Paul Merton: My family values

The comedian on trying to understand and please his father and the love of the three women he married

My father enjoyed telling people that he first met my mother in bed. It was perfectly true. He was a patient in Fulham hospital and she was one of the nurses. Too shy to ask her out directly, he wrote a letter to that effect instead and gave it to another nurse to pass on to her. Luckily for him – and me – she agreed to a date and they were married within the year.

Dad, Albert Martin, was born and bred in Fulham; Mum, Mary Power, was from County Waterford in Ireland. Dad had a lively sense of humour and in Mum he found an always appreciative audience. She was funny as well, but a much quieter character.

I was born in 1957 at Parsons Green nursing home next door to the White Horse pub in Fulham. Naturally, Mum adored the miracle that was me, but Dad was less convinced. Perhaps he saw me as a rival for his affection. He wasn’t a particularly natural father. He wasn’t horrid, but he never felt comfortable praising me – fearing I would get big-headed – so he never did.

When I was a kid, Dad joined London Transport as a tube driver. I longed to see him drive a District line train across a railway bridge and pestered my parents for days, but Dad was reluctant. Eventually he gave in, and my little heart was beating with anticipation as Dad and his train approached. But as he passed us, he just gave a half-hearted wave, almost as if he was a little embarrassed. The truth was, he looked on it as a rather lowly job and couldn’t understand what a thrill it was for a small child. I wanted my dad to be a hero, but he wasn’t having any of it.

I met Caroline Quentin, my first wife, while performing with the Comedy Store Players in Glasgow. I’d just come out of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital after being treated for mental illness and she gave me much needed stability because she was funny, level-headed and supportive. We married in 1991, but gradually drifted apart. Perhaps the dynamic changed when I grew in confidence. Divorces are never pleasant, but the best times with Caroline were life-enhancing and joyous.

As my marriage collapsed, I began a relationship with [producer and actress] Sarah Parkinson. In 2002, Sarah found two breast lumps and was diagnosed with cancer. Strongly opposed to conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment, she decided to look into holistic remedies instead. We married in 2003 and had a wonderful day. She only started suffering in the last six weeks. Before then, you wouldn’t have guessed; she didn’t look ill.

After her death I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness, but good friends and work I loved ultimately saved me. I found love again when I met Suki Webster, a fellow improvisational comedian, while performing with the Comedy Store Players in India. We married in 2010 and she has made me happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve never felt any burning need to have children.

I lost both my parents last year. The last time I saw Dad he was lying in a hospital bed. As I walked towards him, he changed the habit of a lifetime and said he was delighted to see me, and so proud of me. “Talk about leaving it late, Dad,” I wanted to say. But instead I told him how proud I had been, seeing him drive that train across a bridge.

Mum died just a few weeks later, which was a blessing because neither of them would have been very good without the other. After her funeral, we went back to the family home and discovered Dad had secretly filled a scrapbook with newspaper cuttings charting my entire career and recorded all my television appearances. I simply shook my head in amazement.

Only When I Laugh: My Autobiography by Paul Merton is published by Ebury Press, £20


Interview by Angela Wintle

The GuardianTramp

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