“Cor, look at that! The mating dance has begun,” says Paul Whitehouse, as scores of mayfly rise from the banks of the River Test in Hampshire. “The females will lay their eggs tonight.” Beside him on the bank, Bob Mortimer says, “Wonderful.” Beneath the khaki jacket Mortimer wears buttoned up to his throat, there is a still-livid, foot-long vertical scar he calls his “zipper”. It was left by openheart surgery or, as Whitehouse puts it, as he drops a fly into the water with a deceptively lazy flick of his fishing rod, “When they took your heart out, mucked about with it, then put it back in again.”
The news, when it came, was very serious. Mortimer’s arteries were “95 per cent blocked”. He had to have heart surgery, and he had to have it quickly. He was due to go on tour with his long-time comedy partner Vic Reeves, real name Jim Moir. Mortimer didn’t tell Moir. “I was just in a trance. When I was young, having a heart bypass was, ‘Woooh!’” His partner of 22 years, and mother of his two children, Lisa Matthews, had to make the call. The tour was off.
“I was caught up in a whirlwind of feelings,” Mortimer says. “I didn’t know what to do at first, but when you’re s***ting yourself, you start focusing on putting your house in order.” He decided to marry Matthews. This required a special licence, which in turn required a letter from Mortimer’s surgeon. “He said, ‘Bob, give that to the registrar, but please don’t ever look at it. I’ve laid it on really thick!’” Hours after the service, Mortimer was on the operating table.
“Laughter is the only currency I’ve really ever known,” he says. “Ever since I was a boy.” But now there was nothing to laugh about. Surgery left Mortimer alive but confused and worried, and he locked himself away in his home in Tunbridge Wells. “You’re looking online, thinking, ‘What have I got, a month? Six years?’ After your heart fails, you just feel really vulnerable for a while. You just want telly and your little house. Then, suddenly, three, four months have passed.”
Whitehouse had been there before. “I’d already had my heart problems, and I was sort of out the other end,” the Fast Show star says. “So, I asked about Bob and there was definitely a feeling I got from Lisa. Bob wasn’t clinically depressed, but it’s evidence based, isn’t it? He wasn’t going out. So, I asked him to come fishing.”
Both men had fished as boys. Whitehouse in suburban London, “where you’d hop on a train and be on the River Lea in 20 minutes”, while Mortimer and his pals were cycling into the North Riding countryside from Middlesbrough to fish with “Woolworths rods”
Going back to the riverbank worked like a balm. “I’ve never felt anything like it,” Mortimer says. “There comes a moment when you realise that you’ve said nothing for an hour and a half. I haven’t thought about anything else. I haven’t worried about the past, or future. I didn’t find out until later that it was just a ruse to get me back into life. That he’d been conspiring with Lisa.”
To his delight, and with the aid of a lifetime’s angling knowledge and a wishlist of riverbanks and sea trips, Whitehouse brought his friend out of the trough. Then he did what all television writers do when life surprises them – he had an idea for a show. “We thought there might be some humorous value, and maybe some informative value as well, beyond just two old blokes going fishing,” he says. “Because the jeopardy is real. We’re two old friends who’ve had a reprieve. And then there’s the timeless wonder of the English countryside. That was the pitch.”
The result is Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, a tender and occasionally very funny account of how to cope with those years when our bodies begin to fail and we must accommodate some grim personal realities. Particularly grim for Whitehouse, who suffered a colonic abscess ten years ago. “It was very nearly fatal,” he says. “It was like the end of the world.” While he was in hospital Whitehouse was given an angiogram, which checks the blood supply to the heart. “There was only ten per cent function in one of my arteries, so that’s when they did the stents.”
The series follows the pair as they go in search of six different fish species across England. At the same time, they try to make sense of what happened, talking to a vicar about death and a heart surgeon about staying alive along the way. “Stop the fags,” says Whitehouse. “Cut down on the booze. Not stop the booze, usually, cut down.”
They also consider what it means to be funny. The two met after a Reeves and Mortimer gig in south-east London 30 years ago, but became friends on a trip to a Montreal comedy festival where Mortimer was playing with Reeves and Whitehouse was performing with Harry Enfield. “Bob and I got into comedy in a similar way,” says Whitehouse. “On the coat-tails of our mates.”
Mortimer says, “We gravitated to each other. Maybe because we’re both thinking, ‘We shouldn’t really be here.’” Whitehouse agrees. “We were both fairly poor comics, but you weren’t bad.” Mortimer reaches for another fly. “No, I was terrible, Paul. We were terrible.”
But they got good and then they got famous. Between them they are responsible for a defining chunk of what has been funny on British television for the past 30 years – Whitehouse best known for The Fast Show, and Mortimer for the various incarnations of his on-screen relationship with Vic Reeves. Reeves is the flamboyant star, Mortimer less naturally suited to fame. “I was terribly shy,” he says. “Comedy, if it didn’t save my life, certainly gave me a very different life. I got to be quite old, 29 or 30, before it happened. When you’re really, really shy, you live a strange little restricted life. You don’t go out, or if you do, it’s just torture to be sat at some party. But shy people find each other and have their own little secret world, so I was always comfortable when I was with my friend, Kegs, in Middlesbrough. Then, at university, I didn’t meet a soul in three years.”
“Bloody hell, Bob,” says Whitehouse, with immense affection.
Comedy can be a reckless life that delivers a comeuppance in middle age. Did high living play a part in their heart conditions? “We were wilder than we are now. I suppose there was a bit of excess,” says Whitehouse. “But I got famous about the time that I was probably thinking money and celebrity could be dangerous, so I reined it in. Bob, who apparently never had any fun in his life, thought, ‘Wa-hey-hey!’ ” Mortimer agrees: “I went mental for about 15 years.”
Apart from one scene where Mortimer jumps into a hot tub, there is very little madness in their new series. “It’s not laddish,” says Mortimer. “There’s no banter or us shoving each other over stuff.”
Whitehouse says that’s because they couldn’t do it at their age. “We’re so frail. If I touch your shoulder you go down like a sack of s**t. My knee goes, my back goes…”
Occasionally they catch a fish – but they mainly talk. About being a man, about facing death and, more often than not, Mortimer’s infuriating clumsiness. “If I’ve said ‘Mind the rod’ once, I must have said it a thousand times,” Whitehouse says. “I’m quite grumpy. I have to occupy the kind of stern patriarch figure. He’s like an Alsatian puppy.”
Mortimer is aware that things could have been very different. “If I’d gone on tour that could have been it. My surgeon looked at the schedule and said, ‘If you hadn’t had the operation, you might have lasted two weeks. My best guess is…’ – and he looked at the dates – ‘I think you would have gone down in Southampton.’”
“Oh, what a treat,” Whitehouse laughs. “Seeing you go, in Southampton!”
Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is on Wednesday 20th June at 10.00pm on BBC2