By Simon Yaffe
A MEETING about a spaghetti advert led to success for television and radio writer Paul Mendelson.
But now the creator of such comedies as May to December, So Haunt Me and My Hero has turned his hand to a different kind of writing.
His novel In the Matter of Isabel (The Book Guild, £8.99), labelled ‘The Graduate meets Kramer v Kramer’ by one critic, tells the story of Rick, a wannabe corporate whiz-kid from Hackney, who is transfixed when the exotic Isabel Velazco walks into his law office.
She desperately needs his help to get her son Sebastian back.
“I originally thought of it as a film script, but it is very hard to get original films off the ground,” Londoner Paul told me.
“It is based on an experience I had while working as a lawyer.
“A Middle Eastern lady came to see me about wanting to get her son back — she put her entire trust in me.
“The difference in the book is that Rick is a lot more opportunist than I was and Isabel is from Argentina, too.
“I wanted the tone of voice to be that of Rick looking back on a summer which changed his life.”
It is not the first book that Paul has written this year, either.
He has also penned children’s novel Losing Arthur (The Book Guild, £8.99), which will be published in August.
It tells of young boy, Zak Farmer, and his imaginary friend, Arthur.
Paul’s own story began in Newcastle, the son of Yetta and Monty Mendelson.
He lived there until he was 11, when they moved to his father’s native Glasgow.
Monty was managing director of Walt Disney UK — something which definitely influenced Paul.
He explained: “I was basically brought up in the film business — and I was the first kid to have a Zorro sword!”
The Mendelsons moved to London when Paul was 16.
He went on to read law at Cambridge, thanks to television lawyer Perry Mason.
“I had an interview at King’s College to study law and they asked me why I wanted to study law and I said because of Perry Mason,” Paul laughed.
“I don’t think they were too impressed with my answer.
“I said the same in my Cambridge interview and the person interviewing me told me that I would be amazed at how many people gave that answer, too!
“I thought only royalty went to Cambridge, as Prince Charles was there at the same time.”
Paul went on to run a family law department at a small firm of solicitors before changing careers completely, as he started work as an advertising copywriter.
“Law was so time-consuming and I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he recalled.
“I wasn’t given any supervision, either. I soon realised it was not right for me, so started to apply for advertising agency jobs.”
He landed jobs with several top agencies in the UK and in America and wrote hundreds of commercials.
It was while working for an advertising agency that Paul developed the idea for the BAFTA-nominated BBC series May to December.
It starred Anton Rodgers as a widowed solicitor in love with a much younger woman and ran from 1989 until 1994.
Next came So Haunt Me, which starred Miriam Karlin as Yetta Feldman, a stereotypical interfering, middle-aged Jewish mother who choked to death on a chicken bone.
She haunts the Rokerby family, who move into her house.
The origins of both are intertwined.
Paul explained: “I was working on a Heinz spaghetti advert with Nicolas Roeg, who was a brilliant film director.
“I had thought about the idea which became So Haunt Me — I had written it as a short novel — and Nicolas told me he reckoned it would work better in America, because the Jewish humour was more ingrained there.
“He passed it on to Verity Lambert, who was the first producer of Doctor Who and also Jewish.
“She liked it and asked me if I could turn it into a half-hour sitcom.
“I then took that to Gareth Gwenlan, who was head of BBC Comedy at the time, but he didn’t like the themes in it, although he liked the writing!
“I decided to write something else, May to December, as it was a story I was familiar with — I was a lawyer, I lived in Pinner and my wife was a teacher, too.”
May to December proved to be hugely successful and, after two series, Paul went back to Gareth with the same So Haunt Me script — and was commissioned.
“It was around the time the film Ghost came out and also Maureen Lipman had made Jewish mothers popular in the BT adverts, so maybe it worked in my favour,” Paul said.
So Haunt Me, which ran from 1992 until 1994, regularly clocked up audiences of 15 million.
“It was basically about a WASP family who were haunted by a Jewish mother,” Paul added.
“I think it was that clash of cultures which made it so popular.”
He went from comedy to drama when, after surviving both testicular cancer and prostate cancer, he wrote ITV drama Losing It, which starred Martin Clunes as an advertising man who develops testicular cancer.
Paul was nominated for best writer at the 2007 Televisual Awards for Losing It.
“Interestingly, I later discovered that men were actually putting their hands down their trousers — for the right reasons — while they were watching it and some discovered tumours,” he said.
He also wrote the radio play I Can’t Be Ill, I’m a Hypochondriac, based on his illness.
The 66-year-old found more success when he wrote My Hero, which aired on BBC One from 2000 until 2003 and then from 2005 to 2006.
It starred Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon as the dim-witted superhero Thermoman, who is trying to fit in to human life.
“Ardal was looking for a new role and he fell in love with the script,” Paul explained. “Having him in it was great.”
He wrote numerous radio plays, including an adaptation of May to December on BBC Radio 2, and adaptations of Joyce Porter’s Chief Inspector Dover novels for BBC Radio 4.
Paul also co-wrote, with Paul Alexander, the animated American comedy series Neighbors From Hell.
“I like to make people laugh and move them — I found that I could do that with Losing It, even though it was about a serious issue in cancer,” he said.
A member of the Mosaic Reform Synagogue, in Harrow, his faith remains important to him.
The father-of-two and grandfather-of-four added: “Judaism means a phenomenal amount to me. My humour is Jewish.
“Even if I am not writing about Jewish people, it comes out as Jewish because that is how I write.”