More questions than answers

As TV's Mrs Merton, Caroline Hook has made her name asking rude questions. She's so good at it, she's just won a Bafta award. But when Marianne Macdonald met her, she wasn't keen to talk
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I begin not to like Caroline Hook when, after my four-hour journey to the Granada studios in Manchester, the press officer meets me outside her office. "The thing is," he says nervously, "Caroline is a bit nervous about being interviewed on her own. To be honest, she only agreed because of winning a Bafta award for her show. So she wondered if you wouldn't mind interviewing her with her co-writers. Is that all right? Just at the beginning, of course."

As he speaks he is shooing me into her office, which turns out to be a dingy little room with three tables pushed together and a kettle perched on the floor. At the far end, by the window, sits Caroline: a diminutive doll of a girl dressed in tight Lycra. She is flanked by Craig Cash and Henry Normal, her burly co-writers on The Mrs Merton Show, the talk show in which Caroline dresses up as an old lady and asks barbed questions of celebrities. Both men look up irritably when I walk in.

"You know we're going to have to go at 2.30pm," Henry tells the press officer. It is now five past two; I'd been promised an hour. "That's ridiculous," I say. All three look at me as if I am mad. "And I wasn't told I'd have to do the interview with three minders." I appeal to Caroline: "Can't we talk on our own?" Caroline avoids my eyes and looks into the middle- distance, as if mentally blocking her ears. She looks distressed, but not unduly so. The bickering continues until Henry looks up and says dryly: "Well, you've only got 20 minutes now, so you'd better get started."

With bad grace, I ask Caroline how she got the idea for The Mrs Merton Show. Now she has her own way she can meet my eyes and acts as if nothing unpleasant has happened. Pulling out a packet of Benson & Hedges, she begins in her soft Mancunian accent: "I started off with the character on radio as an agony aunt. I was working as a secretary at the BBC, but I used to do voices and I sent my tape of Mrs Merton ..."

As she talks, I look at her. She is tiny, with a huge bust encased in a tight purple top. She sports a pair of black flowery trousers and lots of gold bracelets and rings. Up close she looks plump and slightly blowsy, at least 10 years younger than 32.

I surface as she concludes the tale of how the show came to be on ITV rather than just Granada. "... I would have been happy with a regional series, I just wanted to do that chat show. But when it was national I realised it would be far more money."

There is a pause, as I recall her claiming in a Loaded interview that she married Peter Hook, former bass guitarist for New Order and member of The Mrs Merton Show backing band, partly for his money. And she is rumoured to have earnt around pounds 200,000 for starring in the new British Gas ads. But when I ask if she is mad about money, she gasps and says: "I like money, well, I like money -"

She looks up for inspiration, and Craig, who has assumed the role of chief minder, prompts: "You like not having to do car-boot sales." "Oh yes," she says. "I like not having to do car-boot sales."

But what about the things you said in Loaded? "Oh!" Caroline says of that interview. "That man, I'm going to give him a right pasting if I see him again. I loathed him from the start, because the first thing he did was show me his nipples, which were pierced. I just clammed up, I said about two words to him."

This is intriguing, for Caroline is quoted in the interview as saying all sorts of exciting things - that she fancied "Hooky" the second she laid eyes on him, that he had everything she needed, "including a 12-inch willy", that they got married at the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel in Las Vegas. "I couldn't have been more embarrassed by that interview," Caroline breathes, "and the worst thing was my Mum read that. My Mum!"

At this point one of the three phones sitting in front of Caroline, Craig and Henry rings. All three grab their receivers, but it turns out to be for Craig, who begins loudly organising their next appointment in Sheffield. I ask Caroline if she finds it hard to talk about herself, and she agrees eagerly. "It's really hard to sit talking about yourself, really."

But she expects everyone on her show to do it, doesn't she? "Oh, but that's different, they get paid and they're used to it," she says. "Andrew Neil or someone like that, they've done it millions of times. We write the questions beforehand, and sometimes I think, 'I can't ask that!' They say very rude things, them two boys."

