Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

August 25, 2008

more on Clue

The note I mentioned in the Guardian has prompted a longer story in The Independent on Sunday.

In the piece producer Jon Naismith confirms the show will go on, but probably not till next year.

He says the programme will "rotate" guest hosts for a bit before settling on someone and names Stephen Fry as the favourite.

Now Mr Naismith is clearly about a million zillion times more knowledgable about these matters than me. Still I don't see Stephen taking that job. For a man who likes to do such a variety of work, taking on a second game show as chairman would see him typecast, I think. Does he want to be known first and foremost as a panel game chairman (as Nicholas Parsons is)? I think not.

And if Stephen does want to do it - why not appoint him right away? He'd be great, that much is clear. Why would you delay if someone of his talent and ability is keen?

The other candidates suggested in the article are Jarvis Cocker, Angus Deayton, Sandi Toksvig, Pam Ayres and Sue Perkins. I really don't see Sandi in the job as she has taken over News Quiz. Pam Ayres doesn't seem quite right either. Sue Perkins might be a go.

The whole article follows.

I'm sorry, we haven't a clue: Who will replace Humphrey Lyttelton?
One of radio's funniest shows is to return, but who can possibly replace the late Humphrey Lyttelton? The search is on, but the field is wide open, as Emily Dugan reports
Just as the nation had become resigned to the idea that the nonsensical radio quiz show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue would never again be heard on the airwaves, hope of a return for the popular series is on the horizon.
Recording was cancelled this year after the death of its much-loved chairman, Humphrey Lyttelton, known affectionately to his fans as Humph. Many anticipated that the show would die with its legendary host. But now producers have confirmed that it will return, and the hunt is on for a successor to Lyttelton.
The programme's producer, Jon Naismith, confirmed yesterday: "We have decided we want to continue with the show. We enjoy it too much to stop altogether." He added: "It won't happen straight away because we're still mourning Humphrey". Recording was likely to begin next year, he said. "We had thousands of emails when Humph died saying do please continue."
Often attracting audiences of up to 2 million, the spoof quiz show was widely viewed as one of the funniest radio programmes ever broadcast. Dubbed the "antidote to panel games" its run spanned more than three decades and its fan base crossed generations. The 51st series of the show, first broadcast in 1972, had been due to start recording when Lyttelton died, in April.
The first new shows will rotate presenters in the same way as the TV quiz Have I Got News For You, before settling for a full-time choice. The favourite at the moment is Stephen Fry. Naismith said: "I'm sure Stephen would be good: he's very funny and he's excellent on QI."
Barry Cryer and his fellow long-time panellists, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor, have ruled themselves out. Cryer said that the programme-makers had met to compile a long list, which had included Fry, but that he thought a woman might be a better choice. "We all had our favourites, but mine would be a woman because then she couldn't be compared to Humph," he said.
Jeremy Hardy, a frequent contestant, who has also been tipped as a successor, yesterday dismissed the idea that he or any other regular would be in the running. "Humph had big shoes to fill and I wouldn't do it", he said. Hardy's wildcard suggestion was the singer Jarvis Cocker, who is known for his deadpan delivery.
Whoever gets the job, there is no doubt that it will be one of the hardest acts to follow. Lyttelton's one-liners were often the highlight of the whimsical programme.
After one "terrible" round, he remarked: "Nietzsche said that life was a choice between suffering and boredom. He never said anything about having to put up with both at the same time."
The pressure is already on for the new host of this treasured series to ensure that his joke does not become a reality.
And the next presenter is...
Stephen Fry
The leading candidate: quick-witted Fry has already shown his talent at hosting impenetrable quiz shows with the television series 'QI'. He has also been a guest on 'ISIHAC', and narrated a 'Humph Sunday' special.
Jarvis Cocker
A wild card entry suggested by Jeremy Hardy: like Lyttelton his background is in music and he is known for his deadpan delivery.
Angus Deayton
Straight-faced Deayton has been looking for a regular comedy berth since he was unceremoniously removed from 'Have I Got News for You'. Doubtless he won't have any problem making innuendos at the lovely Samantha with his track record.
Sue Perkins
Best known for being the second half of the comedy duo Mel and Sue, she is now a frequent guest on Radio 4 comedy quizzes.
Pam Ayres
Frequently heard on Radio 4 comedy programmes, including 'Just a Minute', she now has her own sketch show and is becoming one of the channel's leading ladies.
Sandi Toksvig
"The News Quiz' host and 'ISIHAC' regular is a staple of Radio 4 comedy and an obvious choice.

