Part Two: “Sperm of the Devil”

By Matthew Rudd

First published July 2005

By 1995, Have I Got News For You (yes, HIGNFY from now on) had made many millions of friends and a few enemies. Peter Stringfellow, Michael Winner and Jeffrey Archer took umbrage about stuff that was said about them, and clarifications and apologies were forthcoming. Stringfellow and Winner’s complaints were clearly designed to bolster their own publicity drives, given that “there are no guns in my nightclub” and “my pants are always pristine” (we’re paraphrasing, incidentally) are hardly ripostes to reputation-shattering libels. Archer got a correction after the show said he’d been made bankrupt (then again, Nicky Campbell said the same thing on Wheel of Fortune a few years later and the continuity geezer had to step in) but there was enough other dubious skeletal matter in the lecherous liar Lord’s wardrobe for this to pass uncommented. So, essentially, thanks to spot-on lawyers, terrific scripts and a massive shot of confidence from the public, the programme couldn’t be stronger.

The first episode of the year – heralding the ninth series – was on a mildly darkened backdrop and it didn’t look quite right. Still, the set’s always been a source of ignorance for everyone really; it was just a skin on the flesh which remained mainly succulent week by week. The first guests were maverick MP Diane Abbott and Paul Merton’s pal Julian Clary, neither of whom had seemingly bothered to brush up on the news. Abbott’s status as one of the more free-reigned politicians, bothered little by party constraints, was to the fore when, mid-trial, she proclaimed that OJ Simpson was “obviously guilty” while also happily defending her decision to ask political nemesis Jonathan Aitken to be godfather to her son on the grounds that he was “interesting”.

Meanwhile, Ian Hislop seemed to have had his goat well and truly got as the new series breathed its first. He took great joy in telling the infamous story of John Gorman, a traveller who was subjected to threats, abusive phone calls, violent attacks and vandalism after he dared to complain to British Airways when he swallowed broken glass in his brandy during a trans-Atlantic flight. The entire odd-one-out round covered this story – which was premiered in Private Eye – and Abbott, as a sitting MP with power to moan officially about such treatment, had to ask out of sheer astonishment if it was all true when the fourth and final round of revelations about BA’s treatment of the man was revealed via the Angus Deayton autocue.

In episode two, Hislop treated the nation to arguably his best-known tirade and certainly a HIGNFY moment of which he can be proud, beyond his Jimmy Somerville impersonations and ruthless put-downs for guests he didn’t like (we’ll come to those). The story of the National Lottery shelling out £12m for Winston Churchill’s papers upset him greatly, to wit:

“Winston Churchill’s papers, which should have been given free to the nation anyway by this rather greedy family, have actually been sold off on the threat that, ‘Oh by the way, we’ve got some interest from American academics and we might flog it off to them’. So the National Lottery, instead of giving 12 million quid to – I don’t know – researching into cancer or saving small children who are dying, said: ‘Oh let’s give Winston Churchill and his family 12 million quid’. Strikes me as rather revolting.”

The applause which followed was huge, as Hislop continued: “Their grandfather would have had a fit,” though Merton retorted: “No, he would have had a drink!”

Unremarkable debuts came and went for the Johns Bird and Fortune, as well as Alan Cumming and the witless Steve Wright, before another moment in the show’s folklore (again with Hislop at the helm) came along. This time his victim was Germaine Greer; a woman who was at least his intellectual equivalent and joyfully laughed along at the satirist as he had some fun at a little spat between herself and another feminist column writer, which had been overblown in the broadsheets. We all remember his paraphrasing of Greer’s claim that her rival Suzanne Moore had “10 inches of fat cleavage and wore ‘fuck me’ shoes”. Merton, ever aware of other people’s problems becoming over-dominant, timed it nicely when first he asked: “Why would shoes want to be fucked anyway?” and then, ultimately: “Can you get ‘fuck me’ socks?” Though much of his leap-ins were designed to puncture the pretensions of more highbrow guests, often his achievement could be seen to the contrary, with an emphasis on repairing the damage to the show’s flow a two-person debate could easily inflict. It was Greer’s second appearance – she’s since acquired the record without ever really hitting such heights again.

The rest of series nine was made notable for the arrival of the then-Prime Minister’s elder brother Terry Major-Ball, who told a goading Hislop he’d stopped purchasing Private Eye since it went up to a pound (“You can photocopy it for less than a pound!”) and a typically old-and-carefree display from Spike Milligan, invited on at Merton’s request, who told a lovely story about how he ended up in court for pointing a gun at burglars, whom he then told to “keep still.” The autumn series of 1995, however, would begin on a high and a low together, depending on your point of view over Paulagate.

Paula Yates’ public image had taken a battering thanks to her decision to walk out on her husband (who happened to double-up as everyone’s favourite saintly rock star), and then shack up with Michael Hutchence, who had previously listed one of his hobbies as “corrupting Kylie” while also displaying a penchant for smacking photographers. Furthermore, she had happily undergone a breast enlargement operation for their relationship and then wrote a book about it. With obvious nerves of steel and a shameless capacity to promote herself at all costs, she went on the first episode of series 10. When Merton, her team captain, received an odd-one-out question about breast enlargement surgery, she started a row that she was never going to win.

The Hislop-Yates argument – in which guest Gordon Kennedy was a bamboozled spectator and Merton a peacemaker – has prompted many points of view. The consensus was that as Yates went into the programme with bad PR from her marriage dissolution and beau-pleasing surgery, she had it coming. The truth may not be far from that, and she didn’t help matters by ferociously protesting Deayton’s claim that, according to her publication, she had her surgery after meeting Hutchence. Hislop’s touch paper was lit: “You mean the book’s rubbish? Well I know that, but …” She had already asked him to “stop being unkind” while also admitting both she and Hutchence would smack photographers taking pictures if they weren’t from the right organisation, thus prompting Hislop’s subsequent mention of two “black eyes”. This led Merton to exclaim: “Who’s going to get two black eyes? You’re not going jogging are you?”

On it went, to everyone’s amazement. Yates’ over-zealous protestations were, in hindsight, done with expert manipulative timing, knowing that even words from a great crusader and hater of all false celebrity like Hislop would do little damage to the massive publicity she and her book would get. That said, some of the stuff thrown at her from the Private Eye editor needed to be blocked away by a super-thick skin. “I gather it took six days to write this book. Did you get writer’s block or something?”

Deayton, trying to at least establish the facts, asked Yates if she did indeed have her operation at the beginning of her relationship with Hutchence. Squirming but still smiling, she took just too long to reply – a resounding “yes” came from the studio audience. Heckling was rare indeed. “So much for sisterhood!”, she remonstrated, ineffectively. “Is that what you said to Helena Christensen?” snapped Hislop, knowing Hutchence had dumped the model for Yates. Again Merton tried to make less hate-filled comedy from it, asking Yates if she had to look at a wallchart of samples when choosing which breasts to have, “or do you just take a bowler hat and say ‘give us two of those’?”

As Yates then answered her own odd-one-out question, she caught sight of a smug Hislop. “Don’t even look at me, you sperm of the devil”. Arguably the most famous quote of the show’s history, a television legend had been created. “Even your insults emanate from the genitals!” groaned Hislop, feeling thoroughly vindicated. He would later take great pity on Yates, not least upon the occasion of her death, but never regretted a word.

When the rest of the series was allowed to take over, it was clear such heights would not be achieved again. But still HIGNFY was creating headlines and prompting watercooler debates, even in offices without watercoolers. And in the very next episode it got close to such feats, and this time for all the right reasons.

Comic and television presenter Bob Mills, in a garish green shirt, and SNP leader (at the first time of asking) Alex Salmond were the guests – Salmond in the process becoming the first serving political leader to appear on the show. The programme knocked about in its usual giggly fashion for the first 20 minutes or so until again the odd-one-out round gave Merton an awkward question. This time it didn’t involve a guest and their grubby public antics or meaningless showbizzery, but a genuine reason to hit hard, pierce the powerful and make a point.

The question was about McDonalds and some of the inedible and dangerous “impurities” which have been discovered in their food at branches round the world over the years. Raw sewage was the odd-one-out – that was found in a restaurant, not the actual food (“Though it was a brave man who ordered the chocolate milkshake that day” – Deayton) – but the e. coli bacteria, the back legs of a mouse and a nematode worm had all found their way into the grub. Deayton asked Merton which was the odd-one-out, to which he replied: “Is there a beefburger in there?”, while the firm’s quoted comment on the nematode worm’s presence was that it was not dangerous as it was dead – “Presumably as it had eaten some e. coli bacteria”, said Deayton.

This was vintage HIGNFY – ripping to shreds the spin and drivel from global corporations when things go wrong and the individual is deemed too powerless to be compensated satisfactorily; and brilliantly funny with it. And, even though Hislop warned at the outset that McDonalds were “notoriously litigious”, there wasn’t a thing they could say back. The lawyers had done their job and maintained their spine.

In episode three, Mike Yarwood’s enjoyable presence prompted a singular round of impersonations, which allowed Merton to ignore his specialist guest and produce reasonably accurate take-offs of Harold Wilson and Melvyn Bragg (who was on the opposite side anyway) while the inevitable turn from Hislop was that of Jimmy Somerville (“WooooooOOOOOOOOH BABY!”). The laughter from the audience was just explosive. “Can’t imagine ever being asked to do Question Time again!”

The rest of the run saw debuts for Terry Christian (mute – though that was almost certainly down to unfavourable editing), Teresa Gorman (giggly) and Neil Morrissey (not a comedian in a 1000 years, no matter how well he delivers a sitcom script). A fine episode came thanks to comic actor and poet Craig Charles and right-wing American writer PJ O’Rourke, with Charles admitting that in order to write his Time Out columns, he used to “just rob all of his stuff!” There was an ace missing words round, while Charles’ own recent brushes with the law (cleared of rape) didn’t deter him from insinuations over Richard Madeley’s willingness to pay for items (cleared of theft) or police investigations of Julia Somerville and her husband after finding nude photographs of their children as they bathed (no charges brought). The last episode of 1995 saw the regulars and guests accompanied by a parrot called Colin, on its perch, in the forlorn hope it would contribute. It didn’t say a thing until Deayton was wrapping up the show – “It waited until it was funny!” said Merton. An appropriate final contribution from the masterful game-player, as 1996 would see a decline in the programme’s fortunes and more of an appreciation of the trio in charge as a result.

By now, many fancied pulling the series from its pedestal. Columnists, editors, politicians and celebs all queued up to take potshots in print or issue complaints (most of which were chucked out) to the BBC when HIGNFY had the nerve to swipe at them. Hislop continued to make enemies and ensnare readerships through Private Eye while Deayton’s image of the overpaid and overdressed smarmer and layabout was producing a sizeable amount of hate-mail. The first series of 1996 nearly brought the show’s death from within before an interloper, hell-bent on seeing HIGNFY collapse in front of him, unwittingly gave it back its strength.

Much of the series, which didn’t include Paul Merton, fell into overblown debate. Moral and political machinations were given their regular chewing by Hislop and some of the more highbrow guests, but there was nobody among the stand-in captains who had the facility to bring it all down to an acceptable and relatable level with the skill and ease of a Merton. Needing a break for battery-recharging and to accommodate a tour, he did the first episode – on Hislop’s team – with Charles Kennedy sitting alongside guest captain Eddie Izzard on the other side. Little was wrong with the episode thanks to Merton being on thankful form, irrespective of seating plan, and it was quite intriguing to assess the relationship between he and Hislop when the two didn’t have a studio’s width between them. But then he was off, and the programme was tough to watch as a result.

In his absence, the production team alternated between using a peer comic of Merton (Izzard, Clive Anderson, Alan Davies) in his place; and the deployment of known double-acts, these being Bird and Fortune and, most memorably, Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey. Though neither had any satirical bent (and, more to the point, shamelessly admitted they didn’t especially care) their knockabout “laddishness”, in keeping with the television characters they were playing at the time, made for a deeply funny episode for entirely the wrong reasons. Topicality was chucked entirely out of the window and though Hislop was seen to laugh, he also sported expressions of chagrin.

The other guest was agony aunt Claire Rayner, and therefore a “special” round of filling in the speech bubbles from the Sun’s agony play-for-today Deidre’s Photo Casebook was executed. The basic story was of a wife worrying about whether her little lad was telling the truth when he said he’d caught his daddy in bed with the Dutch au pair. With one speech bubble completed, the role of the participants was to fill in the other. After much unsubtle sexual innuendo from Clunes and Morrissey, the tour de force came when the little boy was seen to have caught his dad and the au pair “at it” and asked, quite reasonably: “Daddy, what are you doing?” Clunes suggested: “Apparently she’s Dutch – hop in.”

But this all was a sideshow to the truth that the programme was really struggling. Even though Merton and Hislop never had much in common, it was clear the verbal joustings and Hislop’s obvious respect for his colleague’s consummate skills had subdued the captain’s enthusiasm when Merton took his hike. Without any comic jousting to do, he had to find a source for some loathsome sniping instead – and boy, did he get his man.

The decision of Piers Morgan to come on the programme is possibly the worst that has ever been made by a guest. A long time enemy of Hislop, whose magazine had made no secret of their dislike for him as person, journalist and editor, he arrived intent on making life tough for the Private Eye head. Morgan tried jokes as the game wore on, but failed. The audience weren’t keen. Hislop was enjoying himself (“You’re very left-wing for someone who used to edit the News of the World”). So he turned to personal insult and childish sneering over the careers of those in the studio with him.

When an odd-one-out question regarding celebs who had made complaints about Morgan’s papers intruding on their lives was asked, Ian suggested that for sending snappers to the hospital bedside of Earl Spencer’s wife, the editor got “rather bollocked by Murdoch.” “Rather?” retorted Morgan. “I got severely bollocked.” “And sacked?” asked Hislop, unflinchingly. “No I wasn’t sacked. But I’m glad you said that as it’s going to help pay for the holiday – thanks.”

