Gone Fishing landed Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer a surprise hit. Now, in this exclusive extract from their new book, Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer reveal how their life-threatening heart operations inspired the quirkiest show on TV…
Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer are two of Britain’s best-loved comic performers. Whitehouse, 60, found fame in the Nineties as one of the creators of The Fast Show, while Mortimer, 59, has been one half of Vic and Bob with Vic Reeves since 1986. The two have been friends since meeting on the comedy circuit in the late Eighties, but have been brought closer together in recent years by serious health scares, which indirectly led to their own hit show, BBC2’s Mortimer And Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, which will soon return for its second series. In a new book inspired by their experiences, the pair open up about bad hearts, their own tales from the riverbank, good friendship – and fish…
BBC2’s Mortimer And Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is set to return for a second series. In a new book, the pair open up about bad hearts and their own tales from the riverbank
Paul Whitehouse with his wife Mine (left); Bob Mortimer with wife Lisa in November 2015, his first public outing since his heart operation (right)
Bob One day in October 2015, I phoned my heart consultant, Mr Lawson, and said, ‘Hello, I’d like to get married, but I need to prove I’m about to die.’ My arteries, as Mr Lawson had recently told me, were 95 per cent blocked and I had just booked in for open-heart surgery the following Monday.
I’d asked Lisa, my partner of 25 years, if she would marry me, and she said yes, but the registrar said we’d have to give 21 days’ notice unless I was ‘literally at death’s door’. Well, maybe I was. Mr Lawson reckoned that if our imminent Reeves and Mortimer 25th anniversary tour had gone ahead, I could have expected to drop on stage at the Southampton Mayflower, about ten nights in.
So the doctor faxed a letter to the registrar and posted a copy to me, then phoned me up. ‘Please don’t open that letter,’ he said. ‘Please. The information I’ve put in there is purely to get you your wedding.’ He must have laid it on thick. I’ve still never seen what he wrote. I’m not sure it’ll do me any good to read it.
I cried throughout the ceremony. It was one of the happiest occasions of my life. I remember it was a wonderfully crisp and sunny winter’s day – a perfect day for some winter pike fishing, in fact. I was wearing the cleanest jacket I could find and our sons wore nicely clashing checked shirts. Lisa, as always, looked beautiful.
Afterwards we went to a local café for a fry-up – the last pieces of bacon and the last sausage I would have for a long time – then Lisa drove me straight to London and I checked in for my operation.
Bob gives a tentative thumbs-up in hospital. ‘There is a theory in showbiz circles that mentally you remain the same age as when you first tasted fame’
Fly-fishing waist-deep in the River Tay (left); Paul proudly shows off a carp, his catch of the day (right)
My first warning had been a little pain in my chest. Nothing spectacular. My mum would have said, ‘Have some hot Ribena and a Beechams Powder.’ But Jim [Moir, aka Vic Reeves] and I were about to head off on our tour. So I thought I’d better have it checked out in case I needed any antibiotics.
The doctor listened to my heart, looked a bit anxious, and sent me straight to Mr Lawson, who put me on a running machine with electrodes attached to my chest. He looked at the results and said, ‘Right. You’re going to need something done.’
There is a theory in showbiz circles that mentally you remain the same age as when you first tasted fame, and I think there is a grain of truth in this. I had been living my life like a bloke in his mid-30s – drinking, smoking, having a daft laugh and messing about. Initially, they thought I might need a couple of stents to open up narrowings in my pipes. But then they found that it was a lot more serious than that.
I suddenly felt very old, very vulnerable and pretty pathetic. I spent the evening crying and hugging Lisa. Then I phoned Jim to break the news about the tour, made a will and got married.
‘Once you have been diagnosed with heart disease, food takes on far greater importance in your life,’ Bob Mortimer says
I had three bypasses in one go, using arteries harvested from my leg and the right side of my chest. Basically, they open up your chest with a saw, clamp it open, deflate your lungs and pull out your heart, and a machine takes over their functions while the bypasses are sewn in. I was in surgery for about four hours and my heart was stopped for 32 minutes. Only ten days after first going to my GP, I was sitting in hospital recovering from the surgery.
Just before I went in for my operation, Paul [Whitehouse] phoned me. Quite a few people had rung, but I’d see their name and I just couldn’t bring myself to have a chat. But I did pick up Paul’s call.
Paul I got in touch with Bob. ‘Oh, you’ll be fine. You’ll be back on the beer by tomorrow.’
Bob When they told me I had to have a heart operation, my main memory is standing in my kitchen and thinking what I would really miss was my little tea towel. Not for one minute did I think, ‘Oh, I’m going to really miss performing.’ The things you’re going to miss are your wife, your egg cup, your seat that you sit in to watch TV…
Paul Sorry, your wife? You’ve never said that before.
