Then, the next thing they both need to do is never, ever, ever apologize.
And not back down either.
Otherwise what’s left of Disney’s credibility as an entertainment industry player will be toast. So too will all that hard work Whitehall has put in in the last couple of years trying to make the big break from popular English stand up comedian to major Hollywood movie star.
So too will the entire point of the acting profession.
Actors, let’s be honest, aren’t generally good for much. All they basically do is pretend to be other people, usually reading out lines that cleverer people have written for them – and get paid lots of money for it.
But if it’s no longer politically acceptable for them to play anyone other than themselves, then where’s the skill? Where’s the value-added that justifies all those inflated pay checks? There isn’t any. Which means that apart from that tiny minority of actors who are loved for only ever being themselves – Clint; Michael Caine; Joey from Friends – the entire acting profession is going to die on its feet.
One’s crabby and conservative, while the other is genial and impeccably PC. No wonder Jack and his dad Michael make such compelling TV.
‘Oh really I don’t mind. Whatever you want to pay me. I just want to do this job and I’m really looking forward it. How much were you thinking?’ says Michael Whitehall in an unctuous, good-natured, amenable voice. Then, in an instant, having been told the imaginary amount, he turns savagely nasty and bangs his fist on the table. ‘No fucking way are you paying me so little…’
Watching Michael Whitehall jokingly re-enact how he negotiated his fee for his son’s new Netflix series, Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father, three things become abundantly clear.
First, that he must have been a brilliantly effective agent (shrewd, tough, terrifying) during his previous career, when he represented such stars as Kenneth More, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and (Jack’s godfather) Richard Griffiths.
Second, that he really should have been on stage or screen himself much earlier (he became a star only in his early seventies), because his acting skills, timing and delivery are immaculate. (He’ll hate the comparison, but I was oddly reminded of the scene where Gollum’s good and evil sides have an argument in Lord of the Rings.)
Jack Whitehall could have been perfectly awful as Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall (BBC1, Fridays). He has spent most of his career comically playing up to a common person’s idea of what a posh person looks like: the stand-up who went to the same public school (Marlborough) as Kate Middleton; JP, the Jack-Wills-wearing yah character from Fresh Meat, who went to Stowe; Alfie, the impeccably upper-middle-class, Mumford & Sons-loving history teacher, in Bad Education.
But Evelyn Waugh’s class humour is more sophisticatedly snobbish than that, written for a more discerning audience in the days — sigh — when even semi-educated people knew the order of precedence between a duke, a marquess, an earl and, say, a common-or-garden baron. Would Whitehall, lowly son of a mere theatrical agent, really be up to such subtleties? Or would he overplay it as yet another lovable, mugging Hooray?
Well, I’m happy to report that young Jack (still only 28, the bastard) has done Waugh proud. He has produced a performance, his most mature to date, entirely in the service of the part — which is to say, self-effacing, mildly bewildered, almost cipher-like in its modesty. Pennyfeather’s job, after all, is to act as the bemused butt of Waugh’s sadistic humour. The world is a cruel and unjust place, Waugh had already realised by the time (at 24) he published his first bestseller. Pennyfeather is his part autobiographical hero, part torture victim.
You see him play both roles in the glorious opening scene where the Bollinger (i.e. the Bullingdon) is holding one of its booze-ups, ‘baying for broken glass’, and Pennyfeather, a mildly studious, tweedy undergrad destined for the clergy, makes the mistake of walking across his college quad at just the wrong moment. His punishment is to be brutally debagged.
Afterwards, we see the college authorities discussing how to punish this terrible crime. By which, of course, they don’t mean the raucous toffs — who are immune because they can afford to buy their way out with fines — but Pennyfeather who, by allowing himself to become a victim in so vulgar a way, has proved himself quite unworthy of the college. Naturally, the only thing to do is send him down. ‘I expect you’ll want to become a schoolmaster,’ says the mildly sympathetic college porter as he hands back his room key. ‘That’s what most of the young gentlemen does that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.’
This is classic Waugh, his voice and humour already fully developed