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.

October 30, 2007

Moira Lister dies

JAM guest Moira Lister has died, aged 84.

Moira appeared once on JAM, in 1969, enraging Kenneth Williams with her fun and competitive spirit. He wrote about the clash in his diary. RIP Moira.

This obituary is from The Independent.

Moira Lister
Actress often cast in glacial roles
Published: 29 October 2007

Moira Lister, actress: born Cape Town, South Africa 6 August 1923; married 1951 Vicomte D'Orthez (died 1989; two daughters); died Cape Town 27 October 2007.

Moira Lister was an accomplished actress whose regal bearing found her often cast in patrician roles, though she also had a splendid sense of humour – she was a regular on the first radio series of Hancock's Half Hour – and a versatility that ranged from acclaimed performances in Shakespearean tragedy to her award-winning display of farcical expertise in Move Over, Mrs Markham.

She was an actress whose name evoked keen anticipation of a sharply etched, value-for-money performance, and as recently as 2002 she was still commanding the stage in a sterling revival of Maugham's The Constant Wife, as the mother aghast that her daughter should react with such stoicism to her husband's infidelity. Always elegant and meticulously groomed (it is fitting that she became the wife of a Vicomte) she disliked seeing theatre audiences in jeans and sandals, and with backpacks, feeling that it showed lack of respect for the performers.

The daughter of Major James Lister and his wife, Margaret, she was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1923, and educated at the Parktown Convent of the Holy Family, Johannesburg – later she was a member of the British Catholic Stage Guild. She was given acting lessons as a child, and made her début with the University Players of Johannesburg at the age of six, playing a Prince in The Vikings of Helgeland.

In 1936 she appeared in Johannesburg with Sir Seymour Hicks in Vintage Wine, and Hicks was so impressed that he invited her to appear with him in a proposed play in the UK. They arrived on the day of Edward VIII's abdication to find the play cancelled, but Lister made her London début, aged 14, in the play Post Road at Golders Green Hippodrome, before returning to South Africa to continue her education. Further plays in South Africa included When We Are Married and The Women, then in 1944 she returned to the UK, where she had a featured role on stage in The Shop at Sly Corner and had her first film role with a small part in The Shipbuilders (1944).

A highly successful season with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon in 1945 included acclaimed portrayals of Juliet, Desdemona, Olivia in Twelfth Night and Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer. In 1947 she starred opposite Noël Coward in Present Laughter at the Haymarket, and many years later she performed a one-woman show devoted to Coward. She made her Broadway début in 1948 in the farce Don't Listen Ladies!, returning to have a string of personal successes in Rattigan's French Without Tears (1949), the revue Sauce Piquante (1950) and Ustinov's The Love of Four Colonels (1951).

On screen she made an impression with her small role in the effective thriller Wanted for Murder (1946), playing a well-groomed secretary who titivates herself before going into her boss's office to take shorthand, flirting with him unaware that he is, in fact, a notorious strangler sought by Scotland Yard. More typically glacial roles were those of a gold-digger out to fleece a naïve Welsh miner spending a weekend in London in A Run for Your Money (1950), and a shrewish wife who meets a violent end in Grand National Night (1953 – the film's US title was The Wicked Wife). Other notable films included Pool of London (1950), White Corridors (1951), Trouble in Store (1953), The Cruel Sea (1953), in which she was the wife of a sailor (Denholm Elliott), Abandon Ship (1956) with Tyrone Power, and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965) with Rex Harrison.

In 1956 she was part of the splendid company formed by John Gielgud for a season at the Palace Theatre in London that included King Lear (in which she was a memorably forceful Regan) and Much Ado About Nothing (as Margaret). She compiled the first of several one-woman shows, People in Love, in 1958, touring Australia and South Africa, then starred in London in the hit black comedy The Gazebo (1960), which showcased her superb comic timing and flair for madcap farce (Debbie Reynolds played her role in the film version).

Other comedies in which she excelled included Any Wednesday (1965), Getting Married (1967) and notably the hilarious production of Ray Cooney's farce Move Over, Mrs Markham (1971), for which she won the Variety Club of Great Britain's Silver Heart Award as Best Stage Actress of 1971.

Her distinctive, husky voice made Lister a radio stalwart in such series as Simon and Laura and A Life of Bliss, and in South Africa her radio roles included the leading parts in Rain, The Deep Blue Sea (she had earlier played a supporting role in the film version) and The Millionairess. On television, she was a sparkling critic of record releases in Juke Box Jury, and she was a guest on such shows as Danger Man, Call My Bluff and The Avengers.

For three years, 1967-69, she starred in her own series, A Very Merry Widow. In 1971 she was the subject of This Is Your Life, and her autobiography, A Very Merry Moira, was published in 1969. She married the Vicomte d'Orthez, a French officer, in 1951 and the marriage, described by their daughter Chantal as a devoted relationship, lasted until his death in 1989. They had two daughters, Chantal and Christobel.

Lister was performing until three years ago, touring with her highly successful one-woman show about Noël Coward, and she was recently given the Naledi Award, a lifetime achievement award for her services to the theatre in South Africa.

October 26, 2007

JAM goes to Leicester

JAM will be recording on Monday 19th November 2007 at 7.30pm at the De Montfort Hall, Granville Road, LEICESTER.

Tickets are £5 - they can be booked via the Box Office on 0116 233 3111 or via the Website at www.www.demontforthall.co.uk

October 20, 2007

Alan Coren RIP

Sad to hear of his passing - a panel game veteran and a very funny man. A JAM connection - he encouraged Kenneth Williams's writing and published his columns for several years.

An obit here

October 16, 2007

Fry and Merton among wittiest Brits

from The Western Mail

Oscar Wilde named greatest wit

Brits have named Oscar Wilde as the greatest wit – while Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson also has a place in the wittiest top five.

The survey of 3,000 comedy fans named Wilde, who even on his deathbed purportedly muttered "either those curtains go or I do", the wittiest individual of all time.

Goon show creator Spike Milligan, who once said: "All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy" and whose headstone contains the immortal line "I told you I was ill", came second.

QI host Stephen Fry, who famously quoted Wilde through airport security, saying: "I have nothing to declare but my genius", and mused on the dwindling lengths of a cliche with: "It is a cliche that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliche is untrue", is third.

Top Gear host Clarkson is fourth in the poll – commissioned to mark the launch of digital TV channel Dave – thanks to his caustic humour.

Of Alfa Romeo cars, he once said: "You cannot be a true petrol head until you’ve owned one...it’s like having really great sex that leaves you with an embarrassing itch."

Sir Winston Churchill claimed fifth place due to his penchant for putdowns.

When accused by Labour MP Bessie Braddock of being drunk, he is said to have replied: "Bessie, you’re ugly. And tomorrow morning I will be sober, but you will still be ugly."

Have I Got News For You team captain Paul Merton was next.

Merton’s remarks have included: "I’m always amazed to hear of air crash victims so badly mutilated that they have to be identified by their dental records. What I can’t understand is, if they don’t know who you are, how do they know who your dentist is?"

Noel Coward, who once commented: "Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar. Never spread it about like marmalade", took seventh place.

Shakespeare is eighth for a host of polished one-liners on life, love and death, including: "Maids want nothing but husbands, and when they have them, they want everything".

The late football manager Brian Clough, who said: "I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one", was ninth, followed by Liam Gallagher.

Gallagher gets into the top 10 thanks to his put-downs.

The Oasis star once summed up Posh Spice with: "She can’t even chew gum and walk in a straight line at the same time, let alone write a book."

No women made it into the top 10, but Margaret Thatcher was the highest ranking female at number 12.

The former prime minister’s comments have included: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t."

Jonathan Ross (11th), Boris Johnson (13th), British dramatist Alan Bennett (14th), and Jane Austen (15th) just miss the top 10.

More than half (57%) of people surveyed deemed men wittier than women, saying they were most likely to be confident at delivering one liners, compared with women who showed more talent at being sarcastic.

Steven North, the head of the new TV channel Dave, said: "Witty banter is an everyday staple of life in Britain that is undoubtedly essential in helping us deal with all the ups and downs."

Top Ten

1. Oscar Wilde

2. Spike Milligan

3. Stephen Fry

4. Jeremy Clarkson

5. Sir Winston Churchill

6. Paul Merton

7. Noel Coward

8. Shakespeare

9. Brian Clough

10. Liam Gallagher

October 07, 2007

Paul's background

Interesting story from the Telegraph on Paul Merton's family history

Family detective

Nick Barratt's investigation into our hidden histories. This week: Paul Merton

Renowned for his off-the-wall sense of humour on the BBC1 political comedy series Have I Got News For You, Paul Merton is one of Britain's most popular entertainers. This is the story of his family's background.


Paul was born Paul James Martin in Parsons Green, south-west London, in 1957 — on joining Equity he found that Paul Martin was already taken, so he took the name of the London borough where he grew up.

His Irish Catholic mother, Mary Ann Power, returned to work as a nurse after the birth of his younger sister, while his father, Albert Martin, worked as a guard for London Underground. Rather implausibly, Albert's father — also called Albert — is listed as a museum attendant on his son's marriage certificate in 1956, but he appears to have had a number of different jobs during his life, including working as a theatre clerk.

Perhaps his enthusiasm for the stage passed through the genes to Paul.

There certainly seems to be an element of drama surrounding Albert senior's mother, Alice — as well as the parentage of Albert himself. She was born in 1867 as Alice Sawyer, the daughter of a labourer living in Flood Street, Chelsea. She married a postman in 1883 called William Hartley.

The son of a police officer, he claimed to be a year older than her, but he was only 17, while she added two years to her age by stating she was 18. Sadly though, this story of young love had a tragic outcome.

They were together barely two years when William died of a ''chronic inflammation of the brain".

Within seven months of her husband's death, Alice had married George John Martin, who also lived in Flood Street. George was older than Alice — at the time of their wedding at Christ Church, Chelsea, he claimed to be 30 when he was closer to 40.

The couple can be found in the 1891 census with the first three of their six children, Alice, Elizabeth and George. Yet by 1901, Alice claimed to be a widow once more, which suggests that George had died – were it not for several pieces of evidence.

First, Albert Martin was born in 1903 with Alice claiming to be the mother — no father's name is listed. But, in 1901 another family lived with Alice Martin and her six children — her ''cousin" Alexander Lawrence, a 40-year-old widower, and his four children.

It is highly likely that Alexander was the natural father of Albert, a theory strengthened by the fact that Alice and Alexander married in December 1918. The timing of the wedding is of interest, as it comes one year after the death of a George Martin in Chelsea aged 69 — the age he would have been if he had not ''died" prior to 1901.

A search of the national death indexes shows no entry for a George Martin before the date that Alice claimed to be a widow. The most likely conclusion is that the couple separated, and Alice and Alexander married after George's death.


As Paul Merton has admitted in interviews, he was somewhat victimised for being working class while studying at Wimbledon College.

There appears to be little in the family background to contradict the assessment of ''doors to manual".