Paul Merton Takes a Break From Quickfire Repartee to Champion Silent Comedy and Set the Record Straight About His Life, Loves and ‘Madness’
By The Catherine Deveney Interview
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?” r
Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns is at the Filmhouse (0131 228 2688, www.filmhousecinema.com) from Friday until August 16, at 2pm; Impro Chums is at the Pleasance (www.edfringe.com), from Friday until August 23, at 4.30pm
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