Paul Merson: Football, Gambling & Me, review: confessional TV that showed it's not just the addict that suffers
Paul Merson believes that he has his addictions to alcohol and cocaine under control, but gambling still has him in its grip. Last year he lost all the money he’d saved for a house deposit – he lives in a modest rented property with his wife and young children, having previously gambled away his more than £7 million fortune. At that point he stopped placing bets. But the next one, he fears, is just around the corner.
In Paul Merson: Football, Gambling & Me (BBC One), the former Arsenal star tried to make sense of it all. He started by meeting Wes Reid, who was with him in the Arsenal reserves when he was 17. They visited the bookmakers where Merson placed his first bet, five minutes from the old Highbury stadium. Reid produced a photograph from those days, of them with another kid playing cards in a hotel room on tour. Reid was bored, wanting to go to the pool and have some fun. Merson played on until he had lost all his money. And things never changed.
Merson has battled so many demons over the years, and so publicly, that he is comfortable with confessional TV. He spoke directly into the camera, and was often moved to tears. He also met the relatives of three young men who had taken their lives due to their gambling addictions, all with heartbreaking stories to tell (and a subject explored in more depth by Ruth Davidson in Football’s Gambling Addiction on Channel 4 in June).
Trying to get to the root of his addiction, Merson took part in a study to map his brain activity. It revealed, to no one’s surprise, that he responded far more strongly to images of gambling than he did to things that bring non-addicts pleasure: food, nature, family. These types of documentaries always feel the need to add some science, but it felt like a side issue here.
Instead of looking backwards, Merson needs to address the here and now. The moment that stuck out was his admission, late in the programme, that he feels bored by the “groundhog day” sameness of his life – taking the children to school, trips to the park. “That’s life,” his wife had told him. Viewers will feel as much sympathy for her after watching this documentary as they do for him.