Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Clerical Error

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The Vicar and his wife (Geoffrey Whitehead and Sally Giles) are anxiously waiting for their babysitter to turn up.  But since they were expecting a woman, the arrival of Paul – in full wise-cracking mode – comes as something of a shock ….

The Clerical Error first surfaced in Comedy Playhouse back in 1963, with John Le Mesurier, although the 1975 remake, part of Dawson’s Weekly, is probably more familiar to most.  There, Les Dawson played the irresponsible babysitter with John Bird as the Vicar.

The Vicar complains that he was expecting an experienced young woman.  “You should have tried the rent-a-blonde escort service then” says Paul.  Both services are available from the same phone number, with Paul’s mother (“Red Maggie Merton. The finest woman ever to bring down three mounted policeman in one charge. She was the one charging”) running things.

Paul’s character is so utterly horrible (his reassurance to the Vicar that he’s “been responsible for more babies than a nine-year old rabbit” doesn’t really inspire any confidence) that it seems odd anyone would leave him in charge of four children – aptly named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But since the Vicar and his wife are desperate to leave for an important dinner with the Bishop, it was clearly Paul or nothing.  Before they depart, Paul continues to bulldoze his way through their lives, lounging in the living room like he owns the place, asking the Vicar to move the television a little and complaining that the drinks cabinet is locked.  He also mistakes the Vicar’s wife for his daughter.  When he’s put straight on this, he enquires if the Vicar has “being going in for a little bit of font snatching? And why not? There’s many a good hymn come out of a good organ”!

With several hours stretching out in front of him, Paul decides to dress up and puts on a dog collar (as you do) which is the catalyst for several different comedy misunderstandings.  Firstly, an attractive young woman, Sandra Evans (Katy Carmichael), comes knocking.  She’s in a distressed state – her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend has beaten her up (and after she gave her ex-boyfriend the best two weeks of her life as well) – and is clearly looking for succour elsewhere ….

The arrival of two elderly parishioners (played by Rosalind Knight and Daphne Oxenford) only adds to the confusion.  They spy the slightly undressed Sandra (she was hunting for some new clothes to replace her ripped ones) and are shocked and stunned.   Paul’s decision to open the Vicarage up to a group of homeless people (a Christian act true, but not one that the Vicar will appreciate) and the arrival of Sandra’s ex-boyfriend, looking to duff up the Man of God who took advantage of his ex-girlfriend (of course he ends up throttling the totally innocent real Vicar) tops things off nicely.

If you can accept that anyone in their right minds would entrust the care of children to such an unpleasant force of nature, then The Clerical Error is a highly entertaining twenty five minutes.  Katy Carmichael is deliciously tarty as Sandra and Sally Giles is good as the Vicar’s respectable young wife.  Geoffrey Whitehead, as always, is pitch perfect as the unbending and humourless authority figure, although for once it’s easy to sympathise with his character,  nobody deserves a babysitter like Paul.

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