According to his father, Jack Whitehall was conceived during the Great Storm of 1987. ‘It’s a story he doesn’t tire of telling, much to my dismay,’ says the actor and comedian, with a sigh. ‘I can’t look at Michael Fish in the same way.’
Nine months later, Whitehall Jr was born into what was already an established showbiz family: his mother, Hilary, is an actress, and his father Michael was a theatrical agent whose clients included Judi Dench and Colin Firth.
‘To an extent, it’s understandable that I ended up doing what I did,’ says Whitehall. ‘It’s hard to get a taste of that and not want to do it. There were a lot of cautionary tales from my parents in trying to get me to do something proper. But in the end I fell into the trap of doing it.’
He did try ‘something proper’, studying History of Art at Manchester University, but dropped out after two terms to pursue his newfound love of stand-up comedy.
‘My mum and dad were a bit worried when I said I was going to be a stand-up,’ he admits. ‘That wasn’t the career trajectory they had in mind. But they were very supportive once they came round to it.’
He says he endured ‘loads of terrible gigs’ on the stand-up circuit, but success came relatively quickly, as did television: by the time he turned 21, he was already a regular on the likes of 8 Out of 10 Cats and Mock the Week, his clipped, RP tones and private education earning him a reputation as the posh boy of comedy.
‘They’re quite competitive and you need to have sharp elbows,’ he says of his trial by panel show. ‘It’s not necessarily the most enjoyable environment. But I don’t want to be that guy who slags them off once he’s stopped doing them, because they’re good shows.’
In 2011, Whitehall made his acting debut in Channel 4’s Manchester-set student comedy Fresh Meat, playing JP, a cocky but endearingly vulnerable ex-public schoolboy who’d failed to get into a proper university. A year later saw the launch of Bad Education, the sitcom he co-wrote and starred in as Alfie Wickers, a heroically inept history teacher more interested in trying to look cool in front of his students than inspiring hearts and minds.
The show was a huge hit, setting a new ratings record for BBC Three, and has now been turned into a feature film, starring Whitehall and regular co-stars Matthew Horne, Harry Enfield and Sarah Solemani alongside Jeremy Irvine, Talulah Riley and Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen.
Upholding the classic, all-aboard-the-coach tradition of British sitcom movies – the cast of Are You Being Served? sunned themselves on the Costa Plonka, while the crew of On the Buses had to make do with Pontins in Prestatyn – The Bad Education Movie sends staff and pupils on a school trip to Cornwall, where events spiral out of control in surprisingly explosive fashion: according to Whitehall, the film was inspired as much by action films like Die Hard and Con Air as it was by classic comedies.
Once a low-budget staple of British cinema, the sitcom spin-off died a death in the early 80s, but has recently enjoyed a revival with the likes of Mrs Brown’s Boys, Alan Partridge and, most successfully, The Inbetweeners.
‘Our film wouldn’t have happened had it not been for The Inbetweeners, and the success of that film at the box office,’ admits Whitehall. ‘That’s given the opportunity for other TV formats to explore doing films. But, likewise, it means we’ll be compared to it, so it’s a double-edged sword.’
The Bad Education Movie is very clearly aimed at a domestic audience. ‘I don’t think the American market will be troubled by this film,’ smiles its star. ‘It’s very British, and there’s something quite refreshing about that, in a big summer of American blockbusters.’
The film features Whitehall’s mother in a small role. His dad – now something a cult hero himself, thanks to Whitehall co-opting him as his crabby sidekick in BBC2 talk show Backchat – was also given a scene, but it didn’t make the final cut. ‘He was really good, but the section needed to go,’ says Whitehall. ‘He was livid. He was so angry.’
Whitehall specialises in playing what he calls ‘well-intentioned morons’ like Alfie, and his likeable, Jack-the-lad persona allows him to reach beyond his youthful, BBC Three demographic to, for example, the occasional chairmanship of Have I Got News For You. His comedy, by his own admission, may often be ‘puerile’, but he’s got mum appeal, too – even if there is a whole section of his Wikipedia entry devoted to ‘controversies’…
‘Oh yeah,’ he smiles warily, when Weekend raises the subject. One incident, in particular – an off-colour joke about the Queen on The Big Fat Quiz of the Year – brought the full fire and fury of the Daily Mail down on his head, prompting his father to cut ties with several old friends on the paper.
‘It was very uncomfortable,’ says Whitehall. ‘But in a way, it’s quite good to experience it, so you’re more aware of what happens if you poke the wrong hornet’s nest. It was a bit of a storm in a teacup, and it was over quite quickly. It’s good that I’ve had a taste of it, so I know not to do it again.’
Since 2013, Whitehall has been dating the actor Gemma Chan, with whom he shares a house in Notting Hill. Recently, Chan starred in Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans as Anita, an android ‘synth’ designed to represent the ideal human female form. So your girlfriend is literally the perfect woman, says Weekend. Congratulations.
‘Well no, she’s terrifying. It puts me off her,’ he laughs. ‘She’s very scary in it. I catch her in the mirror looking at me, and I’m quite worried she’s going to kill me. It’s made me a lot warier of her.’
Following a recent episode, Whitehall tweeted that ‘synths definitely need a delete history or private browsing mode’. ‘Er, yeah,’ he says sheepishly, when it’s read back to him. ‘I might have been told off for that…’
When promotional duties for The Bad Education Movie are over, Whitehall is planning to take a bit of time off. But he’ll be back later this year as JP in the final series of Fresh Meat, in which – spoiler – he finally gets that degree from Manchester.
‘It might be a fictional degree from a fictional university, but it’s a degree nonetheless,’ he grins. ‘I took a picture of me with my mortar board and scroll and sent it to my dad. And he was very happy, very proud. Finally.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 13, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend