• December 9, 2022

‘Our whole show is complete bollocks!’ Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield on their BBC mockumentary

  Reading time 13 minutes

Once a double act, always a double act. These may not be propitious circumstances for backchat: I’m meeting Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in that graveyard of cut-and-thrust, the three-way Zoom. But it’s not long before Harry and Paul (comedy collaborators of 40 years’ standing, their shared sketch show a Bafta-winner) are slipping back into the old ways. “I was meeting with [former BBC director of comedy] Shane Allen at a pavement cafe,” says Enfield: it’s the origin story of the pair’s new show, a spoof documentary to mark 100 years of the BBC. “It was during that period when outdoor one-to-one meetings were all we were allowed to do.

“I was reading him a show outline off my laptop. Then a scooter came up, the rider reached his hand out, and he nicked my laptop while I was reading it!” Cue Whitehouse, chiming in supportively. “I’ve seen the CCTV footage. It was very dramatic.” Pause. “And then he dropped it back later, didn’t he Harry, with a few improvements to the script.” Ba-da-boom.

The show in question is The Love Box in Your Living Room, a fantastic hour-long special tracing the BBC’s first century. Harry and Paul have got previous on this front: in 2015, they marked 50 years of BBC Two in another (terrific) mockumentary, The Story of the Twos. Have they become the UK’s first ever archivist-comedians, official spoof chroniclers to the nation? Perish the thought. “I said no at first,” says Enfield of the new show. “I thought it’s too big a subject, I don’t know how to do it.” “It is,” adds Whitehouse, “borderline impossible.”

But only borderline. The key to the problem was found in lockdown, when Enfield steeped himself in the films of everything-is-connected documentary maverick Adam Curtis. “You’re never quite sure with Curtis whether everything you’ve just seen is true or bollocks,” says Enfield. “Sometimes you think: ‘That seems like it’s complete bollocks,’ but you know it’s true. And suddenly I thought: ‘We could do it the other way round.’ So you come away from our show thinking: ‘Gosh, some of that might be true’ – but actually everything is complete bollocks.”

With that lightbulb flickering over his head, Enfield met Curtis – “which was quite frightening”. Enfield says: “He’s a storyteller. And, unlike most documentary makers, he’s a polemicist.” Whitehouse says: “Having an opinionated Curtis figure present means you can take the thing anywhere. You can do something pretty daft but also satirical.” Hence Enfield appearing as a camp mashup of Curtis and 60s TV adventurer Adam Adamant, hosting a pretend episode of iconic BBC children’s show Jackanory.

Curtis-style flourishes, in a show directed by longtime collaborator (and James Bond title sequence maestro) Daniel Kleinman, include a Sinclair C5 serving as an avatar for the BBC, and the corporation being taken over by “PR monkeys … sucking at its heart” (cue footage of cute chimpanzees). There’s a subplot that casts as the BBC’s dark shadow a mysterious Aussie media baron known only as Raised By Dingoes. Inspired by Curtis’s lateral use of archive footage, Enfield (the sole writer on the show; Whitehouse was too busy to co-write) also plays with unlikely juxtapositions, such as when the premiership of sailing enthusiast Ted Heath is recast as an episode of kids’ cartoon Captain Pugwash.

“It’s not quite what Adam would do,” says Enfield, “but it’s a nod in that direction.” Cue Whitehouse again: “H, it’s not ‘not quite’ what Adam Curtis would do. Adam Curtis would never do that!”

As all of the above suggests, it’s impossible to do a 100-year history of the BBC that’s not also a look at British society and politics since 1922. But more than that, Love Box is a primer in the esoteric TV tastes of Whitehouse and Enfield. Other archivists might have recounted the corporation’s first century without sketches that satirise Syd Little, Howard’s Way and 70s sci-fi staple Blake’s 7. But to Harry and Paul, no history is complete that leaves Blake’s 7 out. “There were so many clips of characters just sitting around on this cheap spaceship set,” says Enfield. “Back then, we were really happy with that. Just like we were happy with our old Austin Allegros. Well,” he pauses, the memory fog clearing, “my family had a Hillman Hunter. But in those days, we were quite happy with all of it.”

If you’re starting to sense that Love Box was inspired by nostalgia – well, you’d be right. “You forget great swathes of your life,” says Whitehouse. “Things about your main reasons for existence, your children, all that. But what you’re left with at the end, what you never forget, are playground injustices and Jackanory. Just seeing Jackanory, you get emotional, don’t you? At least until Harry comes on dressed in pink as Adam Curtis.”

Perhaps this emotional attachment to decades-old TV helps us answer the elephant-in-the-room question, which is: why, when youth and diversity are buzzwords at the Beeb (as the show itself teasingly points out), did two sexagenarian men get this prestige gig? It’s fascinating to imagine what mockumentary a pair of twentysomething comics might make about the BBC. It might have been fantastic – or, as Whitehouse suggests, “there might not have been any content at all. I don’t know how many 20-year-olds watch the BBC or have any knowledge of it.”

In other words, “it needs has-beens to make a show about the BBC. Because the BBC’s a has-been.” Neither of those statements is strictly true. OK, so Enfield predicted to this newspaper a full 10 years ago that “I should think the BBC will sack us soon … we’re getting on a bit.” And it’s been a while since the duo’s sketch comedy prime. But sketch comedy is, on TV at least, an endangered species. “Sitcoms you can sell around the world,” says Enfield. “But sketch just isn’t commercially viable.” It’s too personal, he says, too culturally specific – an argument substantiated by the following improbable tale.

“David Bowie used to take DVDs of Harry & Paul back to LA,” says Enfield, “and show it to his crew when they were recording his last couple of albums. He had to explain why it was funny – and then they all got into it.” The lesson is clear. “You can’t just sell sketch comedy like ours to America. You have to have David Bowie there to explain why it’s funny.”

But in the decade since the final series of Harry & Paul, the pair have not exactly faded into their dotage. Whitehouse’s BBC Two show with Bob Mortimer, Gone Fishing, has proved quite the phenomenon, while he also played creative lead on a hit Only Fools and Horses musical. Enfield, meanwhile, has been Bafta-nominated for his role as Prince Charles in Channel 4’s The Windsors – a role that’s now due an upgrade.

“I feel a bit bad for Charles,” says Enfield, unexpectedly. “This poor guy, he’s had to go around the country and everyone’s been going: ‘My commiserations.’ You could see he wanted to turn around and say: ‘I want to go back to Highgrove.’ And they’d say: ‘You can’t, ever again, sir. It’s now a Lidl car park, sir.’”I felt sorry for him.”

If that sounds like a comic making his peace with the establishment, the new show suggests otherwise. It is less the work of two comedy has-beens than two on-form jokers with a killer cast of co-stars (Rosie Cavaliero, Seann Walsh, Kiell Smith-Bynoe) and palpable joy at reviving their own career-long collaboration. “The Downton Abbey meets Peaky Blinders sketch,” says Enfield, of one of the show’s daftest moments, “with Paul and his haircut. Seeing that, every time I watched it in the edit, gave me so much pleasure.”

Whitehouse as a Brummie gangster is the show at its most gloriously silly. But its satirical sideswipes (at the BBC’s classism, its sexism, its confusion about its role) are switchblade-sharp, too. But there’s no doubting which side of the fence Love Box comes down on. “We’ve worked with the BBC for a long time,” says Whitehouse. “It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? We owe them a lot – and they can be very frustrating. But you’ve got to take your hat off to what they’ve produced. No one can touch them.”

But some are trying to. “Once politicians get involved,” says Enfield, “and put pressure on the BBC – and the current chairman is a Conservative party donor, and what he said about Emily Maitlis I strongly disagree with – it does make me worry for the BBC. The politicians try and mask [their hostility] in ‘Are you relevant?’, ‘Are you this or that?’ But really, this is a cornerstone of our democracy, and it’s under threat.”

“For me,” he goes on, “we grew up with the BBC and we grew up with the Rolling Stones. If a government spokesperson came along and said, ‘we’d like to thank Keith Richards for his great contribution to the Rolling Stones. But we’ve got this young guitarist who’s more in keeping with the current mood of the country’, to me that would be wrong. Because they’re the fucking Rolling Stones.”

“Some of the frustrations you deal with working with the BBC,” says Whitehouse, “are because they panic. Instead of sticking to their guns, they try and accommodate everybody. Now, I know that’s sort of their remit. But occasionally it’d be nice if they just stick two fingers up to people who told them what to do.”

Whitehouse and Enfield wouldn’t want you to look at their show this way, because it’s there to make you laugh first and foremost – and it will. But The Love Box in Your Living Room could be construed as their love letter to the BBC, a highly personal Jackanory story of a corporation that’s contributed so much to their lives.

“I just want to say to the BBC,” says Enfield, “be proud of yourself. And make good programmes, whatever they are. Just don’t worry and be proud of yourself.”

The Love Box in Your Living Room is on BBC Two on 27 October

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