Paul Merton had his first intimation of comic immortality when, at the age of 12, he saw the classic Buster Keaton film, The General. Already an avid silent-movie fan, with his own 8mm projector and the beginnings of an encyclopaedic knowledge, Merton had spotted a poster outside the old Academy cinema, in London's Oxford Street, for a Buster Keaton season. His first big-screen experience of Keaton's comic genius bowled him over.
"I was knocked out. I floated out of the cinema on a cushion of joy. It was nearly 50 years after the film had been made, and it was long after he was dead. To someone like me, brought up in the Catholic tradition, the ability to create laughter long after you were gone smacked of immortality," he says. "I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to do that."
And, of course, he did. Today, Merton, 47, is a popular, award-winning stalwart of the BBC's satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY). In the course of a career that officially commenced on 29 February 1980, when he quit his job in the employment office in Tooting, south London, to become a full-time comedian, he has written sketches for Julian Clary, contributed to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and written and performed in two series of sketches under his own name.
Given Merton's childhood passion, it is, perhaps, curious that he has come to be associated with a very verbal humour, a capacity for punning and rapid responses that comes into its own on HIGNFY. But his original love of silent comedy has not diminished. Indeed, the arrival of the DVD, and a growing archive of silent-movie classics available for the first time since they premiered in British cinemas, has only reinforced his interest.
And that is why the notoriously interview-shy comic has agreed to talk. Next month, he will be taking part in the four-day Slapstick Silent Comedy Festival in Bristol. With Chris Daniels, another film buff who has been organising silent- movie events in Bristol for the last four years, and a team of experts including David Robinson and Kevin Brownlow, Merton has been involved in selecting films for the programme, including rarely seen classics such as His Wooden Wedding (1925), starring Charley Chase.
He will also be a guest presenter at several of the events, most notably on Friday 14 January when he is hosting Silent Clowns, a gala celebration, at Colston Hall, of gems including Charlie Chaplin's The Pawnshop (1916) and Buster Keaton's Cops (1922).
Ask Merton to explain his passion, and you are treated to a rhapsody on the early days of cinema and a eulogy to movies of which many will never have heard. "What I love about silent cinema is the storytelling," he says. "In the early ones, people are just jumping up and down, and it's shouting in a silent media, but towards the late Twenties, they get really sophisticated. The best of the silent films look like they haven't got dialogue through artistic choice."
He is keen for people to come to the festival because he does not believe that watching silent films at home on DVD really works, even though he is grateful that he can. "To appreciate a silent film you have to have an audience," he says. "You have to be with other people. There's a role for laughter."
To prove his point, he gives the 1925 Charlie Chaplin film The Gold Rush as an example. Audiences of that time loved the scenes in which a log-cabin balances precariously on the edge of a precipice. "The BBC broadcast live from the Savoy Theatre for eight minutes so that radio listeners could hear the laughter. It is impossible to imagine a film provoking eight minutes of continuous laughter today."
For the Bristol festival, he has even commissioned a new score from Britain's foremost silent-film accompanist, Neil Brand, for a Laurel and Hardy classic, You're Darn Tootin'. The film was begging to be shown with appropriate music, he says. "The opening features Laurel and Hardy as musicians in a park band. Stan is a clarinettist and Ollie plays the French horn. There are various jokes at the beginning that rely on us hearing the instruments - the clarinet should be off-key - and it always struck me that it would be great to have a new score."
It will be performed by a 10-piece ensemble on the night, just as it might have been in 1928. "They never were 'silent' films in that sense."
Merton's long-term plan is, unsurprisingly, to go for comedy immortality with his own movie. He is not dismissive of his radio and television work; indeed, one reason for his regular Sunday-night appearances improvising at the Comedy Store club in London is to be on top form for HIGNFY. "I don't understand why you wouldn't want to work live. It's the whole buzz of it," he says. But, he observes, it is difficult to achieve longevity with news-based topical quiz shows. Gorbachev gags have a sell-by date.
He has already directed Suicidal Dog, a short film that was a homage to silent movies, with lots of visual gags. Asked with whom he would like to work on it, he named the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose credits include The African Queen. Knowing Merton's work, Cardiff readily agreed, providing Merton with a host of first-hand reminiscences about Hitchcock and Chaplin, as well as decades of film-making experience. Suicidal Dog, which will also be shown in Bristol, eventually premiered at the Soho Film Festival. "It was one of the proudest moments of my professional career, sitting in a cinema and watching a film that I had thought about two years before," Merton says.
And it whetted his appetite for making a full-length feature film one day. With that in mind, he has just finished his first stint as a director for television, on a personal history of 25 years of the Comedy Store, which he also presents. The experience of being in charge was occasionally "traumatic", but educational. "After spending years just looking at stuff, suddenly you're the one that makes the decisions."
With a dark side to his wit, it is easy to suspect that the real-life Paul Merton might be difficult or acerbic, but he positively beams helpfulness and enthusiasm as he reels off silent-movie trivia over a cup of tea in north London. "I'm thrilled that people enjoy what I do," he says, acutely conscious that he could still be a low-grade civil servant in Tooting. "But I've never been one to be famous for the sake of being famous. I wanted my work to be popular, and a by-product of that is being well-known. But if I direct a longer film, I could conceivably not be in it. I don't have a star ego."
What he does have is a strong sense of comedy history. He rattles off a long list of his own comic influences, from the Marx brothers, through Laurel and Hardy to Monty Python - "the stuff that people recognise as the greats". He grew up an avid viewer of comedy on TV. "Before I was successful in comedy, I devoured it. If there was a new comedy series, I'd watch at least one episode, even if it was dreadful."
By contrast, he now watches very little contemporary comedy and has only just caught up with The Office, though he can see why it was so popular. "There's quite a lot of silent-screen acting in there actually. It's very nicely done. But I tend not to watch new stuff very much. It's a bit of a busman's holiday, I suppose."
The silent movies are his hobby, he says, though an informative one. "I love Buster Keaton because of his attitude to comedy. He was dedicated to it, and you can learn a great deal - as I did - from watching his movies." Even the comic greats were not averse to borrowing material, he notes. Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin all made films involving the same monkey called Josephine within two years, at one point.
This desire to improve his own comic craft has been with him since he was very young. He was always the funny boy at school, implying that, like many comedians, he used humour to overcome shyness and to make friends. But even then, he really worked at it.
"On the occasion of my seventh birthday, I can remember thinking to myself - and it seems such a bizarre thing for a child to think - 'I'm making the children laugh at school now, but I've got to do it when I'm eight, and then when I'm nine, so the jokes have got to get better'."
Slapstick Silent Comedy Festival, Bristol (0117 927 5100; www.slapstick.org.uk) 13 to 16 January