Stand-up, sitcoms, panel shows… is there nothing professional posho Jack Whitehall can’t do? Well, as Tom Ellen discovers, he’s not much cop at drinking wine or pretending to be a hobbit
Sat in the corner of a north London studio, Jack Whitehall has just had a terrible realisation.
“Oh f*ck,” he mutters. “I’ve just remembered something.”
He flicks maniacally through the calendar on his phone, before hanging his head in despair.
“I’m doing a gig on the same night as Freddie’s fight. This is so cringe.”
“Cringe” it may be, but it’s hardly surprising. So swollen is Whitehall’s schedule that not even the pugilistic debut of his cricketer-turned-boxer pal Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff can escape a double-booking.
As well as trading zingers with Flintoff on Sky 1’s A League Of Their Own, the 24-year-old is writing Series 2 of school set sitcom Bad Education and promoting a new stand-up DVD. Plus, he’s starring as gilet-clad banter merchant JP in the increasingly unmissable Fresh Meat.
Happily, he’s found an hour to sit down with ShortList and we soon discover that – use of “cringe” as an adjective aside – Whitehall is nothing like the braying toffs he’s famous for playing…
Bad Education has been commissioned for a second series. What can we expect?
We’re writing it at the moment. There’s an idea that Fraser [the headmaster, played by Mat Horne] will sell the school to a Nigerian ambassador. I also read something in the paper about a load of gypsies arriving at my old school [Marlborough] and camping on the idyllic front courtyard. So, who knows, that could get included, too.
How much is your character, Alfie, based on you?
There are elements of him in me. He’s a lot closer to me than JP is. People assume it’s the other way round.
Does it bother you that people think JP is you?
No, you can’t let it get on your nerves. It tends to be reviewers who are desperately trying not to give you a compliment. They say, “He made me laugh, but he’s just playing himself so… [waves his hand] dismissed.” They assume there’s no acting involved.
Does that make you want to prove them wrong by doing something completely off-piste?
Yeah, I’d love to do something different. Do a Shane Meadows film or something. But I don’t know how many of those parts I’d get offered [laughs]. I don’t think I would have got [the part of JP] if I hadn’t found it myself and asked if I could audition for it. So, to find a role that’s totally different or more challenging – I’ll have to fight for it. I’ll have to go out and look for it rather than have it handed to me.
Talking of auditions, is it true you had one for the upcoming film version of The Hobbit?
I was the first person in the world to audition for The Hobbit. The casting director told me that when I went in. That’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? The first person in the world. That’s probably why I f*cked the audition up [laughs].
Which part were you reading for?
An elf, I think. No, a hobbit. One of the ‘dwarfy’ ones. I haven’t read the book [laughs]. And I tried out for [the role of] Harry Potter too, but I didn’t get past the first audition. I had read those books and I was a big fan. In fact, my mum got a first-edition Harry Potter book signed by JK Rowling when she [Rowling] was trying to flog it in our local church, before the series took off. It’s probably worth quite a lot of money now.
Have you been inundated withoffers for ‘posh doofus’ roles in the wake of Fresh Meat’s success?
I haven’t had a single offer since Fresh Meat [laughs]. Nothing. I’m not even getting offered the posh doofuses.
How long do you think Fresh Meat can go on? It seems to get more popular with each episode…
We’ve just had a third series commissioned, so that’s great. I don’t know how many they plan to do, but I love doing it. I just wish it had a better slot on Channel 4. Students will find it, but it would be nice if it got more of an audience who don’t know about it, and I’m not sure it will get that on Tuesday night after Jewish Mum Of The Year.
You’ve spoken in the past about former students of Stowe School – JP’s alma mater – reprimanding you for “giving Stowe a bad name”. Have you had any more encounters with irate ex-pupils?
Actually, the headmaster of Stowe has just asked me to speak at the school’s 90th anniversary. If I’m not filming, I’ll definitely do it. I feel it’s my duty. Having given the school such a bad name through this character, it’d be nice to give something back [laughs].
Do you get any stick from viewers in the north of England? JP once described “The Northerner” as being “trusting and loyal, like a gundog”…
[Laughs] No, I haven’t. Actually, that ‘Manc’ voice I did [in the ‘gundog’ scene] is an impression of our driver on Fresh Meat, Walt. He’s so funny. He is literally the dodgiest scally you’ll ever meet. Always trying to sell you iPod docks and speakers that have definitely come off the back of a van.
You started doing stand-up when you were in your teens. Do you have any horror stories from early gigs?
