Everybody knows Paul Merton. He's the Have I Got News For You? team captain, who has rarely missed an episode since its debut, and throughout its run of over 400 episodes! But what you may not know is that Paul Merton has always been acting and performing sketches, usually in live stage shows. But it was in Paul Merton: The Series where he first brought that to television.
Paul Merton, like many great comedians, began his career performing Fringe shows, which he did with his childhood friend John Irwin. They then embarked on a radio series that they had written together: The Big Fun Show, which began on Radio 4 in 1987. It was a sketch show of sorts, which marked the start of a long-time collaboration between Julian Clary and Merton. Other big names he worked with included Tony Hawks and Josie Lawrence. This was the blue print for what eventually became Paul Merton: The Series.
In 1988, Merton debuted on TV with the Channel 4 TV adaptation of Whose Line Is It Anyway? The following year, he became team captain on Radio 4 panel show series Just A Minute, a position he still holds to this day! He also embarked on another series with Julian Clary, a kind of satirical game show called Sticky Moments.
However, throughout this time, Merton and Irwin had been working on Paul Merton: The Series. Following these successes for Merton, the show was finally commissioned. However, as he detailed in his autobiography, just months before filming, he decided to take a holiday to Kenya over the Christmas period. He called this decision ‘one of the worst of his life'.
After returning from his holiday, Merton began to experience strange side effects due to the antimalarial pills, which eventually led to a stay in Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital. Paul Merton: The Series was postponed, while he concentrated on his recovery.
The show was broadcast in 1991. It follows the classic stand up/sketch show format, which, was experiencing a resurgence in the 90s (most notably with Vic and Bob). Paul Merton plays a version of himself, who runs a kiosk in an underground station, which may have been a homage to his father’s occupation as a London Underground tube driver.
From the kiosk, he performs stand up, and this stand up cleverly mutates into sketches as various customers come to his shop. The most famous and surreal of these was the man with the dolphin head. These pieces would frame the sketches, which were all original 'one-offs' with the exception of a few, such as the 'Golden Years of Hollywood' segment, which featured my favourite joke - ‘McIntyre was a workaholic, drinking several bottles of workahol a day’ - and the recurring gag of the man with a rabid dog attached to his foot, who hobbled into various sketches in true Python style.
In fact, the sketches were very Phythonesque. A lot of them remind me of Monty Phyton’s ‘The Funniest Joke in the World' sketch in style. Perhaps it was the fact that some of the sketches took on a long narrative, becoming mini epics as opposed to the classic setup of one set per short sketch. These sketches would often spill out into Paul’s world in front of his kiosk. That was the best thing about the show: Paul’s constant attempts to subvert the sketches, frequently breaking the forth wall in order to critique what was happening - most notably in one of my favourites, the submarine sketch:
Paul Merton: The Series is one of my all-time favourite sketch shows, mixing surreal and classic humour seamlessly. Watching it now, it doesn’t feel a bit dated.
Just like The Big Fun Show, Paul Merton: The Series was written by Paul Merton, alongside John Irwin, who also acted in the show with Neil Mullarkey, Robert Harley (Green Wing) and most famously Ben Miller, with a few cameos by Caroline Quentin.
So what happened to Paul Merton: The Series? It ran for two series on Channel 4, and was repeated on the now defunct cable channel Paramount Comedy UK throughout the 90s, which is where I remember watching it as a child. During the production of the show, Merton landed his biggest gig, which is the one he is most famous for today: team captain on Have I Got News For You? The rest is history.
Paul Merton: The Series was another show that inexplicably failed to be commercially released, never coming out on VHS or DVD. However, you can watch it through Channel 4’s catch-up service All4 for free and I really hope that you do! It’s a fantastic show, and in my opinion it should stand alongside the classic sketch shows. It doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, but if you go and watch it now it won’t remain so! Innit Marvellous?
Written by Rhianna Evans