I saw Paul Merton once — at Jongleurs in Battersea in about 1989. He was funny, but not spectacularly so — though the success or otherwise of a comic’s set was determined as much by my beer gauge (about five pints imbibed was perfect: a few either side of that mark, and the reception was less than optimum). He was already a star, but has since gone on to become — wait for it — a national treasure, pulling off the remarkable trick of retaining most of his cultish appeal while working extensively right across the mainstream. Like Michael Palin, he seems both ubiquitous and loved, a granny’s favourite who can still show the fangs when he needs to. It’s clear that this oft-lonely, oft-insecure, only child has never had any problem getting people to like him — a rare and precious gift — but that he doesn’t always like himself, nor others.
If that less than earth-shattering revelation about a funnyman emerges from the text, I’m afraid it’s one of the few. Not that it makes for a bad book or a whitewashing whinge or a backstabbing bitchfest. What we get is a narrative of Paul’s outward life. There’s a lot of, “The phone rang and soon I was on my way to a lunch meeting about a new six-part series about which, I confess, I had many doubts but that proved to be one of the biggest hits of the decade”. It’s not short of, “We fell in love and soon we were renting a little / large flat in Streatham / Fulham”. either. How Paul? How?
This absence of introspection (strange in a man who has thought very hard indeed about how comedy is created in the cracks between what the mind expects and what it obtains) is most apparent in the book’s central interlude in which he is falls prey to paranoid delusions brought on by anti-malaria meds (his explanation) and overwork (my speculation) and spends some time in hospital pretty much run on the along the lines of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The horrors of mental illness are described unflinchingly, but, on his discharge, normal life is resumed as if nothing had happened with little more than a footnote that his marriage to Caroline Quentin fell apart soon after.
Enough of the downside — the upside is plenty steep enough. The best parts of the book are those handful of occasions where he drops a gag into the text (though the economy and almost tangible crafting of the joke contrasts with the somewhat pedestrian description of “things happening” that surrounds it). Writing was hard graft, demanding hours of work (often with longtime collaborator, John Irwin) drawing on an immense reservoir of self-acquired knowledge of classic comedy from radio, television and film, accumulated since early childhood. Though often self-effacing, Merton is proud of his work and his awards and not dishonest enough to hide it.
There are also many warm tributes paid to a Who’s Who of British comedy over the last fifty years: Forsyth, Milligan, Galton and Simpson, Hislop, Parsons and many, many more emerge with an enhanced humanity for Merton’s accounts of his dealings with them, especially his waspish sparring partner from HIGNFY. This warmth is most evident when he breaks his leg in an ill-advised football kickabout and loses money on a cancelled Edinburgh run. A starry list of “alternative” comics show that all the previous stuff about the camaraderie on the road was no soft-soaping, as they club together to raise money to settle his debts with a one-off gig.
Come the last page of the book, one can only be satisfied that things have worked out so well for a man who had to swim against the tide so often — no Footlights conveyor-belt to the BBC for him — his domestic and professional lives balanced beautifully in his mid-50s. But there’s still much more to say, more to reveal, depths hinted at but not plumbed — which is, of course, the right of an author — but nags at the reader. One can’t help wondering what a biographer with psychological insight would make of Merton’s mind, a fecund but not entirely comfortable place and how that has carried him on his unique and still unfolding journey. For that we must wait.