Bob What would you miss, Paul?
Paul Nothing. What do you think I am? An old softie?
Paul My own health disaster struck about 12 years ago. I was on holiday in Somerset with my daughter, just sitting watching the telly or something, when: BANG! One minute I was fine, the next I thought I’d been shot in the stomach. It was so dramatic and powerful – the sort of indescribable pain where your first and only thought is: ‘Oh! I’m going to die!’ Just brutal.
I knew I had to get me and my poor little girl back home, so I left the car there and got on the train with a huge suitcase. As soon as we pulled into London, I went straight to the hospital, where they decided to call the MRI operator back into work. It was just as well she did, because it turned out I’d had an abscess that had exploded in my colon, deep in my large intestine, and it had caused all sorts of chaos. You know the phrase ‘busting a gut’? That’s what it was. I’d literally busted a gut.
‘The very first time I went fishing was with my dad on the River Lea. In fact, fishing’s the thing I most associate with my dad,’ says Paul Whitehouse
I realised that the speed at which they rushed me through the hospital was a sign of how dangerous things had become – but at the time, you’re being gripped so hard by the sheer brutality of the experience, you don’t really comprehend how risky it actually is. It’s not an exaggeration to say there’s a high fatality rate with this sort of thing – about 40 per cent. So despite the horrendous pain, the vomiting and the near-constant internal examinations, it turns out I was actually one of the lucky ones. The doctor even told me a couple of times, ‘How you’re still here, I don’t know’ – which is right up there in the list of things you don’t really want to hear a medical professional say to you when you’re not well.
I remember waking up the morning after the operation. The general anaesthetic was slowly wearing off and the sun was shining, and I just thought ‘Yeeeeeeessss!’ But it wasn’t a feeling of triumph or joy – it was more an all-powerful sense of pure and utter relief.
In the aftermath of all that, the doctor noticed my blood pressure was consistently high. I was put on blood-pressure medication for a couple of years, but when it didn’t really seem to go down, they brought me back in, did an angiogram and told me, ‘Oh, you’ve got one artery that’s only got ten per cent function.’ I ended up with three stents leading to my heart. So I was a bit ahead of Bob in that I had my heart done first.
Bob After my operation, Paul got in touch and he started monitoring my progress – he was obsessed. He even started texting my wife: ‘Is he exercising yet?’ I was discharged from hospital after a week. My lungs were still a bit deflated and I would panic at the slightest twitch in my chest or creak from the staples in my sternum. I was slowly getting better: first day up, I walked to the end of the drive. Next day, I walked to the first lamppost beyond the drive. But the whole time I was thinking my heart was about to give out.
Paul It affected you a lot afterwards, didn’t it? It did me, big time.
Bob It was a hammer. Let’s say males die at an average of 73 or something. Before this happened to me, I’d never thought, ‘That’s only 15 years away.’ It never even crossed my mind. Now, it crosses my mind not far off every day. I don’t feel scared about death, I just feel so frustrated and sad to think I won’t see how stories end. My children’s story. My wife’s. The football. All the stories going on in the world that you’re going to miss the end of. For about a year, I was quite intense.
That first fishing trip showed me something spectacular outside the four walls of my house. I felt hooked on life again
The person who did my bypass told me there are two responses when you’ve had the heart done: either you go home and just sit down for ever, or you get up and get going. If it had been left up to me, I would have been in danger. I love telly: I would have sat on the sofa for three years. I’d have had the odd meeting to trick myself into feeling like I was still doing stuff. I could pretend I was living.
But Paul wanted me to actually live. He said, ‘As soon as you’re on your feet, you’re going fishing. It’ll be really good for you.’ Paul knew that what was important was that he got me out of the house, and he was so right.
Paul So we had to get you out of that state, didn’t we, Robert? And what did Dr Whitehouse recommend?
Bob While not a qualified doctor, he prescribed the application of fish. And it worked!
Paul The very first time I went fishing was with my dad on the River Lea. In fact, fishing’s the thing I most associate with my dad. He set up this little rod and float for roach, turned round to give me the rod and that float immediately went under. Immediately, there on the end of the line, a little roach. I have absolutely vivid memories of those days.
Bob The first time I went fishing was with my dad, too, but I was so tiny. I only have fleeting memories of him catching one. My main memories of my dad are him beating me with a leather belt.
But I have such fond memories of going out fishing as a lad. Bicycle, Woolworths rod, worms from my garden and a white sliced strawberry jam sandwich wrapped in tin foil. I used to go with my mates to a place outside Middlesbrough called Great Ayton, to a little pond near there, to get little roach.
I stopped going when I was 15, but they must have been important times in my life, because those early places you fished, they have a resonance with you for ever. If I knew it was my last day on Earth, I’d go back to that roach pool and see if I could just collapse there and become a part of it. It’d put a smile on my face if I could do it there.
