The popular actor, writer and presenter is best known for his involvement in some of Britain’s favourite comedy shows. But for him, the state of our country’s rivers is no laughing matter discovers John Bailey

Being the fishing consultant for Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing has been the best gig of my professional life. I’ve been part of a great team of talented, dedicated professionals, and been given a ticket to travel to the most wondrous rivers and lakes in the UK. Above all, though, I’ve made a new friend in Paul Whitehouse, who as an angler and person is just about as nice a guy as you’d ever wish to meet.

Many remember Whitehouse first for The Fast Show in the 1990s but his career launched well before that. “My introduction to comedy came through Harry Enfield. Harry was starting out on the comedy circuit and he encouraged me to help him develop characters as we’d always made each other laugh. We came up with Stavros and Loadsamoney and the rest that aired on Saturday Live and Friday Night Live in the late 1980s, hosted by Ben Elton,” Whitehouse recalls. “Harry got me into actual performing and we did our first show together – Harry Enfield’s Television Programme – in 1990. Some characters and ideas didn’t really fit but Charlie Higson and I squirrelled them away. A few years later they would form the basis of what would become The Fast Show.

Paul Whitehouse: a man of many talents

“I’m very proud of the work I did with all these guys. The Fast Show stands up well today, even after nearly 30 years. The cast, which included the likes of Caroline Aherne, was so talented and they all went on to do great things. It was the sheer variety of the show I liked. It combined knock-about comedy with moments of real poignancy,” he says. “I loved doing Rowley Birkin QC, the 13th Duke of Wybourne, and even managed to get a bit of fishing in here and there.”

Whitehouse’s creative CV is not just impressive but varied. He’s appeared in films including The Death of Stalin and also starred in and co-wrote Only Fools and Horses: The Musical. “It was always a gamble because of the huge love for the television show. If we’d got it wrong I’d have been strung up, but it has broken records at the Theatre Royal. We’ll be taking it round the country at some stage. I’m proud of that. It’s a show for everyone and this will mean that, even in hard times, more people will get the chance to see it.” 

As happy with a tench as a trout

Paul Whitehouse’s angling interests are also all-encompassing. He’s as happy with a tench as a trout, and perhaps loves roach and salmon above all. “A lot has been made of the fact I was born in the Rhondda and was raised in Enfield, criss-crossing between the two as I grew up,” he says. “My dad taught me how to fish on the Lea Navigation and the whole family saw me catch a four-inch roach under a little crow quill float with a hat of vivid scarlet paint. Magic, pure and simple, and I’ll always be grateful for that start they gave me.

“Later I’d fish the Lea for pike and chub with my mates but with Dad I’d go to the Wye and Usk and later to the Teifi, where I learned how to fly-fish for salmon and sea trout. In fact, Dad made me my first fly-rod, which we went on to lose over the side in a storm on Lough Conn, so I owe him my fishing life. Fishing has always been there for me, something to fall back upon. I’m not a great sleeper and to get me off I’ll visualise a session on the Dee, at Park fishery probably,” Whitehouse says. “It will be a perfect day as it always is there and my Spey casting will be faultless at long last. I won’t want to catch anything because that would disturb the peace that washes over me when I think of the place.”

It’s a glorious world that few people have any knowledge of

The BBC show Gone Fishing is where Whitehouse’s private passion and professional life have collided with, perhaps unexpectedly, spectacular success. “Cuddly Bob [Mortimer] and I were sitting on a Test carrier one perfect day with flies rising and trout plopping. We appreciated that we were lost in a glorious world that so few people have any knowledge of and we thought what a great programme it would make,” Whitehouse reveals.

“We’d also recently both endured heart issues and realised that if we were going to do anything together, we’d better get on with it. Fishing is the glue of the episodes but I think that the heart-healthy theme legitimises the concept. My surgeon told me he hadn’t put my stents in so that I could sit around by the fire but rather to fire me up with new life. Gone Fishing is about wonderful places, great banter, warm friendships and old-style angling methods but it’s also about hope. In your sixties, even after serious illness, there’s a whole world waiting to be explored. I also hope the message comes across that angling is a great sport and accessible to all.”

Caring of the catch

I have never fished with anyone more caring of the catch than Paul Whitehouse, something that makes filming the end product a bit of a nightmare at times. He’s been a long-term member of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, and is a trustee of Fish In Need. It’s no surprise therefore that he presented the recent BBC series Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers: two hours of gritty examination into the state of UK watercourses. “It wasn’t perfect but it highlighted serious issues. There was a period when we were growing up when I felt real optimism that rivers were getting better but not now.

“There’s no doubt water companies shoulder some of the blame, dumping raw sewage into our rivers rather than investing in technologies to deal with it safely. We largely covered sewage in the programmes, although I realise there is a lot more to the problems than that,” he says. “I’m hopeful we’ll revisit the issues and look at more of the sorry picture, but at least we’re helping to get discussion going. There’s so much pressure building that changes will have to be made. I won’t be giving up, I can tell you that. Not on anything.” Paul Whitehouse. Writer, actor, comedian, musician, conservationist, presenter and fisher extraordinaire. What a mate for anglers to have.

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