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

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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.

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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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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 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 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.

Seven of One – One Man’s Meat

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Alan Joyce (Barker) has been put on a strict diet by his wife Marion (Prunella Scales) and is told that he has to last the entire day without any food.  When she leaves he naturally heads straight off to the kitchen, but is appalled to find she’s taken every last scrap of food away.  And heading out to the shops is going to be a problem, because she’s removed all his pairs of trousers too …..

Written by Barker, under the penname of Jack Goetz, it’s not a surprise that One Man’s Meat gives him the (ahem) plum role.  Despite the heavyweight supporting cast – Scales, Sam Kelly, Glynn Edwards, Barbara New and Joan Sims – Barker is by himself for a large part of the episode’s duration.

Scales tops and tails the episode.  It’s nothing to do with the story, but Marion mentions that they’ve recently seen a blue movie at Bill and Nora’s house – this shines a light into the ways that the respectable middle-classes entertained themselves during the 1970’s.  Did they then indulge in a spot of wife swapping?  That would have made an interesting story, but possibly a post watershed one.

There’s more touchstones to the 1970’s as Alan mentions that he plans to fight the flab with Terry Wogan.  He’s too late to catch him though, so has to put up with Jimmy Young instead.  And since JY is delivering his latest recipe it’s all too much (he dunks the radio in the sink).

Although Alan attempts to order a takeaway from a Chinese restaurant (cue slanty-eyed acting from Barker, another moment which helps to date the story) he appears to be unsuccessful.  Presumably there were no other takeaways in the area?  This is something of a story weakness.

His desire for food then causes him to pretend he’s been burgled.  Two policemen (Edwards & Kelly) turn up, with Alan eyeing their trousers enviously.  It’s nice to see Sam Kelly and Glynn Edwards, even if they’ve not got a great deal to do.  I wonder if this small role led to Kelly being cast as Bunny Warren in Porridge?

The inimitable Joan Sims fairs a little better as the Joyce’s housekeeper, Mrs Dawkins.  Barker gives her some good lines which allows Sims to deadpan with her usual skill, ensuring that her scenes with Barker are the undoubted highlight of the whole thirty minutes.  Alas, she don’t appear for very long as Alan decides to steal Mrs Dawkins’ clothes, dress up as a woman and head out to the shops.  When in doubt, drag up, I guess.

One Man’s Meat has a sparkling cast and is a lovely time capsule of the seventies, but, like Alan’s stomach for most of the day, is a rather empty affair.  However if the story doesn’t appeal then you always entertain yourself by counting how many times microphone shadows appear (director Harold Snoad must have been having an off day).

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