Interview: Paul Whitehouse On New Series Paul Whitehouse's Sketch Show Years

Paul Whitehouse is fronting a new four-part series looking at the history of the TV sketch show. Expect classic clips from The Fast Show alongside memories of other classics from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and beyond.

In this new interview Paul Whitehouse talks aboiut his lifelong love of sketch shows below.

Paul Whitehouse's Sketch Show Years starts Thursday 27th June at 10pm on GOLD.

What was it like taking a trip down memory lane for Sketch Show Years?

It’s been fun to go back and look at it all. It's four episodes covering the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and 00’s and the most interesting thing I found was the start of it all and the move from music hall into TV via radio and seeing how it's developed and changed over the years. How shows like The Goons paved the way for Pete and Dud and Monty Python. There was slightly weirder comedy in the ‘60s than the ‘70s because then the mainstream took hold with Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Dick Emery. Not that I'm knocking them because it was good fun to go back to but with the refrain, ‘Ooh you can't say that no more’ - There's a lot of that! So much of ‘70s comedy is double entendre. And you think we've had enough of that (now) but I wonder if in those days it was because you couldn't swear. Now you can swear on Saturday night TV in a way you couldn't then. Mrs. Brown's Boys says f**k! Maybe double entendre was the only way you could be slightly risky, which is why we were deluged with it back then.

Also back then they were the only shows to watch on a Saturday night!

Yes and I think in the ‘70s, it was even more of a shock because everything had either been in the music hall, the theatre or on the radio. It wasn't until colour TV kicked in in the early ‘70s that suddenly there was a whole new world in the corner of your room. It's funny looking back because some of it is very clunky, and one of the clunkiest with the most double entendres that made me laugh more than anything else was Dick Emery. ‘Should I hold your melons for you, madam?’ and ‘Ooh you are awful but I like you!’ Oh please come on …but it did make me laugh! And what was the desperate desire for men to dress up as women? I guess it’s still going on (in) Mrs. Brown Boys. We were quite radical in The Fast Show in that we thought we'd employ women!

Was it interesting to see how things have changed since The Fast Show?

Yes. We were a bit cheeky in The Fast Show; it's strange how language changes over the decades. Catchphrases can become irrelevant too, some of our old ones probably are. But some still seem to be buoyant out there - we recently did a 30th anniversary reunion tour. But what strikes me most is sketch shows have gone now effectively, which is a real shame. The last hurrah recently, I suppose, was Famalam. Interestingly, the demise of the sketch show has coincided with the rise of bite-sized comedy that we send to our friends all day long on our phones; on Tik Tok, Instagram, Youtube, gifs, memes. They’re all little sketches, aren't they? They're everywhere except on telly these days, which is very strange.

How important are sketch shows for demonstrating what was going on at the time?

What you get with the sketch show, certainly character based sketch shows, is an indication of what people are thinking, and what they're doing socially rather than just politically. We're not creating that kind of reservoir to plunder anymore. You can do some funny stuff online but there are no great production values; you can't film in a location with costume and makeup. That's possibly why the sketch show has gone because it's quite expensive to make. You have to film it in a very specific way; if you're doing a character across a series of eight shows, you try and film that character’s scenes in one day.

Some of the characters became national icons, like Kevin the teenager and even Rowley Birkin!

Oh yes Rowley Birkin is used a lot, ‘I’m afraid I was very drunk!’ Another one is John Thomson in jazz club - ‘Nice!’ And Mark Williams - “Which was nice”. Kevin the teenager is kind of social satire and with a sketch you get that punchy two minutes. And if you can't say it in two and a half minutes, don't say it at all! That was the basis with Harry Enfield and us from the start. One of my favourite sketches is Pete and Dud’s art gallery sketch. Peter Cook trying to make Dudley Moore laugh is a joyous moment and wonderful stuff.

Were you uncomfortable looking back at any sketches that haven’t aged so well?

