There are those who find improvisation impossible to believe. It’s rehearsed, they insist. How could a group of five comedians riff seamlessly for an hour without some kind of preparation? How could they find humour from a series of random suggestions from a generally sadistic audience? But I am assured by the master of the genre – Paul Merton – they really do.
When the TV star and his four old friends, one of whom is also his wife, take to the Pleasance stage for the Edinburgh Fringe, they will do so focused but unrehearsed. What, not even a bit of banter to get over a blank patch? No, he reiterates patiently, blank patches never happen with five performers – they’ve simply being doing it for too long. There’s always one of them ready to step forward with a new character or twist in the tale.
“That’s really the great joy for us,” he says, “there is no preparation for it, apart, I suppose, from the preparation of doing it for 25 years.” He’s been bringing this show to the Fringe since 2008 and this time it’s with Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and his wife Suki Webster. Each of the 12 shows will be unique, based entirely on suggestions from the audience.
They perform at 4pm, then have a civilised evening of celebration and dining. He might sit in his patch of garden at his temporary Edinburgh pad with his wife and a cup of tea. It’s hardly the rock-and-roll end of the comedy spectrum, but as he says, “there’s no rule about age at the Fringe, or how many times you can come”. And, yes, he does think he still has a place here because he brings in an audience that may go on to see other, newer acts.
But as the years go on, doesn’t he worry about having nothing ready? “It’s a show that doesn’t exist until you do it, so there’s really nothing to worry about. If you had a really long part to learn, you might worry about forgetting lines. We don’t have that, so it’s the lesser of two evils.” He’s laughing but it’s clear he means it and is still passionate about the type of humour that first brought him fame.
On the other hand, there’s no room for complacency: “When the hour starts you’re there, ready, focused and concentrated; alive to all possibilities. Then there’s a nice social event at the end plus the euphoria of completing the show.”
He’s being modest, and that’s what we have come to expect from one of the most-liked faces on TV. Unassuming, self-deprecating, slightly ruffled and careworn – it’s a genuine persona that has brought him success for over a quarter over a century. These days, he’s mainstream with a capital M but he’s lost none of the whimsy that got him there.
He hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned working at the Employment Office in the Seventies, either. For good improv, he says, you have to know how to listen, and that’s a dying art in some quarters. “I was trained in the art of interviewing by the Civil Service, and it requires listening,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Once upon a time, before Whose Line Is It Anyway? became a hit for Channel 4 in 1988, improvisation was something acting students used to broaden their skills. And there were the early comic pioneers in the States – Richard Pryor, Robin Williams – who amazed audiences with their surreal flights of fancy. Paul Merton was one of those early stars, of course, and it wasn’t long before he was on Radio 4 in Just A Minute and settling into the seat opposite Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You – still his best known role.
These days, he’s mentioned in the same breath as these greats, and alongside peers like Eddie Izzard and Steve Carell. He’s done stand-up and he’s done sketch shows; he’s acted, and he’s followed his passion for travel with television documentaries on India, China and Europe, and early cinema with Silent Clowns – a series about silent comedy. He’s even filled in on The One Show – a bit different from the more irreverent Room 101 that he made his own. His latest series – Birth of Hollywood – aired to good reviews in May and June and marks his move into directing.
“I’m making baby steps towards directing all the time,” he says, “and I’m pleased with the way these programmes turned out. I absolutely adore directing. Like improv, it’s a collaboration with all these other skilled people.”
But whatever new ventures he explores, he still returns to the regular Sunday slot at the Comedy Store Players in London. “If I’m home, I’ll be there,” he says. “I love live performing, particularly this kind. You keep your skills sharp for the TV programmes. And I love Edinburgh. It’s great coming back every year.”
He may have enjoyed a series of good reviews here, but it’s not all good memories. Back in 1987, Merton broke his leg playing football on the Meadows. In hospital he developed a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and followed it up with a dose of Hepatitis A, “from the hospital food, the doctors told me”.
“It was grim but I still went back in ‘88. Now I get the odd twinge walking up hills, particularly in Edinburgh. It’s like my knee has an Edinburgh memory, reminding me what happened – an echo. Or maybe it’s coming home; twitching with enjoyment when it’s near the Meadows!’
It’s a moment of pure Paul Merton surrealism – endearingly familiar – and you realise just how ingrained into the British comedy psyche this unpretentious 53-year-old has become.
Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, Pleasance,
19-27 August, times vary
From £11.50, Tel: 0131 556 6550