Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse: The panicky BBC cut our last series

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse
Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse Credit: Chris Floyd

Their catchphrases have long since entered the national conversation. But only now are Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse hitting the road. The Legends! tour will revive many of their most popular characters, from Enfield’s minted yobbo Loadsamoney to Whitehouse’s clubbable old drunk Sir Rowley Birkin, via cheesy Seventies DJs Smashie and Nicey, and highly cultured wolf-whistlers the Posh Builders.

Contrary to the general trajectory of television comedians, their recent work is among their best. Last year’s The Story of the Twos was a brilliant parodic commemoration to mark BBC Two’s 50th anniversary, while in August, to celebrate their own 25-year collaboration, they gloriously mocked themselves in An Evening with Harry and Paul.

But touring is another thing altogether. What have they let themselves in for? The Telegraph spoke to them about their near-the-knuckle comedy, their favourite sketches and the characters that never made it on to the screen...

Enfield and Whitehouse as the Old Gits Credit: BBC

How did the tour come about?

HE We thought it would be fun just to celebrate. We thought, “Let’s do all the greatest hits, characters rather than sketches.” I’m doing Loadsamoney, who I haven’t done since ’88 but he’s kind of relevant again now. I read in the paper that the poor are 57 per cent poorer than before the recession, and the rich 64 per cent richer. Obviously, Loadsamoney thinks this is a magnificent thing.

PW Everything has a nod to what we’ve done before, but we’re trying to give it a contemporary twist. Smashie and Nicey have a new relevance, don’t they? [The DJs once visited a children’s hospital for “charidee”, as they called it, and even spread their cheesy good cheer in the morgue.] We were vindicated by our prescient comedy.

HE I don’t think we had any idea at all. We aren’t that clever. But when we were growing up there was always something lonely about DJs.

PW There was always something odd about Jimmy Savile, you knew that. There were a few rumours flying around my school, but they certainly weren’t about child abuse. I remember [former director general of the BBC] John Birt approached me at some award ceremony in the mid-Nineties . At the time none of the DJs had been tainted by what was to follow and we thought they were just daft, slightly self-obsessed, pompous people who’d lost touch with great swathes of the population. He said, “Oh well done, thanks for giving me the idea about the DJs. Now I can get rid of them.” And I said, “We actually quite like their rambling antics.”

Are you going to do another BBC series?

PW That’s why we ended up doing [the recent one-offs]. We were reluctant to commit straight away to doing a series.

HE The last series we did, the controller got in a panic and cut some things at the last minute, and that really p----- me off. We had this father/son/grandson trio with their dog. All were totally feral. After the BBC had signed off the entire series, the Jimmy Savile thing happened, and everyone panicked. The grandson in our sketch was played by a boy who at the time of filming was, I think, 15 years and 10 months. There was a bit of harmless post-watershed style swearing in one of the sketches, but the BBC decided to cut not only that sketch but all five in the series. It was nuts, and it left all our shows short and their structures unsatisfactory. That controller’s now gone, but it’s difficult to push stuff these days with lawyers and compliance people covering their backs. My favourite Slobs sketch was the one where Waynetta wants a “brown baby”. I feel we’d never be allowed to do that these days. Also, the budgets get smaller and smaller. For sketch comedy it’s quite difficult. The great thing about the 50 years show, we were given a drama budget so we could actually make something that looks good. It’s not just the look. Our last series, you would look at it as a punter and go, “God, it’s really patchy.” We couldn’t cut anything; we couldn’t over-film. You used to over-film by 20 per cent.

The Slobs: Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke as Wayne and Waynetta Credit: BBC

What is the difference between a comedy and a drama budget?

HE For an hour’s television, the maximum for comedy is about £500,000 on the BBC. It’s more on ITV. And on The Story of the Twos, we got a bit more than that.

And that extra money went on the look?

PW Well it didn’t go in our pockets! Not that I’m moaning, but just so you know, our fees at the BBC go down, they don’t go up. And they have done for quite a few years. We can’t really complain, because the BBC have been very good to us.