There’s some very un-right-on sketch show comedy that they kind of got away with because of the time, and you do have to look at it within the parameters of the time. But also some stuff that came later you can't show anymore. I'm not very shockable though. Not a lot shocks me! Smashie and Nicey were my favourite characters to perform. Hopefully Harry and I will revisit them one day, although of course they are in prison now! They might get parole for good behaviour, who knows?

What skills do you need to be a good sketch show comedian?

You have got to be able to act because you've got to inhabit characters, and have a mind that's quite fast. Not necessarily deep or intelligent but you've got to be able to flit between characters and attitudes quite effortlessly. Charlie Higson is a much more considered person than I am. I'm a little bit whirr, a little bit whey and bounce around a bit, and I think that balance helped us when we did The Fast Show. It’s the same with Harry Enfield; having the two element does help during the writing process.

Who are your favourite sketch show partnerships?

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore then Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. I used to go and see them when they were just a live act in South London. Both double acts have that knockabout element that I love and the fact they made each other laugh was part of the process. I love seeing those little glimpses behind the performer. Sketches wise, That Mitchell and Webb Look was really clever. I loved some of The Two Ronnies stuff and I always thought Catherine Tate was such a clever and brilliant performer.

Some were pioneers like Lenny Henry as the first black stand-up in the UK and Victoria Wood the first female.

Exactly. Most comedy sketch shows had men dressing up as women, or women were just a sex object or bit part. And then along came Victoria Wood and smashed through the glass comedy ceiling and opened the door for French and Saunders, Tracy Ullman and Smack the Pony. She was a pioneer. Victoria Wood wasn't afraid to do pathos. I find genuine emotion in a sketch show quite funny; you're not expecting it. But before you can get too sad another sketch comes along. You can’t dwell too much with a sketch show and I miss the silliness they delivered. We all need a bit of silliness, don’t we? I’d love to see more sketch shows; they’re my favourite form of TV comedy. I’m so glad Dead Ringers is now back on Radio Four. I listened to it the other day and I was so happy to have half an hour of daft comedy before the news.

You did some writing for Lenny Henry didn’t you?

Yes! I was working on things like Stavros and Harry Enfield's live show - I owe Harry a great debt of gratitude, he always wanted me to work with him as a writer and a performer. And at the time, Harry was also doing a bit for Lenny so he encouraged me to write for him and I got a couple of gags in Delbert Wilkins. That was like wow and so great. That’s another thing that’s really lost; the sketch show was a great playground and breeding ground for emerging writers. Not many people can go and write a 12-part Netflix comedy drama. Sketch shows gave you the opportunity to build your confidence.

You mention that sketch show comedians were like rock stars in the ‘90s…

I think it was a phrase used a lot in the 90s but I think everybody had “rock star” status back then. It was a little bit like revisiting the ‘60s but with a bit of prior knowledge. It was a very heady time!

And you even had Hollywood stars wanting to come on The Fast Show.

We got Johnny Depp on obviously. He was properly obsessive; he absolutely loved The Fast Show. I was a bit like, so what? (I know it’s bad - “the arrogance Whitehouse!”). But then we met and he was great. Noel Gallagher said he wanted to come on but that didn't really work out. But Johnny turned up! It was impressive because I think he was coming over to film and he flew in to Heathrow, drove to the BBC studio, walked on to the set and we did “Suit you” at him. He was a proper fan for some reason. I filmed something with him a few years later and I knocked on his trailer. You can imagine what his trailer was like whereas mine was a hutch with some straw and lettuce in it. Anyway …he was watching Rowley Birkin! He said, ‘Yeah man, I’m just getting my daily dose of The Fast Show’.

Is yours and Bob Mortimer’s Gone Fishing show your version of a sketch show now?

Well it kind of is, isn’t it. Neither of us, the old synapses don't connect quite as quickly as they did 25 years ago. But how lovely that we've both managed to go from doing rather daft knockabout comedy to something a bit more considered. And shall we say age appropriate? It's totally different extremes. We love doing Gone Fishing, it's an absolute joy 

UKTV Original Paul Whitehouse's Sketch Show Years starts Thursday 27th June at 10pm on GOLD.

Inyerview and pictures supplied by UKTV



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