"The first thing we wanted her to ask Jimmy Hill was, 'Why the long face?' But she wouldn't," Craig growls. So Caroline doesn't like upsetting her guests? "She doesn't, but we couldn't give a shit."

Does she think she is a good interviewer? Caroline gasps kittenishly again. "Um, I don't think I'm Parkinson," she says, then stops to think. "I'd quite like for the next series to tackle, that is to see - well, I'd quite like to do a longer interview. With Cilla [Black]. I'd like to do someone with that stature."

We seem to have settled into a rhythm now, so I say cosily, "And how does your husband feel about your Mrs Merton character?" But at once the room falls deadly silent - just like in a horror film. "I'd rather not talk about my husband," whispers Caroline. Gosh, I was only asking - "There's been rumours flying around recently. We don't want to feed them in any way," interjects the press officer sternly from the back wall.

The silence stretches and Caroline goes back to looking into the middle- distance, her chin wobbling. No one says anything. "And don't put 'She wouldn't talk about her husband when pressed', 'cos you're buggers, you journalists," growls Craig. "I know, you'll put there was a horrible atmosphere during the interview." "Oh," I say, noting this down busily, "do you think this is a horrible atmosphere?"

Afterwards I am taken to see Andy Harries, who is controller of entertainment and comedy at Granada. He wears a pair of mirrored sunglasses and paces round his office as he takes questions. I ask if he thinks Caroline Hook is shy, and he says yes, but that she's also very sure of herself. When I express doubts about this, he says: "Oh, she is. She's always done what she wanted to do.

"It was her idea to do the pilot for the Mrs Merton show," he continues, "and recently she did the British Gas commercials. There'd been a lot of interest in her doing ads, and I think she decided she would only do one if she had some control over the script - to prevent the character being bastardised - and if Henry and Craig were also involved. Anyway, they hired John Lloyd, the famous director, and they did the filming and there were a few arguments, but then Lloyd called her up and asked if she would like to see the two finished commercials.

"So she went to this post-production house in Soho, and afterwards John said, 'What do you think?' She said: 'They were terrible - I was really shocked. I'm furious that you've cut the script around,' and she basically gave Lloyd this half-hour lecture. Later Lloyd left a message on her answer machine. It said: 'I've thought very carefully and I've recut the commercial and I agree it's much better.' "

I also talk to Peter Kessler, the producer of The Mrs Merton Show, and he tells me about the making of the pilot for the show. "I didn't know Caroline very well at that stage," he says. "And I thought, as we were making a comedy show, and she's a young comedian, let's get the usual comedy-going crowd to be the studio audience. But she said she wanted the audience to be entirely full of old people.

"Well, you can imagine, everybody was going: 'You want what?' - although, to my credit, I realised it was absolutely right and backed her to the hilt. But some of the senior people at Granada were saying it was ridiculous, that we couldn't do that. Now look at it! That's the essence of the programme!"

The following day my picture editor shows me the Daily Mail, which has the story that her year-and-a-half-old marriage to Peter Hook has hit the rocks. Then the Granada press officer comes on the phone. "We're just wondering if there's anything else you want," he says, "because we realise you didn't have as much time as you needed. I'd like to apologise again about what happened. It was going to be a warm lovely chat, but I don't know if you've seen the Mail this morning, but as you can imagine in retrospect it wasn't the best time to do an interview. I know for a fact that Caroline didn't disappear off to get out of talking to you, it's just that these things are so much more important."

Absolutely, I say.

"Anyway," he says brightly, "there are four or five journalists outside her house and more outside her mum's house, and her mum's making them tea!" I thought about Craig's story of how Caroline's mum sent him a five-pound note for saving Caroline's life when she developed an allergy to anti-histamine tablets in her Manchester garden. Now she was making tea for all those buggersome journalists. That seemed about right.