Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse talk new projects, staying current and agonising over their impressions
Harry and Paul have delivered a host of comedy classics, but what’s their new baby?
Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse have been friends for 38 years, during which time their work (solo or together) has included era-defining comic creations.
Whether it’s the 1980s’ greedy glutton Loadsamoney, the 90s’ “Suits you, sir!” tailors or, more recently, the two erudite surgeons in their BBC sketch show Harry & Paul, they are the catchphrase kings.
They’ve come a long way from the early 1980s when, in their 20s, they were bumming around London together before Enfield hit the big time, first with ITV’s Spitting Image then Channel 4’s Saturday Live. He brought in Whitehouse, who was working as a decorator, because “my mate Paul” was always the answer he gave when people asked him who was the funniest person he knew. But ask the pair how they work together now – and, well, there’s no way getting round it. One of them must be lying.
“I write and Paul comes in and says the one thing that’s really funny and goes to talk to someone very loudly on his phone for half an hour,” laughs Enfield. “Then he comes back and says something else very funny, which we write up into something. And then he goes off again. That’s how we write. But I’m definitely a bossy man and Paul’s the nice one. He’s the funny one and I’m the control freak.” For Whitehouse, the picture is very different: “I sit working extremely hard at the computer. Harry turns up, goes and buys a coffee, mucks about on his phone, sends texts, gets more coffee, goes out, comes back, and I do all the work.”
Whatever the truth, they’ve once again worked their magic on Story of the 2s, their 50th-birthday tribute to BBC2, in which Enfield plays a cleverly observed Simon Schama taking viewers through a spoof history of the venerable channel. From Dennis from Heaven (sending up Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, with the infamous woodland sex scene reworked to include clean-up TV campaigner Mary White- house) – to Grumpy Old Bores and 60s drama The Forsyte Saga, few major BBC2 shows escape their brilliant and coruscating attentions.
But they’re careful to insist that their parodies are a sign of their deep love for the channel’s shows and the BBC as a whole. And rather than mere impressions, says Enfield, they are sensitive portraits that seek to “get inside the heads” of the personalities.
“It’s an affectionate portrayal of a lot of our favourite programmes,” says Whitehouse. “It’s strangely touching. We worked hard on reliving our childhood and adolescence, our 20s, fondly taking the p**s out of all those shows. We have a little laugh at Monty Python’s expense. Only because Monty Python was the be-all and end- all for us when we were young. It’s not really mocking it. It’s a homage.”
To be fair, they also make fun of themselves, with a snippet in which Whitehouse as Evan Davis interviews “Harry Emery” about his lack of Baftas, inviting him to explain why The Fast Show (which Enfield wasn’t involved in) won four.
The comedy includes a memorable impersonation of Ian Hislop by Enfield – although you probably wouldn’t realise from the biting way he captures Hislop’s pencil-bashing, po-faced grimace that the two of them have been firm friends since working together on Spitting Image. But do they think anyone will anyone be upset?
Enfield reckons Paul Merton may not like being sent up in a sketch where he’s shown constantly interrupting with the surreal refrain “dolphin in a bathtub”. “I don’t like upsetting people,” says Enfield. “There’s no point in being mean. I don’t think I’ve done anything worse to anyone else than I’ve done to myself. It’s really affectionate. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like it.” He then smiles mischievously.
Whitehouse, however, appears to agonise about the cruelty of his impersonations. His Evan Davis, already seen on Harry & Paul with absurdly large stick-out ears and nipple piercings, also features on Story of the 2s. “I really like Evan Davis,” booms Whitehouse, “but sometimes when I see myself doing him, I think, ‘You cruel sod.’ But I actually admire him. Well, anyway, we’re not here to praise Evan Davis. We’re here to take the p**s out of him.”
The pair also address the thorny issue of paedophilia, albeit in a way that pokes fun at the BBC’s paranoia about the subject after the revelations about Jimmy Savile rather than the subject itself. (The word “paedophile” comes up in a skit lampooning Call My Bluff.)
In fact, it’s not the only pop at the BBC. Its creative director Alan Yentob is played by Whitehouse as a Yoda-like figure from Star Wars in a dog basket dropping names (as is supposedly his wont). “Yentob also believe this to be true. How he love Orson. Orson! Orson! Oh Orson! Yentob is Orson’s friend.” The pair insist that BBC executives were relaxed about being made fun of and didn’t interfere, as they totally “got” the spirit of the show.
