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Merton, Paul (1957-)

Actor, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Merton, Paul (1957-)

Often seen as the natural heir to Tony Hancock, specifically his blend of grumpy misanthropy and razor-sharp wit, Paul Merton's long-running stint as team captain on the satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You (BBC, 1990-) has seen him maintain an unusually consistent level of fame for a stand-up comedian and occasional comic actor, despite well-documented personal troubles including ill health and a mental breakdown. He was born on the 9th July 1957 in London, and was christened Paul Martin. (Forced to adopt an alternative when he applied for an Equity card, he chose the South London district in which he was brought up.)

Instead of jumping straight into acting or comedy, he worked at the Tooting Employment Office for a decade, before making his stand-up debut at the Comedy Store in 1982. His first television appearance, still under his real name, came in a small part in an episode of The Young Ones (BBC, 1984). He also proved his credentials as a comedy writer by contributing to Alias Smith & Jones (BBC, 1984). He joined the Comedy Store Players in 1985, and pursued his stand-up career at various Edinburgh festivals before taking part in the BBC Radio 4 improvisation series Whose Line Is It Anyway? (1987). This proved a natural medium for his brand of quick-witted and spontaneous wit, and when it transferred to Channel 4 in 1988, Merton was one of the most regular and popular performers.

His big break came when he joined Have I Got News For You. The early dynamic between him, presenter Angus Deayton and the other team captain Ian Hislop was very cleverly manufactured: Private Eye editor Hislop supplied witty political and social satire, while Merton delivered quick-witted putdowns, often at the absurdity of the programme itself. Aside from a short break that Merton took in 1996 (the programme visibly suffered from his absence), HIGNFY continued in this vein until 2002, when Deayton was embroiled in a scandal involving drugs and prostitutes, and subsequently sacked - though not before Merton had publicly denounced his behaviour, as well as wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the now-notorious News of the World front page about Deayton. Many were surprised that the programme continued, though the initially temporary formula whereby Hislop and Merton were partnered by a series of celebrity guest presenters, proved so invigorating that it became permanent. Merton was nominated for many BAFTA awards for the programme, eventually winning one for Best Entertainment Performance in 2003.

He used the high profile exposure from HIGNFY to take his career in similar but increasingly ambitious comic directions. His headlining television series, Paul Merton, The Series (Channel 4, 1991-3), attempted to harness his brand of surreal humour to a sketch-show format; the results were sometimes intriguing but only sporadically funny. He appeared as a regular contestant on the Radio 4 improvisation series Just A Minute, placing himself in a very English comic tradition that had extended back to the days of Derek Nimmo and Kenneth Williams. He also collaborated with such figures as Clive Anderson and Julian Clary, appearing in the latter's sitcom Terry and Julian (Channel 4, 1992). He made his first relatively straight acting appearance in Arthur Smith and Clive England's comedy-drama An Evening With Gary Lineker (BBC, 1994), but proved more comfortable as a comedian, working on such knowing programmes as Paul Merton's Life Of Comedy (Channel 4, 1995).

He made his connection with Hancock explicit when he starred in the series Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's... (ITV, 1996), which resurrected Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Hancock scripts with Merton in the lead. However, the critical consensus was that the new series added little to the original comedies. His curmudgeonly persona and barbed wit was put to far better use when he took over from Nick Hancock as host of Room 101 (BBC, 1999-), interviewing an assortment of guests about their various dislikes. He made his directorial debut with the black comedy short The Suicidal Dog (BBC, 2000), which he co-wrote and contributed an uncredited vocal cameo.

Over the past few years, Merton has regular participanted in a series of light-hearted television pantomimes, including Aladdin (ITV, 2000) and Dick Whittington (ITV, 2002). His other acting performances tend to be brief cameos and knowing guest appearances, including an episode of One Foot In The Grave (BBC, 2000), although he also voiced the character Dr Dogg in the surreal animation series Rex The Runt (BBC, 1998-2001). He continues to work frequently with the Comedy Store Players, an association that has now lasted for twenty years. More recently, he has explored his passionate love of silent comedy across several media, writing magazine articles, arranging and hosting screenings accompanied by live music, and presenting the BBC4 documentary series Paul Merton's Silent Clowns (2006).

Alexander Larman

* See Paul Merton's Screenonline/BT Interactive Archive Guide to Early British Comedy.

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Thumbnail image of Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)