Interview with comedian Paul Whitehouse

The award-winning comedian talks about the trials and tribulations of fishing, filming and friendship

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In a new series, Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, comedians and close friends Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer share their life experiences as they fish their way through the British countryside.

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Maria Hodson spoke to Paul to find out more.

Maria: Thanks for talking to us about Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing

Paul: Yeah, I think it should be Whitehouse and Mortimer, don’t you? It went alphabetically but I don’t see him writing West End plays and appearing in films – and he’s only got two Baftas. 

In the first episode, you’re in Norfolk…

It’s an introductory one so it’s a nice set up. I think there are more extreme and more unusual locations featured in the series in terms of the landscape, but Norfolk is lovely. For me, fishing has always partly been about travelling to beautiful places. Even in Britain as an adult, or as a child with my dad, fishing has taken me to places that perhaps I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise, and directly into them as you’re in the water a lot of the time so you actively become part of the landscape and the environment rather than just a visitor. 

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Paul and Bob ©Parisa Taghizadeh

How old were you when you first started fishing?

I would have been about five years old and with my Dad. I was born in the Rhondda Valley but we moved up to London when I was four or five. My Dad took me course fishing on the River Lee. I remember very vividly that one time he carved out this float with a little bit of bread on it and said, “now when that float goes under, you tell me, alright?” And as he handed me the rod, the float went under and we caught a little roach straight away. From then I was hooked.

So you took to it straight away?

Yeah. For my generation and where we lived, North London suburbia, it wasn’t far on the train before you were out in the Lee valley. And every kid round my street, certainly every boy, played football and went fishing. It wasn’t an unusual hobby or pursuit.

As activities, they have quite different energy levels. I think of football as quite hyper, while fishing is very contemplative. Young boys fishing almost seems incongruous.

Oh no, the adrenaline kicks in when you catch a big fish! I remember when I worked at Hackney council, there was a lovely man there called Barry who loved his fishing, but he had a heart attack. After that Barry was terrified of going out and catching a big trout in case he had another one. So the adrenalin levels are there but obviously more sporadic. I jokingly sometimes refer to fishing as long periods of boredom interspersed by intense periods of boredom, but obviously I’m being flippant because there are definitely periods of excitement. You only have to see Bob hook a barbel in the series to see how extraordinarily transfixed he becomes. We’ve cut a bit of it out because he just started blaspheming, swearing, jumping up and down – and it’s like, is this suitable behaviour for an ageing comedian?

What was your favourite filming location in the series?

I know this will sound corny but they all have their appeal. The barbel episode is one of my favourite episodes though. It’s on the Wye in the Herefordshire, which is a river I used to fish with my Dad as a kid, so that episode is quite special to me in terms of my Dad, and also because Bob and I catch some very big barbel. A barbel is a strange and beautiful creature – it is extremely adapted to its environment, it’s very unusual and looks like a slightly prehistoric fish. 

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Paul catches a barbel ©Owl Power

Bob shows you his heart-bypass scar in the first show…

Oh yeah, by the campfire where we show our scars. Yeah he was very keen to see mine, wasn’t he? (chuckles).Yeah, it’s not a contrived show because I had started taking Bob fishing anyway to recover from his heart operation, it was nothing to do with TV. I’d had heart problems and had three stents, while Bob had to have the triple heart bypass (and blimey, does he not let you forget it!) We started going fishing together as part of his recovery and thought “this is quite funny, two old gits who could potentially drop dead at any minute”. The jeopardy angle is what the television people like. 

It was good to see the excitement when you caught a tench.

Do you know what, it was extraordinary – on at least three occasions we caught fish on the very last cast of the day! That’s not something that’s made up for the cameras. On that occasion, the crew had packed up and were going for lunch. We said, “oh we’ll just give it another 15 minutes”. And that’s when I got this bite from this tench. As the drone camera was up they were able to film it, literally on the last cast. 

On one trip we fish in Christchurch harbour where the River Avon empties into the sea – an amazing location, quintessentially English. We fish in the Bridge Pool and catch some sea trout before making our only foray into sea fishing in the series, where we go out to the Needles. Bob is terrified of sea-sickness and he started infecting the whole crew with his nascent sea-sickness – even I started feeling it and I’ve never been sea sick! Why is he poisoning me like this? Nasty northerner. We were out for about four or five hours with a skipper who really knows the water. He’d just said we’d have to go in because the tide was changing but he put us right on the mark at the end, and I caught a huge bass. It was like a lifetime specimen and I caught it literally at the last gasp. People won’t believe it but it is the absolute truth of the matter.

Is fishing cruel?

Well, individually it’s cruel but overall angling does more to conserve. It protects not just fish but also the environment and the cleanliness of our rivers… nobody else does it, just folk like the Angling Trust and fishers. And I think most of them would do it even if they didn’t get fish out of it. There would be an element of care and respect for their former quality that would mean that rivers were maintained anyway.

Clear water of meandering River Kennet chalk stream at Axford, Wiltshire, England. (Photo By: Geography Photos/UIG via Getty Images)
Clear waters on the chalk-stream River Kennet © Getty

What traits does one need to be good at fishing?

Well, as I say, I’ve known people who are hyperactive who go fishing, because some types of fishing, you’re very mobile – salmon fishing for example or fly fishing, lure fishing generally. Fly fishing in the sea is also very good cardiovascular activity because you’re casting and retrieving. Different mentalities gravitate towards different styles of fishing perhaps. I was always quite hyperactive but I could sit down and do the fishing – there’s something about it that focuses you right down to that red dot of a float or a fish rise. More than anything else, it’s diverting and you forget about the world and you genuinely immerse yourself in nature – you literally immerse yourself in the water and the environment in a way that you wouldn’t if you were just walking though it. You do become part of it… I know that sounds a little “wooo”.

Who is your rural hero?

All-round fishing guru John Bailey, who helped us catch the barbel, would be one, as would Simon Cooper, who does a lot of work on the chalk streams in Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire. Chris Yates is an old carp fisher who uses old-fashioned techniques. He aptly describes the strange trend in recent years of fishermen putting on combat gear and staying in bivvies all night as “going to war with fish”. Another hero is Keith Cromer, who is ghillie on the River Dee.

Common Barbel Common Barbel, Barbus Barbusbarbus Barbus , Common Barbel , Cyprinid , Bony Fish , Freshwater Fish , Fish (Photo by BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
Barbel are abundant in certain rivers, often seen in large shoals on Rivers such as the  Wye © Getty 

What was it like travelling around with Bob and would you do it again?

It was lovely. Like I say, I haven’t fished for barbels since I was about 15. So that’s 40-odd years. It was lovely to go back and do that kind of fishing and fish the Wye again; and just sitting with Bob by a lake watching a float was an absolute joy. I also think the series has elements other than just “aha, the timeless wonder of the English countryside”. It’s really a celebration of ageing, childhood, British countryside and fishing and friendship. 

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing starts Wednesday 20 June at 10pm, BBC Two, or catch up on iPlayer

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