Jack Whitehall: "When my dad talks of his active sex life I’m embarrassed"
An eccentric son? A grumbling father? What do the comedian and dad Michael really think of each other?
According to my dad I was conceived during the Great Storm of 1987. He told me the story once and I must have repeated it because now it’s common knowledge and whenever I see Michael Fish, that’s all I think of. Like every child, I hoped my parents were sexless beings with no reproductive organs, so when my dad talks of his active sex life I’m embarrassed. But then I think it’s that dynamic that audiences like. And for entertainment purposes I’m willing to put myself through the embarrassment, apparently.
When you go on stage as a stand-up, you are projecting a heightened version of yourself, and our relationship on Backchat is a similar sort of thing – it’s a heightened and condensed version of our dynamic at home. We try to deliberately bring out moments of confrontation and bickering that exist in every household. Obviously in reality, over half an hour we could probably get along – but that’s not very good television is it?
We’ve always been very close and had a lot in common. I was a bit of an odd child apparently. I liked dressing up and being stupid. Dad was a lot more like me than he would like to remember when he was growing up, according to my mum.
He was always very caring, he had grumps and grumbles and he had a temper, but he was a very loving father. He came to all my school plays and football matches at Marlborough College – I just wish I’d been better at football because he would always end up getting in trouble for shouting too loudly and haranguing referees.
I had an eccentric drama teacher who would put on these really out-there productions, which my dad wasn’t a fan of. His idea of theatre is Terence Rattigan and Alan Ayckbourn. We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an African twist. I was Oberon in a grass skirt. He made no secret of the fact he thought it was nonsense.
When I was caught drinking at school he was angry but mostly because I was caught drinking gin and not a nice whisky. The most trouble I got in was when a group of us attacked the CCF army corps at our school with water balloons and balaclavas on. It was just an end-of-term prank, but all the headmasters of nearby prep schools were being shown round the school at the time. They walked in just as we launched our attack.
He was pretty annoyed when he got that call, although eventually he came to my defence. The school went absolutely apoplectic that we had embarrassed them in front of these prep-school headmasters, but obviously we had no idea they were going to be there. My dad – quite rightly – pointed out that we didn’t intend to do that, it was the end of term and we were just being stupid, and that if the CCF were being trained properly they should have been able to defend themselves. He loved writing those kind of poison-pen, angry letters. They must have had a special Michael Whitehall shredder for all his complaints.
As a celebrity agent, my dad did have a cool job, although he had wound it down to focus on his family by the time I was old enough to realise who any of the people round at our house were. Maybe because of that or maybe in spite of it, clients began to leave. Somebody he’d looked after for 20 years suddenly firing him was hard to see.
I was worried about telling my dad I wanted to drop out of Manchester University to become a comedian, but he was absolutely fine with it. He and my mother came to all my gigs in dodgy pubs and nightclubs around the country and I liked having them there. There are moments when I regret involving them so much. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. I once made a joke about the Queen everyone was outraged by; there were journalists outside the house all day and the Daily Mail ran a hatchet job piece on my family. I found that incredibly hurtful and felt awful for exposing them to that.
Our biggest arguments have been about football. Me, my brother Barnaby and my dad support Arsenal but Dad really doesn’t like Arsène Wenger; he thinks he’s arrogant, and I think the fact that he’s French doesn’t help. Barnaby and I have always defended him, but at the moment it’s slightly turning, which is strange. I fear we’re turning into our dad...
If I start getting annoyed or angry about something, my girlfriend will say, “Is that Michael Whitehall talking?” A few months ago I got annoyed at someone for wearing flip-flops in the supermarket with really mangy feet, and found myself shouting, “Why can’t they put on some socks? Or go home and put some shoes on?” That’s exactly what my dad would say.
But ultimately, I’m very proud of my dad for everything he has done for me and our family, and for keeping my mum happy for so many years. That’s the most important thing in the world to him: being a good husband and a good father. I hope I can look after a family as well as he has. Everything he’s earned, he has spent on me, my sister Molly and brother Barney. He’s never had a fast car or gone on luxury holidays.