HE I remember doing a sitcom that didn’t work [Celeb], and I was s--- in it and I got paid twice what I get paid now.

What was the brief in your Story of the Twos? Did they say, “You can mock us as much as you want?”

HE Pretty much, yeah. It was Shane Allen who has just come from Channel 4 and is a comedy controller with a sense of humour.

PW It’s all right to nibble the hand that feeds you occasionally, isn’t it? Especially when they’re feeding you less than they used to. “Sorry – I was trying to take the food out of your hand but I bit a little bit of your finger off.”

Enfield and Whitehouse in The Story of the Twos Credit: Mark Johnson

Are you competitive?

HE I’m less competitive than him.

PW Oh you b------! That was very clever. See what he did there?

So there was no rancour when Paul had a huge hit with The Fast Show?

HE On my show, Paul and Charlie [Higson] had come up with this character and that character and I said, “No they’re s---.” Suits You, Sir, I rejected. I just didn’t get it. So they went and did it on their own and it was much bigger and cooler than my show.

PW It wasn’t bigger. The audience for The Fast Show was much less than Harry Enfield and Chums, but of course The Fast Show was recognised by many as a poignant work of genius. We stopped it after three series even though the BBC wanted us to transfer on to BBC One where it would no doubt have achieved audiences of eight or nine trillion. I look at some Fast Shows now and I just think, “Where are the jokes?”

HE Harry Enfield and Chums started at four million on BBC Two and peaked at eight million, then went to One and started at eight and peaked at 13 million.

When did you two first click?

PW The first time I met Harry [in Hackney, 1978]. He did a very funny Prince Charles down the pub. And made me laugh a lot.

HE I was doing Spitting Image and occasionally I’d get interviewed and they’d say, “Who makes you laugh?” And I’d say, “Well, my mate Paul from down the pub.” Then we started on Saturday Live and Paul came in with Charlie and immediately the scripts I was doing were transformed. And when we started doing the show we wrote these things together. We auditioned loads of actors for the Old Gits and things. And Paul was far and away better.

So you owe it all to Harry?

PW I do to an extent. I wasn’t going to do stand-up or my one-man show. It probably was down to Harry that I did anything like that.

Are there any characters you regret creating? What about the boy with special needs who didn’t understand why they were putting his mother in a box in the ground?

PW I think it’s just a bloke looking at the world from a different perspective. It wasn’t “Let’s take the p--- out of people with mental health issues.” I did a whole series called Nurse. Esther Cole, who played the eponymous nurse, said, “A lot of comedy characters who are very successful live on the borderline of what is considered normal.” Look at Basil Fawlty or even David Brent.

Are there characters of yours you wish you’d given more space to?

HE We both get bored very quickly. In fact looking back over all that stuff, I wish we’d been a bit more inventive with some of them. The Slobs were written in a very 2D way, but Kathy Burke brought a touching quality to all her characters. Paul and I learnt from her, and took our DJ characters out of their 2D selves when we did a special with them called End of an Era. We explored the other side of being a fun-loving DJ – the loneliness. But we never bothered to see if our other characters had further depth. Perhaps because they didn’t.

Do you find yourselves involuntarily watching the world for comic opportunities?

HE Involuntarily, possibly. But definitely not consciously. I don’t think I know anyone who would go around going, “That’s a good idea for a gag.”

PW Me! I do it all the time! Oh we know each other so well...

When you work together, who does what?

PW Harry is much more conscientious than I am, and he’s better at writing than I am. I tend to annoyingly muck about.

HE And then he comes along and sprinkles his little bit of genius on it, and then you like it.

PW [Rowley Birkin voice] You’re very kind, Harry.

HE Thirty years I’ve had to put up with this.

PW Thirty years I’ve had to put up with this miserable sod!

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s Legends! tour begins on Oct 23. Details: harryandpaul.com