Christmas has come to Gone Fishing, and all is quiet and still. That’s because Bob Mortimer, the man who invariably knocks rods out of their holders and is likely to have scared away many more fish than he’s ever caught, hasn’t yet arrived.
“Believe me,” says Paul Whitehouse. his partner-on-the-riverbank, who, predictably, is on time for our conversation about the show’s Christmas special, “he’d be insufferable if he was early. A nightmare.”
But when Mortimer joins us, he’s not insufferable at all. Though neither quiet nor still, some of the manic energy that makes him such a liability by the water has been exchanged for the oddly contemplative mood that can be both moving and slightly unnerving on the show. “What I do is, I make people think I’m vulnerable and fragile,” he says. “And then they’re nice to me. I lay it on thick. Paul’s a tough guy, though. He just says, ‘Yes, fine, whatever.’”
Whitehouse is the emotional opposite of Mortimer. Unlikely to gush, or over-emote, he bottles up his angst and concentrates on angling. “We have to be careful,” he says, “that we don’t become overly sentimental.” He doesn’t even like Christmas. “I’m not talking about for other people. Please go and enjoy it as much as you want! But I don’t like formal, contrived celebrations, particularly. My disappointment with Christmas stems from my abject horror at losing the magic of Christmas when I was young. That’s where it comes from. Because I’ll never capture that Christmas joy and excitement again.”
Trying to recapture that excitement for Whitehouse, says Mortimer, is the point of the Christmas special. “It’s me trying to show Paul what Christmas is, and to celebrate it.” The very fact that Gone Fishing has a Christmas special reveals just how popular it has become. “We’re hitting 20 million now, over this COVID period, through iPlayer,” says Mortimer.
“I have to admit I watch it quite a lot, and I never watch my own shows. It’s very reassuring in a way. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s a very COVID-friendly show.”
Three series in, the format is pretty much unchanged. Two men, who have survived potentially life-ending coronary events – open-heart surgery in Mortimer’s case, emergency stents for Whitehouse following a colonic abscess – sit by various rivers and waterways, including, so far, the Tweed, Test, Wye and Ireland’s Lough Erne. They talk about life, the camera cuts away to take in the beauty around them, then Mortimer falls over.
This has led, for both of them, to a remarkable late-career surge in popularity. “Before this we were destined for the scrapheap really,” says Whitehouse. “I’d been asked to do fishing shows many times, and I’d always said no. But there was something about this one, the heart-disease angle and Bob’s subsequent redemption, and you know, ‘Glory be! Bob is risen!’”
For the Christmas special they are going to the River Tees, on the North Yorkshire/County Durham border. This is where Mortimer learnt to fish as a boy, setting out from urban Middlesbrough on his bicycle. It is also, clearly, where his damaged heart resides. “That’s my golden Christmas period, when I was a young lad,” he says. “I thought it would be nice to base it there, to show Paul my neck of the woods, my old house where I used to enjoy those Christmasses, and the places that I fished when I was young.
“Going back has been a revelation for me. Remembering how important friends were to you. The way that you spent your time with them when you were young, just knocking on the door and saying, ‘Let’s go and walk around the streets for five hours.’”
To film the show, Mortimer, Whitehouse and the production team were in a COVID bubble together for the duration. I say it would be terrible irony if, after all they had been through, the pair were taken away by the pandemic, and Whitehouse reveals that he had COVID earlier in the year when he was appearing in the West End in Only Fools and Horses. “I was lucky,” he says. “I wasn’t too badly affected, but it is such a strange disease. Some people get away with it, and with other people it will find a weakness in them. Personally, I was OK, but Bob, I think you are more vulnerable than I am.”
Mortimer is 61 and Whitehouse 62, but Mortimer does seem the more delicate of the two. His heart problem was the more severe and it was the reason Gone Fishing began three years ago, after Whitehouse, concerned for his pal’s psychological wellbeing, lured Mortimer back to the riverbank. On the show Mortimer cooks what he calls “heart-healthy dishes”, including one that could only come from a native of England’s north-eastern corner: pease-pudding pitta with fried lamb and prunes. “It’s a health food, the prune,” says Whitehouse, in Mortimer’s defence. “Somewhat healthier than the avocado and sunflower seeds.”