He used to joke that when I became famous I could pay him back for all the school fees he wasted on me, but there’s absolutely no way! It was his choice. I would have been perfectly happy at a state school. I didn’t ask to go to boarding school. I actively said I didn’t want to go, so he’s only got himself to blame.
What really happened was: we had a party, the guests left at about midnight, we took the dog around the block, it was really weird outside – very hot and still – and then got back inside, went upstairs, and, because I like to embarrass Jack, his mother and I... Kids hate the idea of their parents doing anything – anything – really. If you say, “I gave your mother a tongue sandwich,” he’ll go, “Oh, Dad! It’s so disgusting!”
It’s fine if they’re kissing their girlfriend or having sex in my house! I was in my mid-40s when I met my wife, Hilary. Fortunately she wanted to have children straight away, so we got started. It was great timing because by then I had quite a successful talent agency. It was my own company and I had people working for me, so I could go and watch all Jack’s football matches and all his plays. A lot of fathers regret not spending more time with their children, but I was able to spend as much time as they wanted me to spend with them.
He was a very sweet, very eccentric child. He was slightly mad and used to dress up, but not to perform. He just liked sitting around watch- ing TV and eating his dinner as Robin Hood. He was always quite shy socially – he wasn’t the sort of kid who would come into the room and start showing off. If we had people for dinner he would just sit around the table – and still does.
He doesn’t do funny in that kind of way. I think his sense of humour comes from both Hilary and me. The reason we got married – if Jack was here I’d say, “The main reason we got together was because of the sex!” – but the main reason was that we both have a very good sense of humour. We laugh together all the time. He was always very funny in school plays but the head of drama was very intense and serious and didn’t like Jack very much. The first play that he put on was by the Marquis de Sade – it’s a very weird piece. He was one of these alternative people who wanted to do original, clever, dramatic stuff but he was just a bit of a tosser.
The angriest I’ve ever been with Jack is when I got a letter from his headmaster at Marlborough about a prank that went wrong, though I soon came to realise they were completely overreacting, so I sent him quite a stiff one back. It was along the lines of: “Jack has been a huge advantage to your school, he’s organised all these plays that have done well in the theatre, he’s a great character and you should be so bloody lucky to have him.” I certainly didn’t go back with, “I’m so sorry about my little boy.”
I didn’t want Jack to be an actor. The trouble is, you have the opportunity to become a big star, but most of the time you don’t. When I talk about people that I used to look after, I mention Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth, but I had hundreds more that you’ve never heard of.
But by the time he asked about dropping out of university it was to do comedy. He had done gigs in pubs, in a box in Edinburgh, started running a comedy night up in Manchester, so I knew he could make a career of it. He works so hard and the idea that fame came to him quickly annoys me. It only came because he worked hard for it.
I'm proud of him all the time – I’m amazed how talented he is. And he’s so charming and generous. Most comedians wouldn’t dream of giving their punchline to some- one else, yet Jack is the opposite. He always gives me the best lines. When people ask me to do things without Jack I always say no. I’m not an actor, I never had ambitions to be famous but I love working with my son.
He’s never disappointed me. When he made that joke about the Queen I was never cross with him. I was really cross with the Daily Mail. They said Hilary was a snob and we were social climbers. That I had a very modest background and tried to pretend I was much posher than I was. It was all ridiculous and I felt really upset for Jack. We stopped taking the Mail and I have ceased communication with everyone I knew socially from the paper – Peter McKay, Quentin Letts. I never see them now, never speak to them.
I think Jack will end up being a very successful actor in film and television. I don’t think he will be playing Hamlet but he’s a great comic actor. He’s doing a film of Bad Education and a drama of my autobiography is still on the cards. It was Jack’s idea to play me, and I think that would be very good.
And when he’s really rich and famous I’m planning to send him an invoice for all the money I’ve spent on him over the years!