Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

October 31, 2007

The divine Mister M

Paul Merton has just released a book about Silent Comedy and as a result has been doing interviews in the papers.

As always Paul is a somewhat enigmatic interview subject.

Here he is in The Guardian

'I think I'm sane'

Famed for his surreal sense of humour and deadpan delivery, Paul Merton is one of Britain's best-loved comedians. He talks to Sam Wollaston about his distressing 'manic episode', his silent movie heroes, and why you'll never see him smile on TV

The first person I meet on walking into the central London building where Paul Merton's management company is based is Paul Merton. This is not entirely a coincidence - I have, after all, come here to interview him. But I wasn't expecting to arrive at exactly the same time and see him here, downstairs in the lobby. "Hello," he says.

I haven't really prepared any lobby questions, and mumble something about the building. It was the old Holborn town hall, he says as we wait, a bit awkwardly, for the lift. It's one of those ancient lifts that goes up the centre of the stairwell, we're the only two people in it, and we follow normal British lift etiquette as it squeaks slowly up towards the third floor: we stare silently at our feet (his are surprisingly far from his head). But upstairs, installed in a comfy office, it becomes easier.

I'm not sure that in an hour I really get to know Paul Merton at all. I suspect that people who have known him for years sometimes wonder if they know him at all. But he's very good company. On Have I Got News for You, now in its 18th year, Merton's job is to counterbalance Ian Hislop's smarty-pants wittiness with surreal rants. He takes a subject in his teeth, shakes it viciously from side to side like a mad dog, then runs with it to the furthest reaches of credulity. His job is also to interrupt, to put down, not to laugh - not even to smile - and to wear unsuccessful clothing combinations. But in the flesh (which is pale almost to the point of translucence, and plentiful, especially round the jowls), he is charming. He fetches coffee, he's chatty, he smiles, he even laughs - ha ha ha ha ha, like a Bren gun. At his own jokes, too.

"I am playing a part to an extent," he admits, when I ask if the deadpan thing is an act. But he says he didn't, as I suggest, get it from Buster Keaton, one of his silent movie heroes about whom he has just written a book. "It comes from one of the first things I did as a stand-up in the early 80s. It was a thing called A Policeman on Acid, which was basically this policeman recounting in court the time someone gave him some acid and describing his trip. And I realised then it was much funnier if the policeman himself didn't find anything he was saying funny, so the deadpan approach came from there, and I suppose that kind of set a style. I wasn't deliberately copying Keaton at that point."

The Policeman on Acid sketch was a catalyst for Merton's career; it always got a laugh even when other material didn't, and convinced him he had done the right thing in leaving his job at the Tooting employment office to be a comedian. Yes, Merton has taken acid himself, once ("it was very amusing, I have to say"), yes, he can still remember the sketch pretty much word for word, and yes, he will give me a private performance. "Wednesday 14th October last, approximately 10.43 hay em, while pat-rolling along Streatham High Road, I observed a motor ve-hehicle ..."

It's still very funny, from the exaggerated police-speak and pronunciation, to when he describes - deadpan of course - the LSD taking effect: "I encountered Constable Parish, who approached me disguised as a fortnight's holiday in Benidorm ..."

Merton's book is a forensic study of all the greats of silent cinema - Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, early Laurel and Hardy, and of course Charlie Chaplin, for whom he has a special affection. It's not just that they both have sad faces and working-class south London backgrounds; it's the work of Chaplin, who kept raising the bar to new levels, that Merton really admires. He can speak at length with great authority and even greater enthusiasm about all of them - the enduring magic of Chaplin, how Keaton running is one of cinema's great joys, about how Oliver Hardy gives Stan Laurel a context in which to shine, or about the almost unbearable climax Lloyd builds up to in Safety Last, dangling off the bending hands of a clock, hundreds of feet above the cars below.

Would Merton have liked to have been around then? "Hollywood in the 20s? Oh yes. Just as a gag writer would be fantastic. Can it be arranged?"

