Jack Whitehall on scandal, public school privilege and new BBC drama Decline and Fall

The actor and comedian leads the cast of Evelyn Waugh’s high-society satire on the BBC

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A man has climbed onto the outside window ledge of the five-star Soho Hotel’s dining room, hoping to get a glimpse of Jack Whitehall at lunch.

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The famously posh comic and actor doesn’t notice – he’s too busy describing the hand-knitted Jack Whitehall doll with startlingly oversized genitalia that was recently secreted backstage by a zealous fan. “I was unnerved,” says the star of the BBC’s adaptation of Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 comic novel of the British upper classes. “Yes, it was proportionally complimentary, but it is odd to arrive in your dressing room and find that just staring back at you.” 

It’s the day after Whitehall finished a sell-out stand-up tour during which he says he stayed sane by “hanging round with my driver, Walt; he gives me so much s**t”.

Despite his relentlessly cheerful public image Whitehall, wearing black and hunched over the table, is quite doleful. Pale and tired, he’s 28, but looks nearer 20 – even with a patchy beard that, on the doll at least, he admits has a touch of “Jack the Ripper” about it. 

The doll’s creator turned out to be, “Oh my God, an actual witch,” he says. She revealed herself on Twitter, which makes her just one of Whitehall’s incredible 5.35 million followers; Michael McIntyre only has 1.3 million. That’s why members of the public are climbing up the hotel walls – Whitehall is a bona fide phenomenon. He is possibly the most popular posh person who has ever lived.

Publically, he hasn’t always been so grand. “When I first started in comedy I was desperate to not talk about my background,” he says. “I was embarrassed by it. I went to university in Manchester [he studied history of art but didn’t complete his degree] but I wasn’t really true to myself. I had a weird voice, partly Manc with all different manner of intonations. I don’t know where it came from. Everyone goes through a sort of identity crisis at a time in their life, but mine happened on stage as well. You could see it in me back then, a stand-up who didn’t know who he was.” 

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Decline and Fall

When Whitehall did admit who he really was – a privileged west Londoner who went to Tower House, the same Sheen prep school as Tom Hardy and Robert Pattinson, then the exclusive Dragon School in Oxford, before Marlborough College alongside Kate Middleton – his comedy career prospered. He parlayed stand-up success into acclaimed appearances in the sitcoms Fresh Meat and Bad Education and just kept going.

Today Whitehall is in the centre of a casting frenzy. He is about to join his father and co-Backchat presenter, the theatrical agent and producer Michael Whitehall, on a tour of south-east Asia for a new Netflix show, he has a comedy action series called Bounty Hunters co-starring Academy Award nominee Rosie Perez coming up on Sky1, and the BBC are trusting Whitehall to carry one of the year’s major productions by casting him as Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, a three-part drama adapted from Waugh’s novel by Rev co-creator James Wood and played, very successfully, for laughs.

Pennyfeather, a bookish Oxford theology student, falls foul of the rampaging toffs of the Bollinger Club (for which read real-life Bullingdon Club), led by aristocratic oaf Sir Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington, who steals Pennyfeather’s trousers. Digby-Vane-Trumpington goes unpunished, Pennyfeather is sent down for indecent behaviour and launched by cruel fate on a series of adventures that take in pimping, an engagement to society beauty the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde – played here with maximum allure by Eva Longoria from Desperate Housewives (left) – and a teaching position at Llanabba Castle, a chaotic and arbitrarily cruel Welsh public school where boys are shot by drunken masters.

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Whitehall and Longoria in Decline and Fall

“Paul’s not from the landed gentry but Digby-Vane-Trumpington is. He gets away with it because of who he is,” says Whitehall, picking up on the unfairness at the heart of Waugh’s brilliant first novel. Whitehall often jokes about privilege (typical gag: “I’m posh but I don’t take any stick for it. I always say stick and stones may break my bones, but I’m with Bupa”). But he is inclined to take what he calls “the unfair leg-up of my background” very seriously.

“The advantages you get because of the public school system and how unfair it is – that sits with you for the rest of your life,” he says. Isn’t having a theatrical agent and producer for a father just the sort of unfair leg-up the Digby-Vane-Trumpingtons of this world enjoy?

“That needles me. The idea that I got to where I am because of my dad is the one that hurts the most. It’s an easy way to dismiss everything, any ability or hard work, in one fell swoop.” He helps you, though? “My dad is amazing at understanding what I’m going through and advising me. Though we had a very testing conversation early on when I got on Celebrity Juice. He’s not a fan.” But he paid for
 your education. “Yes. He never lets me forget that.”

