Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

March 07, 2010

Paul Merton and the state of the show

I have contributed to an interesting thread on the Yahoo group about whether Paul Merton is mellowing with age. The original poster suggested he is mellowing and less willing to challenge Nicholas's decisions. It got me thinking about Paul and the show post-Clement. Here's what I wrote, only slightly amended.

Paul said in one of the shows last year - and made a similar remark either on the Classic CDs or in an interview somewhere - that he was conscious of winning the show too often and dominating too much, and was trying to let the others all have a fair go. There are shows in the early 2000s where Paul probably says more than the other three panellists combined, and we don't hear very much even from people as funny as Graham Norton, Linda Smith and Julian Clary. Whether this is at the behest of a producer or off his own bat, Paul seems to be less competitive, less willing to get into every round. I do think it's good that we are hearing more from some of the others, though I'd hate to feel Paul felt too constrained. Sometimes we go five minutes or more without hearing Paul in some shows this year and I'm not sure that that's a good thing.

Still I do feel that Paul remains the glue that holds things together. I've referred before to the remark David Hatch once made that he used to occasionally signal to Kenneth Williams to jump in if he felt the show was becoming a bit dull and people were getting bogged down. That's always the fear to me, that the show gets bogged down in "repetition of he" type challenges and no-one gets going. I think the show this week got derailed a bit with trivial challenges. It would be interesting to know how many times people talked on the subject for more than say 10 seconds. It's not impossible to be funny in a few seconds, but the show works better if people are allowed to get their "flow" going. It's no coincidence that Paul wasn't there this week. He always jumps in if what's being said is boring and says something that gets people laughing again. The only other person with a similar command, I think, is Graham Norton, and personally I would have Graham on the panel if Paul isn't there. I suspect though that Paul will miss few shows in the immediate future.

Has Paul mellowed? I don't know if that's the word I'd use. He's not one of the "alternative" younger comedians any more. He's in his mid 50s and he's been lead comic on a leading BBCTV comedy show and a leading BBC radio comedy show for 20 years each now, so he's clearly mainstream these days. I haven't seen Have I Got News For You for a couple of years but before that I didn't notice him getting any softer in his jabs and on JAM he's still quite capable of cutting remarks. I wonder though if he is trying to broaden his comedy a tad. Insult humour is good and works on JAM - it doesn't have to be all that he does. Improvisation is about trying things out and if anyone on the show is in a position to be original, it surely must be Paul.

Turning to whether "he accepts all of Nicholas' decisions without a fight now, just tows the line and accepts his judgement like a good little boy" I think the first thing to say is that whether the panellists are praising Nicholas or rubbishing Nicholas, it's all meant in humour. It all plays to JAM's longest running joke, commentary on how Nicholas chairs the show. Same with Kenneth Williams. The joke works either way because Nicholas is neither as bad nor as good as they say and because Nicholas is such a willing target, and because five minuites earlier they were probably taking the opposite stance. It's clear from the Classic CDs that Paul does have a great deal of respect for Nicholas.

Paul and the others do still take jabs at Nicholas. Perhaps they do not make the full production number of it that they used to.

But I do think that the death of Clement and Nicholas's advanced age combine to make criticism of Nicholas more problematic. At 86 and still with a reasonably busy show biz career, Nicholas almost certainly has the respect of all of the others on the show. His is an incredible record. The fact that the other panellists are between 30 and 50 years younger than Nicholas makes some insults off-limits I think. Remember when Kenneth used to say "they have to wheel him out here in a bath chair, and inject him with Queen's royal jelly!" Now that Nicholas is of an age when many people would be under nursing care, that sort of remark doesn't work so well. I think while Clement, roughly the same age, was there and if not leading the charge against Nicholas, certainly supporting it, these taunts were more acceptable. But now Clement isn't there, I'm sure that the panellists are wary of seeming too harsh about Nicholas.

As I say the panellists do still make jokes about Nicholas, but I think they are wary of sounding too mean.

The interesting thing is what this means for the future of the show and what effect Clement's death is having. It seems from the various things that have been said that while people had a lot of respect for Clement, he did at times make some people uncomfortable. I think this season in particular had a lot of fun and laughter. Is it possible people are more relaxed without Clement's brooding presence? On the other hand the possibility is always there that the show will lose its shape without Clement to care about the rules and the score - though Gyles Brandreth and Sue Perkins are perhaps taking over that role as the competitive players of the game.

I expect if Nicholas retired/died and say Gyles Brandreth took over as chairman, he would immediately become a target for insults and abuse, because it works in a game where so few rulings are clear-cut, and because, like Nicholas, he is a great target.

It'll be interesting to see how the show develops in the next few years but with an established core cast, Paul, Graham, Tony, Sue, Gyles, Kit, Jenny, Julian, Chris, Stephen, Josie, Charles, Liza, Tim, Pam, most of whom have now been around 10 years or more, I feel that the show is in a strong position - and also perhaps poised to develop into something slightly different from how the show sounded say 10 years ago.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a lovely blog! I'm so glad I found this.

Just a question though, what do you mean people were uncomfortable with Clement Freud's presence?

I don't live in the UK, so I'm usually a little lost with comments like these =P

3:25 am  
Blogger Dean said...

I don't live in the UK either! All I'm saying really is that Clement was someone whose honesty was brutal and didn't mind "causing waves". This blog post here quotes a Chris Neill article which gives some examples.


10:20 pm  

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