August 24, 2008

Yes - Clue will be back

A week ago I wrote a piece predicting I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue would return.

Well, Barry Cryer has been telling audiences at Edinburgh that I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue will be back.

According to today's Guardian, he predicts a permament chairman won't be appointed, instead someone new will guest host each week.

This comes from a column by the former News Quiz host Simon Hoggart.

Here tis...

Barry had good news: I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue is now virtually certain to come back. The BBC asked listeners whether it should return after the death of Humphrey Lyttelton, and the overwhelming majority said it should. They haven't yet decided on a chairman, since nobody could replace Humph, so it looks as if they'll try a series of different people before settling on one. Someone has suggested John Fortune, another toff with a dry, slightly distrait manner, and he is terrific. But I think they should really go for someone who is the exact opposite of Humph, otherwise they'll just evoke unwanted comparisons.

Personally, I'm not sure about changing the chairman every week. The key to Clue is its cosy familiarity - I would think different styles in the chair each week could be jarring. But of course it does avoid having to make a decision on who should "replace" Humph and I can understand why you might be reluctant to do that.

August 22, 2008

Edinburgh show

Sarah Falk wrote this about her trip to see JAM recorded.

Panellists for show 1 (to be broadcast 18 August)
Paul, Clement, Mike McShane, Rhod Gilbert

Panellists for show 2 (to be broadcast 25 August):
Paul, Clement, Fred MacAulay, Lynn Ferguson

Whistle-blower: Sarah Sharpe -- these were her first shows

The first show started at 12:15 pm, so taking my cue from QI, I queued at 10 am. (Cringesome alliteration unintended.) Instead of starting a one-person queue, actually, I sat on a bench by the theater, but was joined only 5-10 minutes later by several other people who had also had the same idea. I've attended many popular comedy shows at the Pleasance, and one really only needs to arrive about 45 minutes early to ensure a good seat; however, more than an hour before this recording was due to start, the line was already massive, stretching almost all the way down the wall of the theatre. I left briefly to pick up some food, and by the time I returned (about 40 minutes before start time), the line had grown so long that it had to be split into two, with the back end curving out of the courtyard area and spilling onto the pavement of the main road.

During the show, Mike and Rhod were seated next to each other, and as the new boys (Rhod has only been on once, and Mike never), they put on a show of alternating teamwork and rivalry. Nicholas kept reminding Rhod to sit back from the microphone, because as a stand-up, Rhod's wont was to lean in closely. Near the last round, Nicholas also told Rhod that he always hesitated briefly every time he was given the topic. Rhod remarked, "So you want me to stand over there but speak immediately!"

Mike did well for a newcomer, but got very frustrated with himself for tripping up (at one point alluding to the game "DIE!" that's played at the Comedy Store and with the Impro Chums, in which the audience shouts at performers who have lost the thread). Also funny was the way that Nicholas kept gesturing at Mike, who was on his left, to press his buzzer, and Mike would do it while clearly having no idea what he was challenging for. Nicholas told Mike to palm his buzzer at all times so that he didn't have to grab for it to make a challenge, but Paul called over, "Why don't you just press his buzzer for him, Nicholas?"

Clement once made reference to Mike's "funny accent", and Mike replied that he enjoyed Clement's voice, which sounded as though he had "last night's dinner rolling around in his mouth". While the audience laughed, Clement looking at Paul questioningly, and Paul repeating Mike's joke in his ear. Paul was continually obliging to him in such ways, which was rather sweet. There was a time when Clement was silently having trouble opening his water bottle, and Paul took it and opened it for him.

Clement was buzzed for hesitation after tripping over a punchline to a joke he was telling, but Nicholas persuaded him to finish his story, saying that we'd all want to hear even though it wouldn't make it into the recording. In case it doesn't, the gist was that Clement ostensibly elbowed a woman in the breast getting into an elevator in a hotel. He told her, "If your heart is as soft as your bosom, you'll forgive me," and she replied, "If your willie is as hard as your elbow, I'm in room 265." It got raucous laughter, and eventually, Nicholas was forced to say (for radio purposes), "You were interrupted in the middle of your story, Clement, but knowing the end of that story, I think it's for the best."

Afterwards, after one pick-up of the show's closer (Nicholas had initially stumbled a little and said "edible" instead of "Edinburgh"), Nicholas told us all to scarper so that they could get the audience in for the next show. I, and many others, literally sprinted out of the theatre to re-join the queue, since people who only had tickets for the second show would be already lined up outside. The queue was only about half-way down the theatre wall at that time, which wasn't too bad. It was raining, though, but the BBC staff let us into the theatre a good half an hour before the show actually began, which never happens at other performances.

