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Paul Whitehouse grilled in Perthshire as comedy classic The Fast Show returns for its 30th anniversary

The Courier's outdoors aficionado Gayle meets comedy legend Paul Whitehouse on the Meikleour estate – and learns about The Fast Show's ‘biggest fan’ Johnny Depp, the bond with fishing partner Bob Mortimer, and his punk band.
Gayle Ritchie
Courier writer Gayle Ritchie hangs out of the banks of the River Tay at Meikleour with Paul Whitehouse. Image: Kenny Smith.
Courier writer Gayle Ritchie hangs out of the banks of the River Tay at Meikleour with Paul Whitehouse. Image: Kenny Smith.

The red wine has been opened. Goblets of it have been poured. I chink mine with Paul Whitehouse.

Paul is in an excitable, celebratory mood. It’s the night before salmon fishing season kicks off on the River Tay, and he’s taking the lead role in the opening ceremony at Meikleour.

We’re having drinks at Meikleour House, and I’ve an hour before dinner to grill the comedian and TV angler about whatever I fancy.

I’m keen to find out about his trip here in October with fellow Gone Fishing star Bob Mortimer – and I’m curious to know more about his dealings with “superfan” Johnny Depp.

Gayle grills Paul Whitehouse over a glass of wine at Meikleour. Image: Meikleour Fishings.

Paul and Bob, and, of course Ted – the Patterdale terrier with the toothy underbite – were in the area filming a Hogmanay special of the heart-warming show.

Filming during Storm Babet

Their timing wasn’t great. They were caught up in some of the worst flooding in recent history thanks to Storm Babet.

As rivers across Perthshire burst their banks, they were forced to flit from site to site in their quest for somewhere safe enough to film.

Paul and Bob filmed the Hogmanay special of Gone Fishing at Meikleour during some of the worst flooding in recent history! Image: Meikleour Fishings.
Paul and Bob filmed the Hogmanay special of Gone Fishing at Meikleour during some of the worst flooding in recent history! Image: Meikleour Fishings.

It turned out surprisingly well. “Roads were closed, cars were abandoned – it was carnage!” recalls Paul, 65.

“I don’t think people elsewhere realise how powerful and immense the Scottish rivers are, especially the Tay.

“We were filming during the storm, but with a bit of manoeuvring of schedules, we were able to just get in front of it.”

Return to Meikleour

The episode had been nearly a year in the making. Paul and Bob had been determined to return to Meikleour after filming a particularly moving Gone Fishing there five years ago.

In it, the pair met John Moses, a popular River Tay angler who died soon after, on Boxing Day 2018.

Bob and Paul sheltered from the storm, and filmed their spoof awards ceremony at the Meikleour Arms. Image: Meikleour Fishings.

This time, the plan was to fish on the Isla – the show’s makers found the perfect spot – but when they got there, it was a metre under water.

Heading instead for the Tay, which was rising fast, they found filming there also out of the question.

So the stars, plus Ted and the production crew, made for the River Ericht at Blairgowrie where they managed to bag the crucial scenes.

Paul and Bob on Meikleour estate – plus Ted the dog and a friendly white fluffy friend. Image: Meikleour Fishings.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘real’ anglers look at me and Bob and go: ‘These morons!’” says Paul.

“But we’re not really making fishing programmes. We’ve got to entertain as well. It’s reached an audience beyond fishing, and that’s great. Otherwise, it would be very niche.

“It means a lot to people. There’s something very honest about it, and poignant at times. The fact is, it came out of our real shared experiences – it wasn’t a made up idea.”

The birth of Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing was born when Paul, who had known Bob for 30 years, invited his friend fishing to get him out of the house after heart surgery.

Paul, who was also diagnosed with heart disease, jokes that one of them will “drop dead on the riverbank” one day.

Fans will know Bob’s been pretty unwell recently, having described 2023 as the “worst health year” of his life.

Fellow comedian Lee Mack was drafted in to replace him for the October episode after he was struck down by shingles.

Bob and Paul have a laugh during filming of Gone Fishing. Image: Parisa Taghizadeh.

So I have to ask Paul – how is dear old Bob?

“He claimed he was going to be running by next year, so don’t worry, I’ll keep him on track,” he pledges.

“I saw him the other day. He was doing some of his physio. He’s doing very well.”

The legendary Ted the dog is alive and kicking! Image: Meikleour Fishings.

