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Satire at its best - allegedly
Have I got News for You
Member Name: silverstreak2
Have I got News for You
Date: 21/06/05, updated on 29/06/05 (662 review reads)
Advantages: Up to the minute satire, Wickedly funny
Disadvantages: -, -
Have I Got News For You has been with us for fifteen years now, having first appeared on BBC2 in 1990, and moving some years later to a wider audience on BBC1 at around 9.30, just after the watershed. The programme is loosely described as a quiz show, in which two teams have to answer questions based on stories from the preceding weekís newspapers, often involving guessing the missing word from a headline, describing a piece of news footage, or working out who is the odd one out from a group of people recently in the news. I say Ďloosely describedí because the idea is not so much to get the answers right, but to come up with as many witty remarks and jokes as possible along the way. The scoring is not taken too seriously, and indeed the final scores often bear no resemblance to the performances of the two teams, and merely serve to give rise to a bit of rivalry between the two regular team captains. The team captains are Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, and renowned for his court appearances in various libel cases brought against the magazine, and Paul Merton, comedian and presenter of the BBC programme, Room 101. Each week there is a guest on each team, and this might be a politician, a writer, or a television personality.
The show was originally hosted by Angus Deayton, but following revelations in a Sunday newspaper about his exploits with a prostitute and his penchant for cocaine, Deayton was relieved of his duties as presenter. The irony of the host of a satirical news quiz being the subject of gossip and ridicule proved too much of an embarrassment, and indeed a commercial risk to the BBC, particularly as Merton and Hislop had verbally crucified him in the show immediately following the revelations, and he was unceremoniously booted off the programme. For the last two or three series, it has been without a regular presenter, and instead, there is a different host each week. Among the brave individuals who have been prepared to risk possible career suicide, are Anne Robinson, Charles Kennedy, Clive Anderson and Bruce Forsyth, to name but a few. Most of the stand-in hosts have themselves been previous guests on the show, so they have an idea of what to expect, but they nevertheless find it something of a challenge to keep order.
When Deayton was fired, there was initially an outcry from the public and critics alike, who thought the show wouldnít survive without his delivery of sardonic asides and apt facial expressions, and whilst he was undoubtedly a master of the autocue, his discomfort was glaringly evident on the occasions when Messrs Hislop and Merton broke away from the script to enter into an exchange of unscheduled and off-the-cuff remarks, most notably during the show in which they lampooned him over his personal life. No longer in control, he crumbled visibly. Since his demise, the stand-ins have been a mixed bunch, some of them embarrassingly bad at reading the autocue, and subsequently mistiming the punch lines, while others have demonstrated a natural ability to take command of the show, and deliver comedic lines with consummate ease. Two worthy of a mention here are the unassuming and likeable Martin Clunes, and, perhaps surprisingly, William Hague, who very sportingly takes any jibes on the chin, responding in a way reminiscent of his erstwhile victories over Mr Blair during Prime Ministerís Question Time. On the occasion when mop-haired, Tory MP Boris Johnson took the chair, the programme degenerated into something of a shambles, with Boris mumbling to himself, fluffing his lines and generally losing the plot, leaving both audience and panellists howling with laughter. Whether it was a cleverly planned exercise on his part, or whether he genuinely is a bumbling fool (most people would plump for the latter), weíll never know, but it certainly ensured that the programme was hilariously funny that week. Quite honestly, I donít think the quality of the show has suffered in the long run as a result of Deaytonís departure Ė in fact, the unpredictability it has brought is a welcome change from the slick and sometimes smug performance we used to see week after week.