August 21, 2008

700th show approaches and other things

The August 25th show features Sir Clement Freud, Paul Merton, Fred MacAulay and Lynn Ferguson, while the team for September 1st is Paul, Julian Clary, Sue Perkins and Chris Addison. That will be the 700th radio edition of the show.

Brief thoughts on the last two shows - they were both good. I especially liked hearing Mike McShane at Edinburgh, I thought he did very well. Rhod Gilbert was a good contributor too. Paul and Clement seemed strong too - is it just me or is Clement particularly good this season?

On the previous show, I enjoyed Ian McMillan and Shappi Khorsandi. Ian seemed to have the sort of style and relaxed state that could see him back again. Shappi seemed more nervous to me. Tony Hawks and Paul were fine as always.

I'm really enjoying this season. If I guess correctly, the teams for the rest of the season should be

September 8th - Clement, Paul, Ross Noble and Robin Ince
September 15th - Clement, Gyles Brandreth, Marcus Brigstocke and Owen O'Neill
September 22nd - Paul, Tony, Shappi and Ian
September 29th - Paul, Julian, Sue and Chris

Keith Matthews at London recording

Keith posted this in the comments section but it's interesting enough to deserve a post of its own!

I was late for the Kingston recording and just missed Tilusha's reminder to switch off our mobiles. I was not going to miss this 700th radio recording of the game of Just A Minute for anything and was well puffed out as I took my seat next to fellow long time J.A.M. fan Steph Tickner.

Half way though the first show my infernal mobile let out its ice-cream van like jingle and Paul was about to locate the stupid arse who had forgotten to switch their mobile off. In seconds I pressed on a button which failed to eliminate my friend Richard's cheery voice calling out luxuriatingly " Hel-l-l-o-o-o Kei--i-i-t-t-h! " I reacted in the only way I could - I stuffed the mobile between my bountiful arsecheeks and voila !!!It was silenced - This wasn't such a bad idea because I'd done this when it had happened once before at a celebration of the Life of Linda Smith at the Victoria.

I had told Nicholas three weeks before that the 6th show would be their 700th show but he was embarrassed because in interviews he'd been stating that the figure was between 750 and 800. Chris was certainly the eye candy with the ladies and indeed some of the men in the audience who aaahhhed vociferousy when their favourite lost a challenge. But he opened a can of words by challenging on two letter words for repetition. The others pounced on him like a pack of wolves. Julian was good in the first show and a popular winner. I find it hard to believe that Sue has been in so many shows and not won a single game. She is bloody good at the game and with Jenny and Sheila would head my list of favourites should my dream of a first one off all woman team of Just A Minute ever happen. I hope Tilusha reads these blogs. Drop a hint in an email if you can Dean. The JAM women that we have a strong and with Pam and Wendy and ever Aimi would make a change from the all male line-up.

Paul was unbelievable in the closing stages of the 700th show. Word perfect and with whiplash wit he easily demonstrated why he is the Just A Minute superstar of the New Age of the game.

On my tickets was marked "After Show Drinks" and so Steph and I were taken through the warren like backstage area and there they were - Julian , Chris and Sue like three conspirators having a glass of vino in one corner, Paul was having a breath of fresh air on this most utterly humid of nights, recovering like an explorer on his first visit to the Sahara and there timeless, ageless and completely calm and looking up for another 700 shows was Nicholas - holding court amongst about 20 or so enrapt listeners backstage. Nicholas' wife invited us to join the group and on seeing us Nicholas invited me and Steph over to chat. Nicholas invited Paul over and the four of us chatted about the games 700th. No-one knew about it until I told Paul. Julian was surprised and made a jokey comment and Sue was amazed. Paul agreed to announce the fact at the first of the Edinburgh recordings. Paul spoke about how privileged he felt at working with Richard Murdoch on his first few J.A.M.'s. "Here I am working with this marvelous broadcasting legend!" He went on to praise Richard and I agreed with him that he was certainly much more than Arthur Askey's stooge and still possessed even into his eighties a brilliant quick comic mind. We reminisced about the Cheeky Chappie Max Miller- another hero of Paul's. Paul started quoting from Max's Blue Book of risque jokes and had us all in fits of laughter. Nicholas topped it by quoting one of Max's cheekiest jokes, not listed in his Blue Book but told to Nicholas by the man himself, and even Paul fell about with tears in his eyes. I remembered how Steve Frost had once described Paul Merton when he was just starting out on his career when Steve and I were working on the Wow Show up in Edinburgh ages ago.... "He's like Max Miller on speed!!" Paul was sincerely touched.

