him on without a fuss.”
There’s an invisible star in this patrilineal tale, the wife and mother without whom nothing would have been possible. The role’s occupant is “Mum” to Jack and “St Hilary” to Michael. An actress, who works under the name Hilary Gish (she recently appeared in Jack’s comedy Bad Education), and 20 years younger than her husband, she is credited by both men with, basically, everything. She left the profession, says Michael, while the children were growing up.
“We said our book should really have been called Him, Me and Her. I mean, she came up with all the hot ideas, chivvied us along, typed the thing up. Eighty thousand is a lot of words and Jack is very busy and I’m very lazy.”
“She’s very sporty,” says Jack.
“Yes,” says Michael. “She was captain of cricket at school. I was only ever scorer.” But that’s an honourable trade, isn’t it? The late Lord Rees-Mogg, a BBC vice-chairman, was a noted scorer.
“I suppose so,” says Michael, more interested in the comic potential of the job. “I remember once I was on Test Match Special, talking to Henry Blofeld about scoring. He made some remark, which I thought he was addressing to me. So I responded, unaware it was part of his commentary, and we were going out on air.”
“I played football with Mum,” says Jack. “Dad had no interest in it. It’s possible that this meant we talked, and bonded, more.”
“Of course, I was always older than the other fathers. I was, what, 48 or 49 when you were born. So perhaps we never quite had that competitive thing. Fathers can be very competitive [with their sons], and we never had that.” “True,” says Jack.
What they did have was an involvement in broadly the same professional world. Jack must have been aware that not all his father’s clients were in work all the time. And Michael for his part must have been well informed to the point of panic about the employment prospects of actors. Did he really not want Jack to go into the business? Surely it’s safe to say now, with the boy starring in TV comedies – Fresh Meat and Bad Education – and filling auditoriums.
He gives it some thought, then says: “I’m genuinely delighted at how it’s gone. I admit I didn’t particularly want him to be an actor, although I would never have tried to ban him. I was delighted when he became a comedian, always hoping in the back of my mind he would be one of those who would also act and write. And that’s what’s happened.”
Competitive? Hardly. Proud? Certainly. “I’m quite good at sitting around a dinner table with eight friends, making them laugh. But Jack stands up in the 02 Arena in front of 20,000 people and none are his friends – well, maybe half a dozen – and does an hour and a half of original material with no notes. Absolutely terrifying.”
And yet, from the look of his son, it’s the most natural thing in the world.
What next for Whitehall senior?
“Oh, I think that’s the end of this little performing career of mine.” Jack seems to disagree, suggesting that his own next move will be to become his father’s agent. Michael looks briefly appalled, and then they get back to what they do best together, which is laugh.
See Backchat with Jack Whitehall and His Dad tonight 10:00pm on BBC3