There’s nothing disappointing about Paul Merton in the flesh. He is quick and funny – not exhaustingly so – but also friendly, thoughtful and fresh in his thinking. The only surprise, as I cannot help commenting when he enters the room, is how tall he is. This greeting comes back to haunt me, however, when he talks about his experience at non-showbiz parties.
“What happens is I have the same conversation all night with about six different people. They’ll say – forgive me – ‘Oh, you’re much taller than I thought you’d be.’ Then they’ll ask, ‘Tell me, are you going to stick with a different host on Have I Got News for You every..?’”
He pauses. “Oh, I hope I’m not pre-empting any questions you might have – ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha – oh, well, I’m in the hole so I might as well keep digging. Then they say, ‘Tell me, how long has it been going on for now?’ and [sneakily] ‘You and Angus Deayton, were you particularly good friends at all?’” A huge laugh at this.
“No way am I moaning about this, I have to say. The show has been going for about 20 years. The Christmas Eve show got something like seven and a half million viewers, so it means a lot to people and I’ll always answer the questions.”
So you believe in being polite? “Oh absolutely, because imagine if the seventh person came across and I were to shout [before they open their mouth], ‘20 years!’ and ‘six foot two!’ Well, there are only so many questions, and to be famous when you’re someone who is funny is a very good thing, because people generally have a big smile on their face when they see you. That’s great, so I wouldn’t change any of that at all.”
The 53-year-old’s popularity means that the BBC gives him the freedom to make programmes about his passions, be it travel or silent movies, Alfred Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin. His latest venture for BBC2 (co-written and co-directed with his third wife, Suki Webster) is a three-part series Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood, to mark Hollywood’s 100th anniversary.
When he was first approached by the BBC – by the same team who made his series last year on the beginnings of cinema in Europe – and was asked what else he fancied doing, his first impulse was to make a film about the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle story, which had bothered him over the years. The team suggested a trilogy, with Arbuckle bookended by the early days of American cinema and finishing with the talkies.
Arbuckle went from being the most successful silent film comedian of his time to a despised public figure, after he was falsely accused of raping and accidentally killing a young unknown actress at a party in his hotel suite in 1921. He endured three very public trials before he was formally acquitted; despite his innocence, his films were subsequently banned. Shortly before his death, from a heart attack at the age of 46, Arbuckle had been poised to make a comeback.
Merton first read of the Arbuckle debacle when he was 12 or 13, “at that impressionable age when it just sinks in, in a deep way. It’s always been in the back of my mind that if someone asks me to make a film, I’d like to do something about it.
“The story is operatic, isn’t it? He was a big man in a world where people weren’t big in those days. And so that marked him out in a good way when he was a jovial comedian that kids loved, but as soon as you create the image of beauty and the beast – him and that thin girl – then you’re in trouble and he was portrayed as the most evil man that the world had ever known.”
Birth of Hollywood is happily punctuated with Merton-isms. In the first episode, there’s an early film of two men dancing together while the narration comments deadpan, “This was before the invention of women.” The series is informative, entertaining and sometimes distinctly sobering.
He shows how DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a racist film based on a racist book, The Clansman, which had the effect of relaunching the Ku Klux Klan. And when there were protests about the film, Griffith was so outraged that his response was to make a film with the defiantly self-deluded title of Intolerance (1916).
Merton’s parents are Roman Catholic Irish; his father worked for the railways and his mother was a nurse. I wondered whether his upbringing left an imprint on him. In the press cuttings, for instance, it’s striking that even when he’s referring to getting off with women, he avoids using demeaning slang. Indeed, he doesn’t swear much at all.
“Well, that’s trying to use language more intelligently, isn’t it? There’s that thing that if you put ‘f***’ into a punchline, the audience is more likely to laugh. That doesn’t mean the punchline is any good. If it’s any good, it should stand on its own two feet, without a couple of bruisers saying, you know, ‘Laugh!’ ”
Conversely, what seems to have inspired him to persevere as a comedian was seeing Alexei Sayle’s “stream of tastelessness”, which was non-stop swearing, “one obscenity after the other, said quickly while dancin’ to a rhythm that only he could follow. I saw it in 1981 when he was playing a tiny, 100-seat theatre and – ahhh – it was just fantastic.”
We move back to the subject of Have I Got News for You. There have now been 41 series since its launch in September 1990. It remains king among panel games, and yet there are people such as journalist and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup who rail against it, saying it demeans women who are there as token foils to the “testosterone-driven” Ian Hislop and Merton.
