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A warm and gentle kicking

After Alan Partridge, a fragrant little old lady with fangs. By Martin Kelner
Life can be cruel. On the draft press release listing the guests in a new series of BBC 2 chat shows, Dave Lee Travis's name has been crossed out and replaced by Mr Motivator's. "A slightly bigger name with more audience appeal," explains produce r PeterKessler who has to make these nice distinctions. Clearly, this is no celebrity A-list, nor even a B-list. This is the Whale-list - people whose semi-fame is assured only as long as television continues through the night.

Cynthia Payne, Ken Livingstone, Mandy Smith, Kriss Akabusi, Mary Whitehouse, the list is... well, not endless. It probably ends at Dale Winton, the host of Supermarket Sweep, and reportedly one of the hits of the series, The Mrs Merton Show, which starts

on Friday on BBC 2. If you thought every ounce of post-modern fun had already been extracted from the world of semi-celebrity, this might be the show to make you think again.

Mrs Merton is a lavender-scented little old lady from suburban Manchester with a handbag full of boiled sweets, who looks like she has strayed into the host's chair from the studio audience for Countdown, the kind of woman whose main comic function, if she weren't presenting a chat show, would be to say something dotty to Alan Bennett at a bus stop. It is this apparent artlessness that enables Mrs Merton to administer to her guests what script editor Henry Normal describes as "a warm and gentle kicking".

In the first programme of the series, she asks Debbie McGee: "What first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?" and continues, "I think of you and Paul as like Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield, but on a lower budget. I've seen David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear, and I've seen your Paul do the same with the eight of clubs." When Ken Livingstone describes for her his feelings towards Blair, she says: "No, I mean Lionel Blair."

This is not, of course, entirely virgin territory. Mrs Merton's creator, Caroline Aherne (now Caroline Hook) of The Fast Show, is the first to acknowledge a debt to Dame Edna. Mrs Merton, though, has a breezy Mancunion earthiness that is some distance from the Housewife Superstar. That earthiness - though Hook collaborates with Henry Normal, who also co-writes with Steve Coogan - is mostly a reflection of her own gut instincts. Mrs Merton evolved a long way away from the comedy establishment.

The character began nine years ago merely as a voice on an LP by fellow Mancunion comic Frank Sidebottom. I invited her to expand the character on Radio 2 in a spoof agony aunt format. Typical Mrs. Merton advice included, on preventing burglaries, "If you are going on holiday, put a big advert in the local paper saying you will be away for a fortnight. It alerts your neighbours to keep a watch on your house while at the same time letting them know you can afford a holiday," and, to Donna, a 13-year-old who wrote saying she was obsessed with Michael Jackson, "It's no good sitting at home, moping about him. Find out what youth club he belongs to and introduce yourself. But there's a more disturbing side to this," Mrs Merton continued, "Donna says she's saved up her pocket money and bought Thriller. Donna, these devices are for older people."

For years, at least half the audience thought Mrs Merton was a real old lady, not just a tribute to Hook's ability to act twice her 30 years, but an indication of how close to the character the actress is. Not that she wants you to know that. "Say I'm serene and full of mystery, and don't forget to mention my time in the Footlights with Emma and Griff Rhys Jones." Unfortunately, I happen to know that when she might have been trading apercus with Griff and Emma, she was in fact stuffing envelopes for a mail-order firm, while catching the bus each week from West Didsbury to the BBC in Oxford Road, Manchester, to record her radio spots.

At the same time, she was no doubt absorbing the kind ofmaterial that makes her look so convincing when she smiles sweetly at a clearly baffled Dave Lee Travis and asks, "On that fateful day when you announced your resignation on your programme, did you realise it was going out on the radio in front of all those people?"