The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson: Favourite sketches, Caroline Aherne and why they won’t make a new series

Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson look back at their favourite moments from the iconic sketch series as the cast reunite for a new Gold channel special.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 27 August 2020 - 12.51pm

Watch The Fast Show: Just A Load of Blooming Catchphrases on Gold with NOW TV

Aren’t reunion shows brilliant!

Celebrating its 25th birthday, The Fast Show is back with a reunion special on Gold that has a twist – all your favourite characters are coming back.

Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Arabella Weir, John Thomson, Mark Williams and Simon Day are bringing back Swiss Toni, Billy Bleach, Rowley Birkin QC, Ted and Ralph and the ‘Suits You!’ men, as the classic characters look back at their finest moments.

Ahead of the highly-anticipated specials, Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson told us about their memories of the ‘90s classic.

1. How did you feel watching back the classic sketches?

Paul Whitehouse: It was really quite moving watching some of the characters come to life again. For example, I loved seeing John [Thomson] as Denzel Dexter. If you asked me for a list of my favourite Fast Show characters, I wouldn't put Denzel in the top three. But I got really quite touched when I saw him turn up in all his gear.

There was something about the look. Perhaps it is because he looked very similar. He didn't look like he had aged much with his hair and his beard. It was almost like being transported back in time. It all came flooding back to me, that joyous Fast Show rollercoaster ride.

Charlie Higson: I hope people switch on and think, "Oh my God, that was a lot in it, wasn't there?" Anything that is about sharing laughter is great, especially at the moment. I hope people will really enjoy the boost of laughter that this will give them. And it will make a change from watching.

Paul: Without blowing my own trumpet, I did enjoy watching [the special]. There is such a warm, nostalgic feeling about the show.

I hope it will be a real tonic for people to watch this in lockdown. I felt a real sense of emotion watching it. It brings back very fond memories of fun times. And that's really important at the moment.

2. Who did you enjoy playing the most?

Charlie Higson as Swiss Toni UKTV

Paul: Personally, I really enjoyed doing Ron Manager again just because it's fun working with Mark [Williams] and Simon [Day]. Ron Manager is someone you can do now and still be entirely relevant. Or irrelevant!

There are still Ron Managers in football. They're everywhere. We are all a bit Ron Manager, saying that everything is killing the game. Meanwhile, the game is the most successful game in the world!

Charlie: I did very much enjoy playing the painter, Johnny. Just for the sheer joy of performing, he was my favourite character to play. I could go to beautiful, scenic places in the countryside and just go nuts. What more fun can you have?

I adored the bits where he loses it and goes off into this weird, paranoid fantasy world. I loved coming out with those lines and being able to smash everything up! I also used to love seeing if I could make Arabella [Weir] corpse. But she never laughed, which was fantastically professional of her.

3. What are your memories of Caroline Aherne?

Paul: She was a wonderful person, and what she did in a brief but brilliant career was incredible. She played the spoof nun, Sister Mary Immaculate, and stunned people on stage with her rhetoric there.

That led to Mrs Merton, and then The Royle Family. So she dominated three areas of comedy-sketch show, character comedy and then a beautiful sitcom/comedy drama, whatever you want to call it. She paved the way with The Royle Family. She was quite extraordinary.

“Caroline went off like a rocket, and we just held onto the stick.”
- Charlie Higson

Charlie: She was unique. She was such an extraordinary performer and person. As soon as we met her, we thought, "She's so special. We have got to use her".

It was fabulous to work with her and then see her go off, come up with something as extraordinary as The Royle Family and become such a big star in her own right.

We were just happy that we'd been able to work with her. She went off like a rocket, and we just held onto the stick.

4. Why do you think The Fast Show remains so popular?

Paul Whitehouse and Simon Day in the 'Suits You' Fast Show sketch UKTV

Paul: It's funny because the show does stand up, weirdly. A woman being ignored by a group of men? That hasn't gone out of date. You still meet people like Swiss Toni, too, and you will always see Competitive Dads and Brilliants.

I don't claim that we were that innovative. Unlike, say, Spike Milligan and Monty Python, we didn't necessarily have to have a theme for each show. But one of the things we did very well is that we were short and sharp. We would also very quickly go from knockabout comedy to something very poignant. Maybe that hadn't been seen in the sketch show before…

Charlie: As audiences got to know the characters, you could move some of them into the area of drama. On one level, you could say The Fast Show was a load of short sketches. But on another level, you could say it was one very long sketch, cut into little bits.

With Ted and Ralph, for instance, in some series we had unfolding stories. In one series, we had the scene where Ralph told Ted about his wife's death, the funeral scene, and then another scene about the aftermath. We were able to explore these characters and get into storytelling and drama. That was a lot of fun.

5. Is there any chance of a new series?

Paul Whitehouse as Rowley Birkin QC in The Fast Show UKTV

Charlie: I'm not sure I'd want to try to remount a full-on sketch show. We hit on a good way of doing the characters in this documentary by having them as talking heads discussing their former selves on a clips programme. I don't think we would try to get the whole machine back up again. I'm more excited about doing new things.

6. Did you realise you were making a groundbreaking show at the time?

Charlie: We were very aware that the way people were watching television at that time was changing quickly. The advent of VHS meant that people were taping programmes and watching them over and over again. The Fast Show was designed to be watched over and over again.

We didn't spoonfeed you or hit you between the eyes with sketches. But if you watched three or four, you'd soon start to enjoy them. That was a real novelty. The sketches never outstayed their welcome. They were short and sharp. It's almost as if we predicted YouTube!

It was a case of, "Come on, say your line and get off". Sketches sit very well in that space. As good as The Two Ronnies were, they had sketches which were eight or nine minutes long. You could work out the punchline, go away, make yourself a cup of tea, come back and the sketch would still be running.

Ours were much shorter. We thought that if we were on and off quickly, people wouldn't notice that there was no real punchline!

7. Have you all remained close friends?

Paul: We keep in touch all the time. I see Charlie and Simon on a very regular basis. Arabella, I'm in contact with all the time. John and I always meet up whenever I'm in Manchester or he's in London.

Mark came to see me in Only Fools and Horses (the musical), and we text each other every week as well.

I think it's still a bit of a mutual appreciation society, like it was at the very beginning.

We all annoyed each other, I'm sure. They probably had more of a case to be annoyed with Charlie and me because we were the final arbiters, and that was probably quite annoying at times! But I think everybody knew that the brief was to produce the best programme we could and nothing else. And at the heart of it was a real belief in what we were doing.

Charlie: They were all brilliant, but I loved what Simon was doing, because he was coming at things from a different place. One of the strengths of the show was that all the different performers were bringing their own stuff. Simon always brought stuff where you thought, "I could never have written that". I loved some of the lines he came up with for Dave Angel and Billy Bleach.

[Paul is] a brilliant character actor. He can get to the heart of a character very quickly. He can impersonate a character without it being a caricature or a cartoon.

He doesn't have any formal acting training and doesn't even see himself as an actor, but he can properly inhabit a character and express so much through it.

He is a fantastic writer, too. He has done several characters who speak complete gibberish, like Rowley Birkin or Julio Geordio or the Channel 9 presenters. With all those characters, even though they are speaking gibberish, you can still fully understand what they're saying. That's quite a skill.

When does The Fast Show: Just A Load of Blooming Catchphrases air?

Watch the first reunion special on Saturday, August 29 at 9pm on Gold.

In this one-off special we will be mostly joining Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Arabella Weir, John Thomson, Mark Williams and Simon Day as they lift the lid on how The Fast Show happened and why it became such a cult classic. There are classic clips galore from across the series as well as touching memories of much-missed cast member Caroline Aherne.

Not only that, some of the series’ most popular characters reveal what they've been doing over the years in brand new, specially written pieces. We discover Swiss Toni's seduction secrets, the ups and downs of Billy Bleach's tumultuous love life and hear yet more of Rowley Birkin QC's wild and fantastical adventures, all of which happened of course when he was very, very drunk..

A second special, More Blooming Catchphrases, follows on Sunday, August 30 at 10.40pm.

More Blooming Catchphrases takes a deeper dive into the show’s archives and hidden gems with clips of Louis Balfour’s ‘Silent Jazz’, Colin Hunt meeting his match with Keith Uckyourself and the mysterious Owl Man.

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