TELEVISION Paul Merton in... (ITV)

Jasper Rees propounds the novel theory that comedy is, in fact, the new opera
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In Dead Funny, Terry Johnson's recent West End hit, four bores hold a wake for Benny Hill. The theory proposed by the play, and implied in the title, is that comedy cannot survive resuscitation. On the principle that an old joke is any joke told more than once, Johnson derides the anorak instinct to dig up classic sketches and parade them anew. It's in accordance with this theory that modern comedy has come to be known as the new rock'n'roll, sending forth brattish new stars and exciting trend-spotting arts pages to increase its quota of column inches.

Now Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's..., has come along to test this theory. The project, in which Merton plays the parts originally written for Tony Hancock, proposes comedy as the new opera, with a fixed repertoire of classic libretti and arias.

Merton has already given the BBC his idiosyncratic PhD on vintage comedy, so this would appear to be the next logical step: a archeological dig for yesteryear's laughs, with Merton as chief shoveller. He is both well and ill equipped for the task. He knows the material backwards, but sometimes he might get more laughs if he said it backwards. Despite positioning himself as a keeper of the flame, he's also television's most accomplished improv comedian. Never very good at making other people's lines his own, almost all his best work is done without a script.

In other words, his generous instincts are not in doubt, but his ability to act is. He has a measure of Hancock's uppity menace but, with a volume control that goes no lower than nine, none of his pathos. It could easily be claimed that this is irrelevant, but if comedy even by writers as brilliant as Ray Galton and Alan Simpson is to have a shelf life, it needs to erase the memory of its premiere. Because he died before the days when every programme was kept for posterity, there is a bit of case to be made for modernising Hancock. In principle, though, it looks a heretical undertaking.

The first Half Hour for revival was Twelve Angry Men, in which Merton played the chief foreman who tries to persuade the jury of a plainly guilty criminal's innocence. The script itself is still in goodish nick ("Does Magna Carta mean anything to you? Did she die in vain?"), and the professional stereotypes on the fringes have not appreciably aged in 30 years. The only regrettable sections have been inserted to give it an updating tweak. References to Rumpole and public-utility fatcats are harmless enough, but the OJ Simpson joke was there simply for texture; an equivalently limp line wouldn't have sullied the text first time round.

Dead Funny, incidentally, quotes the last lines Galton and Simpson ever wrote for Hancock, in which he moans that after he's gone all he can expect is "a few daffodils in a jamjar". This venture will make his memory ever fonder. As for Galton and Simpson, it makes them the butt of their own joke.