With his T-shirts exhorting us to ‘Drink Creosote’, Merton picked up his biggest audience with BBC2’s BAFTA-scooping panel game hosted by Angus ‘TV’s Mr Sex’ Deayton. Playing (or being) the competitive surly oik to Ian Hislop’s over-educated smartass saw Merton in his element, spitting out the one-liners, taunting Deayton with references to his hairy ears and inevitably winning most rounds. Even when partnered by a tub of lard (Roy Hattersley was unavailable) Merton’s ruthless streak and his fondness for referring to members of the Royal Family as ‘blowsy tarts’ gave him the edge.

‘l’ve always been happy with my ability to come up with spontaneous stuff,’ he says, ‘although the nature of it being ad-libbed is that you occasionally say things you regret. There was one time when there was a picture of somebody, just a member of the public who looked slightly extraordinary, and I said something about them looking odd, which I wish I hadn’t because it’s not really fair having a go at them. The producer always says, if you say anything you didn’t really want to say, we’ll take it out, but they didn’t of course, which shows how much say I have. The producer’s argument was everybody laughed . . .’

Merton is less conscientious about his regular slurs on the Royal Family, although he doesn’t spout the con- ventional ‘alternative comedy’ orthod- oxy about the royals being a pack of inbred parasites. Quite the opposite in fact, as he seems to see himself as an upholder of traditional royal values. ‘I can’t say I’ve ever been a particular fan of Fergie’s,’ he says. ‘She didn’t make a good impression on me during her wedding service when she was walking down the aisle winking at the congregation and giving thumbs-up signs. I think the British people will by and large accept a Royal Family if they behave in a royal way. All this stuff about writing children’s books . . . we know full well she’s not a gifted author, and just cashing in on the royal connection . . .’

At this point he’s beginning to sound like a retired Home Counties major venting his spleen in the Daily Telegraph. This determined fogeyism has always been an element of his style. ‘When I first started doing the cabaret circuit, what ten years ago, everybody was doing right-on topical material, I would do jokes about the Second World War and Churchill and stuff. The intent was just to be different I suppose.’

lt’s helped his crossover appeal to the extent that housewives find him cute (he’s a regular columnist for Family Circle), and younger women have even been known to regard him as a weird kind of sex symbol. ‘I don’t know about the sex symbol,’ he snorts, the voice taking on a familiar querying timbre. ‘Weird I would accept. It’s because I don’t do

Merton is a resolutely untashionable sort of bloke, the kind who not only

still uses words like slacks, but even wears the bloody things.

stuff that frightens people, I don’t frighten the horses. And it’s not aimed at any particular people, it’s just there for anyone who wants to look at it.’

IN AN lRONlC reversal of the usual showbiz trend where panel games are the last refuge for sad, fading celebs on their way down, Merton has become a star pretty much because of them. He regularly joins old codgers like Parsons, Rushton et al on Radio 4 shows I ’m Sorry I Haven ’t A Clue and Just A Minute. ‘The joy of panel shows, ifit’s a good show, is that it takes very little work from me personally,’ he explains. ‘For Have I Got News, me and Ian turn up on the night and an hour later we’re done, so that’s the enormous attraction, as opposed to writing a six programme sketch show, which takes a year.’

There’s a slightly tremulous stress on the last clause, which is as close as Merton will come to saying, ‘Let’s talk about my six programme sketch show for Channel 4 which begins on 3 September.’ His second series for Channel 4 follows the format of the first, a mixture of semi-surreal sketches and routines that, in contrast to the no-nonsense

0f! the mm: ‘0" the entire bulldll' actually!

pedant of the panel shows, is distinctly ofi-the- wall.

‘Well off the entire building actually,’ he says. ‘lt’s difficult to say what it’ll really be like. It’s the same kind of thing. We made mistakes in the first series and I dare say we’ve made a whole new bunch of mistakes in this series. The problem is we won’t find out what they are until later on.’

By that time Merton will be in the middle of a 50—date tour, opening in Edinburgh and visiting most of the huge, hallowed Victorian theatres in Britain. It’s a long way from smoky open-mike spots in the Comedy Store, and Mr and Mrs Doodlebug are dead and buried. Or are they?

‘l’ve been known to do it on the odd drunken

night,’ he says. ‘Funnily enough, the last time] performed on stage, I did a benefit at the Hackney Empire and afterwards somebody came up and complained that I hadn’t done Mr and Mrs Doodlebug. It’s like Bob Dylan can’t get away without doing Blowin’ In The Wind. . .' C] Paul Merton: The Series begins on Channel 4 on Friday 3 September at 10.30pm. His tour opens at Edinburgh King 's Theatre on 26 September; followed by Glasgow Pavilion on 27 and Kirkcaldy Adam Smith Theatre on 28. He performs with the Comedy Store Players at George Square Theatre until 28 August.

The List 27 August—9 September I993 11