Paul Merton at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

COMEDIAN Paul Merton told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today, that he had found it hard to believe that television presenter Jimmy Savile had been a serial paedophile.

Speaking about Savile's appearance on the long-running BBC news quiz Have I Got News for You in 1999, he said that he got no inkling of the serial paedophile’s real nature.   Following his death in 2011, Savile was uncovered as having molested hundreds children in a campaign of abuse lasting decades. Merton said that he was only left with the impression of Savile being a “very strange guy".

“I don’t know why he came on the show,” he said. “Back in the day, nobody in the studio believed him to be a paedophile, I didn’t. My thinking was, and I think this was a lot of people’s thinking, was ‘How can he be?’ We don’t know anything at all about how he operated, but the single question was ‘How can he be?’ He’s the most recognisable man in Britain. How could he be doing all this stuff without somebody saying ‘that’s the man’?

“I didn’t know that victims weren’t going to be believed, I didn’t know that police forces were doing what they were doing, I didn’t know he was a friend of Thatcher, all this kind of stuff, making himself sort of invulnerable. We never knew all that stuff. He came across as a strange guy, but all the rest of stuff, no. People said all kinds of things [about him] but that’s not proof and that’s not evidence, so I think my feeling at the time was that he was a very strange guy but I didn’t believe the things that I’d heard.”

Merton gave glimpse behind the scenes of Have I Got News for You, naming former Labour leader Neil Kinnock as the worst host the show ever had.   He said: "It was simply because he was so slow in the delivery of the autocue. He questioned everything that was on it.  It was pretty dreadful, but somehow using one of those magic machines on TV, they managed to speed him up without making him sound like Mickey Mouse. He was substantially faster when the show went out than he was in real life."

Merton, who is also a regular on the long-running Radio 4 game show, Just A Minute, revealed that his working class roots had meant his addition to the panel in 1988 by host Nicholas Parsons following the death of the actor Kenneth Williams had been not welcomed wholeheartedly.    He said: “Edward Taylor, wonderful producer of the show for many years, was very dubious about booking me. He said to Nicholas ‘if this goes wrong be it on your own head’. Ted Taylor phoned me up to check I’d be wearing, I think he thought he was booking Sid Vicious. He also told me not to swear on the programme. In his own words, he told me many years later, he thought he was ‘booking some oik’.”

Discussing his autobiography Only When I Laugh, Merton touched on his seven week stay in a psychiatric hospital brought on by a violent reaction to malaria medication, describing how he suffered hallucinations and started to believe he was Jesus. He  recalled a disastrous episode while performing a one-man show on the Fringe Festival 1987 when, after suffering a broken leg during a game of football with some comedians, he developed a life-threatening blood clot on his lung.

He said that even his convalescence in hospital also came with its own hazards.  "While I was recovering, I developed Hepatitis-A. I said to one of the doctors, how did I get Hepatitis-A? He said 'to be honest, you've probably caught it off the hospital food'. This is 1987, so hopefully things have changed since then."

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