It's true I had never seen Paul so consistently brilliant before dominating what must have been nearly the whole last ten minutes of a show. Steph praised Nicholas' ability to chair the show for so long with his ever-sharpening comic mind and professional abilities and the man who was announced once as "The Man of the Minute" actually blushed!!! It was a lovely end to a beautiful evening.

August 16, 2008

Just A Classic Minute commentaries

Thought I'd write a few words on the commentaries from Nicholas and Paul on the latest CD.

Firstly, I think they're the best commentaries in the series. Nicholas having someone to talk to seems to get more out of him than his pre-written scripted pieces. I rather thought given that Nicholas has already done 4 CDs of commentaries that it might be more oriented towards Paul's views of things but in fact Paul acts more like an interviewer at times as Nicholas talks on. But as I say Nicholas is a bit more revealing than he is on the other CDs and their genuine affection for each other comes through.

According to Nicholas's website they are going to do the same for Classic Minute 6. I'm guessing that Clement doesn't want to provide material of this sort as he did no interview for the 40th anniversary special, but having Nicholas talk to Tony Hawks or Graham Norton or Sheila Hancock or even Andree Melly and Aimi Macdonald on a future CD would be interesting.

For the next CD though I wouldn't mind hearing a little more from Paul. I'd like to hear him on how he thinks up his material. Does he consciously feel the need to hold the show together? I wouldn't mind hearing him talk a bit more about Kenneth and Derek Nimmo - and for that matter Tony and Graham. His thoughts on Graham's style of comedy would be especially interesting to hear. Also as a comedy expert hearing Paul talk on the tension between the fun and the rules - there must be occasions when he is stopped from getting to the punchline by someone challenging on something trivial, how does he feel about that?

Also - and yes I know it's a bit trainspotterish - it would be good if someone took Nicholas aside when he makes comments about the history of the show and told him when he gets it wrong. Nicholas, the show never had a period of years when Kenneth, Clement, Peter and Derek appeared every week. Didn't happen. Not one year. Never. These things can be checked. There's a website somewhere that documents it all, I believe.

And the shows themselves on this CD are particularly well chosen I think.

August 14, 2008

Stats for 2007-8

These are the stats for performers in 2007 and 2008, Tilusha Ghelani's era.

37 performers have appeared - far and away a record for a two-year period. And 12 people have made their debut, also a big number. Newcomers are in bold.

Paul Merton 34
Clement Freud 26
Gyles Brandreth, Tony Hawks 10
Marcus Brigstocke 8
Chris Neill, Graham Norton, Sue Perkins 6
Chris Addison, Julian Clary, Jenny Eclair, Kit Hesketh-Harvey 4
Janey Godley, Dave Gorman, Phill Jupitus 3
Pam Ayres, Alun Cochrane, Jack Dee, Shappi Khorsandi, Josie Lawrence, Maureen Lipman, Fred MacAulay, Maria McErlane, Pauline McLynn, Ian McMillan, Neil Mullarkey, Ross Noble, Greg Proops, Tim Rice, Liza Tarbuck 2
Jo Caulfield, Lynn Ferguson, Rhod Gilbert, Robin Ince, Mike McShane, Dara O'Briain, Owen O'Neill 1

Edinburgh panels

The teams for the two shows at Edinburgh are

first show (to be broadcast on August 18th) - Sir Clement Freud, Paul Merton, Rhod Gilbert and Mike McShane.

second show (to be broadcast on August 25th) - Clement, Paul, Fred MacAulay and Lynn Ferguson.

Rhod has done just one show before in 2005. I thought he was okay there but not so good as to demand a return. Anyway he is worth another try.

I am amazed that my guess of Mike McShane proved a good one. As I wrote last week, I think he could be a fine panellist with a marvellous capacity to invent material. I'll look forward to hearing from him. He was a star on Whose Line is it Anyway and is currently performing regularly with Paul as one of his Impro Chums.

Fred we know about - this will be his 13th eppy.

Lynn Ferguson is a Scottish stand-up/actor/playwright who performs her own play. She looks sassy and funny - will be great to hear all the Scottish voices on that show with Fred and no doubt Nicholas!

Can't wait!

August 10, 2008


It's almost four months since Humph died and still no announcement on the future of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.

Someone using the comments on the Guardian website says Clue is over because the other panellists had all stated categorically they wouldn't go on without Humph.

Well if that were so, we would have had an announcement before now. The form would have been to wait a few days after Humph's funeral and then put out a statement.

You don't talk for four months about exactly how to announce the show is finishing.

