If you want to gain an idea of Jack Whitehall’s father, imagine a cross between Basil Fawlty and Prince Phillip. You never know what is going to come out of his mouth next: there’s no censorship button and he’s not shy of criticising his son. In fact the whole series works as an explanation for why Jack took to comedy: with such a father no-one but a young Prince Phillip (or Basil Fawlty) would have stood a chance. I watched the first episodes with mouth open in disbelief, unable to credit what I was hearing. The guy is bigoted, hypercritical, hidebound, uptight and utterly devoid of empathy: more than once I found myself shouting at the screen or wanting to give Jack a hug – or both. To add insult to injury, Michael (Whitehall Senior) buys a Cambodian ‘doll’ as large as a toddler which he treats with far more care and consideration than his own son.
What triggered all this was Jack Whitehall being on ‘Desert Island Discs’ this morning (his father’s comment: ‘you haven’t been famous long enough to be on that’) and hearing him talk about his father. When he says that travelling with him was like being the Queen travelling round Africa with Prince Phillip, never being quite sure where the next toe-curling gaffe is coming from, he is not overstating the case. Michael rarely, if ever, takes criticism from anyone, though he is quite willing to dole it out: when Jack plays elephant polo he yells a series of critical comments on the mic for everyone to hear. But by the end he seems to have softened a little and is slightly more positive towards Jack; father and son go home reconciled.
There are moments when, if you look closely, you can sense Jack’s longing for love and acceptance: I’m not saying that all stand-up comics have this need but in his case you can see why. Michael, on the other hand, shows remarkably little self-consciousness for a man whose every inflexion is being recorded in close-up; and generally seems to believe that he has an absolute right to think and say anything he wants. It’s quite something.
Then again, there’s always a query with these so-called reality shows. It’s not enough any more just to have people travel round South-East Asia: there must be a narrative and that narrative must centre on conflict. So here’s the rub: how much of this is real and how much is engineered? It’s hard to believe you could invent a man like Michael Whitehall – as Marvin the Paranoid Android observed, life’s bad enough without inventing more of it – but you could exaggerate them. Then again, the guy seems so genuinely awful, maybe there was no need to exaggerate. Either way the series left me feeling desperately sorry for a boy whose father’s idea of parenting was to hire a nanny for the first few years, send the child to boarding school at age eight and tell him he was rubbish at everything.
Anyway, leaving aside all the nonsense it’s a fascinating series, full of tacky religious artefacts, trains which you have to alight from and dismantle when another train is coming the other way, fantastic architecture including Angkor Wat (Michael: ‘is Anchor butter named after that?’ – Jack: ‘yes and later we’ll be visiting Lurpak temple, Flora temple and I Can’t Believe It’s not a Temple.’)
Seriously, can this guy really be for real? I just don’t know. But we are living in strange times, when fiction seems more real than ‘reality TV.’
Here’s the link: