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Still clowning around

As a child Paul Merton was certain he wanted to be a clown, he just didn’t know how. Now ahead of another UK tour, the comedian remembers the night which changed his life for ever.

pictures | Rex Features

P aul Merton is feeling a touch rusty.

He spent Christmas and the early part of the New Year wearing a frock. It was his panto debut and while he proved a natural as Widow Twankey, the rigours of the schedule meant he had to give up the Sunday night improv show he has been putting on at the Comedy Store for the best part of 30 years.

Improv has always been Merton’s first love and while he did his fair share of traditional stand-up early on in his career, it never really suited him.

“Recently I was asked to do five minutes of material at the London Palladium as part of a tribute to Bruce Forsythe. I was honoured to do it, but it was the first stand-up I had done for about 20 years and it brought all those old feelings back.

“As a stand-up, if it goes well it’s down to you, but if it goes badly it’s also down to you. Either way, there is no one to share the highs or the lows. I don’t want to labour the image of sad clown, but there is an element of that.

“Improv is a very different feeling. You never have a bad night because if something isn’t working you can immediately change it and if you’re struggling you know someone will step in and rescue you. There are none of those safety nets with stand-up, it’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute, at least not one you have packed yourself.”

Merton is about to go back on tour with his Improv Chums, which include his wife Suki Webster and fellow Whose Line is it Anyway? veterans Mike McShane and Richard Vranch. It is, he says, a bit of a dream gig and if he’d have told his teenage self that at 61 he’d be spending three months a year in tour bus with a bunch of comedians it would have blown his tiny mind.

“I remember being taken to the circus as a small boy and watching the clowns,” he says. “It had never occurred to me that it was a job that adults could even do, but afterwards it was all I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Merton left school still harbouring those dreams, but it was the late 1980s and comics either belonged to the Oxbridge set, who had served their apprenticeship in the Footlights, or they had pulled themselves up from their bootstraps on the northern working men’s club circuit.

Merton, who fitted in neither camp, got a job as a clerical assistant in the Tooting employment office. However, one night in 1982 he found himself at The Comedy Store, which thanks to Alexi Sayle, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson was fast making a name for itself as the cauldron of alternative comedy.   

“It was in the heart of Soho, which is nothing like it is now. It was pretty seedy. There was a large criminal element and a distinct lack of artisan bakers.

“Inside it was equally anarchic. The Comedy Store was known as a complete bear pit. The audience could turn in an instant and every night some poor soul would be bottled off. It was terrifying, but it also felt incredibly exciting.

“This wasn’t like a normal theatre where people sat politely in the stalls and for me it instantly felt like the door of comedy had been wedged open. Anyone could get on stage – they might not get off it alive – but it completely democratised comedy.”

Within a matter of weeks, Merton was waiting in the wings to try out his own material and he soon found the dead pan style that has been his trademark ever since.

“I suppose I had a very working-class approach to becoming a comedian. I thought I’ll give myself a five-year apprenticeship and after that, if it hasn’t worked out I’ll say it wasn’t for me and move on. I knew that not every gig would go well, but I never completely lost an audience. If it hadn’t been for The Comedy Store I’d probably be Paul Merton the civil servant.”

By the time those five years were up, Whose Line is It Anyway? was just about to air on Channel 4 and the show would send Merton on his way to becoming not just a comedian, but a panel show captain, a Just a Minute favourite, a documentary-maker and all-round national treasure.   

It was unlike anything TV audiences had seen before and everyone involved, from host Clive Anderson to the regular comedians like Josie Lawrence, Tony Slattery and Merton, became household names. 

Merton has always been an unashamed student of comedy. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and his childhood love of Laurel and Hardy has never waned.  However, while he honed his own comedy by analysing others, along the way he admits luck has played its part.

“Take Have I Got News For You? It’s become a bit of an institution, but the pilot was pretty disastrous. It was a really hot summer’s day. Nobody wanted to be in that studio, including the audience. It really wasn’t very funny and in another life that would have been that.

“However, for some reason the BBC had already committed to one series and even though the pilot was pretty awful it went on to become a phenomenal success.”

The show also resulted in a long-standing – and perhaps unlikely friendship – between Merton and fellow HIGNY captain Paul Merton.

“When HIGNY started, Ian had just taken over Private Eye from Richard Ingram and I liked what he was doing with it. From the start I thought he was a pretty good guy. I was old enough then to know that not everyone with an Oxbridge accent was a complete twit.”

Paul Merton’s Improv Chums, the Grand Opera House, York, June 1; Leeds City Varieties, June 2.