Mrs Merton and Malcolm Revisited

The Show that Stunned the Nation: Reviewed by Anthony C Green

“The most disturbing program on television’Time Out Magazine.

One of the major delights for me of the recent Christmas/New Year period was discovering that this short-lived 1999 Sitcom’ was available to stream in its entirety, all six episodes of it, free of charge, on You Tube. Last time I looked, maybe three or four years ago, it wasn’t available. For some reason, I also had it in my mind that it’d never had a physical release. In fact, a cursory glance at its Wikipedia page reveals it to have been released on DVD back in 2008, nine years after it was broadcast for the first and last time on BBC One, and is still easily available to buy from third-party sellers on Amazon. Why I hadn’t thought to check this out before, is frankly beyond me.

So, why have I long had a fascination for this almost forgotten by-water of British situation comedy? Well, firstly, precisely because it is all but forgotten. The late Caroline Aherne’s comic creation Mrs Merton is of course remembered by everybody, its spoof chat show format recalled perhaps most fondly for her question to magician’s assistant and celebrity wife Debbie Magee: ‘So, what was it first attracted you to millionaire Pau Daniels?’ But very few seem to have any recollection of its sitcom spin-off.

Episode One

The second reason for my interest is simply that I liked it at the time, despite it being near-universally panned. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my interest is down to the way I make my living. Already at the time the show was broadcast I’d been a support worker in the field of learning disabilities and mental health for five years; and much of the criticism of Mrs Merton and Malcolm centred on the idea that the show was poking fun at the cognitively impaired. I didn’t think that then, and now, almost a quarter of a century on, I still don’t think that.

A little background: The show was written by Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal, the same team behind The Royle Family which had first aired a year earlier, and starred Aherne and Cash, with Aherne as the mother and Malcolm as her thirty-seven-year old man-child son. Each episode takes place solely within the pairs’ home, over the course of a single day, and apart from the two of them the only constant, visual character is the forgetful neighbour Arthur, played by Brian Murphy who is best known for playing George Roper in Man About the House and George and Mildred. Arthur pops in to see the bedridden Mr. Merton upstairs on a daily basis. Mr. Merton is never seen or heard, existing only as a shape under the bedclothes in the Merton’s marital bed. Steve Coogan appears in every episode, but apart from the final episode where he plays the vicar visiting the house after Mr. Merton’s funeral, he does so only as a voice on the radio or on Malcolm’s motivational tapes. The only other characters to appear in the series are the local pharmacist Mr. Malik who appears in two episodes, his assistant Judith, whom Malcolm hopes to take on a date, who appears once, and Malcolm’s obnoxious friend, a boy called Justine who, although his age is never stated appears to be around eleven yeas’ old. He also appears once.

When preparing to rewatch this series, two comedy parallels sprung to mind. One, the 1980’s Ronnie Corbett vehicle Sorry, and Ricky Gervais’ creation Dereck, which was screened initially over two seasons on Channel Four between 2012 and 2014.

In the first of these cases, it was only after listening to the two episodes featuring Sorry on the excellent British Sitcom History Podcast, and by watching a sample episode, that I realised the parallel doesn’t at all stand up to scrutiny. It’s true that the life of Timothy in Sorry is, like that of Malcolm, dominated by his mother. But whereas Malcolm accepts this as totally normal with no indication, apart perhaps from the thwarted hope of a date with Judith, that he would want his life to be any other way, Timothy constantly seeks to rebel, in small ways against the clinging, some might say Satanic embrace of his mother. Indeed, much of the humour in that show stems precisely from Timothy’s desperate, forlorn attempts to break free of her influence.

In addition, away from his mother, Timothy lives a perfectly normal, modestly successful, middle-class life, with a job as a librarian and his own circle of friends. Malcolm’s job in the pet shop is referred to in each episode of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, but only in the context of his mother offering to ring in sick on his behalf the next day, because he’s been over-excited by his birthday party (to which no one but him, his mum, and Arthur the neighbour attended), or because he’s worried that he may be asked to handle a snake which is due to be delivered. It’s never sated whether this is a paid or a voluntary position.

Gervais’ character of Derek is much closer to that of Malcolm, in that he too is a man-child and, were we to meet them, we would most likely conclude that he did indeed have a mental impairment of some kind. The main difference is that, within the care home setting where the two seasons of Derek almost entirely take place (apart from a single trip to the seaside, as far as I remember), Derek’s world is much wider than that of Malcolm. He is loved by the care home manager, by the other workers, by the elderly residents and visitors. Derek is a gentle soul who would never wish anyone any harm, and this does sometimes lead the show too far in the direction of sentimentality, though I did enjoy the series much more second time around. This gentility isn’t to be found in the much darker Mrs Merton and Malcolm. Derek is devastated whenever one of the elderly residents of the care home passes away. Malcolm’s only apparent upset at the death of his father in the final episode stems from the fact that it reminds him of the death of his pet hamster some years earlier.

It’s perhaps not the place to discuss it here, but I agree with the critic who said that Derek would have been much better had Gervais stuck to writing and directing. He’s not actually a good enough actor to pull off the lead-part, too many times slipping out of character, becoming Ricky Gervais rather than Derek. Conversely, Cash’ performance as Malcolm is note perfect.

One comedy parallel that didn’t occur to me, either in 1999 or at the tail-end of 2022, was that of the character of Frank Spencer, played by Michael Crawford, in the hugely popular Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em which ran on the BBC between 1973 and 1978, including Christmas specials. And yet, according to the BBC website, this was the character that was apparently closest to the model the writers were aiming for with Malcolm. This was one of the reasons Aherne and co. were so shocked by the negative response to their new show. After all, nobody as far as I’m aware anyway, ever accused the creators of Frank Spencer of belittling the cognitively challenged.

