Released on the 22nd of September, Travels with My Father is a new venture for British comedian Jack Whitehall. After a series of comedic shows such as Fresh Meat and Bad Education and a number of stand-up tours, Whitehall chose to change medium and try his hand at a travel show for his new artistic adventure. But do not fear, the goofy persona that we came to expect from Jack Whitehall remains an integral part of this documentary.
Jack, having skipped his gap year because of his early involvement in stand-up comedy, decided to live this experience by travelling to South East Asia. The only twist? Instead of travelling alone as a broke 18-year-old, the 29-year-old Whitehall brought along his upper-class father, Michael.
Those familiar with the career of Jack Whitehall will know of Michael, and of his quirky personality. But hearing about him from his son at a stand-up gig and seeing the man in action outside of his deluxe comfort zone are two very different things. The dynamic between the two is incredibly entertaining. The clash of personality between a son eager to immerse himself with the local culture and a traditional British father accustomed to his comfort is thrilling. If we were unaware of their kinship, we would almost view this show as a fictional sitcom.
And here might lie one of the rare issue of the show. Although Jack and Michael Whitehall’s personalities are genuine, some of the digs and come-backs can seem a little too spot on for a candid shoot. It is sometimes difficult to understand whether certain parts are scripted or not. Regardless, in whichever way you decide to approach this show (as a documentary or sitcom), you will find the mockery of good taste and amusing.
One of the most important elements of Jack Whitehall’s performance, his self-depreciation, is present throughout the show. Whether it is through his own failures in odd situations and his Western ignorance of Asian culture (take the sequence where Jack talks about all the monastic etiquette in Southern Asia only to be greeted by a laid-back monk from Manchester) or through the playful and witty jabs from Michael, the difficulties that Jack has to endure is the fabric of the show.
Having said that, Travels with My Father is not just six 30-minute episodes of Jack-bashing. The intimate moments between him and his father are sweet in a reserved, very British, way. In the midst of the almost constant complaining, arguing and negotiating, are real bonding moments of affinity and closeness. In episode 1, after a falling out involving tour guides and luxurious hotels, Michael and Jack share a delightful moment of ‘slap-therapy’, during which both men laugh at the absurdity of the scene unfolding in front of their eyes. It is scenes like this that gives this show the soul that differentiates it from a regular stand-up comedy gig or travel documentary.
What is particularly great about this show is that Jack Whitehall did not simply reproduce his stand-up material in a touristy location. You can sense that there is an undeniable desire for exploration and discovery, and Jack insists on visiting remote and less frequently filmed locations, and eating and living like a local. Which of course displeases his father at first, but reinforces the authenticity of their endeavour.
So what could have been seen as a risky move turns out to be a successful one, thanks to the mixture between the familiar Whitehall style and the new context of Southeast Asian culture. Michael Whitehall is a fantastic comedic presence that I hope to encounter again in the future.
Travels with My Father is currently available on Netflix.