Paul James Martin (born 9 July 1957), better known by the stage name Paul Merton, is an English actor, comedian and writer. He is best known as a team captain, opposite Ian Hislop ,on the BBC current affairs quiz Have I Got News For You.
Merton was born on 9 July 1957 in Parsons Green, London to an English father (a train driver on the London Underground) and Mother. When his mother returned to work as a nurse, Merton and his younger sister were looked after by their grandfather, who lived with them in their council flat.
He failed his eleven plus, and famously received an unclassified grade for metalwork at CSE before moving on to Wimbledon College, a Jesuit-run secondary school that had just become a comprehensive. His experience of victimisation there as a working-class boy became a frequent subject of his comedy. After leaving school, Merton worked at the Tooting Employment Office for seven years.
Merton married the actress Caroline Quentin in 1990, but they divorced in 1998. Merton subsequently had a relationship with comedian Sarah Parkinson; they were married unofficially in a service in The Maldives in 2000, they were officially married three months before her death from breast cancer on 23 September 2003.
Shortly before becoming a household name on Have I Got News for You, Merton had suffered a mental breakdown and booked himself into the Maudsley psychiatric hospital for six weeks, about which he has since talked frankly. In an interview with The Guardian he was reported to have been "hallucinating conversations with friends, and became convinced he was a target for the Freemasons".
Merton often claims that he was inspired to go into comedy at a young age watching clowns at a circus, remembering, "I had no idea that adults could behave like that." He gained his earliest professional credits under his birth name, including an appearance as a yokel in an episode of The Young Ones. On joining Equity he found that the name Paul Martin was already taken, so he renamed himself after Merton, the district of London where he grew up.
Though he had harboured serious ambitions of becoming a performing comedian since his school days, it was not until April 1982, at the Comedy Store in Soho, that his dream was realised. He recalls that on only his second or third night he found the dour role that has informed his comic approach ever since.
He has been a member of the London improv group The Comedy Store Players since 1985, and still regularly performs with them.
One of these early routines at the Comedy Store involved the report of a policeman who had been given a hallucinogenic drug. This routine was very popular and went on to be included in his television series. Merton recalls, "I walked all the way home to my bedsit in Streatham. I was on a cloud. And that one night got me through every single bad gig after that — and there were a lot of them. I was so lucky to get that encouragement early on. It kept me going over the next eighteen months of just dying the whole time."
In 1986, while performing in the Edinburgh Fringe, he was mugged while helping a friend put up posters. He was kicked in the head and had to go to hospital. A year later, Merton returned to Edinburgh. His one-man show was receiving very good reviews. However, while playing football with fellow comedians, he broke his leg, and whilst in hospital, he suffered a pulmonary embolism and contracted hepatitis A. He lost the £3,000 he had paid in advance for the theatre and would have been in worse trouble had the Comedy Store not held a benefit for him. "I was getting the reviews of my life — they were saying 'Go and see this man!'", he said. "And I was in a hospital bed. They should have said 'Go see this man and take a bunch of grapes with you'."
In 1999, Merton undertook a stand-up tour entitled "and this is me PAUL MERTON". "I did this show on tour last autumn," he explained to one of his audiences. "I did sixty-eight dates. I did shows all over the place: Liverpool, Dublin, Stoke. Sixty-eight dates, two hours per night. Two hours, and not one laugh."
Merton, speaking to Melvyn Bragg at the former's home, explained: "I hadn't done stand-up comedy for about ten years, and it was like I'd never done it. People had no idea I'd been a stand-up comedian; they thought I was born to sit behind a desk and make quips about the week's news."
His breakthrough as a television performer came as a result of the improvised comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? from 1988 onwards, which moved to TV from BBC Radio 4, although he had previously appeared on Saturday Live, performing stand-up comedy. He remained on Whose Line until 1993. Have I Got News for You started in 1990, and two series of his own sketch show, Paul Merton: The Series, followed soon after. In 1996, Merton performed updated versions of fifteen of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's old scripts for an ITV series, Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson's.... Six of these scripts were previously performed by Tony Hancock. These were very badly received by both critics and public, and although a selection of episodes were initially released on VHS, it was not until June 2007 that the complete series was released on DVD.
Also in 1996, Merton took a break from Have I Got News for You during its eleventh series, making only one appearance as a guest on fellow captain Ian Hislop's team. Merton later explained that at the time he was "very tired" of the show and that he thought it had become "stuck in a rut". Nevertheless, he added that he felt his absence gave the programme the "shot in the arm" it needed and that it had been "better ever since". In 2002, following allegations in the UK tabloids linking the show's chairman, Angus Deayton, with prostitutes and drug use, the host was asked to resign from the show. Merton hosted the first episode after Deayton's departure and was described as "merciless" in his treatment of his former co-star.
In 1999 Merton replaced Nick Hancock as host of Room 101, a chat show in which guests are offered the chance to discuss their pet hates and consign them to the oblivion of Room 101. He hosted 64 editions. In 2007, his final guest was Ian Hislop (himself becoming the first interviewee to appear twice, having also been on an edition with Hancock). Hislop's selections purposely included items that Merton was known to like, such as The Beatles and the films of Charlie Chaplin.
In 1999, Merton starred alongside Ronnie Corbett as one of the ugly sisters in ITV's Christmas pantomime. His other co-stars were Samantha Janus, Ben Miller, Harry Hill, Frank Skinner and Alexander Armstrong.
He was rumoured to be a possible new host of Countdown to replace both Richard Whiteley and his successor, Des Lynam, but decided not to pursue this.
Merton is a keen student of comedy, and particularly the early film comedians. In 2006, BBC Four broadcast Paul Merton's Silent Clowns: a four-part documentary series on the silent comedy craft of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. Merton examined their respective careers, interspersed with moments from a live show in which he presented clips of their work. Among the audience were many children, who were seeing the performers for the first time. Merton took a stage version of this show to the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in late 2007 took the show on a UK tour. A tie-in book was written by Merton and published by RH Books in late 2007. The Independent described it as "clearly a labour of love" but criticised the exhaustive and overly-thorough plot synopses of the films discussed.
Also in 2007 he presented a four-part travel documentary, Paul Merton in China, which was broadcast on Five from 21 May 2007. He has finished filming a new travel series about India.
Merton hosted the British version of improvisational comedy show Thank God You're Here, which premiered on ITV in January 2008, which only lasted one series. He was reported to be taking over as host of It'll Be Alright on the Night, an ITV blooper show, but that role went to Griff Rhys Jones.