But if they love the BBC so much, why did Enfield defect to Sky in 2000 to make the brief and, to many minds, uninspired Harry Enfield’s Brand Spanking New Show? “I was bored of doing the sketch shows. You need a break from these things,” he says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I wanted to do a bit of directing. I did a show for Sky to pay off a bit of the mortgage. You need a bit of time off.”
It was clearly not a good period for Enfield – around this time Ricky Gervais’s The Office came out and Enfield admits he considered giving up comedy because he felt better work was being done elsewhere. “I just kept a low profile because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.”
How did he feel working for Sky? “It’s a difficult thing really because I’m a BBC person. I feel bad working for anyone else. I don’t know why. It’s like the idea of not voting Labour is just something I can’t get my mind around. If I do something for Channel 4 or ITV or Sky, I always feel a bit like, ‘Uhhh, it’s not my channel.’”
Such is his passionate concern that he’s happy to go on the record about Mark Thompson, the former director-general who left the BBC in 2012 after an eventful eight years, including the time the Corporation apologised for wrongly claiming that the Queen walked out of a photo- shoot on one of its programmes. The controversy cost BBC1 controller Peter Fincham his job – and, for Enfield, the saga still rankles.
“The problem is under Mark Thompson, [the BBC] didn’t stand up for itself. It would just sack someone if anyone criticised it. Like Peter Fincham when he was sacked, when he so-called resigned, Thompson should have come out and said, ‘OK, he said this thing that was slightly inaccurate about the Queen because he was briefed by a private company that’s come in because everything has to be private now. I’ll get him to resign once any of your [newspaper] editors who have written anything inaccurate about the royal family resign.’ You know, come out fighting instead of whingeing. He didn’t do that. It was a bad thing for the BBC and put it on a bad footing for the future...”
Thompson, Enfield believes, was also too craven in the face of certain newspapers. “It’s fairly obvious that the Mail is a direct competitor with the BBC. It’s totally in its interest to smash the BBC at all times, ditto Murdoch. But the idea that the BBC listens to these people…”
As for the future, a new series of the Harry & Paul sketch show may happen – but not for a while, thanks to an apparent disagreement between the pair and BBC2 over a sketch that was dropped. (Enfield won’t elaborate because it will give opponents of the BBC ammunition.)
But there are also creative reasons for the uncertainty.
“Harry tires of the characters more quickly than I do,” says Whitehouse. “Really, it’s down to whether we can sit down in a room together and one of us not go and get coffee or text or phone but come up with some ideas rather than just sit there frustrated. So we’ll hopefully sit down at the end of the year and see.”
So what’s next? Will they ever retire gracefully as comedy legends – or work till they drop?
Enfield, who turns 53 on 30 May, is developing projects for his new independent production company, Balloon, and hopes to direct more, having helmed episodes of E4 teen drama Skins. He’ll also once again be “embarrassing” his teenage son and two younger daughters by playing Jack Whitehall’s dad in the BBC3 school sitcom, Bad Education. Whitehouse, 56, is adapting his Radio 4 comedy Nurse for BBC2. It follows Esther Coles’s community psychiatric nurse into the homes of her patients, many of whom are played by Whitehouse himself.
But Enfield seems less confident about the future. “It’s no coincidence that most comics, musicians and artists produce their best work or longest-lasting work when they’re young. Maybe not their best work. They might mature and do a little bit of really good work and it becomes valuable. But yeah, they tend to do their best work when they’re young. That’s just drive.
“Also, I think now I was very lucky at the time because when we started, comedy wasn’t really a big thing. It was literally the Oxbridge lot. And then the whole alternative comedy thing was basically one club, or maybe two or three. Now it’s this massive industry. It’s so competitive.”
Whitehouse disagrees. While joking that he “hates the young... they’re so bright and intelligent and sharp and unassailable”, he won’t be sitting on his laurels any time soon. “The fact that we’ve been able to keep going with this stuff... well, if I’m going to blow my own trumpet, the thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve been able to do new stuff and keep it relevant.
“Personally, I’m excited now by my new stuff, which is different and more age-appropriate. It’s probably more painful, but if you can’t laugh at pain when you get to my age, there’s not a lot left to laugh at.”