Paul James Martin, known professionally as Paul Merton (born 9 July 1957) is an English writer, actor, comedian, radio and television presenter.
Known for his improvisation skill, his humour is rooted in deadpan, surreal and sometimes dark comedy. He was once considered, by some critics, fellow comedians and members of the public to be among Britain's greatest comedians, he is well known for his regular appearances as a team captain on the BBC panel game Have I Got News for You, and as the former host of Room 101, as well as for several appearances on the original British version of the improvisional comedy television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Merton was born on 9 July 1957 in Parsons Green, London, to an English Anglican father, Albert Martin (a train guard on the London Underground) and an Irish Roman Catholic mother, Mary Ann Power.
He attended St Thomas's School, Fulham and St Theresa's, Morden. He then went to Wimbledon College, a Jesuit-run secondary school that was formerly a grammar school and had just become a comprehensive, in a stream for boys who had failed the 11-plus and he received A-levels in English and History. After leaving school, Merton worked at the Tooting employment office as a clerical officer for seven years.
Merton often claims that he was inspired to go into comedy at an early age watching clowns at a circus, remembering, "I had no idea that adults could behave like that." He gained his earliest professional credits under his birth name, including an appearance as a yokel in Time, an episode of The Young Ones in 1984. On joining Equity he found that the name Paul Martin was already taken, so he renamed himself after Merton, the district of London where he grew up.
Though he had harboured serious ambitions of becoming a performing comedian since his school days, it was not until April 1982, at the Comedy Store in Soho, that his dream was realised. He recalls that on only his second or third night he found the dour role that has informed his comic approach ever since.
His breakthrough as a television performer came in 1988 with Channel 4's improvised comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which moved to TV from BBC Radio 4, though he had previously performed on the channel's Saturday Live and compered its series Comedy Wavelength in 1987. He remained on Whose Line until 1993. Have I Got News for You began in 1990, and two series of his own sketch show, Paul Merton: The Series, followed soon after. In 1995 he presented a documentary series celebrating the history of the London Palladium, entitled Paul Merton's Palladium Story. In 1996, Merton performed updated versions of fifteen of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's old scripts for an ITV series, Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson's.... Six of these scripts were previously performed by Tony Hancock. These were very badly received by critics, and although a selection of episodes was initially released on VHS, it was not until June 2007 that the complete series was released on DVD.
Also in 1996, Merton took a break from Have I Got News for You during its eleventh series, making only one appearance as a guest on fellow captain Ian Hislop's team. Merton later explained that at the time he was "very tired" of the show and that he thought it had become "stuck in a rut". Nevertheless, he added that he felt his absence gave the programme the "shot in the arm" it needed and that it had been "better ever since". In 2002, following allegations in the UK tabloids linking the show's chairman, Angus Deayton, with prostitutes and drug use, the host was asked to resign from the show. Merton hosted the first episode after Deayton's departure and was described as "merciless" in his treatment of his former co-star.
In 1999 Merton replaced Nick Hancock as host of Room 101, a chat show in which guests are offered the chance to discuss their pet hates and consign them to the oblivion of Room 101. His first guest was Hancock. He hosted 64 editions. In 2007, his final guest was Ian Hislop (who became the first interviewee to appear twice, having also been on an edition with Hancock). Hislop's selections purposely included items that Merton was known to like, such as The Beatles and the films of Charlie Chaplin. Hislop's final choice was Merton himself, done to represent his departure from the show. Merton cast himself in the room to end the show, although on the condition that Hislop would go in with him.
Merton is one of the recurring stars from the 4 ITV Pantos. His best role came in 1999, where Merton starred alongside Ronnie Corbett as one of the ugly sisters in ITV's Christmas pantomime of Cinderella. His other co-stars were Julian Clary, Samantha Janus, Ben Miller, Harry Hill, Frank Skinner and Alexander Armstrong.
In the same year, to coincide with the launch of his first stand up tour in 10 years, and this is me...Paul Merton, he was given his own one hour South Bank Show special. The show charted his beginnings in the comedy business, to the development of his improvisational skills, his mental breakdown, and the popularity of Have I Got News For You.
Merton is a keen student of comedy, particularly the early silent comedians and in 2006, BBC Four broadcast Paul Merton's Silent Clowns, a four-part documentary series on the silent comedy craft of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. Merton examined their respective careers, interspersed with moments from a live show in which he presented clips of their work. Among the audience were many children, who were seeing the performers for the first time. Merton took a stage version of this show to the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in late 2007 took the show on a UK tour. A tie-in book was written by Merton and published by RH Books in late 2007. The Independent described it as "clearly a labour of love" but criticised the exhaustive and overly-thorough plot synopses of the films discussed.
