BY ALEXIA JAMES
Like many Brits I grew up with Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY). I’d watch it with my brother and parents knowing that we’d not need to go down to Blockbusters for a lazy evening’s home entertainment when it was on.
I recall my mother having a soft spot for Paul Merton and practically wetting herself when it was his turn to be amusing. Sadly, I have not heard those same cackles for quite some time.
The males in the family preferred the sharp, scything wit of Angus Deayton and wittiness of then risqué Ian Hislop. When the show first appeared in 1990 it was a mega hit. And so it snowballed into something of a national treasure right up to 2002 when Deayton’s career stumbled amidst headlines about cocaine and ladies of the night.
Sure, the show had its spoilsport, sniping critics even during the years of greatness. Norman Tebbit wrote in the Mail on Sunday, “Well, of course Have I Got News for You is all edited. These people, they couldn’t improvise live. You put them on a stage, they wouldn’t be able to improvise.”
“There’s been a lot of confusion, with people saying, ‘Well, they see the questions beforehand,’ which we do,” conceded Merton in 1999. “But some people say we see the answers, which we don’t, because that would rob it of being a quiz.”
Even knowing there was some rehearsal going on, I and many remained loyal fans. Suffering the likes of Ken Livingstone, Neil Kinnock, Nick Clegg – and even suicide-coaxing, moaning Will Self – was marginally sufferable. The switch to new weekly hosts added new spice to the show. Still, all along, Merton and Hislop would have days when they were seemingly on fire, albeit laced with pre-prepared paraffin prior to the show.
Now there’s just embers.
The HIGNFY audience has shrunk to half its original audience and we’re onto series 53! No wonder the show is stale. The format is basically the same. Over recent years the guests – with a few stand-out exceptions like Jeremy Clarkson – have tended to be as left wing as lentils. Paul Merton looks bored. Ian Hislop seems to be on autopilot – he’s no longer risqué of course in the days of the Internet which makes HIGNFY gags seem so tame. Now the show is less a vehicle to have a pop at the establishment – more a part of the establishment. As worn as Corbyn after conquering Mount Abbott.
The Labour ads by HIGNFY regulars Eddie Izzard and Jo Brand didn’t help. Gary Lineker’s tweets were a dampener. But most of all it’s the show’s home which makes HIGNFY suffer the most.
The BBC editing and cutting for fear of offending anyone has neutered the show. Even Will Self, to his credit, refused to return to HIGNFY complaining “I’m afraid that without the reality element, the programme has become just like any other pseudo-panel contest, where funny fellows sit behind desks cracking jokes. Moreover, in the post-Hutton Inquiry era, the BBC seems to have lost its bottle so far as edgy satire is concerned: the sharpest crack I made all evening — and the one that received the most audience laughter — was cut for transmission.”
Compare HIGNFY to its more aggressive counterpart Mock the Week and it is now the inferior show. Both are dominated by lefties but humour is humour and the laughs you can get off Mock the Week trump HIGNFY these days tenfold. That’s embarrassing.
HIGNFY is loosely based on the BBC Radio 4 show The News Quiz. The News Quiz was first broadcast in 1977 with Barry Norman as chairman and – sure, radio has its own charm and allure – but it is still going strong based loosely around the same old format but with new host Miles Jupp having very much found his home.
It’s time to either axe HIGNFY or breathe new life into it.
Sorry Paul & Ian – pat on back merited lads, but your time is up.