Merton is on the right track with new series
All aboard! We’re off on our travels with a much-loved comedian. Working out when Paul Merton is being serious can be a funny business – after all, his deadliest moments of wit are often delivered completely deadpan. On Have I Got News For You, it’s his searing remarks that often hit the spot far more than Ian Hislop’s rambling rants. So thank goodness that he decided to give up his day job as an admin clerk at Tooting Employment Office to give comedy his full attention. That was in the 1980s, and he hasn’t looked back since, slowly rising to become one of the UK’s best-loved and most sought-after comedians. “It got to a point when I knew I had to give it a real shot,” he says. “I gave myself five years to succeed. I didn’t want to be one of these people who at the age of 60 says, ‘I could have done it once, but I never really tried’. I thought, ‘I don’t really know if I’m going to be any good at it or not, but at least I’ll spend a few years having a go. And if I don’t get anywhere, then I’ll just stop’.” Merton had a spell on improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway? which gave him an early insight into working on TV, although he didn’t always find the experience enjoyable – particularly appearing alongside highbrow performer John Sessions. “I never knew what he was on about,” admits Merton now. “He would do something in the style of William Faulkner. So I’d do something deliberately prosaic in the style of the Automobile Association manual. I just thought, ‘well nobody knows who William Faulkner is. Or if they do, they’re not laughing very loudly’.” Eventually, after plenty of hard work, Merton became a household name but the road to stardom hasn’t always been smooth. Around eight years into his comedy career, his tendency to be a workaholic got too much for him, resulting in a spell in the Maudsley Hospital. These days he claims to be happy – and that his downbeat TV appearances are largely a front. “I realised that people thought I was a lot more funny when I seemed to be as miserable as sin,” he says. The comedian certainly appears to be as happy as Larry during his Paul Merton’s Secret Stations (Sunday, Channel 4, 8pm). Having fronted three travelogues for Channel 5, he’s off on a merry jaunt again, this time exploring some of Britain’s least-used and smallest railway stations in a series inspired by Dixe Wills’ book Tiny Stations.