I was never heckled or booed, but there was a lot of… complete indifference [laughs]. At my first gig, I was on after a guy whose act consisted of doing an impression of a sperm. I was sitting there thinking, “How am I going to follow this?” And then, when I was at uni in Manchester, I gigged in a lot of northern towns. In those places, if you have a voice like mine, you find out very quickly whether your act is any good or not.
Did you try to hide your upbringing by making your accent more ‘street’?
Yes, definitely. Everyone who went to my school tried to change their voice as soon as they left. We all went to uni and started going to dubstep nights.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you even participated in rap battles at school. Did you have a hip-hop alias?
I was called MC Scabby. But I watch those old clips of me [doing stand-up with a more ‘street’ voice] and it’s awful. Reviewers always talk about stand-ups needing to “find their voice” – in my case they meant it literally [laughs].
There’s been talk about prejudice against posh people in the UK. Do you think there’s any truth in it?
Even if I did, I imagine going on record to say it wouldn’t be particularly popular. Especially in the current climate. People are going through really bad things at the moment, so suggesting there might be prejudice against me because of my voice and my nice, expensive school probably wouldn’t go down too well [laughs].
Are you careful to rein-in the offensiveness of your stand-up material?
I’ve always been careful. But it’s about where you’re performing. I presented the NME Awards this year – I think I’ll do it next year, too – and that’s a tough gig because it’s just p*ssed rock stars who don’t give a sh*t and don’t want to listen to you. So, because you’re not going to get big laughs, the only thing you can do is shock them by being rude. You think, “What’s the most offensive thing I can say?”
Who bore the brunt of your offensiveness?
I had a go at [Razorlight singer] Johnny Borrell. But I’m allowed to have a go at him because he took my sister out on a couple of dates and he was such a knob. He told her he’d written a song about her and we found out it was a song he’d written four years before he met her. I think that was a line he’d used on a lot of women.
As your profile rises, do you worry that you’re likely to bump into the celebrities you make jokes about?
You’re more aware you might land in an awkward situation. But I’ll never not slag someone off because I might meet them. Just make sure you only take a pot shot at someone if it’s based on something. I’m not going to have a go at Sir Chris Hoy, for instance.
You’ve had a few run-ins with the tabloids. Have you sought any advice from famous friends on how to deal with being in the spotlight?
Not really. I’ve never had a pep talk. No one’s sat me down and said, “Jack, this is how show business works. You have the keys to the door and now I’m going to tell you the house rules.” None of that happens. So I end up f*cking wrecking the place and doing all the wrong things [laughs]. I like going out and enjoying myself but I f*cking hate getting papped. What can you do, though? You’ll never have control of what goes on the Mail Online.
You must have had a few fun nights out with Freddie Flintoff?
Yeah, but I can’t keep up with him. I’m such a lightweight, especially with wine. It makes me giddy. So, I have one glass for every two Freddie consumes. [Fellow A League Of Their Own panellist, Jamie] Redknapp is even more of a lightweight than me, though.
Redknapp seems like the nicest, most inoffensive chap…
Are you going to ask if he has flaws?
Well, there’s one big one. He’s not what I’d call “book smart” [laughs]. But he is a brilliant, handsome man and wonderful company. I’m not particularly “book smart” either, to be honest.
You’re a big Arsenal fan – have you met any of your heroes?
I met Thierry Henry once and said something about him looking very “va-va-voom” in his suit. He shut down immediately. He went from being very friendly to just walking away. And that’s how I ruined my only meeting with my childhood hero [laughs]. I met Cesc Fabregas too, before he left Arsenal, and he was a f*cking gent.
You talk in your stand-up about being jealous of “R-Patz”, who you were at school with. Is that based on truth?
It’s all very exaggerated. It comes from the fact my mum was obsessed with him – she made him out to be perfect. He was a very handsome young chap.
So he was exactly like his Harry Potter character Cedric Diggory – the most popular boy at school…
Yes, but unlike his Harry Potter character, he didn’t die. He lived on. Therein lies the problem [laughs].
You were also at school with Pippa Middleton, right?
Yes, she was a couple of years above me. She was a bit of a fitty, even then. I used to go to watch her play hockey. Good turn of pace. Powerful thighs.
Have you read her party guide?
No. Is it funny?
It’s been criticised for containing fairly obvious ‘tips’, such as, “Flowers are a traditional Valentine’s token”…
[Laughs] Right, basic stuff. “If you’re at a wedding, don’t look fitter than your sister. She will hate you for the rest of her life.”
Jack Whitehall Live is out now on DVD
(Photography: Jay Brooks)