Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Twelve Angry Men

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The rather unwieldy titled Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s …. aired for two series during 1996/97.  The fifteen episodes cherrypicked both familiar and unfamiliar scripts from Galton & Simpson’s impressive back catalogue, with series one leaning heavily on adaptations of classic Tony Hancock shows.

Five of the eight series one episodes were based on Hancock material.  This one, The Radio Ham, The Missing Page, The Lift and The Bedsitter.  These choices no doubt helps to explain the rather muted critical reception the series received.  Tackling five comedy classics is asking for trouble –  since it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to match, let alone surpass, the originals.

It’s puzzling why they chose these ones.  Any G&S series had to include some Hancock, but it might have been better if they’d gone for less iconic picks (any of the missing episodes would have been obvious choices).   Possibly this had been taken onboard by the second series – only one episode was adapted from a Hancock script and it was a pretty obscure one.

Merton first came to prominence with the Comedy Store Players.  Their brand of improvised comedy lead directly to C4’s Whose Line is it Anyway? and R4’s The Masterson Inheritance.  He also found time to star in his own sketch series (imaginatively titled Paul Merton – The Series) between 1991 and 1993 and has been a regular panellist on Have I Got News For You since the series launched in 1990.

Merton wasn’t an experienced sitcom performer, which might explain why the supporting casts were so strong.  Sam Kelly, Geoffrey Whitehead, Michael Fenton-Stevens, Anne Reid, Jim Sweeney, Josie Lawrence, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Michael Jayston, Gary Waldhorn and Brian Murphy all appear in multiple episodes (often playing different characters – a very Hancockian touch) whilst an equally impressive list of performers make one-off appearances.

So let’s take a look at the first episode, which aired on the 26th of January 1996, Twelve Angry Men.

With the passage of nearly four decades, there’s numerous small topical references which have been retooled – for example, Paul regards the proceedings as the spit of Rumpole of the Bailey, rather than Hancock’s The Verdict Is Yours.  A few new gags are popped into the courtroom scene, which sound more like Merton than G&S.  This surreal exchange between Paul and Sam, for example.  “You know, my mother once changed a fillet of salmon for a pair of shoes. Well she had to pay the difference of course, well her feet were bigger for a start.”

Sam Kelly takes on the role played by Sid James in the original.  Kelly was no stranger to the world of sitcom (Porridge, Allo Allo!, On The Up) and is characteristically rock sold here. He’d appear in another four episodes of PM in G&S’s … and is great value each time.

There’s plenty of other familiar faces on show.  Peter Jeffrey plays the increasingly exasperated judge to perfection whilst Gary Waldhorn and David Daker spend the courtroom scene sitting directly behind Paul and Sam.  Waldhorn and Daker don’t have any dialogue until the action moves into the jury room, so during the first five minutes they have to be content to steal the attention of the audience with a glance or a facial expression.  And since both are old pros it’s hard not to find your eye drawn towards them ….

Daker is the farmer pining for his livestock, Waldhorn the company director fretting about losing money, whilst Geoffrey Whitehead is the juror most opposed to Paul’s increasingly bizarre flights of fancy as he continues to argue that John Harrison Peabody must be innocent. Another juror picking up a few lines is a young Rob Brydon, in one of his first television roles.

“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

As a Hancock fan, I’ve no doubt Merton relished delivering one of the Lad’s most famous monologues, although it’s fair to say that the Magna Carta line only receives a polite response from the studio audience.  Clearly they were weren’t Hancock aficionados.

A credible effort with Merton impressing.  It didn’t hurt that he was surrounded by talent though and whilst the original remains a comedy classic, this 1996 remake is more than watchable.

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Impasse

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Two cars meet in a narrow country lane.  One will have to back up and give way, but neither Dave (Merton), driving a Volkswagen Beetle, nor Mr Ferris (Geoffrey Whitehead), behind the wheel of a Bentley, are prepared to give any quarter.  So a tense battle of nerves begins ….

The original version of Impasse was broadcast during the second series of Comedy Playhouse in 1963. Bernard Cribbins and Leslie Phillips were the implacable motorists, whilst Yootha Joyce and Georgina Cookson played their long-suffering wives.  Here, Tilly Vosburgh is Dave’s wife, Kirsty, whilst Phyllida Law plays Mr Ferris’ spouse.