Also in 2007 he presented a four-part travel documentary, Paul Merton in China, which was broadcast on Five from 21 May 2007. His second travel series, Paul Merton in India was transmitted from 8 October 2008 on the same channel. A third series, Paul Merton in Europe began broadcasting on 11 January 2010, again on Five. In 2015 he was commissioned by More4 to present Paul Merton’s Secret Stations, a travel documentary series about Britain’s smallest railway stations inspired by travel writer Dixe Wills' book Tiny Stations.
Merton hosted the British version of Thank God You're Here, which aired on ITV in 2008.
In 2009, Merton directed and presented a documentary on the British films of Alfred Hitchcock, in a series of star-presented documentaries on BBC Four. In May 2010, Merton temporarily co-presented The One Show for two weeks on Thursday after Adrian Chiles left the show.
His three-part documentary series Paul Merton's Birth of Hollywood about the early history of Hollywood was broadcast in May 2011 on BBC2. In Merton's third TV series for 2011, Paul Merton's Adventures, he travels around the world going on popular tourist trails, but still manages to find some extraordinary things.
In the late 1980s, Merton appeared on BBC Radio 4's The Big Fun Show. After long-time Just a Minute panellist Kenneth Williams died in 1988, Merton (a fan of the show) contacted the producer at the suggestion of the host, Nicholas Parsons. He was invited to participate during the following year and has appeared regularly on the programme ever since. Merton has become regarded as the stalwart of the show, in the same league as the former, much-lamented "Big Four" panellists Clement Freud, Kenneth Williams, Derek Nimmo and Peter Jones.
Besides his work on Just a Minute, Merton was a semi-regular guest on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue from 1991 to 1998. Between 1993 and 1995, Merton was among the regular cast members on the Radio 4 improvisational comedy series The Masterson Inheritance. In 2000 he presented Two Priests and a Nun Go into a Pub, in which he interviewed British and Irish comedians who had (like Merton himself) been brought up as members of the Roman Catholic Church. In 2009, Merton started a Radio 4 series in which he reads Spike Milligan's war memoirs in an audio-book fashion.
Merton married actress Caroline Quentin in 1990; they announced their separation in April 1997, which was followed by divorce in 1998. Merton subsequently had a relationship with producer and actress Sarah Parkinson; they were married unofficially in a service in the Maldives in 2000. They were officially married three months before her death from breast cancer on 23 September 2003. He married fellow improviser Suki Webster in 2009.
Shortly before becoming a household name on Have I Got News for You, Merton booked himself into the Maudsley psychiatric hospital for six weeks, because of psychiatric problems caused by the malaria medicine Lariam. In an interview with The Guardian he was reported to have been "hallucinating conversations with friends, and became convinced he was a target for the Freemasons".
He used the Maudsley episode as a key framework in his 2012 tour, Out of My Head. He gave many examples of his experiences there, conversations with staff and fellow inmates were played out as sketches with his fellow performers, Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson and Suki Webster. He stated that, during his time at the Maudsley, he was simultaneously appearing in Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Channel 4.
Acclaim and awards
In a 2007 public poll featured in The Guardian, Merton was voted alongside the likes of Oscar Wilde, Spike Milligan, Noël Coward and Winston Churchill as one of the ten greatest wits of all time. The Comedian's Comedian, a 2005 Channel 4 poll of fellow comedians, saw him voted among the top twenty greatest international comedians in history, with host Jimmy Carr crediting him for being "responsible for more great lines than Angus Deayton's dealer." The Observer's "The A-Z of Laughter", a 2003 special compiled by expert judges which featured the 50 funniest acts in British comedy by letter, applauded Merton for "bringing to Have I Got News for You a genuine surrealism that cuts through the clubbable smugness."
Merton has accumulated multiple awards and honours. After seven BAFTA Award nominations for "Best Entertainment Performance", he finally won the award in 2003, defeating fellow Have I Got News for You star Angus Deayton, who had been dismissed from the show the previous October. He has since been nominated for a further three awards – a total of eleven nominations – including a nomination for his travel documentary Paul Merton in China. Merton's appearances on Have I Got News for You have seen him nominated for five British Comedy Awards, winning the 1992 "Top TV Comedy Personality" and 1999 "Best Comedy Entertainment Personality" awards. He has also shared a further three British Comedy Awards with the panel and crew of the show, winning "Best new TV comedy" in 1991, "Best comedy gameshow" in 1999 and "Best Comedy Panel Show" in 2009. He received the 2004 Broadcasting Press Guild Award for "Best Non-Acting Performer", also for his work on Have I Got News for You.
