'I miss the silliness of sketch shows' | Paul Whitehouse laments the decline the genre that made his name © Dan Goldsmith/UKTV

'I miss the silliness of sketch shows'

Paul Whitehouse laments the decline the genre that made his name

Later this month, Paul Whitehouse hosts a four-part retrospective, The Sketch Show Years, for Gold - four episodes each dedicated to a different decade of the genre. Here he talks about old-school double entendre, his favourite sketch performers and the lack of such programmes on TV now. 

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

 It’s been fun to go back and look at it all. The most interesting thing I found was the start of it all – 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 1960s than the 1970s 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 1970s comedy is double entendre. 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 ‘fuck’! 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 1970s, 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 the early 1970s 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 out there. We recently did a 30th anniversary reunion tour. 

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 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. 

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 make-up. That's possibly why the sketch show has gone because it's quite expensive to make.

Kevin the teenager

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.

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?

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 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! 

 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. 

[Fast Show collaborator] Charlie Higson is a much more considered person than I am. I'm a little bit weerrrr, a little bit weeeeeey’ 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 elements does help during the writing process. 

Who are your favourite sketch show partnerships? 

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore then Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

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.

I used to go and see [Reeves and Mortimer] when they were 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. 

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 4. 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 [Enfield] 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 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.

Smashie and Nicie

You mention that sketch show comedians were like rock stars in the 1990s…

 I think it was a phrase used a lot in the 1990s but I think everybody had ‘rock star’ status back then. It was a little bit like revisiting the 1960s but with a bit of prior knowledge. It was a very heady time! 

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. 

Paul Whitehouse’s Sketch Show Years starts on Gold at 10pm on June 27.

Published: 4 Jun 2024

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