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Mortimer’s plans for Christmas don’t sound heart-healthy. “It’ll be a normal Christmas,” he says. “Which is boozing, then eating, then boozing, then eating.” In a recent episode, with the pair in the pub after a day of fishing for pike, it was Bob who was on pints, Paul the sensible half. “While I have been in lockdown,” says Mortimer, “I’ve done no exercise, I’ve eaten so much and drunk so much booze. Lockdown has probably taken two years off of my life. Truthfully.”
“Oh, Bob,” says Whitehouse.
As the show has progressed, Mortimer, who has two sons, has been revealed as a man who finds meaning in his family rather than his 35-odd-year comedy career alongside Vic Reeves or starring in Would I Lie to You?.
“I asked him what’s the saddest of all songs,” Whitehouse says. “And he said, ‘Abba, Slipping Through My Fingers.’ You’d think it would be about death and pestilence, or a lost love, but it’s not. It’s about a child growing up and just disappearing, and that feeling that maybe you didn’t do as much as you promised or wanted to with them. It seems like a trite little pop song, but actually it’s very, very brilliant.”
In a recent episode, Whitehouse said he didn’t like thinking about the time he spent with his own four daughters when they were younger, as he found the memories upsetting. “I said to all of my kids, ‘Don’t grow up,’” he says. “But they do grow up. And that’s the tragedy of it in a way.” He claims his own childhood was very happy. “Though I’m not going to remember the times when I was sitting around and moping going, ‘This is the end of the world.’”
When the pair visited the River Usk, where Whitehouse had once fished with his late father, he scattered his ashes into the water. It was a poignant gesture, but Whitehouse did it off camera. With Mortimer it can feel like everything is to camera. In series three he described the death of his father, killed, he said, in a car crash when a lorry carrying tinned peaches jack-knifed. Mortimer was only seven; it was a pivotal moment in his childhood, which Mortimer delivered as a comic turn, speculating on his father’s very last thoughts as the fatal wall of tinned peaches came hurtling his way.
Yet it led to a moment when the show’s warm indulgence of nostalgia, its taste for what Whitehouse calls “the utter magic of going off fishing when you were a kid”, became something more profound as, afterwards, Whitehouse commented on the sugar Mortimer puts in his tea. “And I made the link. It was genuinely on screen, that moment,” Mortimer says. “I started taking so much sugar when my dad died.”
“It really told me something about you,” Whitehouse says now. “Take away the sugar and there you were, little lost boy Bob.” Under-standing Mortimer is a full-time occupation, one in which Whitehouse, in his own way, revels. “Bob and I have got a very close bond now.
I mean, we always had a bond anyway, but you know, he’s quite a distant figure, Bob, and he has been for a while. He says that he’s part-hermit, and he is.”
As the show continues (series four is already confirmed), the pair have had to accommodate some extra company on the riverbank – the millions of people who watch it. “It’s weird,” says Whitehouse. “It’s made us be a bit more socially responsible and a bit more aware of the people watching, rather than just a couple of idiots mucking about on a riverbank. I think we almost have to do something about men’s health.”
They need, Whitehouse says, to do a separate podcast. “We’ve been there, we both know people now who are going through similar things. We have talked to health experts about the subject; it would almost be irresponsible if we didn’t say, ‘You can follow this up by going to this area.’”
Mortimer concurs. “Medicine has let women down terribly with the menopause, and it’s just beginning to get the attention it deserves. I think, maybe in 30 years’ time, we’ll realise that it’s time for us to address properly men’s ‘down below’ problems. But it doesn’t feel like the time is right just yet to talk about it on the show.” Too tricky, agrees Whitehouse: “Here’s a two-pound roach. Now, let’s talk about your a**ehole.”
For now, Gone Fishing will continue to focus on the riverbank, heart-healthy food and the immense curative power of simply talking to someone about the things on your mind. “We have delved, Bob, haven’t we?” Whitehouse says. “We have,” Mortimer replies. “I’ve never spoken about these things to another person, female or male, to be honest. I’ve never found anyone who’s willing to listen.” Whitehouse laughs. “I’m not really listening, Bob. I’m fishing.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
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