Interview: Jack Whitehall

Jack Whitehall is nothing like Jack Whitehall. The Jack Whitehall that prowls and leaps around the stand-up stage that is, skewering targets from Jeremy Kyle to Nando's with his rapier wit and eloquence. This Jack Whitehall, the one speaking to me today is barely audible, a stuttering, mumbling, quietly-spoken mass of tentative hesitancy and reticence. Hunched over the earpiece so I can hear him, I'm coaxing out responses, stopping myself interrupting and filling in the blanks when he falters. That's not to say he's unwilling to talk, he's very personable and open, but I get the impression that the Bad Education and Fresh Meat actor, the shouty, razor-sharp stand-up comedian who has just finished two months of nightly solo performances, is actually quite shy.
Fall Guy: Jack Whitehall, Decline and Fall, BBC One, Fridays, 9pm Picture: Debra Hurford BrownFall Guy: Jack Whitehall, Decline and Fall, BBC One, Fridays, 9pm Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Fall Guy: Jack Whitehall, Decline and Fall, BBC One, Fridays, 9pm Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

He’s not like irrepressible big kid Alfie Wickers, ‘the worst teacher ever to grace the British education system’, from BBC3 comedy drama Bad Education, which he co-wrote and starred in either. Or his Fresh Meat comedy drama persona, entitled posh boy JP. Or even the eloquent Jack Whitehall who appears as a regular panellist on game show A League of Their Own or co-hosts Backchat, the celebrity chat/puzzle show, with his father Michael. This Jack Whitehall is quiet, and reflective, his conversation peppered with ums and pauses, as he winds down from his UK tour and prepares for the screening of his latest TV role in BBC1’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

“Yeah, I finished the stand-up tour last night in Peterborough,” he says. “It was really good fun, quite intense, all around the country, Brighton one night, Glasgow the next. So it was a lot of miles, but fun. I had a really good time up in Scotland, doing Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I caught up with my friend Kevin Bridges. It was so nice to hang out with him and catch up, he’s such a great guy.”

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With more than one string to his bow, the stand-up and actor likes to ring the changes between live shows and acting, and was keen to add to his repertoire by taking the lead in the Waugh classic. The three part comedy drama is screened on BBC 1 on Fridays and sees Whitehall playing Paul Pennyfeather, an innocuous Oxford divinity undergraduate whose life spins hopelessly out of control after he is pranked by the braying toffs of the Bollinger Club. Dismissed from university for indecent exposure, he finds work at an obscure all-boys school in Wales where he falls in love with one of the parents, South American beauty Margot Beste-Chetwynde, played by Eva Longoria.

“I really enjoyed Decline and Fall because it’s a departure from anything I’d done before,” he says.

Also starring David Suchet as the eccentric headmaster Dr Fagan and Douglas Hodge (The Night Manager), the social satire was written in 1928 but Whitehall agrees that its themes of moral disorientation and cultural confusion are still relevant today. Corruption, elitism, racism, inequality, they are all nailed by Waugh, and Whitehall and his co-stars give the classic a timely revival, 50 years since the author’s death.

“It’s a slightly depressing and scary indictment of the country that a social satire that was written in 1928 is as pertinent as it was back then in many ways,” he says. “A lot of the targets that it’s satirising still exist. For example the character of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington is an example of landed gentry who manages to have a Teflon existence, while Paul, who doesn’t come from good stock, has to bear the brunt of his own actions. Those types of people are around all the time. I saw them at my school [Whitehall went to Marlborough College], the sort of people who would get away with murder because of who they were.

“Paul is chewed up and spat out by high society, the little man getting trodden on, while high society and politicians scratch backs. It’s all things that people recognise as being depressingly existent in society now.”

Whitehall has been a fan of the book since his father gave it to him as a teenager, when the “dark, slightly rude and inappropriate” tone appealed to his sensibility and he’s keen that others will share his enthusiasm.

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“I’m realistic to know that maybe part of the reason they cast me is that I might attract a slightly different audience, so it would be amazing if a load of Bad Education or Fresh Meat fans watch this and maybe read the book, or more Waugh. I’m really excited about that. Because there are brilliant tangents he goes off on, added gems that you can’t really get into the TV adaptation but which are a real joy. I hope it appeals to a lot of people who don’t know Decline and Fall.

“James Wood, the writer, has done a brilliant job of making it seem very modern. Peppering it with things people recognise draws more direct echoes to modern day things,” he says.

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Expect subtle references to David Cameron and the pig’s head story and a joke with a Boris Johnson edge that will chime with today’s audience.

“It shifts around in tone quite a lot, as the book does,” says Whitehall. “It’s quite comic in the first episode with a sports day which is a farcical set piece, funny, knockabout and silly, but there are big tonal shifts and by episode three it’s a lot darker and more serious,” he says. “I enjoy that comedy drama can be dark and serious then knockabout and silly at the same time. Fresh Meat was a bit like that and I enjoyed that kind of tone.”

The obscure all-boys boarding school featured in the book also brought back memories of school for the actor.

“I’ve been in that environment, in those kind of bizarre schools, and I recognised those emotionally callous people in them. There’s a running reference to a boy who is shot in the foot by a starting pistol on sports day, who later gets gangrene and loses a leg, and he’s referred to in a throw away manner by the headmaster. Those types of men are the most inappropriate people to have in a school, nurturing young minds.” He laughs. Not too scarred then, by his own schoolday experiences. If he has children himself, would he send them to private school?

“I don’t know. Those sorts of places evolve, but I don’t know. There’s something for me to worry about – like I need more things to worry about... Yeah, I’m a bit of a worrier ... so I’ll just block that out for the moment… yeah...,” he says.

Decline and Fall also gave Whitehall the chance to reunite with David Suchet, of whom he is a big fan.

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“One of my first ever work experience jobs was in a West End theatre production where I was his runner. I was making him cups of tea, looking after him and he was so nice, so to get to work with him was a real pleasure. But I was so upset he didn’t stay in character and I could have done that as well, although him as Augustus Fabian the whole time would have been hard.”

And given the amount of alcohol consumed in the boarding school, they’d have been drunk the whole time.

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“Yeah, absolutely hammered. We were sometimes anyway.” He laughs.

If you consider Whitehall’s role of Alfie Wickers in Bad Education (2012-14) which he co-wrote with friend Freddy Syborn, JP in Fresh Meat and now Paul Pennyfeather, Whitehall has a forte for playing naive characters.

“There’s always a bit of me in the characters I play so at times I am Alfie Wickers and I am a sort of um, chinless idiot, and in Paul, I definitely recognise bits of me.

“I think that, you know, I do sometimes have, you know, off stage and off screen, a degree of nervousness and … um… sometimes… um… I can recognise some of those traits. Um, yeah…,” he says, unconsciously illustrating the point.

“I enjoyed having a character that went on a journey. He starts off doe-eyed and innocent and then grows in confidence and becomes a sham high society version of himself, then the rug is pulled again and he ends a more confident person. Compared to someone like JP, who is blissfully unaware and never really learns or Alfie Wickers who is a bit more of a fool, this character is slightly more the straight man.”

Decline and Fall is complete, but there is an appetite for more Fresh Meat among fans. It would be interesting to return to JP and his student flatmates from the hugely successful series ten years on though. Does Whitehall think this is something that would ever happen?

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“We always talked about that on set,” he says. “We’d love to do it. Maybe it will happen. They did Cold Feet, so… maybe.”

Aged 28, Whitehall lives in Notting Hill with Human’s actor Gemma Chan, who he met on Fresh Meat. Are they married or is she his partner, I ask for the sake of accuracy?

“No no, not married…” he says.

There’s a pause. Then: “Has my mum been on to you?”

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I tell him she has, and she said she’d been trying on hats.

“Oh God. Are you going to pressure me to go and see my grandmother now as well?” he says. “That’s the other one that I always get.”

Yes, that as well.

“I have no imminent plans,” he says. “To visit my grandmother.”

The son of actor Hilary Gish (The Bad Education Movie, Fierce Creatures), who now works as a doula, and father Michael Whitehall, a theatrical agent who used to manage celebrities such as Colin Firth and Judi Dench, it was perhaps inevitable that Whitehall would go into acting, beginning at school.

“I was told not to by my dad, but ended up doing it anyway. I really enjoy it,” he says.

However, if he hadn’t been an actor what job would he like to do?

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“I did lots of art at school so I’d like to do that. Be a cartoonist, graphic novels, to try and make people laugh. I’ve been looking at a lot of Hogarth recently for research and I love how grotesque it is. Actually, the original edition of Decline and Fall had great illustrations too – they’re in the new copy being released by Penguin – plus it has my face on the front – very exciting.”

After appearing as a child in The Good Guys with his godfather Nigel Havers, Whitehall went on to start his career on the comedy circuit. He became friends with James Corden and Mathew Horne of Gavin And Stacey and they suggested him as a presenter on Big Brother’s Big Mouth in 2009. In 2010 he was nominated for Best Newcomer at ­the Fringe’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards and became ­regular on BBC2’s Mock The Week. He was also guest ­presenter of BBC 2’s pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks and then landed his first acting role as an adult in 2011 with Channel 4’s Fresh Meat.

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Does he think Edinburgh was a good place for him to get his career going?

“It’s the best place. That’s where it started for me and if anyone asks my advice, I tell them Edinburgh is where things happen. It remains the best place, the best creative environment I’ve ever been to, and it’s a great place to get spotted, to meet like-minded people, to get on stage and see if you like it. Every August, whatever I’m doing, I get a slight pang, a longing to be there. Maybe I’ll go and do a little play or something like that, um… yeah…”

Aside from Decline and Fall, Whitehall has a new film coming out in June. Mother’s Day stars Jennifer Aniston, and is the last film of Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall, who died after it was made. Whitehall plays Zack, an English stand-up and long-term partner of an adopted girl (Tomorrowland’s Britt Robertson) who is about to meet her birth mother. Why does he think they cast him?

“Yeah, it was a real stretch,” he says. “I flew to Atlanta last year to film it. I’d never been on a thing like that before. Gary Marshall was just the most amazing man, in his 80s and playing pranks on all the cast. He gave me a signed dollar bill after my first close up and said he’d given one to every actor from Richard Gere to me. So yeah, I felt really blessed I had the chance to work with someone like that.”

Also in the pipeline is something he’s writing for Sky, but can’t talk about, and Bounty Hunters, with Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down and White Men Can’t Jump), and written with Syborn, which will be out this year.

“It’s sort of a comedy thriller. Quite serious themes but Rosie and I add comedy,” he says.

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Whitehall may come across as shy but paradoxically he’s also very comfortable with the media spotlight. He’s regularly photographed on the red carpet with Chan and when I refer to tabloid stories containing allegations of drug taking and joke plagarisation controversies, his response is laid back.

“Yeah, I just don’t get involved with any of that, yeah… just… yeah,” he says, not getting involved. He laughs.

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Whitehall sounds at ease with himself, content, as if he has come a way along the road to self-realisation, like Paul Pennyfeather. So what has he learnt about himself?

“I feel like I’ve learnt some things,” he says. “Like maybe because of the nature of what I do, and because I’m a stand-up, that you always present a version of yourself on shows and on stage that’s fun, a sort of joyful friendly version, and often I would be a lot quieter and more introverted and more anxious away from that. That version of myself would be the version that people I love and I’m close to, know. And the most important lesson I’ve learned sort of growing up is that you have to reserve a bit of the better version of yourself for the people that are most important. That’s something that I think I’ve learnt and it’s slightly weird... but I think it’s important.”

At this point someone tells Whitehall it’s time to wind up.

“Ah, they don’t like me getting deep,” he says. “If I open up and say something insightful, they’re at me to leave. It’s time to go.”

Ah, shame – he was just starting to be himself. n