Tag Archives: Peter Cook

Only When I Laugh

paul merton

Only When I Laugh
By Paul Merton
Ebury Press – £20.00

Paul Merton is without doubt, the funniest man on radio and television at the moment. Also the wittiest – and has been so for a number of years.

The rate at which something inventive and hilarious will suddenly leap forth into his most colourful, idiosyncratic imagination, is astonishing, inspiring and more often than not, absolutely nothing short of simply brilliant.

In other words, Merton is a modern day Groucho Marx – a comparison I’m sure the south-London comic will embrace with all the acute, gazelle like speed of cathartic wonderment – which says a lot considering generational difference and the fact that the former was born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan the latter in Parson’s Green.

But that’s comedy for you, a place where there are no rules and there are no parameters.

A place where only the resonance of laughter, and the all resounding connection of which that fundamentally entails, matters: ”That night in the big top I heard the sound of massed laughter, and that buzz, once tasted, is forever with you. From that night on I wanted desperately to be part of it all. To be in the ring, to be in the middle, to be part of the creative spirit that sparks people into laughter. This is where I wanted to live.”

This is why I wanted to read Paul Merton: My Autobiography – Only When I Laugh; as I’ve always been compelled to find out more about what essentially makes comedians tick. And I don’t mean the vast array of five-minute wonders; the totally unfunny toss-pots, that have always (and continue to) litter the comedic terrain with all the smug and pointless gallantry that’s comparable to cement.

I mean the true geniuses like the aforementioned Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Peter Cook – of which Merton is clearly one.

As for this book, well its 334 pages are written in chronological order and they touch on varying facets of Merton’s life. From his early years in Fulham to what sounds like a resoundingly strong work ethic; from both romantic and professional relationships to his all round approach to comedy writing.

It’s twenty-three chapters bequeath a flavour of what it’s like to be Mr. Merton.

Admittedly, there are times when certain areas of the writing appears to merely skim the surface of what really transpired, but then that’s Mr. Merton’s prerogative. The degree to which he wants to regale readers with personal or work orientated information, is for him, and him alone to decide. Although in chapter 13 (‘Woof Woof Boom’), he translucently shoots from the hip so far as the execution of stand-up comedy is concerned:

”I had full houses every night and always strove to be at my best for the people who had paid to see me. And yet. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Listening to myself onstage talking for an hour was boring to me. I used to pray for somebody else to walk on. A comedy butler played by a Comedy Store Player. A bit of human interaction.

I loved the impro shows with The Comedy Store Players. In comparison, stand-up felt like I was drawing in pencil compared to the lush Technicolor pastures of group work. After all my effort, all the dreams I’d had, the awful truth started to dawn on me – I didn’t want to be a stand-up comic anymore.

It’s not that I didn’t like stand-up. I love it, it’s a true art and one I’d spent a lot of time getting good at. But when I thought back about the moments I’d enjoyed, most of them were more about the camaraderie than comedy.”

In itself, this is somewhat revelatory. Although given Merton’s particular brand of comedy, utterly understandable – as are many other segments of Only When I Laugh.

An altogether terrific book, which I have to say is (on occasion) candid, poignant, and rather lovely.

David Marx

Establishment and Meritocracy


Establishment and Meritocracy
By Peter Hennessy
Haus Curiosities – £7.99

There’s a really apt quote that Peter Hennessy refers to in this altogether incisive essay, which does much to highlight the differing twain betwixt the smokescreen compliance of ‘the haves,’ and the all imbued, British induced myopic silence of the ‘have-nots.’

In the second chapter of ‘Revival and Rise,’ he refers to William Cobbett’s 1953 The Thing: ”Trotsky,’ he began, tells how, when he first visited England, Lenin took him round London and, pointing out the sights, exclaimed:’That’s their Westminster Abbey! That’s their Houses of Parliament!’… By them he meant not the English, but the governing classes, the Establishment. And indeed in no other European country is the Establishment so clearly defined and so complacently secure.”

Here. Here. Try telling that to a deeply entrenchend, over subscribed Daily Mail reader, and you’l be heckled out of the country faster than a rastafarian at a UKIP Convention For The Reconcilliation Of Goodwill.

There again, Hennessey – who is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, has always been in prime posession of a nigh unrivalled knack, of politicaly telling it as it is.

There mere fact that Establishment and Meritocracy has been written in memory of Michael Foot, speaks volumes of both a finely attuned wit, as well as that of a gesture of resouding good will. That it’s also peppered with a menagerie of corking one liners (‘The Establishment is the present-day institutional museum of Britain’s past greatness,’ ‘if England were out of the game, the price of fish would not be altered by a farthing,’ ‘I’m not a landower, I’m a brain owner,’ ‘We need to re-discover our heart. If we want to avoid moving into a new ice age of humanity we must give more weight to reasons of the heart,’ ‘knowledge translates directly into power; love translates into service’) should come as absolutely no surprise.

As not only is Hennessy a Fellow of the British Academy, he’s exceedingly well versed in the value of satire, which is made resoundingly clear in the very first chapter, ‘The Twin Themes’: ”]…] the Establishment has brought much joy and humour as the perfect tethered goat for satirists. This has been particularly true since the early 1960s when that great genius among satirists, Peter Cook, founded The Establishment Club in Soho for the purposes of nightly lampooning amidst the rich opportunities presented by the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan as it proceeded to decay like a ripe stilton.”

Establishment and Meritocracy is a cloying, cleansing, and so far as the powers that be are concerned, calamitous read. It sets the record straight in much the same way as it’s musical cousin, ‘Eton Rifles’ by The Jam; which, if memory serves, is one of David Cameron’s all time favourite songs.

The fact that he’ll probably (once again) miss the point entirely of course, can only continue to lend itself to a canon like lack of sublime meritocrical understanding in the first (tragic) degree.

David Marx