And what about Ted? I’d heard a scurrilous rumour that the dog – who’s become a social media superstar – was dead.

“No no! Ted is very much alive!” he assures. “He’s got cult status. Me and Bob hate him. He’s stolen our limelight. He’s a right diva.”

Special Hogmanay episode

The Hogmanay special also featured scenes filmed on the Park beat of River Dee.

Paul, who’s been fishing there for 25 years, says it was a “sort of glorious homecoming”.

Paul opened the salmon fishing season on the River Dee at Potarch bridge near Banchory in 2012. Image: Jim Irvine.

“The Tweed, the Tay and the Spey are quite intimidating really. But although the Dee is a big river, it has a lot of fly water and is supposedly a bit more intimate than the other three.

“I’d go every year to Park with pretty much the same party – friends of my dad – and it became part of our lives.

“So it was nice to head up there again to see the Foster family who lease it, and the ghillie Keith Cromar.

“Keith was very good with my dad when we first started coming. He’d help him into the river, and to fish. Weirdly, dad was a bit unsteady in his mid to late 60s, but then he actually got better. Maybe fishing helped him?”

Bid to escape Christmas cliches

Over the years Paul and Bob have filmed several Christmas Gone Fishing specials.

However, Paul thought a focus on Hogmanay would allow them to explore the concept, and escape “tired old cliches” of Christmas.

“My role, if you like, is to be the curmudgeon,” he chuckles. “And I do think Christmas comes round too soon. We’re talking about it in September, if not before, aren’t we?

Raising a glass to he Hogmanay special of Gone Fishing. Image: Ross Johnston.

“My little shtick is – can we please have it every two years, or every four years like the World Cup, and then we can give it some real feeling!

“On the other hand, Hogmanay is still a bizarre concept, and we were trying to find out if it’s as important as it used to be. It used to be sacrosanct for the Scots.”

The joy of fishing

What is it Paul loves about fishing, I ask? The meditative aspect? The joy of experiencing beautiful, extraordinary places? The bonds forged with friends and family on the water?

He nods. “Yeah, I think it’s all those things. I was introduced to fishing by my dad when I was five. Who knows, if he’d been into golf, I might have gone down that route.

Paul Whitehouse has the first cast of the season under the watchful eye of Claire Mercer Nairne, TDSFB member and owner of Meikleour Fishings, and head ghillie Callum McRoberts. Image: Kenny Smith.

“But it certainly gave us a bond, and one that stuck all our lives. It was a joyous thing that kept us linked.”

And so it was a poignant moment for Paul to kick off the Tay salmon fishing season at Meikleour on January 15 – on the fifth anniversary of his father’s death.

He had been invited by Claire Mercer Nairne, who owns Meikleour Fishings with her husband, Sam.

Claire Mercer Nairne with Paul Whitehouse and head ghillie Calum McRoberts on the banks of the Tay at Meikleour. Image: Kenny Smith.
Claire Mercer Nairne with Paul Whitehouse and head ghillie Calum McRoberts on the banks of the Tay at Meikleour. Image: Kenny Smith.

“Claire was so helpful with the filming process and setting up our spoof awards ceremony,” says Paul.

“So of course I said yes when she asked me to do the opening ceremony!”

A nod to Paul’s dad

His dad, he says, would have been astonished and “so proud”. A wistful look crosses Paul’s face as he considers his late father.

“He couldn’t have contemplated that I would open the Tay,” he reflects. “So in a way it’s a kind of a nod to my dad. It was a fitting thing to do – to honour his memory.”

Georgina Ballantine with her record-breaking salmon.

The young Paul’s imagination was fired by a book his dad gave him which contained a description of the record 64lb salmon caught by Georgina Ballantine on the Glendelvine beat of the Tay in October 1922.

“I was astonished and intrigued by the encounter with this fish,” he remembers.

“I’ve caught some big salmon in my time but not even half the size of that. She was a young woman – and that was a huge, scary fish.

“I can imagine the terror when she saw it turn in the current. What a special river – and what a scary river the Tay can be. It’s a beast of a river.”

Johnny Depp is Paul’s ‘biggest fan’

I’m bursting to ask Paul about his relationship with Johnny Depp.

Back in 2020, Paul revealed that Johnny was a “massive fan” of his, and was obsessed with his cult 90s comedy series The Fast Show.