You might expect the script to lean towards the side of Dave, the little man facing off against the rich and privileged Mr Ferris, but that’s not really the case at all.  Both are shown to be equally pig-headed and unlikable (it’s plainly no coincidence that they treat their wives in pretty much the same way – badly).

Mr Ferris has decided that Dave’s truculence is due to class envy, but maybe Dave just likes a fight.  They nearly come to blows a little later, although their fight is more notable for the way each circles around the other, throwing punches in the air.  It rather brings to mind a similarly non-contact scrap between Hancock and Sid in the classic radio HHH episode The Last Bus Home.

Just as you get the sense that the comic potential has been wrung out of this scenario, then help – in the form of an AA Man (Sam Kelly) turns up – shortly followed by an RAC Representative (Denis Lill).  Kelly and Lill are just as good (if not better) than Merton and Whitehead, with the AA Man standing firmly behind his member, Dave, and the RAC Man equally steadfast in defending the interests of his member, Mr Ferris.

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but it’s a joy to see the quality of the casts in this series.  It’s fair to say that Vosburgh and Law have little to do – although they do have a nice scene (not present in the original) where they’re able to pour scorn on their respective husbands. This leaves the field open for the two squabbling male sides to dominate proceedings and it’s amusing that the AA and RAC representatives carry on exactly the same sort of one-upmanship we’d previously seen from Dave and Mr Ferris.

The late arrival of a policeman (played by Roger Lloyd-Pack) who finally solves the impasse is another bonus.  The sting in the tail – the winner of the battle finds he is forced to back up anyway – brings events to a satisfying conclusion.  And unlike the original this benefited from being shot on location, rather than in the studio.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Radio Ham

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Given how highly regarded Galton & Simpson’s final television series for Tony Hancock has always been, it’s no surprise that three episodes were adapted for series one of PM in G&S’s ….  Possibly the only surprise was that they didn’t tackle The Blood Donor – maybe they felt that one was just too iconic.

The Radio Ham has always been inexorably linked to The Blood Donor though, by virtue of the fact that both were re-recorded by Tony Hancock for LP release.  And because the only way to relive classic comedy performances in the pre-VHS days was via record or cassette, for decades the re-recordings of The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham were one of the few ways you could experience classic Tony Hancock.

So for a generation, or two, you can guarantee that many would know The Radio Ham virtually word by word – which means that a remake has to pass a fairly stern test ….

Neatly, there’s an explanation provided at the start to explain why Paul, in the mid 1990’s, is mucking about with equipment so antiquated that it requires new valves.  It’s ex-Army surplus (which possibly was extracted from a WW2 Lancaster).

Apart from the odd cosmetic touch like this, the script remains pretty much as it was.  So Paul has to run the gamut with his uncomprehending friend in Tokyo (“it is r raining not here also”), carry on long-distance games of chess, poker and snakes and ladders, whilst organising trays of bread pudding for ex-pats in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s interesting that they kept the moment where Paul puts on a cod Japanese accent, all the better – he hopes – to get through to his friend in Tokyo.  It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been snipped out, but no, it’s present and correct.

Merton seems a little stiff to begin with, especially when he’s by himself.  Once he starts interacting with the voices on the radio, things pick up a little – especially when all his dreams come true and a May Day distress call starts broadcasting …..

Michael Jayston is suitably frantic as the misplaced mariner, but there’s still something missing here.  It’s competent enough, but maybe because I’m so familiar with the Hancock original this version can’t help but feel a little second best.  In an ensemble piece, like Twelve Angry Men, the load can be shared, but in The Radio Ham, where Merton is on-screen by himself for most of the duration, it’s impossible not to remember how skilled Hancock’s performance was in the same piece.

By comparison Paul Merton is competent, but somewhat lacking.  Direct comparisons are invidious, but when you’re remaking a comedy classic they’re sadly inevitable.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Sealed with a Loving Kiss

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Arnold (Merton) and Primrose (Josie Lawrence) are carrying on a passionate, albeit long-distance, affair by post.  The only problem is that they’ve yet to meet and both have been rather economical with the truth.

Arnold, a coalman by trade, has rechristened himself Damon, a hard-working brain surgeon who drives a Porsche whilst Primrose is Michelle, an international model often to be found in the pages of Vogue.  Both exchange photographs (not of themselves naturally) which means that when they finally come face to face confusion is bound to reign ….

The original Sealed with a Loving Kiss was broadcast in 1962, during series one of Comedy Playhouse, with Ronald Fraser and Avril Elgar as the two would-be lovers.

Comedy and melancholy often sit side-by-side in Galton & Simpson’s material – countless examples can be found in their most famous works (Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe & Son).  Hancock and Harold were classic under-achievers, constantly knocked about by an uncaring world that seemed not to even notice they were there.

This same theme is deftly developed here.  Both Arnold and Primrose are perfectly nice people who live respectable lives, but there’s clearly self-esteem issues which have made them take refuge in fantasy.  We never learn precisely what makes Primrose tick, but Arnold’s neuroses are laid bare in part one.

Arnold still lives with his mother (an excellent turn by Rosemary Leach) who has sabotaged his previous relationships and now seems to relish telling him that he’s too old to get married.  After all, who would look twice at him?  Merton really seems to spring to life when he’s acting opposite quality players and sparkles here.

Both Arnold and Primrose are disappointed that their dates (Michelle and Damon) haven’t turned up, so they decide to have a cup of tea in the railway station café.  Merton and Lawrence, both members of the Comedy Store Players, had a long performing history, which helps to explain why they’re so comfortable in each others company.  Lawrence displays a pleasing vulnerability and both combine to clearly touch the hearts of the studio audience (whenever you hear an “awww” from the audience, you know you’ve struck gold).

After the disappointment of The Radio Ham, we’re on firmer ground here.  No doubt helped by the fact it was a much more unfamiliar piece, we feel more invested in the fates of Arnold and Primrose, especially when they decide to eschew their fantasy lives and embrace the reality in front of them.

Packed with nice touches (for example, when Primrose reads Arnold’s letter, the voice she hears is that of the urbane Michael Jayston) Sealed with a Loving Kiss is a series one highlight.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Missing Page

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Paul’s latest book from the library, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, has him gripped all the way to the final page.  Or it would have done if it was actually there.  The last page is missing, which leaves both Paul and his wife Caroline (Caroline Quentin) desperate to know whodunnit ….

Another Hancock evergreen gets the 1990s remake treatment.  Most of the topical references are naturally updated (although it’s pleasing that Paul, just like Tony, admits to having read Biggles Flies East twenty seven times).

Patrick Barlow is good as the long-suffering librarian who crosses swords with Paul whilst it’s also nice to see James Bree as one of the shushing members of the library.  It’s noticeable that the section where Tony mimed the plot of another of his favourite books was excised.  Maybe this due to timing issues (these episodes, since they were broadcast on ITV, only ran for twenty five minutes as opposed to the thirty minutes of most of the originals) or it could have been that Merton decided he’d never be able to top Hancock’s performance.

The most obvious change, of course, was replacing Sid with Caroline.  Merton and Quentin were married at the time, so it wasn’t surprising that an episode was crafted which showed them as a couple.  She’s aggressive (becoming apoplectic when shushed in the library) and sarcastic – it’s easy to believe that both Merton and Quentin had a hand in crafting their on-screen relationship (which possibly mirrored real-life).  For me, she’s rather one note – I would have preferred Sam Kelly to carry on with the Sid role, as he did in Twelve Angry Men.

Jim Sweeney, an old colleague of Merton’s from the Comedy Store Players, has another small role (this time as the last man to read the book, who’s still upset that he doesn’t know whodunnit!).  Previously he’d walked on as one of the two policeman at the end of The Radio Ham.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this one, and it certainly zips along nicely, but as with The Radio Ham it feels slightly redundant.  When the original is so good, there’s little reason for it to exist.  And updating it to the mid nineties does rather stretch credibility to breaking point.  The information super highway might not have been as wide then as it is now, but the Internet was certainly in existence, so why not use it?  And some of the logical flaws inherent in the original are carried over.  If Paul has read every book in the library countless times, why does he have no knowledge of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards?