Ian Hislop and Paul Merton have been present since the beginning, and it is their repartee and quick-witted comments that hold the show together. The University- educated and politically aware Hislop is, as you would expect from an editor of Private Eye, tremendously scathing about certain public figures, including the Blairs, and indeed the current Labour government in general, and his outspoken, though marvellously witty and caustic observations have got him into trouble on many occasions in the past. His long standing feud (both on and off the programme) with the late Robert Maxwell led to an injunction preventing any further mention of him on the programme, which Ian circumnavigated with the line ďOf course, Iím not allowed to mention Robert MaxwellĒ, and which he went on to repeat several times during the remainder of the series. He is deliciously politically incorrect, and reminds you of the little boy in the story of the Emperorís new clothes, when he points out, with great simplicity, what everyone else is too afraid to say. Following the Maxwell affair and the well-documented court case with Sonia Sutcliffe, which prompted Ianís famous line ďIf thatís justice, Iím a banana!Ē, he took to using the word Ďallegedlyí after each comment made on the show, and the word has since found its way into everyday speech, becoming something of a catchphrase.
In contrast, Paul Merton is proud to be at the opposite end of the social scale, having achieved an ĎOí level in something like woodwork, and he teases Ian mercilessly about his ignorance of popular music and football, which Ian plays along with sportingly. Paulís humour is a totally different kind from Ianís; itís blunt and straight to the point, and he has a sense of the ridiculous, often drifting off into a ramble bordering on the surreal, and carrying the thread right through until the end of the programme. His delivery is made in deadpan style, along the lines of Tony Hancock, his great comic hero, and he also has the ability to shock, with the BBC bleeper being called into action on many an occasion. Because the bad language is used in context, however, it serves to make his comments all the more funny, and I donít personally find it offensive. The camera will frequently pan to the other side of the studio, where Ianís face will be crumpled with laughter, and although they pretend to be hostile to each other, itís clear that both men hold the otherís talents in very high esteem, and have a great professional respect for each other.
Since Deayton left, it has fallen on Ian and Paul to carry the show along, compensating for any weaknesses on the part of the guest host, and they are, for the most part, ably supported by the guest panellists. Regulars in the show include Germaine Greer, Charles Kennedy, (although less so since he became leader of the Lib-Dems) and Ken Livingstone, as well as respected figures from the comedy circuit, including Alan Davies, Clive Anderson and Eddy Izzard. From time to time, a personality who has previously been the subject of media attention and consequent ridicule from the team will appear on the show, often, I think in an effort to exact some form of revenge for past treatment. Invariably, however, this backfires on them, as it did in the case of Michael Winner, whose Y-fronts had been the source of much merriment, to the extent that he had threatened legal action against the BBC. Unfortunately for him, he tried to outdo Ian and Paul in the comedy stakes, with the result that he ended up looking even more ridiculous than before. Another victim of such wickedness was Edwina Currie, of salmonella fame, who attempted to crack jokes, when she ought to have stuck to cracking eggs. She, too, was firmly put in her place.
The pace of the show, which is recorded only a day before transmission in order to achieve maximum topical effect, is so fast, and the wit so caustically fresh, that youíd be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing is spontaneously off the cuff, but apparently the team do in fact work to a script, something that was unsportingly revealed to the tabloids by a guest (I forget whom), whoíd been upset at being teased by the team. Itís a tribute then, to the performers, that the programme comes across as being unscripted and unrehearsed, although Iím sure many of the biting comments must surely be added at the very last minute.
The latest series has now come to an end, and the BBC is currently repeating earlier episodes, the most recent including the fall-out from the David Beckham/Rebecca Loos affair. Itís a bit of a risk to repeat a topical show, for obvious reasons, but in this case, it seems to work, in that, even if youíve seen the programme before, the jokes are still funny, and there are often times when you feel you must have missed a particular remark the first time round. Sadly, there will inevitably come a time when either Ian Hislop or Paul Merton will feel that itís time to move on, and I sincerely hope that thatís when the BBC will decide to call it a day. While I enjoy the programme immensely, I feel that to try to carry on without one or both of these brilliant men would be doing the programme and the viewers an injustice. Without a doubt, Have I Got News For You is one of the funniest and most original programmes the BBC has ever produced, and it deserves to go out on a high.