Once, about 15 years ago, Paul gave me a fly-fishing lesson in the centre of London. But we never actually got round to going fishing and I never got to use the rod he helped me buy.
After my operation, he took me down to Hampshire, to a little old English village called Stockbridge that he knew was a lovely, life-affirming place. We walked down a little path and then, whoooosh – it’s the River Test. It’s the poshest river in the country, and it’s incredibly gorgeous. That first trip had a big impact on me. He’d shown me something spectacular outside the four walls of my house. I felt hooked on life again. And then the idea of the show came to us.
Paul We were sitting on the riverbank on a fishing trip together, and I was saying something stupid to Bob – we were both making each other laugh, chuckling away and it honestly just came to me in that one little moment: ‘This might make a really good TV series.’
Bob Paul and I went to see the fella at BBC2. He’s called Patrick, and we said, ‘Patrick, we’ve been going on these fishing trips and we really enjoy them, and we’ve just got an inkling that they might be worth filming.’ And Patrick said, ‘All right, but what’s it about? What’s the narrative of the show going to be?’
We said, ‘Patrick, we’ve got to be honest. The only thing we can think of is we either catch a fish or don’t catch a fish.’
But Paul said we did have a reason: the jeopardy! One of us might die on the bankside, and if it was filmed, then that would be a feather in the BBC’s cap. They’d be able to use it on the news.
Paul The show has a few different things that people enjoy watching: it’s the heart jeopardy, it’s two old mates. It’s my slight grumpiness with Bob. There’s the teaching, there’s the fishing, there’s the splendour of the English countryside. The show sends out a nice, positive message to people with problems, and it says if we can do it, then you can, too. Look how beautiful Britain is. Go and see the country that lies on your doorstep. Look how beautiful life is.
Bob I had an awful thought when I was walking down to the train station the last time I was going over to see Paul. I thought, ‘God, what if you lost your fishing buddy?’ What if Paul snuffed it? It would be awful for me. It’s terribly sad when old fishermen part, isn’t it? You see two old blokes fishing – at some point they’re going to lose their buddy.
We fished on the River Tay for salmon once, and there was an old guy there. We got talking and he told us he was 76 and he had cancer, and he knew he didn’t have long left. And he was just waiting to die.
Is life without cheese and pies really worth living?
Bob Mortimer: Once you have been diagnosed with heart disease, food takes on far greater importance in your life. Eat the wrong foods and your arteries will start to clog up again. Food is no longer simply for sustenance and pleasure, it becomes a matter of life and death.
The big bad wolf is basically any variety of animal fat. ‘No cheese, no meat,’ my heart dietician told me just before I left hospital. I told her that I didn’t think ‘no cheese’ was going to work for me. She realised I was ‘cheese weak’ and softened her stance slightly: ‘You can have one matchboxsized portion per month.’
Paul The show has a few different things that people enjoy watching: it’s the heart jeopardy, it’s two old mates. It’s my slight grumpiness with Bob. There’s the teaching, there’s the fishing, there’s the splendour of the English countryside
I, of course, took this as a household-size box of matches and felt I’d won a small victory. I didn’t mention my interpretation to the nurse. When Paul and I were planning Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, I was desperate to be the chef. ‘Nobody wants to see a clown like you cooking,’ they said, but I always thought it would resonate with all the amateur cooks who have struggled to knock up something edible on a camping stove with ice-cold fingers and only a plastic spork for cutlery.
I cooked chicken pilaf, warming my hands by the stove and watching as Paul failed and failed again to land himself that elusive trophy roach; sardine and feta wraps with mint and dates – a bigger hitter than you might think; and a cauliflower-base pizza that moved me to strip off and jump in a hot tub. I burnt my hand quite badly when cooking heart-healthy venison and cabbage. Rather than help me, Paul chose to save the cabbage.
What a hero. These days, I smuggle treats into my diet: a tiny piece of cheese once a week; bacon once a month; perhaps three meat pies a year. I try to strike a balance between pleasure and pain. It may take a few years off my life, but is a life without cheese and pies really worth living?
He said, ‘I just asked myself that basic question that everyone must ask when they get a diagnosis that’s terminal: what’s the best way I can use the time I have left?’
He made a hard, fast decision: he was fishing the Tay until he dropped. He did exactly what he said he would, and he died about three weeks afterwards. With his time on Earth running out, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: he wanted to go fishing.
Extracted from ‘Mortimer And Whitehouse: Gone Fishing’, to be published by Blink Publishing on May 30, priced £18.99. Offer price £15.19 (20% discount with free p&p) until May 19. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 for free premium delivery. Hear an exclusive clip from the enhanced audio book here.