9 October 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Greatest Hits, new cast, still hilarious
"Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's..." is an unwieldy title for a very funny ITV Carlton series which was based on a very economical idea. The scriptwriting team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had written some of the funniest comedy material on British television, including "Hancock's Half Hour" and "Steptoe and Son". For this anthology series of 15 episodes, they revived 15 of their funniest vintage scripts (from the black-&-white era of television), with a new cast and better production values, in colour.
Paul Merton, an actor with a firm sense of the British comedy tradition, was cast in the lead role in each half-hour episode: a different role each time. Six of these scripts had originally been written for Tony Hancock, yet now Merton (a very different personality) took over the roles easily. Just as Sid James had been an excellent foil for Hancock in the original productions of these scripts, now Sam Kelly (the husband on "Barbara") proved an expert foil for Merton.
Other roles played by Merton in this series had previously been played by Jimmy Edwards, Bernard Cribbins, Leonard Rossiter ("Reggie Perrin"), Stanley Baxter and Leslie Phillips ... all very different types, yet Merton made the roles uniquely his own. These sketches are, basically, Paul Merton's cover versions of other comedians' Greatest Hits.
Probably the most remarkable episode in this series - and one of the funniest - was "The Bed Sitter" (originally performed by Hancock in 1961). In this episode, Paul Merton spent 30 minutes alone on a single set, playing a neurotic man who can't sleep and who proceeds to drive himself crazy with his own neuroses. Tony Hancock was a genuine neurotic, and his mental problems gave an uncomfortably ironic edge to this material when he performed it. Merton expertly takes the same material and spins it in surprisingly funny new directions.
Inevitably, the shadow of Tony Hancock loomed over this series, which is why one episode showed a distinctive black homburg hat and astrakhan hanging on a coat-hook. Nobody familiar with British television comedy needed to ask whose hat and coat those were.