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.