Books

Paul Merton’s is the most boastful autobiography in years

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

Has there ever been a nun or a priest who wasn’t a bent sadist? Because here we go again. At school Paul Merton was terrorised by a nun who, in her black outfit with a white band, ‘looked like an angry pint of Guinness’. She walloped the future comedian if ever she detected an imaginative strain in his English compositions. ‘You can’t write about things that aren’t true,’ asserted this believer in the actuality of virgin births and rising from the dead. For stating that Beethoven invented rice pudding and Mozart baked the first crème brûlée, Merton was told he’d ‘poisoned the minds of your classmates with your ridiculous stories’.

Of course, Merton has been poisoning and entertaining us ever since. His formal education further blighted by the Jesuits — who believed that pain could be equated with learning, and that the only way to teach algebra was with the strap — Merton left his secondary school in Wimbledon and joined the civil service in Tooting. That seemed to last five minutes, because without what appears to be any trouble or effort at all, he’s earning £30 a go for stand-up gigs in pubs and clubs across London, often fitting in five performances a night.

Not for Merton the slog of workingmen’s clubs or holiday camps. Nor did he go to university, which is where Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and others of his generation got together. Merton, born in 1957 in Parsons Green, and growing up in a small flat with a grumpy grandfather who had a club foot, visited the Comedy Store in Soho, where the great Alexei Sayle was the compère, and after his first shot at performing before an audience, ‘everything I had ever dreamt about had just happened to me’. He even meets and befriends Julian Clary, ‘a very exciting package’.


He goes on Terry Wogan’s chat show (‘a triumph’). Robin Williams says, ‘You were very good.’ Nicholas Parsons invites him to take part in Just a Minute, as ‘You’d be very good on the show.’ Spike Milligan says, ‘Paul, you are a very funny man.’ Eric Idle goes up to him in Peter Cook’s kitchen and announces, ‘I really enjoyed your television series.’ Merton even quotes at length from his own good reviews (‘Merton is emerging as a comic genius, a one-off maverick’), and it dawns on the reader after a while that this must be the most boastful autobiography to have been published in years, especially when we even have to have an endorsement from the sound-effects man: ‘Our sound-effects man told me that our show was the best pilot he had seen in a long time.’

Only a person who is massively lacking in confidence needs to try and get away with such swanking — and I suspect that Merton, the panel game supremo, a household figure after decades on Have I Got News for You, Room 101, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and so on and so forth, is probably actually rather insecure, as Kenneth Williams was, guilty about being, well, a bit lazy. It’s surely a claustrophobic, hellish life, despite the riches that will have accrued, being a professional smart-aleck. As his attempts at re-making some Tony Hancock scripts demonstrated, Merton is no actor. He is linguistically brilliant, but muffled — when I watch him or listen to him he does seem thoroughly, almost agonisingly, bored.

It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that he has had health problems When he broke his leg he also suffered a pulmonary embolism and caught hepatitis from the hospital food. Describing himself, offstage, as now and again ‘buzzing like an electric tea pot’, on at least one occasion he buzzed altogether too much and ended up incarcerated in the Maudsley psychiatric hospital. This is the best chapter in the book — a candid account of panic attacks and paranoia, when Merton thought he was the victim of a Freemason conspiracy. He endured terrifying hallucinations, when ‘thin transparent worms… created intricately invisible patterns before my unseeing eyes’. Talking rapidly and nonsensically, his high level of agitation was eventually ascribed to a bad reaction to anti-malarial pills, but the experience sounds like the psychodrama of all too many a melancholy clown — Sellers, Milligan, Williams (Robin and Kenneth), John Belushi, Barry Humphries — to be merely or exclusively that.

Merton writes perceptively about the comedians he grew up with. While his contemporaries listened to Bowie, Genesis, Pink Floyd, he watched Keaton and Chaplin films. He adored Morecambe and Wise, Brucie, Tommy Cooper, the Goons, and the end-of-the-pier variety world they came from — Winola and Her Syncopated Snakes, Victor Buffoon: Rib Tickler to Royalty. He also recalls trips to the circus as a child. He was unafraid of clowns, ‘with their custard pies, unicycles and backfiring cars that make the doors fall off and strings of sausages lassoing a man in the front row’. This was the sawdust and tinsel world ‘where I wanted to live’, so I can see that sitting behind a desk trading glum and sarcastic ripostes with Ian Hislop (‘a gentleman in every respect’) is something of a disappointment, and doing Just a Minute for eternity in the basement of Broadcasting House is hardly Bertram Mills.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50, Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • Never mind that the title already belongs to a cheesy Kristy McNichol film (it has to be, doesn’t it? — it stars Kristy McNichol, the other chick besides Tatum O’Neal in another ancient flick I didn’t see, Little Darlings).