A diverting enough twenty five minutes, but it can never hope to eclipse the original.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way

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Kevin (Merton) and Joyce (Gwyneth Strong) are saying goodbye to their old house.  Kevin can’t wait to see the back of it, but Joyce just can’t let go.  This is something of a problem, because the new occupants are due any minute.   And then Joyce locks herself in the toilet and refuses to come out ….

Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way was adapted from an episode of The Galton & Simpson Comedy, broadcast in 1969.  If the release date doesn’t slip again, the series will be out shortly from Network, so it’ll be interesting to see how Jimmy Edwards and Pat Coombs fared in the same roles.

This is an odd little tale.  By 1969 many of Galton & Simpson’s best days were behind them, although they weren’t a totally spent force – some excellent episodes of Steptoe still lay ahead (along with some pretty average ones it must be said).  The premise here feels rather unnatural (as does the sight of Kevin returning to the house, sleeping bag in hand, quite prepared to sleep outside the bathroom door – oblivious to the fact that the newlyweds have just moved in!)

One of the biggest laughs from the studio audience comes earlier on when Kevin tells Joyce that if she doesn’t get out soon then “that four-eyed twit and his flat-chested wife will be here”.  Matthew Ashforde and Emma Cunniffe (David Jason and Jacki Piper in the original) as Gordon and Avril do the best with the material they have, but it’s fairly thin.

Sam Kelly and Anne Reid fare rather better as Gordon’s parents.  They’ve come round to inspect the house and Gordon’s father is far from impressed – woodworm, rising damp and a woman locked in the toilet.  It’s not the ideal way to spend your first day of married life ….

Merton’s less central in this one than in some of the other episodes.  Understandable, since the Hancock episodes were built around the central performance of Tony Hancock, whilst Don’t Dilly Dally is more of an ensemble piece.  He has some choice moments though, such as when he invites himself to join Gordon, Avril and Gordon’s parents for dinner!

The final punchline (the location of Kevin and Joyce’s new house) is a gag that falls a little flat.  This is probably because, like the central premise, it doesn’t feel terribly plausible.  You can’t fault the cast, but you can fault the script.  Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way is something of a lesser pleasure from the Galton & Simpson catalogue.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Lift

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The Lift is one of the best Hancock adaptations from series one of PM in G&S’s ….  Partly this is because of the supporting cast – Michael Fenton Stevens as the oily producer, Sam Kelly as the truculent lift man and the always reliable Geoffrey Whitehead as the Air Marshall, amongst others.

The episode keeps the same location (a television studio) although it’s no longer the BBC, instead we’re at the rather obviously made-up Alpha Television (why they didn’t simply call it Carlton is a bit of a mystery).  As in the original, the queue for the lift slowly grows and as each new person appears they press the button, no doubt under the impression that no-one else would have thought of it!

Paul’s rather taken with an attractive secretary (Sheridan Forbes) who’s joined the queue, but she’s immune to his charms, preferring instead to bask in the glow of a producer (Fenton Stevens), who can’t help but modestly mention all the top shows he’s involved in.  Also present and correct is Paul’s baiting of the Air Marshall, here he’s taunting him to press the lift button.  “Go on, pretend it’s a rocket. You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you? Go on, five, four, three, two, one …”

Also waiting patiently is Peter Jones as the Vicar.  He’s probably best known as the Voice of the Book from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although that was just a small part of a long and distinguished career.  Having a comedy great like Jones onboard is yet another reason why this one is so enjoyable.

A few tweaks are made to bring it up to date.  The lift man from the original is replaced with a maintenance man (lift men were clearly a thing of the past).  Also, the producer has a mobile phone with him – although he keeps quite about it for a while!

Anne Reid ramps up the hysteria as a woman suffering from claustrophobia (“that’s a handy thing to have in a lift” says Paul cheerfully).  From Paul musing about how there won’t be enough oxygen left for everyone in the future (“the man with the biggest hooter will survive”) to his attempts to keep the others entertained with parlour games, there’s plenty to enjoy.

A fine ensemble piece.  Whilst the original is a classic slice of comedy, this version is not too shabby at all.

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