Whitehall’s school days weren’t always happy. “I saw the public school
 world before it became PC, 
and there were eccentric
 teachers and people who
 were callous and emotionally
 cruel, discarding someone
 when they didn’t fit a formula.
 There were pupils who would get
 away with murder because of who they were, and who their dad was.” Did that make him angry? “This is the first time I’ve thought about this,” he says, looking genuinely pained. “Perhaps I haven’t thought about it as much as I should. I definitely saw Digby-Vane-Trumpingtons. That’s partly what fascinates me about Decline and Fall – there are a lot of posh monsters in it.”

The part is a major vote of confidence from the BBC in a man who has flirted with posh-monsterdom himself, enjoying the obligatory cocaine scandal (2010) and making a gag about the Queen catching a urinary tract infection (2012). “That one was a bit pathetic,” Whitehall says, a little shamefaced. “Schoolboy humour.” Playing Pennyfeather might also prove pivotal in a career that is edging away from comedy and towards straight acting, though he still fears his ability to undermine his success.

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Backchat with Jack Whitehall and his Dad

“I feel like I very much could be on the verge of scandal. I go out and probably drink too much on tour and say the odd thing that gets me in trouble. Sometimes I regret those
 things because I know what
 happens afterwards. Some of 
them I wouldn’t say again, some
 I would. I don’t want to set myself
 up as a family entertainer.”

Whitehall is heading that way, though; despite publicly mocking Prince Harry’s war record at the 2015 Royal Variety Show – “The first person to
 get a Victoria Cross 
for bravery just for stepping out of the shade in Afghanistan” – the two men, prince and comic, now send each other texts.

“The more you slag someone off, the more you realise people are human,” he says. “Now I’m a lot more conscious about saying things about people.” Do you worry about hurting people? “I think so, and I don’t like my comedy when it becomes nasty or mean. That’s where James Corden is so smart; his comedy comes from a good place. It’s not nasty. When I started doing A League of their Own [the Sky panel show that Corden hosts] I was a bit cheaper, a bit snider.”

Whitehall admires Corden’s success with The Late Late Show in the US. “I think he took a huge risk doing what he did,” he says. “James gave up everything and went and did that show.” Does Whitehall have hopes of conquering the States? “In America, comedy is about race. In Britain, comedy is about class. You get 20 minutes on stage in a LA comedy club. When I strip out the class from my act I find it really worrying how little I seem to have, just because I do a lot of references that are very British. So I’m hoping they like Decline and Fall over there.”

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A League of Their Own

Whitehall is up against David Suchet as Llanabba headmaster Dr Fagan and Douglas Hodge playing one-legged dipsomaniac bigamist Captain Grimes. Both actors go off like fireworks, leaving the comic, for once, as the still centre around which events revolve.

“It’s just as important to be the straight man and I enjoyed being that,” he says. “I’ve played the reactive straight man with my dad, I guess, but more so with this. I want people to watch Paul and think, ‘That’s what I’d be like if I came up against a Captain Grimes.’”

Was he nervous? “It was more frightening than anything I have done before,” he says. “I was well out of my comfort zone and I didn’t know if anyone would like it. I was also conscious of how strongly people feel about the book. It was my father’s favourite book – he gave it to me when I was a teenager and I have loved it ever since. Though it is depressing that a social satire about this country written in the 1920s seems to be just as pertinent now, in every aspect.”

If he sounds a little glum, perhaps that’s a glimpse of the troubled toff with a bad Manc accent Whitehall used to be before he took over the world. “People have a perception of me being happy and upbeat and fun,” he says. “But no one is like that all the time. Comics are the most dangerous people to meet. It’s such a cliché, the sad clown. Or maybe not the sad clown, but the moody clown or the short-tempered clown or the twitchy clown. I’m all of those sometimes. I get very anxious. I’m good at maintaining a positive, friendly persona publically, but behind closed doors, I’d let the anxiety consume me and then I’d not be a very good version of myself.”

We may not see that side of Whitehall, but those closest to him have. “I would be this effervescent person, then I’d come home and be down and introverted. And you don’t want to take it home. Maybe I wasn’t very good at that, but you learn things.” Like what? “To reserve some of your best self for the people you love. To get better at living your life in this weird state.”

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Decline and Fall begins on Friday 31 March at 9pm on BBC1