Obviously what is being discussed is who will be the new chairman. I said a while ago that I thought the most likely appointment is either Barry Cryer or Graeme Garden, with Jeremy Hardy becoming the third regular. In other words, the most familiar replacements in a show where familiarity has bred success.

But as time goes on, I wonder if they are auditioning people. If that's the case then the list of possibilities is as long as you like. Maybe they'll even continue auditions when the show comes back to air, with an alternating chairman as they do on Have I Got News For You.

This at least puts off making a decision on who will "replace" Humph as whoever does it will be on a hiding to nothing. Whoever it is, it won't be Humph and people won't like that.

If it's not Barry or Graeme (I can't explain why but I don't see Tim Brooke-Taylor in the chair) I think they should go for someone clearly different to Humph. Someone suggested Julian Clary for example. What about a woman - Sue Perkins? Liza Tarbuck? Maureen Lipman? They can't give the task to Sandi Toksvig now she is chairing News Quiz.

Anyway the good thing for Clue fans is that no news is good news. I expect Clue to be back in November.

This week's show

Haven't yet weighed in on this so here goes.

Dave Gorman was much better than his previous two shows. The producer must be wishing she had booked him for both shows as Owen O'Neill has been fairly ordinary on his previous two appearances. Gyles was good as always. I guess in the absence of Paul and Graham the producer would have been hoping Marcus might have stepped up to hold things together but he's not quite that good yet.

Without Paul and Graham to play the lead, the show isn't as good. It wasn't bad but it won't be one of the shows we will remember.

August 08, 2008

Julian Clary jokes about JAM

in The New Statesman this week

As I arrived at the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames to record an episode of Radio 4’s Just a Minute, I met Paul Merton. Paul always has the best opening lines. I offered him a mint before we went through the stage door. “Do you find it takes away the taste of your boyfriend?” he asked.

As we waited for the recording to begin, Nicholas Parsons was pacing up and down. "Do you still get nervous?" I asked him. "Oh yes," he confirmed. "I still worry that maybe this time it won't work. Silly, really. This is our 700th recording."

August 06, 2008

Edinburgh recordings

Are being done next week on August 12th - anyone going please let me know.

Paul Merton and Clement Freud are on the panel and the practice in recent years has been that the other half of the panel is different for each show so four people get to try their wares rather than two.

I wondered if Graham Norton, who has done just one JAM recording this year, his lowest total since 1998, might be going, but it seems not.

I also wondered about Ross Noble who is in the UK at the moment and I assumed would include the Edinburgh Festival on his list given he has been a star there many times. But he is instead going to a festival in Devon.

So other possibilities - Chris Neill has a show there this year and is due another go on JAM. Fred MacAulay returned last year and was - I thought - very very good. Janey Godley had a place at the JAM table at Edinburgh in the past two years. She did do the show again earlier this year however, and is I think, not so great that she deserves another run so soon. Other past JAMsters appearing at Edinburgh but I feel to be unlikely are Barry Cryer, Arthur Smith, Richard Vranch, Nick Revell, Lee Simpson, Bill Bailey, Kate Robbins, Rhod Gilbert, Robin Ince and Sean Lock.

Newcomers are hard to pick of course, but I thought I'd mention a few I've spotted who are at Edinburgh this year and must have a chance.

Mike McShane - is appearing with Paul at the Festival, and the Whose Line Is It Anyway veteran would make an excellent JAM panellist. Wouldn't it be nice to hear an American accent on the show again. I think he could even be a closet JAM fan as he mentioned Nicholas once on Whose Line!

Rich Hall - I believe he is the most popular QI panellist after the two regularts despite not seeming to know very much. What he can do is a sort of deadpan surreal that is usually hillarious. His delivery would be a bit slow to make him a star at JAM but he'd be hillarious at the banter.

Clive James - I used to love his TV show back 15 or 20 years ago. I'm guessing highly unlikely but I would love to hear him have a go.

Jimmy Carr - yes the TV star has a show at Edinburgh this year. He does seem to enjoy doing game shows so again - unlikely but...

Rhona Cameron - a rising name in stand-up and by all accounts, very funny. And the producers are always looking for a woman.

Ed Byrne - have seen him a couple of times on the telly and thought he looked just the JAM type - sharp, witty.

I'll be interested to see if I get even one of out of four guessed correctly!

August 04, 2008

Nicholas-Paul commentaries

I've transcribed the Nicholas-Paul commentaries from the latest BBC CD - Just A Classic Minute Volume 5. They're fascinating - hope you enjoy them.

The four shows being discussed are below.

show from 1977

show from 1982

show from 1983

show from 1998

August 03, 2008

Very good article on Paul

from Scotland on Sunday

Silent knight - Paul Merton interview
By Catherine Deveney
Paul Merton takes a break from quickfire repartee to champion silent comedy and set the record straight about his life, loves and 'madness'
PAUL MERTON is an intense kind of man. That's not, by the way, subliminal code for 'nutty comedian'. The star of Have I Got News for You and Room 101 has been dogged by the notion of the performing depressive who makes his audience roar with laughter then scurries back to his dressing-room for a quick glug of gin and largactyl and a moody contemplation of his razor blades. No, Merton's intensity is more a sense of passion, of focus, of really caring about the DNA of comedy. He's describing his Edinburgh festival show, in which he talks about silent comedians and shows film clips, and quite frankly for the first five minutes I'm thinking, who'd want to go and see a load of crackly old Keaton and Chaplin films and have some comedic anorak tell you about them? After ten, his enthusiasm is so uplifting that I'm thinking, hmm, I'd quite like to see that.
Charlie Chaplin emerging round a mountain pursued by a bear he's oblivious to. Buster Keaton standing stock still as the front of a house collapses, escaping injury because he's framed in the empty window space. (The house weighed three tons and Keaton had a mere inch and a half clearance.) Laurel and Hardy stuffing a goat under the bed in their lodgings. It's what happens, isn't it, says Merton, deadpan, when two men get followed by a goat. But it's not that silent film per se is wonderful. It's that the brilliance of the comedians transcends the limitations of silence. "It turns out to be something beautiful," says Merton. The actress Mary Pickford once said that the best silent films made the lack of sound seem like an artistic decision.
Merton first started getting other people interested in silent comedies when he was 15. He took a projector to Ireland, to his Auntie Nellie's house in Cork, and put up a sheet in her living-room. Then he invited a bunch of kids round for a show. Two days later they were back, demanding a re-run.
It's a bit ironic that a man whose own comedy seems so clearly rooted in verbal brilliance should be enthused by silent films. He talks incessantly and intently on his favourite subject, but perhaps there's another reason for that. He does rather give the impression that he's frightened to stop in case you actually ask him any questions. He is not, after all, a man who loves the press – or, as he so sardonically puts it, "I can promise you I have never opened my heart to the Daily Mail."
AS A BOY, growing up in Fulham, in south London, Merton used to read about the lives of famous comedians. He was fascinated by the idea of Keaton and Chaplin being on stage from the age of three or four years old. To a boy who lived in a council house and whose father was a tube driver, it seemed a glamorous kind of life. He imagined what it would be like to be Keaton, travelling round vaudeville in America, meeting the likes of Harry Houdini backstage and spending only one day a week at school. Lucky Buster.
Merton's parents have retired to Ireland and have his videos in their sitting-room. They don't say they're proud, but they don't need to. He knows. Both have a keen sense of humour, and his father used to go to see comedians perform, but no one in his family had a showbusiness background – unless you count his grandfather, who worked as a theatre electrician. But Merton was interested in comedy, in circus clowns in particular, from the age of three or four. He was an imaginative child, making his fingers into puppets, creating characters and voices for them.
But he was also shy. "It seems like a contradiction, but the shy person who is a performer actually does make sense, because in a way, when you're young and shy, making people laugh is a good way to make friends. It's an instant connection."
He remembers particularly that he used the school dinner queue to hone his comedy skills. "It seems an odd thought after all these years, but I do remember distinctly on my eighth birthday saying to myself, 'Well, I'm making the kids laugh at school at the moment, but when they're older – when they're nine – I'll have to keep making them laugh, so my jokes will have to get better.'" An intense kind of thought for a child, perhaps. "I was really thinking in those terms, addicted to the intoxicating power of laughter."
You can see the shy man still in Merton, the veneer of verbal dexterity pasted over a more diffident base. But he did have the daring to give up his first job, in the civil service, to become a comedian. Not that he saw it as bravery back then, and it certainly wasn't any great indication of self-belief. He was 19 and had no ties, and maybe the deciding factor was that when he joined the civil service he met a woman who'd been working there since before he was born. "I thought, 'No, I can't do that. I'm not going to be here for 20 years.' I wanted to avoid being 50 and saying, 'I could have given it a go myself, you know…'"
Merton was born in 1957, and being a comedian seemed a ridiculous aspiration. There were two options: touring working men's clubs or becoming a Redcoat at Butlins. "It was a completely different climate. What radically changed comedy in this country was the opening of the Comedy Store in 1979. The Comedy Store said anybody can get up and have a go. You didn't need an Equity card. You could get up on stage in front of a bunch of drunks and try stuff out."
He gave himself five years to make it. "It was a working-class thing, a five-year apprenticeship. It's a pick-up from being eight years old and saying, 'I've got to make them laugh next year.' It's the same person, isn't it? But I don't want to give the impression that when I left the civil service I was writing six hours a day, because I was quite lazy as well." He experimented, made mistakes, and towards the end of that period he started appearing on television. "I never had to make the decision of whether or not to give up. I don't think I would have, but, equally, I wanted to be successful. I didn't want to be just doing a circuit forever."
He smiles. He's giving away secrets now, but he had studied so much about showbusiness before he entered it that he knew success sometimes came from being good in a really bad show. He was given the perfect opportunity when offered the chance to do his polished stand-up routine in a show of rough sketches created by the public. How could he not shine by comparison? But the way he handled it explains the key to Merton's success. "It was an important gig, with the commissioning editors from Channel 4 watching the pilot, and I've always had the big-match temperament." He raises his game rather than crumbles? "Absolutely. Every time."
It's why he is so good at improvisation – and that's another link to those silent comedians, who financed their own films and therefore had artistic freedom. Improvisation is the last freedom for modern comedians – you have an idea and you do it. You don't have to get permission. "If I get a funny idea and everybody laughs, well, we didn't have to have a meeting about it. Nobody says, we can't afford it. Nobody says, it's been a tough year for the channel…"
Merton really gives a sense of knowing his own skills and strengths without displaying ego. Yet, as a performer, he wants to be seen by as many people as possible. "That's not really an ego thing…" He pauses. "Oh, I suppose it must be… but what I was going to say was, it doesn't bother me not being in front of the camera. In fact, I sort of prefer it. I'm not driven to be a performer… it's comedy in general… If I was given a strict choice between no more performing and successful directing, I'd go, 'yes…'"
He's directing a film about Alfred Hitchcock at the moment, and he loves being behind the camera. "You're in the texture of comedy, in the material. You think, 'Okay, if I put that shot with that shot that's going to make it funnier. And I can take that line of commentary out because the visuals are telling me that.' You're in the nitty-gritty of comedy, of shaping and forming. I absolutely love it."
In his early days as a performer, just when his career was taking off, he faced a difficult period that resulted in him being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It's the basis of all the stories since about Merton the depressive, but the cuttings conflict a bit. What's the truth? "The truth is that some journalists can't resist the comedian who is also the tragic figure," says Merton. "What actually happened was that in 1990 I had gone to Kenya and had a severe reaction to an anti-malarial drug, which I think has since been taken off the market. I was hallucinating… no, hallucinating is too strong a word… but I remember sitting at home having got back from Kenya, and it was three in the morning and I was sitting in this armchair, just completely… I don't know, like I was full of caffeine or something… completely wired. My behaviour was strange, and people were getting worried."
He signed himself into the Maudsley hospital, staying for six weeks. "After a while you stop taking the anti-malarial thing. Nobody identified it at the time. It was when I came out that I saw a psychiatrist, a top guy." The psychiatrist investigated the drug and discovered that several other people had reacted badly to it. He pinned Merton's problems on the medication. He doesn't feel any embarrassment about the idea of mental illness. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. It can happen to anybody." But he didn't really feel it did happen to him in the way people think it did. It was all a long time ago, but Merton feels it has shaped attitudes to him since. He wanted a certificate from the Maudsley: 'Legally sane'.
He married the actress Caroline Quentin, but they broke up in 1997. He subsequently married Sarah Parkinson, a writer and producer. Tragically, Sarah developed breast cancer and died. Afterwards, Merton explains, journalists fixated on that long-ago spell in hospital. For example, he had once innocently told a story about being on a bus with Sarah at a time when he'd grown an unruly beard. Sarah told him he was looking a bit like a tramp and needed to smarten up. Oh, he was fine, Merton told her. But then a tramp got on the bus, took one look at Merton and offered him his can of beer.
It was a funny story – reminiscent of one of his beloved silent films, in fact – but it was taken out of context and referred to as if it had happened after Sarah's death, as if it was Merton losing the plot. "They tried to say I had a nervous breakdown after Sarah died, which wasn't true. A few weeks after she died, Have I Got News for You started and I was doing that. A couple of people said, 'Are you sure you want to do the show?' and I said, 'Well, I don't want to sit at home watching someone else doing it, to be honest.'"
Suddenly Merton realises he has been talking about Sarah without being asked about her. "I don't want to talk about Sarah," he adds, "but it was not a sudden death. It was not like a car crash, where someone is suddenly gone."
