Back in 1997 Paul Merton was one of the hottest comedians on tv, a massive part of the success of Have I Got News For You he’d also created two series of “The Paul Merton Show”, starred in fifteen episodes of “Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s…”, and appeared as his own father in the unusual mix of biographical comedy and clip show that was “Paul Merton’s Life of Comedy”, so you might presume that if he made a pilot for something and it wasn’t given a full series then it must have been terrible.
That’s not the case at all with Does China Exist? however, a studio based affair where Paul promises to investigate all manner of major questions that surely everyone is begging to know the answer to. Which is a slightly weak framing device and one that’s not really needed, or which it particularly adheres too half the time, and is more of an excuse for Paul to appear in daft sketches and muck about in an almost always very funny manner
It does start off in an oddly weak and slightly confusing manner as Paul asks questions like “Why has nobody bothered to make potato flavoured crisps?” and “If you can buy prawn cocktail crisps, why can’t you buy prawn cocktail potatoes?”, while he makes up a supposed fact about the last three astronauts in space being named Bill Prawn, William Cocktail and Ferdinand Potatoes, claiming that it’s very easy to fool people and the show will explore this, but after this poor beginning the show kicks up a gear and is consistently funny right up until the very end.
The first subject to be explored concerns how fast a man can run, with a Mrs Lilley claiming her husband broke the world record but a film then shows us that it’s him committing suicide by jumping off a tall building, and then a Staff Sergeant Michael Tiblady cycles on an exercise bike in a bit which is supposed to be linked but isn’t really, but hey, I’m not complaining as it means we get to see a cheetah on an exercise bike later on in the show.
There’s also a few audience votes throughout the episode which are supposed to gauge the mood of the nation but just throw up results like “Brown looks good on a man”, “A Shakespearean actor in a fast car”, “Handstands”, and “I only Eat Chips”, Merton has always specialised in idiocy that deliberately doesn’t make sense and so I’m not complaining, especially as each time we get to see a girl in a large dress holding up signs “Help I’m trapped inside this child’s body” and “I am 68 years old” in a nicely daft manner
Paul also interviews a handwriting expert who each time gets it wrong despite it being painfully obvious, with the letters she’s analysing containing sentences like “Dear Una, I was so surprised when Bachelor Boy became No.1 last week” and “Dear Buzz, it doesn’t seem three months since we spoke to each other on the surface of the moon”, with the daftness generating a lot of laughs, and which then ends on a highly litigious joke about Michael Jackson having “an unhealthy interest in under age-” though Paul interrupts her before she says the word rather sadly, but hey, it’s understandable I suppose considering the well known paedophile was still alive then.
Further, very amusing silliness involves a telepath who is either told or shown the answer each time, and an interview with a surprisingly still alive JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald with the former having supposedly spent all this day working in a chip shop on the Isle Of Wight, and the skit sees them recreate the assassination attempt, though using cakes instead of guns so that a tragedy isn’t repeated. JFK is at one point asked how long a frozen rock salmon takes to cook and says it’s 20 minutes, and as anyone (like me) who spent time as a chip shop fryer will know it’s only actually 7 or 8 minutes, so I suspect that he might just be a liar you know.
Other great sketches saw Paul explore whether or not a machine that can play snooker, him interviewing a police officer with the world’s smallest model railway, and an actor from a “Dr Keffler’s Hair Iron” advert talks in exactly the same way that Matt Berry does. Plus we also get an appearance from the man with the world’s longest hair in Britain (though it doesn’t remain that by the end of the piece), and a really funny filmed sketch sees Merton explore a new scheme where food is delivered to people’s homes using a variety of taps, and it’s not just liquids like soup or milk that they can issue, but potatoes and sprouts too.
All of the above allows Merton to produce a variety of sketches and segments that are a mixture of the daft and the surreal, often mixing the mundane and the absurd to beautiful effect. Mark Steel also pops up as an argumentative audience member and it’s always great to see him on tv, while the rest of the cast are strong too, even if they’re not faces that you’ll instantly recognise.
Merton is sometimes more aggressive than you might have seen him be elsewhere but he fits the role of the presenter of the show perfectly, and the fast pace of the pilot impresses again and again, there’s a lot of amusing ideas played around with here but they always mine them for a lot of humour but don’t over do it, so it never feels like a section lasts for a single second than it needs too, which is a rare thing indeed when it comes to sketch comedy.
Paul Merton of course spent the rest of the 20th Century and nearly all of the 21st wasting away on panel shows, trotting out vaguely absurdist attempts at humour and often taking long naps during recordings for hours if not days at an end without anyone noticing, so it’s ridiculously frustrating that the BBC didn’t commission this, it’s not only a far better use of his talent but it’s also bloody funny throughout and if they’d managed to maintain the quality it might just have been remembered as a comedy classic.
You can watch Does China Exist? on youtube here.