Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer: ‘There was the chance one of us might drop dead on the riverbank’

Over suet pudding at London’s oldest restaurant, the comedians discuss fishing, heart surgery, and staying in touch with their inner child

When Bob Mortimer recovered from the triple coronary bypass operation that had saved his life, he found he’d also had a change of heart about the way he worked. His habit had been to say no to new projects – he stayed faithful to his double act with Vic Reeves – but after the operation, in October 2015, he just started to say yes. “I wouldn’t wish it on people but there is a positive side to a near-death experience,” he says. “People used to ask me do you fancy doing this or that – and it was like I had a file of reasons in my head for not doing things. I would riffle through it until I found one. But I’ve dropped that. Now when someone says do you fancy doing this? I’ll be like, yeah, why not? I’ll have a go.”

One of the things he said yes to was the inspired surrealist football podcast Athletico Mince (which now has had 12 million listeners). Another was the panel show Would I Lie to You? which, he says, has oddly given him more recognition than probably anything else he’s done. And a third was a suggestion by his old mate Paul Whitehouse that they go fishing together.

Whitehouse, at 60, is a year older than Mortimer. They had known each other since their 20s. Just about every time they met, they talked about going fishing, but they never had. Last year, though, after Whitehouse had helped Mortimer through his recovery – he’d had a couple of arterial stents put in himself five years before – the idea started to feel a bit now or never. They planned an outing, and then pitched the idea to the BBC. “There was that element of jeopardy that I thought they might go for,” Whitehouse explains. “There was always the chance one of us might drop down dead on the riverbank.” To their surprise – given the BBC’s lukewarm reception to other projects they’d separately pitched in recent years – a series was commissioned.

The pair are explaining this to me, with their mix of deadpan and overexcitement, on a banquette in Rules in Covent Garden, the oldest restaurant in London. In the series, they talk a good deal about “heart healthy” eating, but have made an executive decision to take a day off from any regime for this lunch, given that Rules, with its emphasis on chops and steaks and suet and sponge, has a menu pretty much unchanged since it first opened in 1798, 200 years before cholesterol-anxiety. “It’s a travesty to eat turbot here, isn’t it?” Whitehouse says. “It’s steak and kidney pie or pudding.” They both opt for pudding, and peas and jersey royals and swiss chard (to show willing).

Whitehouse hasn’t eaten here before but Mortimer has – he has an irregular “gossip night” here with the actor Matt Berry. “We usually sit there,” he says, gesturing to a panelled corner, framed by hunting scenes and paintings of thoroughbreds. “It’s a very good spot for a bit of gossip. And before I went on telly I wouldn’t quite have had the nerve to come.”

Mortimer worked as a solicitor before he took up comedy. Whitehouse believes his friend would have made it here anyway. “What if you had stuck at the lawyering and your wife – your legal secretary, you bonded over divorce law – had said. ‘It’s your birthday Bob, I’m talking you out for a special night. Brian is coming, too. We’re going to Rules!”

“Maybe,” Mortimer admits. “Who’s Brian?” And then, “I don’t think old posh is as intimidating as new posh, is it?”

“It’s not,” Whitehouse says. “I mean, you’ve turned up in the same jacket you fish in, and they haven’t flinched. There’s probably maggots in the pockets.”

“There’s certainly DNA in there from the roach I caught – and the bream,” Mortimer grins at the thought. “That fucking bream!”

They wonder what I thought of the series. “Don’t tell me: it’s halfway between Detectorists and The Trip,” Whitehouse says. I suggest it’s nearer the midpoint of Waiting for Godot and The Compleat Angler.

The plates of steak and kidney pudding arrive. “Whooorr,” says Whitehouse, immediately, in his “Rowley the old drunk” persona. “It is so plump, like an abdomen awaiting the incision. Look at that beauty!”

“This has come at the right moment, Paul,” Mortimer says. “I am increasingly of the mind that all fat is good.”

“And sugar is bad.”

“Sugar and carbs. If you watch this documentary The Magic Pill it is about fat being good and carbs bad.”

“I was watching a thing last nightabout how good carbs are for you.” He excavates his pudding. “But probably not suet.”

None of us is quite sure what suet is. Mortimer Googles it. “Suet: the hard, white fat of the kidneys of cows and sheep.”

Whitehouse proposes the view of everything in moderation. “And this really is moderation for me because I haven’t eaten one of these since Fray Bentos reigned supreme in 1972.”

Like Mortimer, Whitehouse is enjoying a kind of second career – in his case as a character actor in films. He has come here from coughing and mumbling out the swear words (“for aeroplanes and Australia, where no one swears”) in the forthcoming movie of the Hatton Garden heist in which he stars with Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent and Michael Caine. This follows on from his brilliant cameo as the politburo’s Mr Fixit in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. He also has a role in Iannucci’s adaptation of David Copperfield, about to go into production.

“How long are you on screen for with Michael Caine is all that matters to me,” Mortimer says.

“My screen time is about seven minutes total,” Whitehouse says. “But first scene, day one, I’m in a garden and” – he slips into pitch perfect Caine – “it’s ‘Hello Brian, what are you doing here?’”

“It’s weird that, isn’t it?” Mortimer suggests. “My worst one was I did a thing with Derek Jacobi, and his character is in a wheelchair. We hadn’t met and I was nervous and got his character’s name wrong straight off. He looked at me: ‘Oh, you absolute arse!’ He was having fun with a young man.”

One of the things the fishing series has brought home to Mortimer, he says, was that adults stop doing the things that had brought them the most joy as kids. He has made a brilliant career out of refusing to subscribe to that idea.

“You know the thing I liked about fishing when I was 14 was being out with your mates mucking about, throwing bread around, getting a bit wet maybe. I wondered if that could be the same when you were 60. And it didn’t feel that different…”

“Fishing’s dying out a bit, though,” Whitehouse suggests. “If you are on a train and you go bombing past rivers and canals, the Trent and the Ouze, they would be lined with fishermen even 20 years ago. Now you don’t see anyone, certainly on the canals.”

The pair of them enjoyed their outings so much they carried on even after finishing filming. They were on the Wye a couple of weeks ago.

“I was the one who got us started, really,” Whitehouse says, “but now I am usually trying to drag Bob away. There is always something magical about being on a river as evening falls. Nature begins to come a bit alive. But I get to the point where I want to get to the pub.”

In the series, they tend to camp out, and Mortimer does the cooking – something else he has done more of since his heart scare. “My mum was a good cook,” he says. “My dad died when I was six. I was the youngest of four boys and as often in families when there is a bereavement the kids divide up the roles. One takes on an authoritative role. I was the kitchen helper, so it is good to go back to that. And the heart thing gives you a motivation to do your best with all this dreary stuff you have to cook. You know, cauliflower-based pizzas. Beans. All that.”

We study the dessert menu. “Are we doing it?” Whitehouse asks.

“Too right we are!” Mortimer says, with a giggle.

“Golden syrup sponge custard!”

“Make that two,” Mortimer says.

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, Wednesdays, 10pm, BBC Two


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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