Paul Merton on how comedy helped him deal with tragedy

Paul Merton
Paul Merton
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With the release of his autobiography, Paul Merton talks to Hannah Stephenson about love, loss and his father’s secret archive.

Paul Merton is part of an ever-diminishing breed.

The 57-year doesn’t use Twitter, hasn’t got a mobile phone and when he sat down to write his autobiography he favoured pen and paper ahead of a computer.

Only When I Laugh begins with his recollections of growing up in a council flat in Fulham. The shy son of a London train driver, showbusiness seemed an unlikely career path. However, after making his debut at The Comedy Store, Merton left his job in an employment office.

“Those three-and-a-half minutes on stage were what my life had been leading up to. The first time I did it, the first time I jumped out of the plane, the parachute did open, not only did it open but I did aerobatics in the sky and landed perfectly on a sixpence in the field.”

While Merton, who will be appearing in Sheffield later this month as part of the Off the Shelf festival, could have filled an entire volume with anecdotes about his career, he doesn’t shy away from the various dark periods in his life, including the the six-weeks he spent in the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in 1990.

He had a panic attack while recording a Christmas edition of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, couldn’t sit still and his heart was racing. He blames the episode on the anti-malaria tablets he’d been taking for a holiday in Kenya, but when he started rambling and crying, telling a concerned friend that he thought he was Jesus, it was time to seek help. Shortly after leaving the hospital, he met actress Caroline Quentin. They were married for eight years, yet he only gives their relationship a brief mention in the book.

“It’s all to do with respecting people’s privacy,” he says. “I didn’t ask her permission to be in the book. I’m careful not to delve into other people’s lives.”

He reveals slightly more in the memoir: “When we first met, I needed support and encouragement. When I grew back into confidence, maybe that changed the dynamic of our relationship. We just grew apart over the course of half a dozen years.”

Further heartache was to follow when his second wife, actress Sarah Parkinson, died from breast cancer aged 41. Again, the space he devotes to this section is brief, but he does say writing and performing helped take his mind away from the grief.

“When you are laughing at something, you cannot think of anything else at that moment. It’s an escape and helps you to feel better at otherwise desperate times.”

He’s now married to actress Suki Webster, who appears with him in his Impro Chums shows and who directed him in a play she wrote for this year’s Edinburgh Festival, entitled My Obsession.

“As long as you enjoy the work you are doing together, it’s fine. If we were making garden gnomes, we might get a bit sick of each other.”

He and Suki are now working on a film screenplay and in the meantime, he’s appearing in the new series of HIGNFY, along with Ian Hislop and a string of different hosts.

Both Merton’s parents died last year, in their mid-eighties. Despite all of his success, he says his father Albert never praised him and rarely went to watch him perform. However, after his death, Merton’s sister Angela unearthed a scrapbook hidden inside his wardrobe which contained every newspaper article, magazine interview and review of his son’s entire career.

“It’s rather extraordinary. I didn’t realise he was cutting everything out of newspapers and the extent of his video library. It was great to see how much it meant to him, but if he was alive now, we still wouldn’t be able to talk about it.”

• Paul Merton, Off the Shelf, Sheffield, October 20.