No, the Merton that took the stage was unrecognisable as any of these. Everything appeared to be in place - the cumbersome gait, the shapeless hair, the comic deconstruction, the celebrated deadpan. It looked like Merton, it sounded like Merton, but what we saw was really a hologram, coasting through his Greatest Hits on auto-pilot.
For the purposes of the tour, the approach work seems to have been, 'Look, we're a bit rushed, let's base it on The Series (who watches Channel 4 anyway?), throw in a few self- referential Have I Got News tasters, and we should get through without anyone realising I stayed at home in South London.' Much of the material was so familiar that the girl behind me was able to beat him to the punchlines - and Merton's no slouch when it comes to delivery.
Despite leaning heavily on cruise-control, the hologram Merton injected a steady boisterousness, switching from ludicrously woven gag to hammy revue sketch with ease. He opened with a, 'Nice to be 'ere Guildford. . . that's the topical stuff out the way'. And boy did he mean it. Most of the material would only qualify for inclusion in Paul Merton's History of the Twentieth Century if it were slipped in as an anachronism. There's a gag about Ben Johnson the disgraced sprinter (though perhaps Ben Jonson the early-17th century humorist would have been as appropriate) and, yes, a dig at British Rail, but he mostly favours the kind of timeless humour afforded by the pantomime send-up.
The show's comedy vein is unashamedly mainstream, plundering the traditions of variety, then applying the hallmark Merton twist, a quantum leap with a dash of the gently surreal. Merton should be given his own TV variety show as soon as possible. His style is cheerily innocent, only mildly irreverent and thoroughly BBC1 Saturday primetime. Merton himself best summarised his position with a knowing aside when, after a rapturous reaction to a sketch in which fluffy white bunnies fly in formation to the 'Dambusters March', he remarked, in that weary, downbeat tone of his, 'I dunno. You spend a lifetime trying to think of funny jokes, and then you find that what people really want is a combination of patriotism and rabbits.'
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