Hilary and Michael are the parents of actor and standup Jack Whitehall, who together have flipped their candid and comic family dynamic into an entertainment brand. Hilary, an actor known for TV appearances in Miranda and Bad Education, married Michael, a producer and talent agent, in 1986 and went on to have three children. As well as the Netflix hit Travels With My Father, the Whitehall triumvirate has hosted chatshows, co-authored books and presented live shows and YouTube series. Hilary and Michael now go it alone with their first podcast, The Wittering Whitehalls, available on all leading podcast platforms.
A man called Christopher Miles, a distinguished director at the time, was making a feature film in Athens called Lord Elgin and Some Stones of No Value. Nigel Havers played Lord Elgin. I was his agent, and as it was his first film I went to visit, along with my new – very young – girlfriend.
From that holiday on, it was a slow trajectory down. Jack came along and then [his siblings] Molly and Barney, so it was always Cornwall or Devon. I did one camping trip but ended up in a hotel up the road. Mostly I left the camping to Hilary. After all, I was a busy man looking after international stars 24/7. I didn’t have time to wander around beaches with my beautiful children.
When I asked Hilary’s father if I could marry her, her parents looked quite shocked. After we’d first been introduced, he said to Hilary: “You said he was older – but you never said how much older.” They were not very sure about me, particularly because I’d been married, and had had another girlfriend since then, and I drove a Jaguar XJS. It was all banked up against me. That and the fact that I was an agent.
I must have appeared fairly flash, but we worked well together – I got Hilary her first acting job in Minder, and I even produced a series she was in. That being said, Nigel Havers did emerge during the critical moment in the delivery room when Jack was born. I’d called some friends before the birth and, as Hilary had her feet in stirrups waiting to be stitched up, Nigel arrived in black tie as he was going to some event after he’d dropped into the hospital. He and I were dispatched with the newly born Jack to go and get him cleaned up. As we walked down the corridor together, a lady came up to us who’d recognised Nigel and said: “Oh, Mr Havers, how lovely to meet you.” He thanked her, and as Nigel was holding the baby, she peered in at Jack in his blanket and said: “Oh! He looks so like you, Mr Havers! So like you! What a beautiful boy.”
There were many reasons why I was first attracted to Hilary – in those early days she was very beautiful and today, well, she still is. She is also extremely nice. And I liked her sense of humour. It’s something Jack obviously has, too, but he gets his comic edge from me. That friction. Because I’m not such a nice person. I’m horrible.
Comedians generally are not hugely generous with their material. I won’t mention any names but there are a lot of successful comedy actors who can be quite difficult. Jack was never like that. He always wanted to share his success or humour with us, which is why Travels With My Father worked so well. Jack was always saying: “I know – why don’t you do that? It would be funnier if you did it.” I’d say: “No, I’m not a comedian!” And he would reply: “No, Daddy, you do it. It will be better.” I don’t know any other star who would have that kind of giving angle on a joke. It’s pure kindness, a quality Jack has entirely inherited from his mother.
Michael and I are on top of the Acropolis in front of the Parthenon, which had been closed for filming. That was a rare event, so I went mad up there that day taking photos, as it was completely empty apart from the crew. Michael’s hat and glove were borrowed from the costume department, and I was in my normal holiday garb.
At this point in time, about 10 months in, my parents were still struggling with the concept that I was going out with a divorced man 21 years older than me. Regardless, I thought: “I’m going on holiday with him.” We had a fantastic time: as well as Nigel, there was Julian Fellowes and a young Hugh Grant, too. I was all atwitter!
It was boiling hot but Julian was insistent on wearing long sleeves and long trousers every day, and only eating Greek salad. We still have a joke whenever we see him. “Would you like a Greek salad, just for old times’ sake?” I had a nice camera with me as I used to do photography, and the director asked if I could do some stills. So I ended up working, which was very exciting. I thought: “Well, Michael, if this is the standard of holiday you’re setting, then it’s going to be a wild ride.” Sadly, however, that was the pinnacle. After Athens we became fairly staid and bored.
Nevertheless it was the holiday that prompted Michael to take his life in his hands and ask my father for my hand in marriage. Jack was born shortly after, and soon Molly arrived, too, which wasn’t quite what I intended, but I’d had difficulty having Jack and I thought we’d better get on with it because it would take for ever. In the end it was just a 15-month age gap.
Michael and I first met at a party. It didn’t go very well: he was wearing a white suit and I did question his sexuality. Meanwhile, he thought I was married because I’d met this American man five minutes prior who’d asked me all the usual questions – what my name was, my age, my profession – and then decided to follow me over to Michael. Michael asked what my name was and the American man said: “This is Hilary.” Michael asked: “How old are you, Hilary?” And the American man said: “Hilary is 24.” While it wasn’t a great start, I ascertained that he was very funny and charming, and we swapped numbers. I was looking for an agent, he was looking for a wife. And luckily he got what he wanted.
We’ve been married for 36 years now, and I think we’ve learned all we need to learn about one another; working in such close proximity this past few years hasn’t changed much. We have a similar outlook on life and similar upbringings. People think we are very posh but we are both from the lower end of the middle classes: humble backgrounds, really.
A sense of humour is, and has always been, critical for both of us. We’d both previously had quite challenging relationships devoid of hilarity, and we were desperate for a lightness of touch, which we found in each other. There are a couple of episodes of our podcast where I completely lose it because I’m laughing so much, to the point of hysteria.
It’s as if we are two halves. It is a bit cliched to say, but really we are soulmates.