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?"

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor