Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse are married. Not to each other – they both have wives – but they are a couple, comedy boyfriends. And have been for twenty years since University, mucking about writing voices and catchphrases originally roped in by their chum, and Higson’s flatmate, Harry Enfield, “who nicked our lines and made millions” with Stavros the Greek and Loadsamoney, and then later on with their other playmates in The Fast Show, which they invented and which begins its final series this month on the BBC.
Whitehouse is all angles, kind of scrawny in a loose fitting black suit. He changes constantly from bumptious child to old man, from naughty boy to sad git. His face flashes from acne to age spots. He has a huge smile, a dirty laugh and a really loud voice that picks up and drops characters at will. Higson is much quieter and rather precise about what he says. He’s fleshy, soft skinned and if you dragged him up and rouged his cheeks he’d become one of those taffeta dowager duchesses who look like they need ironing. Overall rather Alec Guinness, if he’d been a little bit bullied at school. While you get the impression that Whitehouse is exactly the affable laddish chap he seems, from behind watchful, humorous eyes Higson might well be a serial poisoner. The novels he writes when he’s not co-producing, co-writing and co-starring in The Fast Show dwell on the things that most of us choose to ignore – “violence, torture and brain fluid” as one critic put it. But when Whitehouse is not doing The Fast Show, he passes his time in a studio with Harry Enfield shouting “Oi No!” Or sliming away about “doing a lotta work for charidy”, and other catchphrases, to the delight of the huge numbers of fans of “Harry Enfield and Chums”
The idea for The Fast Show, which seems to have its antecedents in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and Steve Wright in The Afternoon on Radio One, was a bit of an accident. Higson and Whitehouse were both writing for Enfield, with Paul also performing. And the BBC, in the form of Geoff Perkins the current Head of Comedy there, made a highlights tape for the Press launch. “We were surprised,” says Higson, “how well these ten or fifteen second bursts worked and how instant the characters were. We had come up with a number of ideas that hadn’t found a home with Harry. So we thought why not do a whole show that was edited highlights.” Whitehouse: “Do your character, do your catchphrase and f*** off.” Although he acknowledges it’s not quite as straightforward as that. “You can’t ultimately do that, otherwise it would just be a series of monologues. You need the longer stuff like Suits You Sir and Ted and Ralph.”
Ah yes “Ted and Ralph”. If anything outlasts the Fast Show it will be this desperately awkward relationship full of excruciating pathos and unspoken love between Higson’s Ralph, the landowner, and Whitehouse’s Ted, his loyal retainer. The sketches, unusually for The Fast Show, go for up to two minutes or so. In the last series they were finally reduced to their absolute essence when Ralph stood behind Ted and tried to say something to him for over a minute, failed and departed.
“It’s a love that crosses every boundary,” says Higson. So have they ever, um…? “No. Neither of them really understands the situation.” “Maybe I do a little more than him”, Whitehouse adds. “But”, says Higson, “Ted’s embarrassment is almost more the master servant thing. That his master is crossing the line of familiarity. In fact he probably wouldn’t mind him buggering him as long as he didn’t call him Ralph.” There may yet be a chance as there is a vague plan at the back of Higson and Whitehouse’s mind to produce a Ted & Ralph Christmas Special next year.
If there is a theme to The Fast Show, it is social embarrassment. “Well those are the funniest stories aren’t they? Situations which in retrospect are really funny, but which at the time you wish you could just die”, Higson suggests. And so on the show there is a man who makes social gaffes and has to “get his coat”; the toe curling office wag, who presumably has a sign on his desk saying “You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps”; the dreadful Reenie, played by Caroline Aherne, whose final emasculation of her little husband is to get him to repeat everything she says in front of his mother – “what did I say Roy?” the tragic alcoholic Rowley Birkin QC – “I blare sin lard member of the malt whisky society when era roof lovely long legs..”; the TV guest who can’t tell his story in front of the camera; the sad, toe-caringly chirpy teenager “Brilliant” and many more.
The new series has about 40% new characters including, an invention of Caroline Aherne’s, a till girl with no sense whatsoever of how tactless she’s being to customers – “oh salad, that’s poof’s food”. And from Arabella Weir there’s “No Offence”, a South African make-up saleswoman with bad skin who is the complete opposite of her name. “She’s based….” says Higson, “…on someone Arabella knows”, interrupts Whitehouse. “…Her mother in law” continues Higson. “You can’t say that. Just say someone she knows.” In fact it’s not her mother-in-law, it’s her friend’s mother-in-law. But this sudden display of discretion from Whitehouse made me wonder if he ever gets embarrassed. Higson looks like he might easily blush, but Whitehouse never. He blusters for second and says, “I suppose I get embarrassed. What do I get embarrassed about, Charlie?” “Usually things that I do.” “I’m trying to think what I get embarrassed about. …. I’m occasionally a bit arrogant” Surely not, I say sweetly. “Oh don’t look so surprised.” And he laughs a dirty self-deprecating laugh.
The ultimate in inappropriate rudeness in the show are the masters of lurid single entendre and lecherous prurience, the two gentlemen’s outfitters known now simply by their catchphrase “Suit You”, immortalized by The Daily Sport on the day after Versace’s murder in the headline “Shoots You”. There is a squealish delight in hearing what they say to their victims, like seeing a ventriloquist’s dummy being breathtakingly offensive to someone in the audience. ‘Did they really say that?’ “My mum hates them,” says Whitehouse, “she thinks there very one dimensional and crude.” Well she’d be spot on, then. Except they’re incredibly funny too.
Despite it’s roots in English social inhibition and in British archetypes, the show has sold to an odd selection of countries: Norway, Brazil, Thailand, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. But not to America. “We know Americans who love it. John Hughes who produced the Home Alone film has said to us if we have any ideas for movies to send them to him. But so far we haven’t had any.” You’d think they’d jump at the money but they both feel very uneasy about getting trapped in something they don’t enjoy from which there is no escape. So for the moment, instead of Hollywood, it’s going to be the Hammersmith Apollo for a residency next year where, with Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars – on which Hinson was the original advisor -in the first half, they will do a live version of The Fast Show. And if you don’t make it there then you can buy the video or the audiotape or the spin-off books later in the year. Higson and Whitehouse meanwhile will be taking stock after creating more national catchphrases than 40’s Radio over the last ten years since Loadsamoney. “I would have thought that after twenty years, and particularly after this last year, we would probably hate each other by now. But we don’t.” says Higson. “Well there was one point on this series where I nearly hit him, “ says Whitehouse, “But I can’t remember why.” Aaah. True comedy marriage. Look out for more comedy children.