Book festival: Paul Merton | Nicholas Parsons

Paul Merton. Picture: JP
Paul Merton. Picture: JP
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AS FAR as inspiring true stories go, they don’t come much better than this one. Back in 1992, salmon farmer Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, from Dalmally, took a week off work to drive a battered 4X4 full of aid to conflict-ridden Bosnia. He came back to find his father’s shed, which he had been using as a store for donations, had been refilled. That shed is now the headquarters of one of Scotland’s biggest home-grown charities.

MacFarlane-Barrow is the brain behind Mary’s Meals, which now feeds more than one million children across the world. The idea is an ingeniously simple one: By ­providing a hot meal at school, children from the poorest families are both fed and encouraged to attend school regularly. The meals are sourced locally whenever possible, and cooked by volunteers from the community. Young people who benefitted from the scheme are now at university; half Malawi’s under-20s football team grew up on Mary’s Meals.

It’s the kind of bright idea which impresses Scottish entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den veteran, Duncan Bannatyne, a supporter of the charity, who interviewed MacFarlane-Barrow about his book The Shed that Fed a Million Children.

But, as Bannatyne knows well, a bright idea is not enough. Mary’s Meals has come of age by holding firm to its governing values, negotiating corrupt regimes, poor infrastructure, natural disasters and even Ebola to keep on feeding some of the world’s poorest people.

It would take a strong act to follow that, but fortunately, next up was Paul ­Merton, interviewed by the indomitable Ruth Wishart about his autobiography, Only When I Laugh. The audience was treated to a rare reprise of one of his first comedy routines, the policeman-on-drugs, as well as the rather more serious story about an alarming reaction to anti-malarial pills which landed him in a psychiatric hospital for seven weeks. Merton’s comic timing is exemplary, from a gag with the BSL interpreter to a perfectly pitched jibe at his Have I Got News For You co-star, Ian Hislop, “a tremendous man, but also very easy to tease”.

As a teenager, Merton liked to record Radio 4 improv show Just a Minute and practice his own version. Despite being told by a BBC producer that his working-class voice would be unusual on Radio 4, he secured a gig as a regular panellist on the show in 1988, when Kenneth Williams died. The next guest in the Book Festival’s main theatre was the show’s stalwart host, 
Nicholas Parsons, who paid tribute to Merton’s “incredible comic brain”.

At 91, Parsons pretended to hobble his way on to the platform, only to let us know that the joke was on us. He seemed determined to keep the subject matter of the event to that of his latest book, Welcome to Just a Minute!, which seemed unnecessarily restrictive for a man with so many stories to tell.

But the Just A Minute! anoraks in the audience were clearly delighted by his ­accounts of the show’s uneasy start in 1968 (the pilot programmes were considered failures, and the producer had to fight hard to get an initial series commissioned) as well as his accounts of awkward, nervous and overly-competitive guests.

Briefly allowing himself to digress further, he did divulge that his father, a family doctor in Grantham, had the dubious honour of delivering the baby who would become Margaret Thatcher (“A lot of people said he should have shoved her back again!”) and recount how he went head-to-head with Gyles Brandreth for the world record in after-dinner speaking, doing so, appropriately enough, as the event itself began to run over time.