The Pirates of the Caribbean legend even went as far as to call Paul “the greatest actor in the world”.

“That’s what he said!” laughs Paul. “He must’ve been off his nut! He was obsessed with The Fast Show. And he’s an Anglophile. He loves British culture. He loves British comedy. Every now and then I get a little email from him.”

Johnny Depp guest-starred on The Fast Show in 2000.

Many moons ago Johnny said the first Fast Show character he “fell in love with” was Rowley Birkin, the sozzled, rambling old barrister.

And he was such a big fan that he guest-starred in the series in 2000 – as an American in the ‘Suit you, sir!’ sketch.

“It was actually very weird that he turned up!” muses Paul. “We didn’t think he would. A lot of people say, ‘we like your show, we’d like to do a bit in it’.

“But Johnny had just come in from the States and he went straight from the airport to the BBC and we recorded that scene. It was great.”

Years later, Paul did a cameo in the 2015 comedy Mortdecai, in which Johnny plays an art lover who foils a terrorist plot. He also played Thackery opposite Johnny in the 2016 film, Alice Through The Looking Glass.

Asked if he’d appear in a future reboot of The Fast Show, Johnny previously said: “If it’s Whitehouse and those guys, I would do it in a second. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on television.”

The Fast Show marks 30th anniversary in 2024

While most of the fans who approach Paul these days are Gone Fishing aficionados, he still gets a few coming up to him either spouting Fast Show phrases or requesting that he perform them.

“I’m very proud of The Fast Show and it’s very different from the fishing show, obviously,” he says.

Paul’s Fast show character – sozzled barrister Rowley Birkin – is a favourite of Johnny Depp’s. Image: Tyson Benton.

“It’s actually 30 years since the first episode went out in 1994.” Will there be anything to mark this, I ask? Paul’s not sure yet. Let’s hope so.

(A few days after our chat, it was revealed that the cast of the beloved sketch are reuniting for a live tour in March. There’s just one Scottish date – at Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre on March 20).

A dubiously named punk band…

A perhaps little-known fact about Paul is that he used to be in punk bands in the late 70s and early 80s. Dave Cummings, the guitarist for the first band, Right Hand Lovers, ended up in Del Amiti.

I ask about the inspiration behind the name. Paul cringes. “We were 19. We thought it was really funny at the time!”

Comedian and star of ‘Gone Fishing’ Paul Whitehouse during the opening ceremony on the opening day of the salmon fishing season on the River Tay at Kincalven Bridge near Meikleour, Perthshire. Image: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.

The penny drops and I blush. Maybe I’m too pure-minded, I suggest. “That’s why I didn’t mention it!” he winces.

Does Paul still listen to punk? “Sometimes. But I think it was more of a catalyst. I listen to all types of music. I’ll happily put on the Sex Pistols or The Clash, and then a bit of Shirley Bassey.

New book on fishing

Back to the subject of fishing – Paul’s just released a book, How We Fish, in tandem with angling expert John Bailey. His Glasgow-based daughter, Carys Reilly-Whitehouse, has drawn some of the illustrations.

Dad-of-four Paul describes it as a “sort of distillation” of what he and Bob did in Gone Fishing, but clarifies that it’s not about the show.

Paul makes the first cast of the Tay salmon fishing season at Meikleour. Image: Kenny Smith.

“It’s to try and encapsulate our approach to fishing,” he says. “I don’t want to slag off any branch of angling but there are certain ways of fishing that are quite mechanical.

“They’re effective but you couldn’t fish a salmon like that. We wanted to write about the magic of angling, and of sometimes not catching.”

What’s next for 2024?

Before he heads back home to North London, I ask what’s on the cards for Paul in 2024? Will he be back in Scotland?

“Normally I’d come up every year to fish the Dee or the Findhorn, and if, as we hope, Gone Fishing continues then we might well be back,” he says.

“We’ve got to rehearse and restructure Only Fools for a big tour in the autumn (Paul plays Grandad in Only Fools and Horses: The Musical) so we might be coming to Edinburgh, Glasgow and maybe Aberdeen.

“It’s quite a lot of work and I’m getting old! So that’s it at the moment.”

Paul Whitehouse jests with fans during the opening ceremony of the salmon fishing season on the Tay. Image: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.
  • Gone Fishing returns for a seventh series later in the year with Paul and Bob visiting locations including Wales, Wiltshire and the Scottish Borders.