WE ARE in the middle of our own little silent sequence now. Words are failing. Chaplin once said that when he opened his mouth to talk he was just like any other comedian, but in mime he was sublime. It is true that silence can be revealing, throwing up other forms of communication.
There is, in this small room at Merton's agent's office in London, a subtle change of atmosphere. I have asked a follow-up question about Sarah, and it has changed everything. The enthusiasm, the connection that was created in the earlier part of our conversation, has dissolved, melting slowly like an ice cube into a puddle of uncomfortable embarrassment. And yet I admire the way Merton handles it. He tries to avoid being abrasive. In fact, there is something about his discomfort that draws me to him, makes me want to alleviate it, but my attempts are making it worse. There is a miserable kind of shifting in seats. An uneasy half-smile.
Before she died, Sarah wrote an article saying she believed her breast cancer had been triggered by the massive doses of hormones she'd received during IVF treatment. Did he share that belief? Pause. "Yes," he says finally. "Yeah, it seemed like it. She said what happened and when it happened, but I didn't want to get involved in trying to sue somebody or… but, yes, that's how it felt to us and how it felt to her, certainly."
Sarah opted for alternative therapies as well as conventional drugs, and refused chemotherapy. Had that worried him? The unease in the room is almost tangible now. Silence. An expression torn between discomfort and irritation and an appeal to my better nature. His words are so sparse that they're like the single line of dialogue on the silent film screen. "We're talking rather a lot about Sarah."
If it was up to him he might talk, but he doesn't want to upset Sarah's family, he says, which is probably a very understandable white lie. I really doubt Merton would want to talk anyway. Nor does he want to talk about any desire to be a father that might have prompted IVF. "I have never sold my story, done Hello! magazine, any of that stuff. I'm not guilty of exploiting my private life for cash and then saying, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about my private life.' I've never crossed that line."
Didn't he, after Sarah died, do a tabloid piece about his new relationship with partner Suki Webster? (Webster is a comedian who appears in the other show he's doing for the festival, Impro Chums. The relationship floundered for a while but is back on.) No. The paper snatched a picture in the street then ran a piece implying he'd been interviewed. But he hadn't. Things get manipulated. Which is why it's not what I do with this conversation that worries him – it's what someone else does afterwards with what I do. And there's really no answer to that.
But he does say he's happier in a partnership than alone. So let's talk more generally about the healing power of comedy, how it helped him move from the difficulties of his life – divorce and bereavement – to more positive phases. Most people find it very difficult to be upbeat when they are personally upset. How did he create comedy during turmoil? Laughter, he says thoughtfully, produces endorphins in the brain. It makes you feel good. "What I was doing, concentrating on comedy and doing Have I Got News for You, was an escape from grief, because we can only focus on one thing at a time. Well, certainly men can. We don't do multitasking. If you ask me to concentrate on that box of tissues on the table, the rest of the world disappears. So there's a sort of job satisfaction: you make people laugh."
After Sarah died, he went down to the Comedy Store every Sunday. "I wasn't going on stage at that point – I thought it might be misconstrued – but I wanted to go on stage because of the release. If you're improvising successfully, I'm listening exactly to what you are saying and my thoughts are with you and that's what your brain is full of. So, for the two hours you are doing the show, that's all there is. Then you come back from that and you're back to… It's not that you're forgetting, it's that you're getting an escape for a while."
Think of documentaries about very poor people. "They can be in very depressing situations but you often find laughter is a really powerful presence in their lives." There was even laughter in the concentration camps. He stops, apologises, says perhaps that's a crass example. Not at all. It's a powerful example of human instinct and resilience – an instinct Merton finds uplifting. "Someone like Bernard Manning, his comedy was about saying 'the reason your life is crap is because of these Pakistanis'. But it doesn't have to be about 'hate this', 'hate that'. It can be about beauty," he insists. It can be about the simplicity of seeing a film that is 90 years old and still funny.
Humour has been a support in his life. "When things are difficult, awful, stressful, the thing that always gets you through is a sense of humour. I don't mean – well, maybe I do – laugh at the hangman as he puts the noose around your neck. But an eye, an ear, for the ridiculous, the absurd in life, can get you through a lot."
Next year, Merton tours with Silent Clowns. He is looking forward to coming to Scotland because the show was so well received here in the past – particularly in Aberdeen, where 900 people turned up. The experience is not grainy old pictures on small monitors, but big screens and live music. It's about laughter and it's about life. "In the end, laughter and sex and having cigarettes are the only pleasures you can sometimes get." He pauses. "That's a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean," he grins. "In the end, what else have you got?"