What about being in the films? "Not being able to talk would be a problem." True, Merton without words would be pretty pointless, though on HIGNFY he does sometimes do a puzzled look or an exaggerated double-take to get a laugh.

I wonder if he is genuinely interested in current affairs, and in politics, when the show's not on. "I don't watch Newsnight," he says. "I've never been disappointed by politicians. I've never invested that much in them in the first place."

What does he vote? "I've never really said."

Why not say now? "OK, I can't conceive of a situation or a set of circumstances that would lead me to vote Conservative."

Meaning he votes Labour? "Erm, yes ... I don't always vote in general elections, but I think I've always voted Labour. The Tory stuff doesn't do it for me, ha ha ha."

He tells me about bumping into Boris Johnson at Lord's and being amazed that Boris asked him for advice on his mayoral campaign. "It was nice of him to ask, but I'm not really a political animal."

Would Boris be a good mayor of London? "No," he says without thinking. "Well, just the other day he said he'd had his bike stolen several times. I mean, if he can't look after his bike, how's he going to look after London?"

A couple of days after our interview, on the first of the new series of Have I Got News For You, Merton does the same joke about Boris and the bicycle. Hey, if a policeman on LSD can work over and over again, why not Boris on a bike? Those surreal rants, for which he is now famous, may not be as spontaneous as they seem.

Merton's rise hasn't all been plain sailing. Just as his television career was taking off, largely thanks to a Metropolitan police officer's inadvertent experiments with hallucinogens, he had what he describes as a "manic episode", and ended up going into the Maudsley hospital (he wasn't sectioned, he's keen to point out - he checked himself in).

He was having paranoid delusions, convinced he was being followed by Freemasons. It was, he says, nothing to do with depression, but a combination of exhaustion and anti-malaria drugs he was taking. "It wasn't about depression, it was about excitement. I couldn't stop having ideas. I'd go into a pub and say: 'It would be so much better if the bar was over there and you made the entrance there.' And they'd look at each other and say: 'Who's this bloke who's telling us how to design a pub?' It was just pouring out of me."

Merton had group therapy, along with a man who thought he was Jesus and a woman who agreed ("So he's already got one disciple, he's doing all right"). He also went to see a therapist privately, who said he had been running on pure adrenalin, was heading for a breakdown, and put him on Largactyl. He would have liked to have got a certificate or badge on leaving hospital saying he was legally sane. Is he? Sane? "Yeah, I think so. Well, sanity, I suppose, is getting people to see the world your way."

More recently, Merton's life fell apart again. In 2003 his second wife, Sarah Parkinson, who he had been with since his first marriage to Caroline Quentin ended, died of cancer. She had elected to treat it with holistic remedies instead of having chemotherapy, and was 41 when she died. They had spoken of wanting to have children together.

Comedy worked as therapy in some ways. "Yes, I went down, after Sarah died, to the Comedy Store - not to work, but just to be among people I knew. And there's 300 people laughing in a room, there's a real positive upside to it. And you're only aware of one thing at one time; if you're laughing about something, that's the only thing that's in your entire universe. So it's an escape, and a relief. I'm not saying laugh and the tears go away, but if you're minded to find funniness in situations, it does help."

Is he happy now? "Yeah. I mean, doing this book is a major thing cos I've handwritten it. I was happier hand-writing. It's about 100,000 words. The surreal nature of the book trade is that back in February I went to Bruges to this booksellers' convention ..." Suddenly, we're not talking about happiness at all, but about book publishing. Merton does that a lot, just meanders off somewhere. I don't know if he knows he's doing it, or if he's doing it to avoid subjects he doesn't want to talk about. And I don't know if he's happy, or even if he knows if he's happy or not.

Content is probably a better word. I ask him what gets him going. His work, he says. "But I'm also excited about not working - genuinely. When I wake up on a Monday morning and I realise I don't have to go and work at the civil service, I really think I've won".

Here he is in The Telegraph

Paul Merton: Silence is golden

He counts Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as his idols and doesn't do Hello! The TV star talks to Elizabeth Grice about his unconventional career

How we love the sad clown. We easily buy into the idea that, deep down, the people who make us laugh are tormented souls; private lives a mess, self-belief shaky as a blancmange.

So when a comedian has his moment of being tossed about on the cruel sea of life, we hunker down to watch the fulfilment of a cherished stereotype – not without sympathy, but knowingly, as if this was bound to happen.

Paul Merton has a story to illustrate this point. He once grew a beard so he could get about without being recognised as the straight-faced, laser-wit of Have I Got News For You.

It was about the time the show's presenter, Angus Deayton, had to leave because of a sex and cocaine scandal.

Merton didn't want to be drawn into the ruckus but his camouflage was more impressive than he realised: "a trampy figure" got on the bus next to him at London Bridge and offered him a swig from his can of lager.

Merton and his wife, Sarah Parkinson, who was with him, laughed about it for ages. But when the story surfaced in a newspaper after Sarah's death from cancer in 2003, it was used to demonstrate how, sunk in grief, he had supposedly let himself go to such an extent that he was indistinguishable from a wino.

"It's like catnip to some people," he says. "The idea that a comedian should also be the person with tears in his eyes, heartbroken, but still making people laugh. Most comics aren't manic depressives or sad people. You can't draw the conclusion that because you make people laugh you are battling inner sadness."

He wonders why people were surprised that he could perform his usual verbal cartwheels in a new series of Have I Got News For You three weeks after Sarah's death.

Or that he was down at London's Comedy Store the next Sunday, in a room with 300 people, all laughing.

"You can only concentrate on one thing at a time. If you're laughing about something, there is nothing else that exists for you at that moment.

"So that is a great way to deal with this stuff – not to laugh about it, or at it, but as a distraction that takes you somewhere else. It is therapeutic."

In conversation, Merton is thoughtful, warm, enthusiastic – and not trying to be remotely funny. His shirt is subdued, unlike any of the execrable numbers he wears on television, and his fine-rimmed specs, floppy hair and sun-starved complexion give him the look of a mature student who has spent too long in the library.

In a way, this is exactly what he is. Merton has just finished a passionately comprehensive book about his comic heroes of the silent screen – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. Anyone who saw his Silent Clowns television series last year or one of his nationwide tours will have realised he is a man in the grip of a grand obsession, a potential comedy anorak if he didn't have the day jobs.

Once he gets going on what makes a great visual gag, or how Harold Lloyd stood stock still, framed by a window as a house front came crashing down on him, he is mesmerising – just as well because it's very difficult to stop him.

Merton was gripped by visual comedy from the age of five when he saw the clowns at Bertram Mills' Circus and realised grown-ups could be silly. "Colourful clothes, big boots, buckets of whitewash, exploding cars, vats of sausages... I was filled with glee at adults making fools of themselves, not being in control."

A shy boy at school, he discovered he could make kids in the dinner queue laugh by doing impressions of the teachers. "I loved the whole power of making somebody laugh. When I was eight, I knew every single joke from the Beano and the Dandy. Then in my teens, I started to be able to ad lib with people, to be funny spontaneously, which is more or less what I do in my professional career."

Young Merton (or Paul Martin, as he was called then) started collecting old black-and-white silent comedies in Super 8 home-movie format, projecting them onto a sheet on his bedroom wall, analysing every scene. It wasn't a hobby he advertised among his friends.

At 13 he saw Buster Keaton's The General at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street and came out on a "cushion of joy". "It was immortality," he says. "I was a teenager watching a film made 50 years ago and the jokes were still working. I was entranced. I wanted to make something, be something, do something that would survive 50 years.

"Now, with the proliferation of comedy and the proliferation of television, you just become a tiny speck in it all. The one thing that might survive is the book because, in 50 years' time, people will still know about Chaplin and Keaton. I suppose I've hitched my wagon to their immortality."

There was no family history of performing. His father was a Tube driver and his mother a nurse. They lived in a council flat in Parsons Green.

Anxious to postpone the moment when he might discover his talent didn't match his ambition, Merton became a civil servant in the Tooting employment office and wrote scripts in his spare time.

In 1980, he left to see whether he could hack it in comedy. They gave him three boxes of Conqueror watermarked writing paper as a leaving present and he kept it for nine years – until he was commissioned to write his own Channel 4 television series.

At the Comedy Store in April 1982, he received a standing ovation as a policeman reporting an incident while under the influence of an hallucinogenic drug; a much-loved routine that established his deadpan style – and buoyed him through the bad gigs that inevitably followed. He walked from Soho to his Streatham bedsit in a daze.

Merton wasn't going to be the firework that fizzles away in the mud, so he honed his craft slowly and carefully on the comedy circuit for five years without an agent.

The day after his show at the Edinburgh Festival received rave reviews in 1987, he broke his leg playing football, developed a pulmonary embolism and caught hepatitis A. It was touch and go. While recuperating, he decided to try to break into television. He wrote scripts for Julian Clary and appeared on Whose Line is it Anyway?

The happy delirium of being commissioned to write his own show for Channel 4, coupled with a course of anti-malaria tablets, sent him slightly manic.

"I couldn't stop having ideas," he recalls. "I couldn't stop talking. I was behaving manically anyway and the pills made it worse. I imagined a conversation about Freemasons that never happened."

In his six weeks at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital – plastic cutlery, cardboard plates – he felt uncomfortable in group therapy sessions because his anguish didn't quite measure up to the wrist-slashings and Messianic delusions of others. "I wasn't going to get much sympathy for the fact that Channel 4 had postponed my television series."

He is open about his stay there because he feels mental health issues are not properly understood. "There is a sense of shame about being mentally ill and that can affect your recovery."

Since then, Merton has been through the emotional wringer but avoided being confessional about it."I have never done the Hello! thing, discussing my private life as part of my career. It's no about seeing myself as a celebrity, really, or being comfortable with red carpet moments."

His first marriage, to the actress Caroline Quentin, ended after six years. His second wife, Sarah, died of breast cancer at the age of 41. They had been hoping for a baby. After surgery, she rejected chemotherapy and he supported her through every step of her alternative programme.

"Rather than raging against fate," she wrote, "we have decided to view what is happening to us as part of a spiritual journey." She also paid tribute to Merton's strength. "He was still recording Room 101 when I was in hospital, but he came to see me twice a day. To have to be spontaneously funny when your wife is being operated on for cancer must be a nightmare."

Her death became news. "The curious thing about being a famous person who has had a terrible thing happen," he says, "is that people know about it. They are sympathetic. If I had been working in the Civil Service, I don't know if I would have been able to cope as well."

Paul Merton on television is lardy-faced, lugubrious, quick-witted, a man who can strike sparks from damp wood. But in real life, there is none of that assumed sullenness or killer repartee. He seems to be a happy man, doing what he always wanted to do. Nine times nominated for a Bafta award, he finally won one in 2003. He still performs on stage at the Comedy Store every week "to keep match fit" and takes nothing for granted.

"When I wake up on a Monday morning and I'm not working in the Civil Service, it immediately gets the week off to a good start," he says. "It is a wonderful thing, making people laugh. When people recognise me, there is a smile on their face. Being known for being funny is just about the best thing to be known for."

This is a review of the book in The Times

Silent Comedy by Paul Merton
Laurel and Hardy
Reviewed by James Christopher

I had no idea that my favourite comedian suffered delusions of academic grandeur. I know that Paul Merton is a genius. He can twitter for England on Just a Minute, and is a principled bruiser on Have I Got News For You. But his obsession with silent black-and-white comedy is a total surprise.

I was flabbergasted to learn that this verbal wizard had assembled a whole series (albeit for BBC Four, a station thjat many of us have yet to discover) on Silent Clowns. And I am stunned by Silent Comedy, the book that his series inspired.

It's not a great piece of literature, and I'm no big fan of this early genre. But the personal touches impress, and the multi-coloured pages are cheeky. Merton slips two-page features about seminal films or forgotten stars into almost every chapter. I would like to add that he wears his research lightly, but that would be a bare-faced lie.

He has spent his life in awe of Hollywood's two-tone pioneers, and loudly champions them. The greatest hits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are laid out in exacting detail. Merton rarely has a bad word to say about any of them. Their pay cheques are scrutinised, their silly wounds and guilty indiscretions carefully logged. Their best gags and films are spreadeagled on the page. But he has an aversion to skewering his heroes in public, even when warranted. Merton will never be Kenneth Anger, and Silent Comedy is no Hollywood Babylon.

His obsession with the era began at the circus. The giddy spectacle of adult clowns behaving badly cast a profound spell on Merton. The silent movies that he could see as a child – in the cinema or on television – excited him beyond words. In a sense his book is about how he grew up. It is also a map of the evolution of film in the age before sound.

Merton never really says why he is so enamoured of Chaplin, Buster et al, but he leaps to their defence before the reader has time even to wave a ponderous glove. We must never get caught in “the tiresomely idiot debate on Keaton versus Chaplin”; we must laud them for “the great works of art” that each apparently inspired in the other.

But if these blockbusting, super-famous clowns were such great friends, why did they never work together? The invariably awful women that they married might confess if Merton allowed them half a sentence. He doesn't. He has a breathtaking grasp of the male Hollywood ego, but a shrivelling lack of interest in their unhappy wives.

The book bobs between Merton's huge bank of extraordinary biographical details, and prosaic lists of what Charlie/Buster/Harold did next. Jokes explained are jokes ruined, and Merton's tedious descriptions of almost every gag hatched between 1899 and 1936 could fray the patience of a saint. But his inside tracks on such classics as The Tramp, The Goldrush, Steamboat Bill Junior and Modern Times are deep and serious pleasures.

The great surprise is how close these rivals were in age and ambition. All share the same starting line, and all have a Dickensian backstory. Chaplin was 5 when he was tossed on stage because his music hall mother couldn't finish a song. She never performed again. Lloyd — best remembered for hanging off the face of a clock — managed to blow off half of his hand in one stunt and was lucky to keep his face. Keaton came within seconds of drowning in Our Hospitality, and broke his neck in Sherlock Junior.

Merton protests that he has no favourites, but Chaplin gets the most attention. There's a palpable sense that this melancholic clown is the trailblazer. He was the first to make huge amounts of money from two-reel shorts. He was the first to make a full-length comic feature (The Tramp, 1915). By 1916 he was one of the most famous actors on the planet, and wise enough to take control of his own productions. His rivals marvelled at his extravagant retakes, and the time and money he spent on throwaway gags. The British actor was a fierce perfectionist. A lens scratch that ruined the negative of The Circus in 1928 cost him a fortune when he viewed the rushes and decided to reshoot the entire film.

Chaplin's down-and-out pathos touched the hearts of millions. Merton's prose turns into puddles when he describes scenes from The Kid, A Dog's Life, and City Lights. But he is almost prudishly circumspect about Chaplin's personal disasters and controversial marriages to two teenagers.

Silent Comedy is a terrific history of props and pratfalls. It sings when Merton gives up being descriptive and puts himself on the page. His own experiences of performing, notably at the Comedy Store in front of boozy crowds on Saturday nights, ring horribly true.

But this book is not a confession. It's surprisingly serious. The wealth of posters, graphics, and original pictures do not disguise the lofty research. Merton is unfortunately prone to those fact-crunching longeurs that can spoil the best film histories. That said, I'm a better person for having read this. The heroes, victims, and survivors earn their tears. I wish I could say the same of today's.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good write up. You could read more on paranoid delusion in matrimonyxpress.com: http://www.matrimonyxpress.com/2008/01/singles/clerumbaults-syndrome/

12:14 am  

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