Paul Whitehouse

If you’re surprised by the idea of Paul Whitehouse – writer, comedian and, lest we forget, ‘the greatest actor of all time’ (according to Johnny Depp) – fronting a new West End musical version of Only Fools and Horses, then you’re not alone. He took some convincing too.

‘It’s a slightly daunting task,’ admits Whitehouse – who, as well as appearing on stage as Grandad, has co-written the show with Jim Sullivan, son of Only Fools creator John. ‘I think our director [Caroline Jay Ranger] probably had more faith in me than I did about taking the project on. I’m not the most ambitious person. But I thought, well, it’s a challenge. Even though I don’t normally like challenges,’ he adds, with a rueful chuckle.

Reinventing one of Britain’s best-loved sitcoms is ‘a double-eged sword’, Whitehouse concedes. ‘In one respect, we’ve got these fantastic characters and brilliant writing to work with – this world that resonated so strongly with the British public for so long. It’s incredible, the affection for it. But at the same time, they don’t want to see the memory of it sullied.

‘Jim is the key to it, in many ways, because he rightly treasures his dad’s legacy. I think he realised I was going to be very careful in my approach.’

It was John Sullivan who came up with the idea of turning his most famous creation into a musical, and among the work he completed before his death in 2011 was a song written in collaboration with Chas Hodges, of Chas & Dave – a partnership Whitehouse later continued. ‘It’s doubly poignant, now that Chas has died,’ he reflects. ‘I’d developed a good relationship with Chas. We were like old mates. We come from the same area and we were both Spurs supporters.’

While the 60-year-old Whitehouse feels like perfect casting for Grandad (‘I always liked his slightly vulnerable disposition,’ he says), it’s Tom Bennett and Ryan Hutton, tasked with filling the sizeable shoes of David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Del and Rodney, who are arguably under the greatest pressure. 

‘I bloody well hope so,’ cackles Whitehouse. ‘That’s their problem now! No, of course David and Nick did an amazing job, no question about that. But it’s John Sullivan’s child. We’ve got to sort of give a nod to David and Nick, but also try to give it a personality of our own. Obviously we’re never going to please everyone, but faint hearts ne’er won fair maid. Plus, you know, actors are used to stepping into big shoes, aren’t they? That’s what they do. You can’t not do King Lear again because Sir Larry did it once.’

Whitehouse was an early adopter of Peckham’s favourite ducking and diving wheeler-dealers when Only Fools launched in 1981. ‘It had a lot of heart, but it never really got sentimental or mawkish – if it got too sad, Sullivan would always pull the rug from under it with a joke,’ he says. ‘Even so, there’s some quite moving stuff. It’s a sort of dysfunctional family, really – Del is a single parent and a carer, almost.

‘Also, I don’t want to sound too classist, but it was a working class comedy, and maybe there hadn’t been one for a while. Plus it’s about London – our show is as much about London as everything else. Grandad has a little lament for the lost Cockneys, which is especially poignant, as I wrote that with Chas.’

Whitehouse is a Londoner through and through – so long as you overlook the fact he was actually born in Glamorgan, to Welsh parents (his dad worked for the Coal Board and his mum sang with the Welsh National Opera), and spent the first four years of his life there. ‘At the risk of dismissing my heritage, I do feel like a Londoner,’ he says. ‘But I’ve got a foot in both camps. I’m proud to have been born in the Rhonda Valley, but London is where I grew up.

‘Even as a kid I’d switch between my London and Welsh accent, if we went back to Wales for holidays. According to my mum, I was very quiet for the first couple of months after we moved, and then I came home from school one day and announced, in fluent Mockney, “Mum, I was to go to Saaarfend”. She nearly had a breakdown. Her little Valley boy had gone.’

He has described his parents as ‘rampant proles with lower middle-class aspirations’. His own social mobility, meanwhile, suffered a setback when he dropped out of the University of East Anglia to squat in a council flat in Hackney, working as a plasterer alongside college friend Charlie Higson. Also living on the estate was an up-and-coming young comic called Harry Enfield, who invited Whitehouse to write some material with him.

‘I owe a colossal amount to Harry for getting me involved in comedy,’ he says. ‘He saw something in me, I suppose. And Charlie, too. Charlie’s a very bright bloke, but he’s quite hard as well. So I could pretend to be nice, and let him make the difficult decisions.’

As well as helping Enfield create such early hits as Loadsamoney, the nouveau riche Cockney plasterer, and Greek kebab shop owner Stavros, Whitehouse co-starred in sketches featuring the likes of dyspeptic pensioners The Old Gits and FM radio dinosaurs Smashie and Nicey. Later, he teamed up with Higson and a host of rising stars – including Caroline Aherne, Mark Williams and John Thomson – to create kinetic ensemble comedy The Fast Show (‘We were fortunate to find a group of people who were just emerging as significant talent, and we got them cheap’).

Among his own contributions to the show were lonely, hapless pensioner Unlucky Alf, and repressed Irish handyman Ted, whose unspoken desire for Higson’s country squire Ted was a Nineties love story to rival Friends’ Ross and Rachel. What is it that instinctively draws him to find the pathos in his comedy characters?

‘I don’t know, but maybe that’s why I do have an affinity with Only Fools,’ he reflects. ‘Occasionally, when I see bits of The Fast Show repeated or something, I think: come on, tell us a joke. Less of the sadness. But it’s always there, in comedy – that element of defeat and misery.’

Over the years, Whitehouse has grown used to that ‘greatest actor’ compliment by Fast Show superfan Johnny Depp – who made a cameo appearance in 2000 – being quoted back to him. But there’s a truth to it: for a former plasterer with no classical training, Whitehouse has an extraordinary ability to inhabit characters on screen. Where does it come from?

‘You maybe need to ask someone else,’ he demurs. ‘But I do remember, when I started performing regularly with Harry, thinking: wow, this is it. This is what I should have been doing. My mum always wonders whether it’s the fact I could easily switch from Welsh to London as a kid. Maybe there’s something in that.’

Last year saw Whitehouse dropping the mask to join his old pal Bob Mortimer for BBC2’s Gone Fishing. A surprisingly touching meditation on friendship, ageing and mortality, it found the pair opening up about their recent heart problems (stents for Whitehouse, a triple bypass for Mortimer) during a meandering tour of English riverbanks.

‘My heart wasn’t functioning as well as it should – I lost 90% function in one artery – but mine didn’t come out of the blue, like Bob’s did,’ he explains. ‘A triple bypass is a much more shocking procedure, so I thought I’d better try and lure him out of the house.’

Whitehouse, who split from wife Fiona in 2000 and is now in a long-term relationship with the academic and writer Mine Conkbayir, once calculated his life’s tally as ‘three stents, four daughters and five BAFTAs’. Not too shabby a result, all told, is it?

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘But what’s six?’

Knowing him, don’t be surprised if it’s six Oliver Awards. As Del Boy always says: he who dares, wins.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 24, 2019

(c) Waitrose Weekend