Of course, the similarities between Malcolm and Spencer don’t really stand up to close scrutiny, any more than do those to Timothy or Derek. Each episode of Some Mothers’… is marked by bizarre and often highly dangerous adventures, for which Crawford generally performed his own stunts. In the case of Malcolm, we never see him leave the family home, and the most dangerous thing he ever does is embark on a series of competitive children’s games on the day Justine comes to visit. In addition, whilst Malcolm can only dream of an innocent date with dowdy Judith, Frank somehow manages both to marry and father a child with Betty, played by the rather lovely Michelle Dotrice.

Aherne/Cash/Normal’s creation Mrs Merton had already been on our screen in her faux-chat show for four years at the time the sitcom spin-off was made. Her son Malcolm had frequently been mentioned by Mrs Merton, and had appeared briefly on three occasions, played by Cash. So, further development of the idea seemed, on paper to be a good idea. At over seven million per episode, viewing figures weren’t bad either. It was the damning critical reception that killed off any idea of a second season, and even the scrapping of a planned and already partially written Christmas special.

Assuming the character of Malcolm, like Derek, does indeed have some form of mental developmental disability, should that necessarily put it be the bounds of acceptable comedy?

With the proviso that it’s done well, I would argue not. And in Mrs Merton and Malcolm, it is done very well indeed. What I like most about the show, is that the writers have created a surreal, alternative reality, that exists on its own terms with only a tangential relationship to the real world. For instance, Malcolm is indeed a man-child who likes to play childish games, seem mainly in the episode with Justine, but these are games that were popular with children when I was growing up in 1960’s or ‘70’s, and even then they were seen as a bit dated, not the games that were popular with children as we approached the turn of the millennium. Malcolm’s main hobby is making Airfix models, something again that harked back to the days of childhood-past. It is almost as if Malcolm has remained trapped in his childhood of twenty-five or thirty years earlier, and this is also noticeable in the old fashioned clothes he wears This can and does happen with some people with learning disabilities. Some parents will continue to dress and treat them as a child throughout their life, which only adds to their ‘otherness’, to use a trendy, modern phrase, and their exclusion from mainstream society. We can’t ignore the possibility that the behaviour of Mrs Merton has, whether consciously or not, added to or even perhaps caused her son’s issues of arrested development.

This is another thing I really like about the show. The suggestion of dark themes beneath the surface. I don’t quite get the suggestion of a possibly incestuous relationship between mother and son, a possibility that was apparently raised in some contemporary reviews. This idea seems to rest solely on Mrs Merton’s comment that ‘if I was only thirty years younger….and not your mother,’ which was said really as a perhaps misguided means of raising Malcolm’s spirits after Judith failed to turn up for their planned date at the cinema. It wasn’t a theme that was further pursued.

But there are two other possibly very dark suggestions that occurred to me at this second time of watching.

The first of these is the idea that Mr. Merton’s bedridden state might not be caused entirely by necessity. At one point, Mrs Merton hands Malcolm a piece of ‘junk’ mail, saying ‘put this in the bin Malcolm. I do wish Mr’s Merton would stop sending off for these stairlift brochures.’ Does this suggest the possibility of a deeply depressed Mr. Merton cowering under the bedclothes dreaming of escape? It’s certainly possible.

Secondly, one of several great running gags used in the show is that the neighbour Arthur will gently provide some musical entertainment to Mr. Merton by his bedside, after he’s been reminded of the purpose of his visit by Mrs Merton. In episodes one and three he sings the kind of old-time songs you would expect of this generation, respectively Oh What a Lovely War and If You Were the Only Girl in the World. In episode two he simply plays the spoons. In episode four this musical entertainment has somehow morphed into Starman by David Bowie, and has come yet more up to date in episode five with The Drugs Don’t Work by The Verve. In episode six, Arthur sits by the empty bed of the recently deceased Mr. Merton and quietly, sadly, sings Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. Given that we know that this is a song that deals with the subject of suicide, is there a suggestion here that Mr. Merton’s death may not have been entirely of natural causes: assisted suicide, perhaps? Or maybe I’m radically overthinking it.  

After the undeserved critical lambasting of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, Caroline Aherne and her co-writers decided to concentrate their efforts on The Royle Family. It’s worth mentioning that both of these shows broke with the convention of canned/studio audience laughter, still a brave, if not entirely unique, move at the time. It would be another two years before Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant permanently made old school situation comedy seem outmoded with their invention of the comedic ‘mockumentary’ with The Office.

Aherne and co. had certainly helped pave the way.

The Royle Family was, and is, of course hugely popular, genuinely landmark television; and it is for that that Aherne, along with the character of Mrs Merton, will best be remembered.

In her personal life, she certainly had her demons, like deep depression, alcoholism, and the cancer that killed her at a mere fifty-two years old. But she was a unique talent, and Mrs Merton and Malcolm was in my opinion a weird and wonderful, experimental expression of that unique talent. Even if it were to be regarded as a failed experiment, given its short-lived nature and critical hammering, then in my opinion it was definitely an experiment that was worth conducting.

Revisiting the show was a revelation. It was funny, it was dark, it was very strange, and very, very good. It deserves to be better known, and demands to be remembered.

“We’ve been accused of all sorts…from incest to insanity. But we honestly didn’t mean it to be. We didn’t think there was anything offensive about it.”

Craig Cash.

Mrs Merton and Malcolm is currently available to steam free of charge on You Tube

(1197) Mrs Merton & Malcolm – S01 E02 – YouTube

Links:

Mrs Merton &Malcom: Amazon.co.uk: DVD & Blu-ray

Mrs Merton and Malcolm – Wikipedia

BBC – Comedy – Mrs Merton And Malcolm

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