“Do you think that really applies?” he says. “I think she was put out because they stopped asking her to be on the show because the second time she was on, she wasn’t very good.” Ouch!
Merton prefers the dynamic when there are two women on the show, but his producer says that more women than men tend to decline the opportunity to appear. Sometimes, as he says, there is a woman host – such as Ann Widdecombe – and a woman on the panel.
Now do you actually fancy Ann Widdecombe? A great roar of laughter: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA- HA-HAH! Oh God, I’ve been keeping this secret for so long and now I can unburden myself but, actually, no, I’m not in love with Ann Widdecombe.”
That may be so, Paul, but you do flirt with her. “Do I? Are you mixing me up with somebody else? Are we talking about Ann Widdecombe the former Tory MP and Come Dancer?”
Well, you’re always saying that you think you might be in love with her on the show. “Oh yes, well, I’m probably trying to disarm her by making her feel slightly uncomfortable.”
I think she likes it. “Oh, well, I’d better stop doing it then! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha- ha-ha.”
How about that other famous host of HIGNFY, Boris Johnson? Boris was incredibly funny as the host of the show – with his unique blend of chaos and erudition. It may be, as Merton suggests quite strongly, a fantastic act, but that doesn’t stop it being fantastic.
He tells a damning Boris hair story: “ It’s quite well studied, the whole hair business. I’ve seen him come out of make-up with his hair perfectly combed and 15 seconds later it’s like this [demonstrates mad-Boris hair tufts]. And he’s done it himself.”
Merton used to be shy around girls; now he says he’s shy around people generally: “It always sounds like a bit of a dichotomy – the performer who’s shy. But actually when you’re on stage you’re not meeting people on a one-to-one basis.”
His first girlfriend, when he was in his 20s, passed him a note at a noisy gig with the line, “Do you come here often?”, which tickled him enough to write a note back. Their early courtship was conducted in a series of postcards leading to a date when Merton sent one of Cardinal Richelieu suggesting that they meet under the painting in the National Portrait Gallery.
“It was actually a very good way to start talking to a woman – without the embarrassment of her actually being there.”
So have the women in his life always made the first move? “Ah...” I remember reading that Caroline Quentin, his first wife, had suggested to him that they’d be brilliant together: “Yes, for a limited run. Ha-ha-ha-ha- ha-hah.”
His second wife, Sarah Parkinson, a writer and producer, died of breast cancer shortly after they married.
He and Suki (a comedy actress and writer) had an on-again-off-again relationship but wed in 2009.
Most of their friends seem to be fellow improv comedians – a dozen or so – who make up the Comedy Store Players. Merton still performs at the London club most Sundays to keep his wit quick and finds it essential preparation for his weekly turn on HIGNFY.
The couple tend to eat out at restaurants in London’s Charlotte Street, but he says he’s not really a foodie: “I won’t travel to Cheshire for ox tongue... ha-ha-ha-hah... Now I say that, I can’t think of anything better!”
When I ask if he likes art, he says that he hasn’t really got an eye for it. You did say that Michelangelo’s David turned you on? “Yes, that’s true.” So is there a trace of homoeroticism lurking in Paul Merton? He roars with laughter and then says (boy, is he quick): “You’ll have to ask David!”
Even when the subject is grim – such as discussing his well-known spell in the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in 1989 when he had a manic reaction to anti-malaria pills [since withdrawn from the market] – Merton still sees the funny side. He talks about sitting in group therapy with two men who believed they were Jesus: “I’m sure every ward has got its Jesus. The look’s quite easy to achieve – if you’re a man... bit more effort if you’re a woman - but it’s worth getting the beard.”
As we approach the end of our interview, I ask about his belief system. He says that although he went to church every Sunday when growing up, he never got “the full Roman Catholic whack”, but he’s not in the Dawkins camp of evangelical disbelief: “Sometimes in your life there are moments when it’s comforting to think that there’s something – not a design – but that there may be several different dimensions.
“I know there’s no judgmental thing or damnation, and I don’t believe in the authority of the Catholic priests with their dog collar... no heaven thing – apart from maybe that heaven’s here. But I’m not going to die and end up playing table tennis with Cary Grant and Mozart in heaven, I know that. Mozart would be no good anyway... he wouldn’t know the rudiments of the game.”
And Wagner would probably thrash you? “Yes, you definitely wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him, wouldya?”