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Location: Wellington, New Zealand

October 08, 2008

Paul Merton in India

An interesting article from the Telegraph

Paul Merton in India: Have I got phews for you

The comedian turned travel show presenter tells James Rampton how he aimed for amazement and laughter, not mockery, in his new series in India.

Is Paul Merton the new Michael Palin? He is certainly following in the former Python's footsteps, making that tricky border-crossing from television comedy into the strange territory of travel show presenting. Having guided viewers on an impressive alternative tour of China last year on Five, the long-standing team captain on Have I Got News for You has been invited back to present a similarly unconventional five-part jaunt around India.

"You should ask Michael if he wants to be the old Paul Merton," says Merton, with a broad smile. "If he agrees to that, then I'll agree to being the new Michael Palin."

The 51-year-old Merton certainly possesses the credentials to take over the mantle of Britain's favourite travel guide from Palin, who officially retired from epic series after last year's seven-part journey around the New Europe. Although not a natural adventurer ("Before going to China, I had no great desire to travel"), Merton possesses a marvellously acute eye for the weird and wonderful.

In one memorable sequence from the new India series, Merton joins the million (mainly naked) pilgrims at the annual festival in Junagadh which celebrates the moment Shiva consummated his marriage. To underline their devotion, many disciples perform the most extraordinary, eye-watering feats with their private parts. One uses his reproductive organs to lift a huge rock off the ground - an activity designed to block out his sexual desire. Another wraps his sexual organ around a stick. Looking on with awe and horror, Merton chips in, in typical deadpan style: "Personally, I'd have gone for a cold shower." But crucially, endearingly, even as he raises a quizzical eyebrow, Merton never seeks to demean his subjects. His wry presenting style works so well because it is founded not on mockery, but on wonder.

"You have to guard against sneering at people just because they're different," he says. "You can be amusing, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the people you're talking to. It would be the easiest thing in the world to adopt the tone of 'Look at that funny bloke walking around in his underpants. Oh, it's Gandhi. Sorry, mate!' That's just lazy and patronising. I really took to the Indian people. They're warm, charming, very quick to laugh and have this terrific sense of fun." Another of Merton's strengths as a presenter is his willingness to let his interviewees take centre stage. Merton says he learnt this technique - perhaps surprisingly - at the Department of Employment, where he worked until his comedy career took off in the early 1980s.

"I had to interview up to 15 people a day, and they taught me a very simple rule," he says. "Ask a question, listen to the answer, and base your next question on what they've just said. It's about not imposing yourself on the situation - I'm very happy to back out of the limelight. It would never occur to me to say during the making of a programme, 'Why isn't the camera on me?'"

The other element that distinguishes Merton as a documentary presenter is that, despite his comic background, he is not relentlessly attempting to crack gags. In fact, he takes every opportunity to inject moments of seriousness into proceedings.

"It's all about light and shade," he says. "Trying to get laughs all the time would be really annoying. I like those moments on Have I Got News for You where it gets serious. The contrast works well, and the next funny moment then gets a bigger laugh."

Merton is far happier off the beaten track than following the familiar tourist trail. Don't expect any clich├ęd shots here of Merton "doing a Princess Diana" and looking sun-kissed and interesting on that bench in front of the Taj Mahal. Stressing that "this is not The Holiday Programme", he introduces the series by declaring: "India [is] a country of one billion people rapidly becoming a superpower of the 21st century, a landscape of stunning vistas etched from its rivers, sunsets and religious icons. But I'm not going to show you any of that." Instead, he introduces us to a Jaipur eunuch protection racket in Ahmedabad, a PG Wodehouse Appreciation Society in Mumbai and a Bangalore prison where the food is reputedly so tasty that inmates in other jails go on hunger strike so they can be transferred there.

It's a good fit: somebody with as developed a taste as Merton for the quirky and arcane is always going to be drawn to these out-of-the-way, idiosyncratic places. In one of the strangest and most compelling scenes in the series, Merton meets BB Nayak, a Mumbai man with a rather bizarre urge: to set a new world record for the number of times he is kicked in the groin within one minute - it's 42, in case you're wondering.

"That man's status has been transformed," Merton reflects. "In a country of one billion, how are you going to stand out as an individual? One of the ways is to become a world champion - it doesn't matter if it's in something outlandish. Our celebrity culture is not that different. This chap got very angry because one of the volunteers to kick him failed to turn up. So I helped out by kicking him in the b******s several times. He even complimented me on my accuracy."

Merton pauses a beat, before adding in that deadpan tone: "Well, you don't want to let the side down." It's hard to imagine Judith Chalmers mucking in in quite the same way.

4 Comments:

Blogger Stuey said...

Brilliant blog mate, have subscirbed and will read with interest...one thing though : Surely this blog should have the strapline "HELLO...and welcome to the Just a Minute Blog".

11:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or rather HELLO and welcome to Just a minute...the blog. :p

6:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Paul Merton in India is clear display of the Brit loser mentality. The fact that the whole new generation is nothing but a bunch od self-destructive losers cant be wrapped up on the shady, weird incidents in a faraway country. It seems like Brits get the pleasure of watching the weird stuff which may keep them in the illusion of their false greatness.
Yes there are naked sadhus in India, YES we have snake charmers and the eunuchs in India....so???
U will find all kinds of shocking unexpected people anywhere in the world!
And Mr. Merton obviously is a really bad traveller with no sense of respect for the culture, traditions, people and their beliefs! He went on saying that Shiva (A Hindu God) is a guy like me!!! Does is realize that he is hurting the sentiments of the millions of people to feed the fake egos of his Brit brethren? Its alsolutely ridiculous! For a poor roadside man looking at him its the eyes of a terrorist??? If Indians are that scary why go make program there? Make programs on your own good for nothing Brits living off on the council benefits provided by the taxes paid by the hard-working immigrats in Britain. If you do not understand a culture do not comment, just keep shut!

4:26 am  
Anonymous Slehane said...

To the anonymous person above I think you are being too critical and judging Merton rather unfairly, maybe he might of said something that has been taken out of context and its a travel show that displays parts of India that is happening while he is there. And where is this whole part where he goes on to claim that indians are terrorists and scary? Dont make things up. Last thing how can a person understand a culture and learn unless they talk, travel and learn

3:32 am  

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