Merton has written or co-authored six books:
- Julian Clary; Paul Merton (12 October 1989). The Joan Collins' Fan Club. ISBN 978-0-333-49926-9.
- Paul Merton (15 September 1993). Paul Merton's history of the twentieth century. ISBN 978-1-85283-570-5.
- Paul Merton (7 October 1996). My Struggle. ISBN 978-0-7522-0353-9.
- Paul Merton (23 October 2007). Silent Comedy. Random House UK. ISBN 978-1-905211-70-8.
- Paul Merton (25 September 2014). Only When I Laugh: My Autobiography. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-194935-8.
- Tara Conlan (27 July 2007). "Merton plans ITV improv show". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 9 December 2009.
- "The A-Z of laughter". Guardian Unlimited. London: The Guardian. 7 December 2003. Retrieved 10 September 2006.
- "Cook voted 'comedians' comedian'". BBC News. 2 January 2005. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
- Aidan Jones (15 October 2007). "Genius declared: Wilde tops the wit list". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
- "Merton, Paul (1957–)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 2 September 2011.
- Angela Wintle (17 October 2014). "Paul Merton: My family values". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
- Barratt, Nick (6 October 2007). "Family detective". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2 September 2011.
- Paul Merton (25 September 2015). Only When I Laugh: My Autobiography. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-194935-8.
- White, Jim (21 August 1992). "Tell us another one. Or just tell us the same one all over again". London: The Independent. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
- Barbara Ellen (9 January 2005). "Barbara Ellen meets Paul Merton | | guardian.co.uk Arts". London: Arts.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- "Thank God You're Here | ITV Entertainment | Paul Merton biography". Itv.com. 9 January 2008. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- Stuart Jeffries (16 February 2016). "Paul Merton on Just a Minute: 'Our worst contestant? Esther Rantzen'". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
- "Comedy Store Players". Comedy Store Players. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- The Very Best of Have I Got News for You (2002): DVD commentary
- "Show goes on after Deayton exit". BBC News. 1 November 2002. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- "No Room for Merton". Chortle. 2006-12-09. Retrieved 9 December 2006.
- Pickard, Anna (19 August 2008). "Filling Richard's shoes from Guardian Unlimited: Culture Vulture". London: Blogs.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- "Entertainment | Holmes and Aspel lead Lynam race". BBC News. 3 October 2006. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- Jury, Louise. "Paul Merton: Have I got laughs for you". The Independent. London. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- "BBC Four: Paul Merton's Silent Clowns". BBC. Retrieved 21 May 2007.
- Cook, William (15 November 2007). "Silent Comedy, by Paul Merton". The Independent. London. Retrieved 12 January 2008.
- "Paul Merton in Europe". Five.tv. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- "Paul Merton, station master: Comic takes to the railways for new documentary". www.chortle.co.uk. 8 July 2015. Retrieved 11 July 2015.
- Merton and Hislop extend their rivalry on BBC4. The Guardian. 12 September 2008
- Clement Freud on Just a Minute: A Celebration, BBC Radio 4, 26 May 2009
- Lynn Barber (29 October 2000). "Paul Merton interview: fears of a clown". The Observer. London.
- Kevin Maguire (28 March 2012). "Inside the mind of Paul Merton". mirror.co.uk. Retrieved 25 September 2012.
- "The Comedian's Comedian". The Comedians' Comedian. Episode 1/1. 1 January 2005. Channel 4. Introduction by Jimmy Carr.
- Noah, Sherna (18 March 2008). "Cranford dominates Bafta nominations – News, Film & TV". London: The Independent. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- Paul Merton – Awards at IMDB
- "Gavin and Stacey scoops TV BAFTAs". BBC News. 20 April 2008. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- Barratt, Nick (6 October 2007). "Family detective – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. London: TMG. ISSN 0307-1235. OCLC 49632006. Retrieved 5 September 2013.
- Wallaston, Sam. "Sam Wollaston talks to Paul Merton | Stage | The Guardian". theguardian.com. Retrieved 5 September 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Paul Merton.|
- Paul Merton at the Internet Movie Database
- Paul Merton Official Website
- Paul Merton at bbc.co.uk
- Paul Merton at Comedy Store Players website
- Interactive video talk by Paul Merton on early British silent film comedy for the British Film Institute
- Paul Merton's Impro Chums at Edinburgh Comedy Festival