This took nerve. The Bedsitter is a daunting challenge for any performer – a twenty five minute solo performance where there’s nowhere to hide and no-one else to take the pressure off. The Hancock original was simply sublime, one of the Lad’s finest half hours (well, twenty five minutes, to be strictly accurate).
Throughout this first series it’s been noticeable that Paul Merton really comes alive when he’s playing opposite good actors. Reacting to others is one of Merton’s strengths (a reason why he’s a natural on panel games such as Have I Got News For You) whereas it’s harder to imagine him as a successful stand-up comedian, since the solo spotlight isn’t really his forte. The fact that his comedy credentials were formed as part of a team – the Comedy Store Players – supports this observation.
Given this, I approached The Bedsitter with a little trepidation. Could Merton pull it off or would it be another pallid remake? Read on …..
Like some of other adaptations, this was a slightly weird viewing experience, mainly because some of the cultural references have been updated but others are left intact. So Paul still sings Coward’s A Room With a View (this can be taken as an ironic comment on his surroundings of course). His crooning of Maurice Chevailer’s Louise seems a little more out of place though.
Musings on the nature of bicuspids (“two swearing teeth”) and his inability to penetrate the works of Bertrand Russell are left intact and come over well. One noticeable difference comes mid-way through when Paul looks out the window. In the original, Tony stares out and we see a world of pain behind his eyes whereas Paul essays only mild irritation.
This is probably the main difference between their two approaches – Hancock was so good at expressing despair (possibly tapping into his real life melancholic nature) whilst Merton, whose performing persona wasn’t too dissimilar to Hancock’s, offers a more buoyant outlook on life. When Paul receives a wrong call and tells the lady on the other end that he’s a resting artiste, you get the sense that despite the fact he’s out of work and living in a crummy bedsit he still believes that things will turn around.
The remainder plays out pretty much as per the original, even the television set with the dodgy aerial (given the antiquated nature of the bedsitter this doesn’t jar too much). Paul’s less than impressed with the number of repeats, although the BBC2 programme with Stephen Hawking (Bronowski in the original) is more to his taste.
He might clear up that theory he was postulating in his book. If I fell into a black hole a thousand light years away, my son would be fifty four, I’d be thirty five, and my dad would be ten and a half. Nah, he must be up the spout there.
It’s an obvious ironic touch that Paul, the failed intellectual, after singing the praises of Hawking, attempts to watch something rather more low-brow – a Western.
Once again, it’s hard to imagine this production supplanting Hancock’s original in many people’s affections, but it was a more than credible effort. It was the final show in the first series and when PM in G&S’s … returned the following year, 1997, for a second run, the seven episodes adapted were much more obscure examples from the Galton & Simpson catalogue.