Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Lunch in the Park

lunch

Geoffrey Tupper (Merton) and Sarah Tiptree (Josie Lawrence) are both trapped in loveless marriages and for the last ten years have met in the park each day for lunch.  It offers them a small release from the anguish of their home lives and there’s nothing to suggest that today will be different from any other.  But things end up taking a surprising turn ….

Lunch in the Park, along with Visiting Day and Sealed with a Loving Kiss, was broadcast as part of the first series of Comedy Playhouse.  Back in 1961 Stanley Baxter and Daphne Anderson played the park-bench would-be lovers.  Unfortunately all of the shows from the first series of Comedy Playhouse – apart from The Offer – have been wiped, so there’s no way to compare and contrast.

The most noticeable thing about this episode is that there’s no laugh track.  This is probably because – deliberately – Lunch in the Park is not terribly funny.  Galton and Simpson resisted the temptation to throw in many gags, instead there’s more of a straight-play feel as Geoffrey and Sarah’s characters are slowly drawn out.

We learn that Geoffrey works for the Ministry of Defence and has a bed-ridden wife, whilst Sarah is married to a lorry-driver who possesses a very limited culinary palate.  Their chat is of a very inconsequential nature – Geoffrey frets that something might have happened to Sarah because she wasn’t waiting for him (she’s always there first).  When she does arrive – just two minutes late – talk turns to weighty topics such as how difficult it is to get all the shopping done, especially when the shops shut early.

Geoffrey then remembers the time when, as a child, he went shopping for his mother.  He bought eggs and then potatoes in that order, which ensured that the eggs were crushed.  Sarah asks if his mother was angry but Geoffrey has only good things to say about her.  “She was a very kind woman my mother. She’d never hit me. Not once in her whole life. She used to get me father to do it. She wouldn’t look, she used to go out the room, she couldn’t bear violence. She used to say ‘you wait till your father comes home’ and then she’d tell him. And then she’d have to go out because she didn’t like to hear me screaming.”

Moments like that make it obvious to see why a studio audience wouldn’t have enhanced this one.  There are laughs to be had elsewhere – Geoffrey offers Sarah a bite of his apple, but warns her to look out for a worm – but the general tone isn’t comedic.  Galton and Simpson had already tried this on occasions with Tony Hancock – the classic radio episode Sunday Afternoon at Home being a good example.  Back then they weren’t scripting gags, it was inconsequential character interaction and pauses (a risky thing to do on radio) which made the episode work.

Merton and Lawrence are excellent, as they were in Sealed with a Loving Kiss.  Merton dials down his usual persona, presenting Geoffrey as a kindly, thoughtful man whilst Lawrence’s Sarah is also shown to be a thoroughly decent type.  Right up until the end it’s uncertain where this is heading – will they depart with a promise to meet again tomorrow or will something definite happen?  Galton and Simpson elect to take the latter option and it finally becomes clear that the whole episode has simply been the setup for the final thirty second punchline.

That took a great amount of nerve.  To make the payoff effective it was important not to even hint such a conclusion was possible, meaning that the episode had to maintain its humdrum course.  There’s a certain amount of irony to be had from the fact that some online reviews of this episode found people bailing long before the ending, complaining that nothing was happening.  If they’d made it to the end they might have understood what G&S had intended.

Does it work?  Yes I think it does, but even if it didn’t, it was well worth trying.  It’s an atypical effort from the Galton & Simpson catalogue, but one which I’m glad was dug out to conclude the series.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Being of Sound Mind

sound-01

Following the death of Enoch Merton, his family meet for the reading of his will.  Paul is astonished to discover that the man he believed to be his uncle was actually his father, and is further shocked – and delighted – to learn he’s been left Enoch’s fortune (some five hundred thousand pounds).  There’s one caveat though – Paul is currently single, but the will demands that he gets married within seven days.  If he doesn’t then Enoch’s fortune will go to a cat’s home ….

Being of Sound Mind was originally broadcast as part of Dawson’s Weekly in 1975, where it was titled Where There’s A Will.  Les Dawson took the main role whilst Roy Barraclough played Evelyn.

Before Paul arrives, we observe the rest of his family – two warring sisters and their husbands.  Freida (Toni Palmer) and Arthur (Brian Murphy) run a motorway café famed for its terrible hygienic reputation.  An example is provided by Freida’s sister, Fanny (Pamela Cundell), who recalls the time that a lorry driver found a mouse inside one of Freida’s pies, but asked for it not to be taken away as it was the first bit of decent meat he’d seen in her establishment!  Fanny’s husband, George (Reginald Marsh) agrees with her wholeheartedly.

It’s nice to see Brian Murphy again and Reginald Marsh (a familiar sitcom performer but someone who could also turn his hand to drama – The Plane Makers, for example) is another welcome addition to the cast.  It’s just a pity that they’re overshadowed by their respective spouses – Freida and Fanny are clearly the dominant hands in both their marriages.  Palmer and Cundell deliver rather broad and unsubtle performances, but thankfully Merton, Murphy and Marsh are on hand to deliver the odd decent putdown to them.

Being of Sound Mind is an episode of two halves.  Part one features Paul, his relatives and the solicitor (Geoffrey Whitehead) whilst the second half sees Paul set out in his quest to find a partner – and quick.

He rolls up to a computer dating agency where he gets into a conversation with Evelyn (Sam Kelly) who’s also waiting patiently to be fixed up.  Evelyn flatters Paul by telling him that he should have no trouble finding a partner.  This is an excuse for Merton to throw in a few digs at his Have I Got News For You co-stars, replying that whilst he’s not as handsome as Angus Deaton at least he’s taller than Ian Hislop (“but then again who isn’t? A pigeon’s taller than Ian Hislop”).

There’s an odd tone from then on.  Given the slightly overpowering interest that Evelyn pays to Paul it seems possible that Evelyn will turn out to be gay.  And when Evelyn turns up at Paul’s door – as his date – this seems to be the way the story will develop.  But no, it’s just a glitch in the computer system – Evelyn had been incorrectly logged in the system as a woman.

Paul is just preparing to turn him away when it’s revealed that Evelyn runs the cats home where Enoch’s money will end up if Paul doesn’t marry.  So Paul decides that romancing Evelyn is now his best option …..

Not only is it an incredible coincidence that Paul would run into the possible recipient of Enoch’s fortune, there’s also something a little off about the way he suddenly decides to seduce Evelyn, especially since Evelyn’s looking for female company.  Although Kelly is less camp than Roy Barraclough in the original, it’s still rather jarring.  You could be generous and say that it might have worked in the seventies, but two decades later it doesn’t play well.

As I said, this  is very much a tale of two halves.  The first has some decent byplay, but the second really doesn’t work.  It wasn’t effective back in 1975 and without a major rewrite it suffered the same fate in 1997.  Something of a damp squib, even with all the comic talent onboard.

sound 02.jpg

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Suit

suit

Howard (Merton) and Penny (Katy Carmichael) have spent the evening together, but while they were sleeping a burglar broke in and stole Howard’s suit.  It’s now well past midnight and Howard has to return home to his wife (played by Louisa Rix).  But how can he do so when he’s dressed only in his underwear?

The Suit was originally broadcast in 1969 as part of Galton and Simpson Comedy (just released on DVD from Network) with Leslie Phillips and Jennie Linden as the lovers.

One of the interesting things about PM in G&S …. is the fact that the scripts were, obviously, written for a variety of performers.  Some – like Hancock – were a pretty close fit for Merton’s persona, but others – like Phillips in The Suit – are much more of a stretch.  Leslie Phillips always excelled at playing louche womanisers and it’s plain that (mixed metaphor ahoy) The Suit fitted him like a glove.  It’s slightly harder to accept Paul Merton as a philander though, just as it wouldn’t have been a role which would have suited Tony Hancock.

When Penny mentions how she’d earlier viewed Howard (“suave, sophisticated, unruffled, debonair”) it’s something of a stretch to reconcile this mental image to Merton.  But if we do accept him as a devastating babe magnet, once his trousers are removed he reverts to a much more frantic type.  Penny, puffing on a cigarette, isn’t too much help – now viewing Howard with an air of disfavour.  He’s had his way with her and now he’s attempting to make a speedy exit (or would do, if only he could find some clothes ….)

If we can swallow the central premise of a burglar stealing clothes (true, he does also pinch a few reasonable trinkets, like a watch and a ring), then there’s a decent farce at work here.  And the way that the suit makes a late reappearance, to ensure that Howard receives his well-due comeuppance, is a nice moment.

Carmichael is once again excellent (she’d also played Sandra in The Clerical Error).  After Howard is stripped to his underwear he’s also reduced in stature – which allows Penny to take the dominant role.  And it’s Carmichael who really drives the episode along, partly because Merton seems a little adrift, but also because Howard’s written as a rather ineffectual character.

The Suit may not be top-notch G&S, but Leslie Phillips was still able to make the most of the material back in 1969.  Paul Merton wasn’t as successful, but there’s still some laughs to be had along the way.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Visiting Day

visiting-01

Paul’s been laid up in hospital for six weeks with a broken leg.  During that time he’s not had a single visitor, despite the fact his parents only live a short tube trip away.  But when they do finally make an appearance (played by Lynda Baron and Brian Murphy) it’s more of a curse than a blessing ….

Visiting Day formed part of the first series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in 1962, Bernard Cribbins played the bed-bound patient with Betty Marsden and Wilfred Brambell as his insensitive parents.  But aficionados of the radio incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour will be aware that it was based pretty closely on a 1959 HHH episode.

The major change was replacing Sid and Bill (the visitors in the radio version) but otherwise a hefty early section was lifted pretty much verbatim.  G&S would later acknowledge that the freedom of writing Comedy Playhouse (new characters and scenarios each week) had ironically turned out to be rather restricting.  So it’s possible that with no new ideas forthcoming they were content to rehash something which had previously worked well.

As with the original HHH, we open with the unwilling patient subjected to a flannel wash from a friendly nurse (Nicole Arumugam).  It’s in preparation for visiting day, but Paul really doesn’t see the point – he’s not had any visitors so far and doesn’t expect this to change today.  He may profess to be not at all bothered, but there’s something rather dark about the way he’s been isolated and rejected.

His part of the ward is bare – no cards, flowers, fruit or other presents.  Although strictly speaking that’s not true, he does have one present – a bar of soap – plucked off the hospital Christmas tree.  That he was hospitalised during Christmas with no visitors or presents (apart from the bar of soap) is a slightly tragic touch.

The radio version is fairly melancholy too, but at least there it’s only Tony’s friends who have forgotten him.  On television, the fact that his parents have found numerous reasons not to visit (chief amongst them, says Paul, are the EastEnders omnibus and bingo) is a remarkably bleak detail.

Lynda Baron’s mother is a monstrous creation.  Overbearing and selfish, she effortlessly steamrollers her husband, played in typical hen-pecked fashion by Brian Murphy (hardly letting him get a word in).  It’s Baron who dominates the latter part of the episode, especially when she gets into conversation with Mrs Thompson (Anne Reid), visiting her husband in the next bed.

Earlier we’d seen Mrs Thompson pay a solicitous visit to Paul, prior to his parents arriving, concerned that yet again he was all on his own.  This was another scene lifted from the radio episode, albeit with the odd change (on radio she’s frequently attempting to press biscuits on him, on television it’s bananas).  Reid is perfect as a kindly, solicitous, but rather irritating woman.

Visiting Day is hard to love, mainly because Lynda Barron’s character is so awful and insensitive.  But its depiction of the despair that visiting days in hospital can sometimes bring is well observed – it’s one of those universal themes which has hardly changed over the years (from the original in 1959 to this version in 1997).

visiting-02

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds

burt

A family holiday in Spain is blighted for several reasons.  Firstly the weather is appalling and secondly they find themselves having to entertain an incredibly annoying neighbour (Paul).  He’s popped by just as they’re settling down to watch a film and Paul, uninvited, joins them.  When Paul is convinced that the bit-part actor standing behind John Wayne is Burt Reynolds, despite all their protests to the contrary, he won’t let it lie.  Instead, he goes to extremes in order to prove he’s right and they’re all wrong ….

I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds was originally broadcast in 1977 as part of The Galton & Simpson Playhouse, with Leonard Rossiter playing the insufferable know-it-all.  I took a look at it here.

Changing the location to Spain was a slightly pointless move which doesn’t really add anything to the story (it’s an entirely studio-bound piece, taking place in one room).  Since he’d already played Nicholas Craig, Nigel Planer is perfectly cast as Gavin, a “resting” actor whilst there’s another part for Jim Sweeney, one of Merton’s fellow Comedy Store Players.  Sweeney plays Steve, Maria McErlane is his wife Jill whilst Jean Haywood has some nice comic lines as the grandmother (complete with a whistling hearing-aid).

This is another case where the remake doesn’t really add a great deal to the original.  As with Hancock, Rossiter’s shoes were large ones to fill and Merton never really captures the same sense of mounting hysteria that Rossiter excelled at.  But although he lacks Rossiter’s manic intensity, Merton still manages to make his character a profoundly irritating one – simply by the dogged way he is calmly prepared to contradict the others.

No reversal daunts him.  Burt isn’t listed in the TV Times, well not all the actors were, were they?  He doesn’t feature on the end credits, still not a problem.  There’s only one way to solve this once and for all, and that’s to phone Hollywood and speak to Burt direct.  Amazingly he gets through, but he’s not at all pleased when Burt denies he was in the film.  Of course, Paul can’t accept that and has to beg to differ ….

The ending’s rather flat.  The credits roll and the argument continues with Burt (as in the original).  The difference is that Rossiter was apoplectic by this point, whilst Paul is merely a little put out – and because he doesn’t sound too bothered the studio audience only responds with a few half-hearted titters, so we don’t close with a pleasing crescendo.

I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds is a fairly thin piece that’s totally dependant on the lead actor.  Leonard Rossiter was able to take it by the scruff of the neck and wring every last comic drop out of it but Paul Merton’s style wasn’t really suited to the same sort of full-throttle attack.  Amusing but inessential.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Wrong Man

wrong

Paul, visiting the police station to report a flying saucer, agrees to do his civic duty and take part in an identity parade.  The only problem is that three independent witnesses become convinced he’s the guilty man ….

The Wrong Man was the sole series two script to be adapted from a Hancock episode (series four, episode ten, broadcast on the 6th of March 1959).  Because no recording of it exists, it would have been new to the majority of the audience and therefore, unlike the ones tacked in the first series, wouldn’t be overshadowed by a familiar original.

A significant amount of retooling was done, so it’s interesting to read the HHH script to see exactly what changes were made.  Sid’s character was totally deleted (although some of his later dialogue was given to one of the other members of the identity parade who joins up with Paul in an attempt to prove his innocence).  The original features a lengthy opening scene with Tony and Sid at home, playing various games.  Following Snakes & Ladders, Sid suggests they try a card game but Tony, wary of Sid’s cheating ways, isn’t sure (unless it’s something like Snap or Happy Families).  The arrival of a policeman, asking if they’d attend an identity parade, then moves the story onto the more familiar ground we see in this adaptation.

The Merton version opens with Paul arriving at the police station by himself.  He’s come to report a flying saucer to the desk officer (Roger Lloyd Pack).  The policeman asks if it came from outer space.  “No, from next door’s kitchen window. Closely followed by a teapot, a saucepan and a wok. This has got to stop. Every time they have a row I get bombarded. I possess more of their wedding presents than they do.”

This two-handed scene takes up most of the first five minutes, with Lloyd Pack deadpanning delightfully.  Along the way there’s time to slip in various digs at the underfunded nature of the modern police force (the security camera has been stolen, although it doesn’t really matter as the monitors were pinched the previous week).

Upon entering the identity parade, Paul spots a menacing looking character.  He’s convinced that it’s the criminal, but instead it turns out to be the Inspector (Nicky Henson).  Henson’s the latest quality actor to grace the series and wisely he decides not to milk the comedy, playing it straight instead.  I’m not entirely sure why he’s dressed like he’s stepped out of 1940’s Film Noir though (raincoat, hat, etc).

The line-up has a bizarre mix of people, who are all different ages, heights and weights.  This is never commented upon, but the oddness is plain to see.  Lurking amongst the disparate characters are the familiar features of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.  A lovely little in-joke.

Once the first witness has identified Paul unhesitatingly it’s plain how things will play out.  We know there’s two more witnesses, and whilst Paul is convinced they’ll clear his name, the wiser viewer knows that the opposite is bound to happen.  Part of the comedy here comes from the anticipation, with the viewers being a few steps ahead of Paul and the others.

That they’re all convinced he’s guilty makes no sense at all, especially when the real criminal – who naturally enough looks nothing like Paul, is captured at the end.  Credibility is stretched to breaking point after it seems that wherever Paul goes in an attempt to clear his name (such as the cinema to find a witness who’ll provide him with an alibi) someone will pop up to accuse him of yet another crime he wasn’t involved in.

This makes it hard to take the episode that seriously, but since there aren’t too many opportunities to see remakes of the missing episodes of HHH (even if this one has undergone major changes) it’s still a more than interesting curio.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Clerical Error

clerical 01.jpg

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.

clerical-02