‘Oh really I don’t mind. Whatever you want to pay me. I just want to do this job and I’m really looking forward it. How much were you thinking?’ says Michael Whitehall in an unctuous, good-natured, amenable voice. Then, in an instant, having been told the imaginary amount, he turns savagely nasty and bangs his fist on the table. ‘No fucking way are you paying me so little…’
Watching Michael Whitehall jokingly re-enact how he negotiated his fee for his son’s new Netflix series, Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father, three things become abundantly clear.
First, that he must have been a brilliantly effective agent (shrewd, tough, terrifying) during his previous career, when he represented such stars as Kenneth More, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and (Jack’s godfather) Richard Griffiths.
Second, that he really should have been on stage or screen himself much earlier (he became a star only in his early seventies), because his acting skills, timing and delivery are immaculate. (He’ll hate the comparison, but I was oddly reminded of the scene where Gollum’s good and evil sides have an argument in Lord of the Rings.)
Third, that it’s pretty damned obvious why and how Jack Whitehall became Jack Whitehall. With a dad providing both the genes and such a rich and endless source of comic material, how could he possibly not have done? We meet over lunch cooked by Jack’s mum, Hilary. Though the Whitehalls’ riverside home is obviously now worth a few bob, they are not in the rich league of, say, their comedy superstar son: it was a huge financial struggle putting their three children through Marlborough, which they chose in part because the kids just weren’t clever enough to get into the super-competitive London day schools. Jack, in particular, wasn’t remotely academic. Or sporty. The thing he excelled at was art.
‘He got an art scholarship. He really was the most brilliant artist — still is,’ Michael says. ‘Amazing likenesses. If Jack were here now he could do a drawing of you in five minutes and there’d be no question that it was you.’
Even though he had shown theatrical tendencies at Marlborough, somehow managing to steal the show even when he only ever landed bit parts, it still came as a shock to Jack’s parents when, while studying history of art at Manchester, he put aside his painterly ambitions and turned his hand to comedy. For years, both parents had urged their children never to go anywhere near the stage.
‘Our mantra has always been: “Don’t be an actor, don’t be an actor”,’ says Hilary. ‘Because it’s a shit life. The top 5 per cent work and the other 95 per cent never work. And even when you get into the top 5 per cent you spend your whole time worried that you’re going to slip out.’ She says this with some feeling, as she is an actress herself.
But Jack, it turned out, had a gift and was almost perfect from the start, except for one small detail, according to Michael.
‘The first gig we saw him do he came on stage. He said, “Evenin’. I’m Jack White’all.” I said, “Jack you were so funny, everyone absolutely loved you.” He said, “Oh good. Any criticisms?” I said, “Well. I just wonder about that voice.” He said, “But I don’t want to come over all posh.” I said, “Yes, but you’re not coming on in a monocle. It’s not a posh act. But you don’t want to be something you’re not. You don’t want to be stuck with that voice.”’
It was the right decision. Jack’s schtick about the appalling horrors of having been born upper-middle class and sent to the same schools as the Duchess of Cambridge and Robert Pattinson of the Twilight movies is charming, funny and surprisingly ‘relatable’, to judge by the response of his socially mixed audience when I caught his hilarious show at Hammersmith Apollo.
Michael Gove happened to be there with his kids, and, courtesy of Michael and Hilary, we wangled passes to the after-show party to confront a mildly terrified Jack, who was clearly unused, as comics generally are, to being surrounded by so many ‘out’ Conservatives.
Jack himself is apolitical, although he probably has more in common with his gentle, woolly liberal mum (who cried in despair on the morning of the Brexit result) than his cantankerous, reactionary old dad (who went to bed early on the night of the referendum and lay in late in a fit of depression, convinced the Remainers had won).
The contrast between Jack’s well-meaning attempts at being an impeccably PC millennial and his dad’scrusty conservatism are the essence of their chalk-and-cheese double act. It was launched five years ago on the BBC chat show Backchat and has now been revived by Netflix for a six-part travelogue through Southeast Asia in which, purportedly, Jack decides to take the gap year he never had, with his reluctant father in tow.
As always with such TV escapades, there is a degree of fabrication. When Michael goes down to the bar and starts chatting up an attractive Thai local, he isn’t quite as unaware as he pretends to be that the ‘girl’ is in fact a ladyboy. Jack had warned: ‘There’s going to be a bit of a joke in the foyer before you meet our guide.’
‘Oh yes, what’s that going to involve?’ asked Michael.
‘We think it will be funnier, Daddy, if you don’t know,’ said Jack.
But what’s great about the travelogue is that even when you know it’s fake — that Michael and Jack didn’t stumble by chance on an elephant polo match, with Jack suddenly finding himself playing with a team made up of ex-All Blacks rugby players, with dad providing the match commentary— you really don’t mind because (a) it’s all part of the tongue-in-cheek fun and (b) their chemistry is so great. A Netflix team scouted ahead for interesting locations but then just provided a camera crew and left father and son to it. ‘No writers of any sort, no trips to the places we’re visiting before we go to them,’ says Michael. They just trusted Jack and Michael to be funny and then let them get on with it. ‘Seat of the pants stuff,’ says Hilary.
‘I had no interest in being a performer of any description until these last few years, none at all,’ says Whitehall Sr. Yet now, aged 77, he’s a late-flowering celebrity, accosted in the street by people like the man driving the laundry van in Kensington High Street the other day. ‘The chap said, “I know who you are.” And I said, “Thank you very much!” And he said, “You’re the fucking actor that plays Jack Whitehall’s father.” And I said, “Fuck off!”’
‘But I did say “Fuck off” in a jokey way,’ he adds, plaintively. Even though Jack likes to say to him, ‘Never think that what you do is an exaggeration, Daddy, you’re exactly the same in real life’, this isn’t quite true. Yes, there’s no question Michael can be difficult and crabby. (When I had the temerity to ask directions to his house, he got so cross he nearly cancelled and turned it into a phone interview.) Underneath, though, he is a pussycat, loved by his family, hugely proud of their achievements.
Oh, and in case you wondered, Jack’s a nice, sweet, polite boy, too. What often used to embarrass Michael about his celebrity clients was the way they treated fans. ‘I’d be sitting in the Ivy with a famous actor and someone would come up and say, “Excuse me. Would there be a possibility of an autograph?” and the chap would look at them and say, “I’m sorry. I’m eating. A bit later please.”
‘Jack would never do that in a million years. There could be a snaking queue of autograph-hunters in Oxford Street and I’d say, “We’ve got to go!” but Jack would say, “We can’t just abandon them…”’
Jack Whitehall: Travels with my Father is on Netflix