Paul Merton – Not Always Clowning Around – 17th August 2015.
“Yours isn’t the sort of voice I’d hear on Radio Four,” a producer once told Paul Merton. It would be his job, in years to come, to make them change their way. In an odd tangent to changing ways, it’s noted that Paul wrote his entire book in pencil and, according to Ruth Wishart, “Doesn’t have any means of coping with modern life.” He has no laptop and no mobile phone. “I like being out of contact,” explains Paul. “Think of all the time I save!”
We delve into the beginnings of his comedy career, and his Policeman sketch. It came to him when he was at a bus stop when he remembered a documentary years before: police had raided an LSD factory, which naturally had some hallucinogenic dust. The policeman noted that things had got out of hand when “I noticed that my pint of beer was getting bigger.” Thus, the idea was born. The first time he play it was an overwhelmingly positive reaction, and they asked for more. “More! I haven’t got any more!” he remembers. “But I can do it again?”
That instant positive reaction stuck with him and he practically floated home on positivity. But it was just the beginning of a career that saw him become part of the show he would tape as a twelve year old and play along with, Just A Minute. Then would come Have I Got News For You. He hosted one show post-Angus, and people kept questioning whether it would be able to continue. “The programme is more than the person presenting it,” he notes. “In show business, the brutal truth is no one is irreplaceable.”
Audience questions pry into more on HIGNFY, and he doesn’t mind sharing the wee bits everyone’s always wondered. He muses that the first time he and Ian Hislop met, he must have thought Paul was his cab driver. He enthuses greatly about Ian, noting “He’s a tremendous man, also very easy to tease.”
“I don’t think I’m Mr Nasty on TV, I’m sometimes Mr Bored, or Mr why-am-I-sitting-next-to-this-idiot.”
Some of the worst hosts are those that aren’t in show business, who suffer second show syndrome. “Ann Widdecombe was okay,” explains Paul, though notes it was due to editing and production doing their jobs. “Her friends and family told her she was wonderful, and the second time round you’ve got Groucho Marx.” She was trying to cut jokes and demanding more rewrites. “It was dire.”
“The worst was Neil Kinnock,” he adds. “He was so slow in reading the autocue, questioned everything on the autocue.”
“Boris?” asks Ruth. “Yes…” he replies. That pretty much sums it up. He’s done very well out of his guest appearance, they quip. “I feel dreadfully responsible.”
The chapters plucked from the book for discussion deal with darker moments in his life, but Ruth is keen to reinforce that the book is an utter delight and much lighter book than the event might at times have led one to believe. There’s his malaria prescription giving him horrible mental health problems, believing he could predict certain things and the proof (such as phonecalls he witnessed) never actually happening. Then the time he played a 5-aside match in Edinburgh, got tackled, broke his leg, and ended up facing far worse.
One nice story he tells spirals from how people often think that those on the TV come out and talk to them. When he was in hospital, a young lad asked him if he was Paul Merton. He quietly said yes, but that not many people knew he was here, so to keep it quiet if he could. Years later, a nurse read the book and knew who that was – it had in fact been an incredibly helpful experience, that mental health issues weren’t shameful – someone on the TV was there with him too, it could happen to anyone.
“I’ve always had a sense of humour about things,” he continues, in returning to life, and to HIGNFY. People want to know how much is scripted: only the presenter is scripted, but there are lots of retakes thanks to lawyers present. You’d do a retake where Ian repeats his joke and the host goes, “But there’s no proof of that, right?”
They once got sued for calling someone whom Paul can’t remember a little shit, and the court in fact ruled in their favour which brings him endless delight.
When odd quotes throw themselves at you, it’s a disservice to ignore them, so let’s end with Paul’s attempt to test the sign language interpreter: “I saw this octopus coming down the street the other day on a unicycle.”