  • Guest

    Merton a chirpy London gezza with a sharp wit, never been political his working-
    class humour is more surrealism then iconoclasm, although because he has money and is well educated I suppose he’s middle class now. He works well with Hislop whose brilliant and condescending manner puts sanctimonious lefties in their place.
    Thought the nuns looking like a pint of beer was really funny, I suppose red faced
    bishops clothed in purple looked like decent clarets. I wonder if the bishops and nuns
    ever danced to Handel together in the school pond.

  • WendellGeeStrikesAgain

    I don’t see why being limited to just Have I Got News For You – as this review suggests – is a bad thing at all. Certainly, Merton doesn’t need to feel glum about it – its success is solely down to Merton and Hislop.

    It commands many millions of viewers each episode, and Merton is one of the funniest men alive – which I suppose is one of the reasons why it gains so many viewers. Growing up as a child and watching him on Have I Got News For You was the reason I got into it – his surreal take is something which delights kids and adults alike. As I got older, it was only then I began to realise the contribution that Hislop made!

    I still don’t think there’s a better show to demonstrate comedic ability than that show, and Merton succeeds everytime. To watch him week in, week out is a pleasure.

  • Diggery Whiggery

    “Talking rapidly and nonsensically, his high level of agitation was eventually ascribed to a bad reaction to anti-malarial pills”

    ;-DDDDDD Yeah right, anti-malarials, wink wink nudge nudge.

    Behind the smart-aleck one liners, the emptiness is all consuming, eh Paul.

    • john lyttle

      Why do you sound so pleased about it, if true? Whistling in the dark, eh Diggery.

  • Slats

    Err, harrumph, hate to tell you this Mr Reviewer, but isn’t Paul Merton best known for being a wind-up (as in wind-up toy) merchant?

  • mandelson

    Funny guy but one suspects his overactive comedy brain never stops babbling for a second.

  • Ladies & gentlemen, did you get the not too subtle Marxist attack on Christianity, written in such a way as to ridicule…

    “‘You can’t write about things that aren’t true,’ asserted this believer in the actuality of virgin births and rising from the dead.”

    In fact, ladies & gentlemen, the nun story (no pun intended) is a lie, an excuse to equate Christianity with unreality.

    The reality of the Gospels narratives were known to be fact by Roman subjects outside of Judea and Galilee, otherwise Roman subjects would never have accepted the Gospels’ narratives where (1) a Roman governor allows a charismatic figure such as Jesus (called rebels by Rome) to go about his business for three years with twelve disciples, attracting large crowds; and (2) when Jesus approaches Jerusalem with the mob the governor refuses to stop what Rome called insurrection, and allows the mob to proceed into the city, even though the governor was in Jerusalem since the previous week to prevent just such an action pulled off by Jesus!

    Now you have proof, from an unimpeachable, unbiased source–gentile Roman subjects–that the Gospels narratives are indeed fact.

    • red2black

      She told him he couldn’t write about things that aren’t true, but he showed her he could by doing so.

      • “She told him he couldn’t write about things that aren’t true, but he showed her he could by doing so.”

        Yeah, another obvious lie made up by a Marxist to use as a foundation to attack Christianity. As if anyone would tell another they couldn’t write fiction!

    • monty61

      Yes that really settles it. I’m convinced. Now about those dinosaurs ….

  • Gerschwin

    Increasingly I find him a bore, far too comfortable turning up to do the same TV show at the same tempo he lost his edge years ago.

  • Mick Norris

    weird review. I fear it is more about the author´s issues than Merton.

    • red2black

      The man’s far too ‘BBC’, old chap.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Nothing like a Catholic school to turn you off religion for life.

  • Ros Bayes

    What a miserable review of a book I’m currently thoroughly enjoying. It sounds as though the reviewer doesn’t like Paul Merton, and had decided beforehand to write a bad review before ever picking up the book. One of the things I like about this autobiography is his generous acknowledgement of the people, alive and dead, whose influence has helped him to become one of our best loved comedians. I suggest the reviewer needs to lighten up a bit and get a sense of humour transplant.

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