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Jack Whitehall speaks ahead of Birmingham show

Birmingham | Entertainment | Published:

He's embarking on his biggest stand-up tour yet, but Jack Whitehall still fails to raise a smile from his old man. He tells Weekend why...

He's late. Come on, Jack. Hurry up. We nudge his PR. And his PR nudges Jack. Nothing. Come on, Jack. Hurry up. Ten minutes later, the phone rings.

"Hiiiiiiii," he says, all floppy-fringed insouciance. "It's Jack."

We breathe a sigh of relief. Our do-not-break-the-glass-unless-it's-an-emergency feature is safe for another week.

"I'm in the car."

Oh no. Jack Whitehall in a car. This is only going to go one way.

He laughs.

"Don't worry. I'm not driving."

And we both laugh.

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Jack is hot property. The man met Jack Dee in his teens and idolised the nation's once-favourite master of deadpan has become comedy's go-to guy. These days, he's in a League of His Own, as Jack might have it.

The funny man, best known for starring at JP in Fresh Meat and as Alfie Wickers in Bad Education, has enjoyed a spectacular rise during the past 10 years, since presenting Big Brother's Big Mouth on E4.

There have been regular guest appearances on Mock The Week, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Would I Lie To You?, Mock The Weeks, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Live At The Apollo, among others.

And now, he's thrilling a cool 100,000-or-so fans during a major UK tour of the nation's biggest theatres and arenas. Birmingham loves him so much that he's playing not once but twice, with an opening night at the Genting Arena next Thursday followed by an added date at the Barclaycard Arena on February 26.

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The show, At Large, has been 18 months in the making. Jack's done fringe gigs, warm-up shows at comedy clubs and fine-tuned his act so that he can emulate some of his comedy heroes.

"It's going to be a really big show," he says. "You have to fill the arenas and do something spectacular if you're in really big barns like the venues in Birmingham. You know, for the fans, it might be their one night out that month. They'll have paid for a babysitter and it's an expensive night out. So I want to deliver a really big show and give them something to talk about."

Jack as JP in Fresh Meat

At Large, therefore, will be more than just a night of stand-up.

"I've honed the stand-up and the stuff I'm doing on stage. I'm doing a sketch with Freddie Flintoff, James Corden and David Walliams, which we've filmed.

"Then there's a big finale, a big musical number, that will take everyone by surprise. Believe me, it will be spectacular.

"There'll be a support for both the Birmingham dates too. I've got Joe Lycett for the second gig. He's a local lad from Birmingham and if I'm being honest he's far too successful to be doing my show."

But Jack and Joe go back. They were mates at university and Joe did his first gig alongside Jack.

"That's right. He did my first support and his first ever gig was great. We've been close mates since then and we went to uni and stuff. Joe's great."

Audiences can expect an evening of high-intensity silliness as the multi-award-winner takes to the stage. Jack's a fan of some of the nation's most successful arena comedians and is thrilled to be rubbing shoulders with comedy's elite.

"I love Lee Evans," he says. "His arena shows are fantastic. He has so much energy and so much presence. Peter Kay is brilliant too. He brings that element of theatricality to it."

Not that he's down on stand-ups like the brilliant Billy Connolly, nor, indeed comedians who are part of his own peer group.

"There's nothing wrong with a man and a mic," or, of course, a lady with an amplifier.

"If you've got brilliant comedians who can just do great shows, then that's great. But my personal taste and my strengths are in the big theatrical show. I like to think that people that come to see the show might be fans of League of Their Own. So they'll look forward to things that are silly and slapstick. I guess if I would be describing At Large I'd say it had the energy and essence of A League of Their Own.

When it comes to rooting out subject material for his show, Jack has the perfect target: himself. He'll take a long hard look in the mirror before each show and then beat the audience to the punchlines.

"Well, the stand-up bit will cover quite a few different areas. I'm quite obsessed with class, so that's often a subject matter. There's be a bit of posh-bashing and lots of self-deprecation. There are also tales of my aborted trip to America. And then there's me putting my foot in it at the Royal Variety shows."

Ah yes. The Royal Variety Shows. Prince Harry was seen shaking his head and wagging his finger as Jack Whitehall mocked him at the 2015 show. He took on His Royal Highness from the start and didn't let up. And while the audience roared with laughter as Jack strutted along the stage, Prince Harry was seen rolling his eyes and looking heavenward. The jokes kept coming as Jack said that while on patrol in Afghanistan, the Ginger Prince deserved a Victoria Cross just for stepping out of the shade.

Jack is looking forward to his Birmingham gigs. He's been a frequent visitor to the city in recent years and has enjoyed a long and successful association with the Glee Club. He's trialled material at its sister club, in Cardiff, and has fond memories of the Second City's venue.

"The Glee Club is fantastic. I've done lots of stuff there. They're great supporters of comics. You have to do work-in-progress gigs at places like that because it's such a big show. This one's been a year-and-a-half in the making and the show is ever-changing and ever-evolving.

On A League Of Their Own

"But that's part of the fun.

