Jack Whitehall: How I almost didn't make it out of Leeds alive

Jack Whitehall is one of the country's most recognisable comedians. He talks to Chris Bond about stand-up, Harry Potter and finding his '˜voice'.

Stand-up: Jack Whitehall is doing shows in Leeds and Sheffield this month.
Stand-up: Jack Whitehall is doing shows in Leeds and Sheffield this month.

JACK Whitehall is looking forward to returning to Leeds, but recounts one past appearance with a shudder. “I was doing a student gig in Headingley and it was the first time I’d ever compèred a show,” he says, recoiling at the memory.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“Jim Jefferies was up on stage and there were two drunk people heckling him. If there are two people you don’t want to heckle it’s Frankie Boyle and Jim Jefferies. After they started he did five minutes of the most brutal put downs. The compère is supposed to smooth over any gaps and I had to come back on and pick up the pieces. I stopped compèring after that,” he says.

Whitehall will be hoping to face a less rancorous crowd at the First Direct Arena tonight and Sheffield Arena next week.

His At Large tour is his first in two years. “In the old days comics could sometimes tour the same show for decades whereas now there’s constant pressure to write new material.”

This is largely due to the plethora of TV comedy shows and YouTube’s omnipotent presence which means jokes and comedy routines quickly get swallowed up.

Whitehall, though, isn’t just a stand-up comic. He’s earned rave reviews for his portrayal of former public schoolboy JP in Channel 4’s hit comedy drama Fresh Meat, and he also created the Bafta-nominated sitcom Bad Education - not bad for someone who’s not yet turned 30.

He almost landed one of this century’s most coveted film roles when the casting team for the Harry Potter films turned up at his school in Oxford. “I was 11 and every child in the country wanted to be Harry Potter. My mum dressed me up as him, though I looked like Harry Potter anyway, but I completely flunked the audition, it was a bit of a disaster.”

To rub salt into the wound Emma Watson who was in the year below him at his school was cast as Hermione Granger. Not that Whitehall regrets missing out. “I wouldn’t have wanted it. They would have probably fired me after the first or second film because I’d become too much of a diva,” he says, laughing.

Instead, he concentrated on honing his craft as a comic and trying to find what he calls his “voice.” “Comedians would talk about finding your ‘voice’ as if it was this kind of mythical thing and I had no idea what it was and how to find it, it was really frustrating,” he says.

His first gig was in a pub in Wiltshire in front of 40 of friends which was, he says, his impression of doing stand-up. “I went through a period of being deadpan, doing a version of Jack Dee. Then I went for the oddball angle and bought a massive parka, but at one gig in Bristol it was so hot under the lights I nearly passed out because I was sweating so much. Then I tried doing a cockney accent because I was worried that I sounded too posh and this would be a stick to beat me with.”

In the end he came back to his “original”, and more authentic, voice which he describes as “posh and slightly camp... someone who wants to be one of the lads but never quite fits in.”

It’s a persona that’s helped him become a household name. “I enjoy doing different things but there’s something thrilling about stand-up because it’s never the same each night and anything can happen, and you haven’t got an editor or director telling you what to do, it’s just you and the audience and I like that.”

And as for his new tour, he’s promising to finish with a bang. “If I could sing there’d be a big musical number at the end of the show, like Morecambe and Wise. Unfortunately, I have the worst singing voice ever heard. So I won’t be singing, but there will be a bit of slapstick and a big finale.”

• Jack Whitehall: At Large, First Direct Arena, Leeds, tonight; Sheffield Arena, Feb 15 and a return date at the First Direct Arena, Leeds, Feb 27.