The bandage was an industrial injury. He’d been writing a screenplay for a film and sprained it. You see Merton writes everything longhand. Everything. Including both drafts of his 100,000 word autobiography.
As he explained to the packed Stratford Literary Festival crowd, he doesn’t own a computer or mobile ‘phone. “I’m just like everyone used to be.” he remarked to our great amusement.
Not only does he write by hand, he works in pencil. It’s a marvellous way to judging progress apparently. You can literally measure the work done by the length of your tool. He likes proper pencils too, attempts to foist plastic versions on contestants of Just a Minute by the BBC were firmly rebuffed.
Listening to Merton talk about writing is interesting because he’s best known for improvisational work – Just a Minute, Who’s Line is it anyway, The Masterson Inheritance and so on. All of which require no writing whatsoever, indeed very little preparation at all. Just a Minute contestants are shown the subjects in advance but most just use this opportunity to come up with some loose ideas. Only once has someone gone away and swotted up in an encyclopedia – and it showed.
This wasn’t how it started however. A shy boy fascinated by clowns, Merton (then Martin, he changed his name to join Equity) found inspiration at a bus stop one night and rushed off to spend 6 weeks honing a 3 minute sketch about a policeman who accidentally find himself taking “what I thought to be a sugar-coated chocolate confectionery but now know to be a hallucinogenic.”.
Performing this on stage got him started in showbiz and since then he has specialised in slightly surreal comedy that can be an acquired taste but I certainly enjoy it. Alongside this have been the long running radio and TV panels shows including Have I Got News For You.
I can’t say I learnt much about the craft of writing, and there’s no way I’ll eschew the word processor for a pencil, but it was very interesting to peek behind the curtain of the sort of shows I aspire to appear on once we are famous. And it was a hilarious way to spend an hour.