Famous by accident | Paul Whitehouse on celebrity, mortality, and the joys of shouting 'arse'

Famous by accident

Paul Whitehouse on celebrity, mortality, and the joys of shouting 'arse'

Despite hiding behind a myriad of characters, The Fast Show made Paul Whitehouse one of the most recognisable faces in comedy. Then the tragi-comic Happiness, which returns for a new series next month, pushed his acting into more serious areas - and made him even more well-known. But, he maintains fame was never part of the plan.

"I'm really not the kind of person who hankers after the celebrity world," he protests. "It 's not something I actively pursued.

"I had no desire to be an actor, I was just happy writing, but more often than not, writers are the most bitchy and miserable people in showbusiness ­ even worse than actors"

It was writing that gave Paul his showbusiness break. A former plasterer and council health inspector, he joined university pal Charlie Higson, and Harry Enfield to create Stavros, Loadsamoney and three careers in comedy

"I wouldn't say that I was dragged kicking and screaming into acting, but it certainly wasn't something I desperately wanted or planned to do," says Whitehouse.

"I would never have thought,'I know, I'm going to do a comedy routine now'. I've always been mouthy, so at least I never had to hide behind my characters.

"I was more interested in a pub career. I did play in a few bands with Charlie, but I didn't want to be a pop singer."

That reluctance to get in the spotlight is the main thing that separates Whitehouse from his Happiness character Danny, who is perennially jealous of the animated bear he provides the voice of

"There 's definitely a glimmer of me in Danny, principally because of the whole showbiz association," concedes Whitehouse. "Apart from that, I 'd say that Danny is a whinging, self-obsessed ponce. Now, some people might describe me as that, but I'm not going to, am I?"

"People ask me, 'Is it about you?' and I say, 'No'. That 's not to say that there aren't a lot of things that I identify with, however.

"Before writing the new series, [co-writer] Dave Cummings and I sat around and thought about our various friends who were going through different of middle-aged experiences, because that 's when life really comes home to roost: mortality, alcoholism, divorce, children ­ it all comes crashing down.

"It's the fulcrum point in your life. I have some friends who all seem to be divorced and were back down in the pub together for the first time in 15 years and they used to call themselves 'The Misery Club'."

Whitehouse has been a close friend of Dave for a quarter of a century."We met at the Motors concert at the University of East Anglia in 1977, I dropped out after a year and Dave, like a good Catholic boy, stayed and did his degree, although he later became a full-time musician with the Eighties band Del Amitri."

As co-writer and co-producer, Whitehouse had a lot of say in the casting - which is how Johnny Vegas came to make the transition from stand-up to acting, picking up a couple of awards on the way.

"We went to see him perform," Paul recalls, "And we thought, 'He's fantastic but he's a maverick and there 's nothing we could do with his act

"Then we started to write Happiness and I thought, 'Ooh, we could do with a clumsy drunk'. We took a punt and Johnny came to do his read-through of the script. It was hilarious. He was doing a show up in Edinburgh at the time, so he had been doing a lot of live stuff and he just shouted his lines.

"One of the executives was looking at me like, 'what?' and I said, 'No honestly, he's brilliant', so he came back in and he was absolutely fantastic and clinched it. He's great."

After Happiness finished shooting, Whitehouse teamed up again with the Fast Show team for their two-month farewell tour.

"We always wanted to do it and knew it would be a laugh. Ever since the live show at Hammersmith in 1998,we realised we should take it out on the road, something which was previously logistically impossible.

"As much as I love Happiness, I do enjoy getting back to doing pure comedy, which ultimately involves putting on a wig and shouting, 'Arse!'"

"I would like to do a film using the cast of The Fast Show at some point, but I really think this tour should be the end."

Originally appeared: December 21, 2002
Courtesy BBC Press

Published: 10 Jan 2009

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