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Paul Merton

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Paul Merton on the Room 101 set

Paul Merton (born January 17, 1957) is a British actor, deadpan comedian and writer, who is best known as a panellist on Have I Got News For You and Just a Minute on BBC Radio 4 and as the host of Room 101.

His style is characterised by describing extremely improbable scenarios with a straight - even mournful looking - face. He rapidly grabs hold of any chance to expand on a subject and stretch its credibility to snapping point. This works beautifully in improv and exceptionally well when he is played off against more straight-laced guests on panel shows. Where it has been less successful is when Merton uses this form of high-fantasy in a scripted form, as with his sketch shows.

Born Paul Martin in the Parsons Green area of London, he gained his earliest professional credits under that name. On joining Equity he found that the name Paul Martin was already taken, so he renamed himself after Merton, the district of London where he grew up. Merton's Father was a train driver on the London Underground and his Mother was a nurse. When his Mother returned to work, Paul and his younger sister were looked after by their grandfather who lived with them in their council flat. He often claims that he was inspired to go into comedy at a young age watching clowns at a circus, remembering "I had no idea that adults could behave like that." He failed his eleven-plus, and famously received an unclassified grade for metal work at CSE before moving on to Wimbledon College just as it became comprehensive.

After leaving school, Merton worked at the Tooting Employment Office for ten years. Though he had harboured serious ambitions of becoming a performing comedian since his school days, it was not until April 1982, at the Comedy Store in Soho that his dream was realised. He recalls that, on only his second or third night, he found the dour role that was to inform his comic approach ever since.

One of these early routines at the Comedy Store involved the report of a policeman who had been given a hallucination drug. This routine was very popular and went on to be included in his television series. Merton recalls "I walked all the way home to my bed-sit in Streatham. I was on a cloud. And that one night got me through every single bad gig after that - and there were a lot of them. I was so lucky to get that encouragement early on. It kept me going over the next eighteen months of just dying the whole time."

In 1986, while performing on the Fringe in Edinburgh, he was mugged while helping a friend put up posters. He was kicked in the head and had to go to hospital. A year later, Merton returned to Edinburgh. His one-man show was receiving very good reviews. However, while playing football with fellow comedians, he broke his leg, and whilst in hospital, he suffered a pulmonary embolism and contracted hepatitis A. He lost the 3,000 he had paid up front for the theatre and would have been in worse trouble had the Comedy Store not held a benefit for him.

His breakthrough as a television performer came as a result of the improvised comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? from 1988 onwards, which moved to TV from BBC Radio 4. Have I Got News For You started in 1990, and two series of his own sketch show Paul Merton: The Series followed soon after. Since 1999 he has been the host of Room 101, a chat show in which guests are offered the chance to discuss their pet hates and consign them to the oblivion of Room 101.

Shortly before becoming a household name on HIGNFY, Merton had suffered a mental breakdown and booked himself into Maudsley psychiatric hospital for six weeks, about which he has since talked frankly. He had begun to hallucinate conversations with friends.

He has been a member of the London improv group The Comedy Store Players since 1985, and still regularly performs with them.

After seven nominations for a BAFTA award for Best Entertainment Performance, Merton finally won the award in April 2003, ironically defeating fellow HIGNFY star Angus Deayton who had just recently been fired from the show.

Merton married the actress Caroline Quentin in 1990, but they separated in 1997. Merton's second wife, Sarah Parkinson, died on September 23, 2003, of breast cancer.

In 2003, he was listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy. In The Comedian's Comedian, a 2005 Channel 4 poll of fellow comedians, he was voted the 20th funniest comedian in the universe.

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