"When the lights go down and you get on stage, you never know what's going to happen. The last time I played Birmingham, we did a big show and it was in the round. Suddenly, from nowhere, a butterfly started coming towards me. I started chasing it and tried to catch it and the audience was in hysterics because I was being attacked by a butterfly."

Insect

Jack caught the errant flying insect. "Then I didn't know what to do." So he stopped the show. "I had to run outside the arena and release it back into the wild. People loved it. It was the sort of thing that only ever happens at a live show. It was completely spontaneous and unrehearsed."

There's something special about the roar of the crowd. And Jack can't wait to hear the cheering and applause of 20,000 West Midlanders during his two nights in Brum.

"I love it. I don't get bored. I'm constantly excited. If I was doing a play I would go mad because I would be doing the same thing over and over again. I would be itching to change it."

Which, when you think about it, could be funny.

His opening night of Macbeth might feature a Whitehall-esque chefs around a cooking pot, rather than witches around a stove; his Romeo & Juliet might see him getting off with the vicar, in an LGBT version, rather than a Montague.

"When a gig goes well and the audience is buzzing, nothing beats that high. The adrenalin really powers me through it. It's just the best thing."

Performers have different routines before shows. Some hit the vodka while others sit in a darkened room and weep. There are those who are overcome by nerves while some want to be anywhere but on the stage. Jack is different. Back stage before a gig, you'll find him running up and down the corridors.

Performing live

"I don't get nervous. With me, it's all about pumping myself up. I'm slapping myself in the face or running up and down the corridors, shadow boxing. I don't get twitchy. If anything, I go the other way. I get too excited and when I get on stage I'm running at 100mph. That's my thing. I have to tell myself to calm down. It's more a case of count one, two, three, four, five, than any sign of nerves."

The absence of nerves owes much to his upbringing. Jack's mother is the actress Hilary Gish while his father is the TV producer and agent Michael Whitehall. His father's client list included Dame Judi Dench, Colin Firth and Richard Griffiths, among others, and he wrote about his life in the memoir Shark-Infested Waters. Jack's godfathers are the actors Nigel Havers and the late Richard Griffiths. So, as a boy, he was already immersed in the world of entertainment.

At Tower House School, in West London, his fellow pupil was the Twilight Saga star Robert Pattinson and at the age of nine Jack appeared in the series Noah's Ark, which aired on ITV.

Being part of a successful theatrical family has had its ups and downs. And, rather than encouraging him to pursue a career as a performer, it could quite easily have done the opposite. After all, he saw more heartbreak than joy, more failure than success.

"I saw all sides of the industry when I was younger and growing up. I saw the successes and the failures. It's funny when people say I've done well because of my father because for everyone of his clients who did well there were more who were out of work.

Jack with fellow comic Jack Dee

"Towards the end of my father's career, I saw a lot of his clients desert him and I learned that people in the entertainment industry often have relationships that are quite fake. So that's something that I've been conscious of when I've worked my way through it.

"But it's funny that people think he gave me a helping hand because he burned so many bridges. My father was an agent and everybody hates agents, they are the least popular people in the industry.

"But, for me, it's a great advantage having him as a dad because he's brilliant at advice. He knows the industry inside and out."

The father-son relationship isn't quite the same as a friend-friend relationship. Though the two have a successful TV chatshow, Backchat, and the warmest of relationships, Mr Whitehall isn't afraid to give Jack the truth.

"Well, I wouldn't say we're like friend-friends," Jack laughs. "But my father has a great sense of humour and he makes really good notes. I don't think you'd say we're the best of friends because my friends wouldn't talk to me the way he does, or say the things he does.

"There was a funny story at the start of this tour, in January. My dad came to the first night and was seated near to a reviewer. The reviewer was very nice about the show but added that my father didn't laugh once during it . . ."

And we both burst out laughing, again. Because that's precisely what dads do.

But Jack is remarkably grateful that he has a father who has been supportive and empathetic as he's made progress through his career. He can talk to his dad about stuff that his mates wouldn't understand, he can tell him crazy stories, talk about ridiculous fees, confide in him about back-biting and tough cookies without having to fear anything.

"Look, it's great having someone who understands. He's been there and had clients go through all sorts of different things. He's seen all the ups and all the downs. He gets it. I feel very fortunate."

Though Jack has many years ahead of him, he's already given us any number of classic TV moments. Like his Top Gear Test Track challenge, for instance, which he undertook having only driven a car once before.

Jack performs

"It was terrible," he says. "The lap they showed was bad enough. But the first lap I did was even worse. I went round the track and I thought it was great because the car was literally sticking to the track. It was amazing. There was so much traction. I thought I had so much control for someone who hadn't driven before. I was literally sticking to the track."

When he got out of the car, he could smell burning rubber. And then it dawned on him why he'd been sticking to the track.

"I'd left the handbrake on." Doh.

"They told me I was the only star in a car who'd ever done a whole lap with the handbrake still on." The car very nearly went up in flames.

But then that's typical Jack. He's on the radar but off the wall, he's driven but he's sure as hell no driver, he's the foppish fancy-dan funnyman who it's somehow cool to like.

So book the babysitter. Time for a big night out.

Jack plays Birmingham's Genting Arena on Thursday.

By Andy Richardson

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