Morgan perhaps thought he was poking fun at himself for threatening legal action and demanding his own privacy, but his entirely charmless manner meant Hislop – and the highly qualified lawyer Anderson alongside him – weren’t letting him get away with it. And nor did the audience want them to.

Izzard’s main contribution to his two episodes had been, in Izzard-esque desperation for a line, his memorable suggestion that “three of them are made of jam!” for an odd-one-out question. Seven days on – “is the answer ‘jam’ at all?” asked Morgan. “Last week Eddie Izzard said it and you all roared with laughter.” “But people like him,” replied Hislop. Applause from the audience followed as Morgan grinned, believing he was still the populist’s man in the studio – he had the tabloid, Hislop, the sarky mag. The question of the hack’s admiration among the proles quickly came up again as the team captains bit once more.

“The last time I was rude to you, you sent photographers round to my house,” said Anderson. “You won’t see them this time,” came the grumpy, nasty reply. Hislop was thrilled by the way his enemy was sinking himself lower. “He is charming, isn’t he?” he said, mugging to the crowd. “Don’t play the popularity card with me, Hislop.” “Why?” Morgan turned to the audience. “Do you actually like him? Do you like Ian Hislop?” The affronted crowd shouted “Yes” as one. Morgan shook his head in disbelief that his nemesis was so loved; Hislop shook his head at Morgan’s own idiocy. Anderson piped up. “Ian is a regular on this programme and they’ve come here to see him! They don’t care about us!”

Anderson, a fearless debater (which Morgan didn’t seem to realise as he tried to argue the toss), proceeded to rip shreds off Morgan, even though they were on the same side. Hislop utterly destroyed him. The “moron” tag stuck, and several years later his own newspaper, the Daily Mirror, printed unflattering photographs of Hislop on a daily basis asking for dirt on the Private Eye editor and promising exclusive stories on him. They never emerged. But Morgan would return to haunt the show, if not his enemy. What was more of a concern was whether Merton would come back and save it from becoming a little too hard-hitting. The light entertainment flame was being snuffed out. Of all the guests, only the acerbic American comic Rich Hall (“Smoked pot and didn’t inhale, that’s all anyone knows about the president. Anybody who wastes good pot is going to waste taxpayers’ money”) added anything Merton-esque to the proceedings. The others were all too surreal, too serious or just too unfunny to give the viewer confidence in the event of the break becoming permanent.

By the autumn, Merton was back and the programme’s devotees could be truly grateful. HIGNFY had its dependability and star quality once again, and could settle into its comfy slippers mode. For a show that thrived on reacting to new stuff all the time, it needed that element of familiarity which was impossible when Martin Clunes was claiming “we’re only here to help the ratings”. That said, the 12th run had few standout moments, though when Peter Stringfellow appeared and admitted he had a 17-year-old girlfriend, Merton’s reply of “your haircut’s older than that” became one of the show’s fame-lines.

Further on, and Nigel Lawson’s appearance heralded the title of highest-ranking politician (ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer) to accept an invitation to appear. Like his old buddy Cecil Parkinson, he played the game right – refuting claims and received political wisdoms from Hislop and Deayton, and playing it straight without ever being cold or badly informed. He was plugging his diet book at the time, having shed many stones in weight, and with Australian comic actor Mark Little on the other team, was introduced by Deayton as “opposite Mr Little, we have the former Mr Large …”

Great debuts came from Elvis Costello, who was so taken by Hislop’s impersonation of him he handed over his spectacles to give the mimicry more realism; and the chef Jennifer Paterson, who willingly took part in an aside from Merton which suggested they were mother and son (“How’s dad?” “He went!” “Ah well, never trust a coalman. Empty their sacks and off they go!”) and then later had the gall to tap him in rebuke when he swore during the final round, to which he replied: “Sorry mum”. Labour MP Austin Mitchell found himself completely out of his depth – and knew it – when he told a funny story which his manner made wholly unfunny, prompting him to ask: “How does it feel to have a real comedian on the show?” before lapsing into astonishing hysterics which made the others look both amused and worried for him. Merton could only enquire: “Would you like somebody to come and sit with you?”

The captain also let himself go a bit when he and the ever-excellent Francis Wheen equalled the series’ record for margin of victory, beating Hislop and Sheffield comedian Mark Hurst 19 – 6. As the losers protested, Wheen suggested to Deayton that he should “give them a point” only for Merton to butt in with: “No, we’ll have them as it’s one of the biggest scores we’ve ever had over that little shit over there …” and then clasped his hand to his mouth, genuinely shocked at his own words. As the applause died and Hislop waited for the retraction, Merton duly started to backtrack. “Sorry! Sometimes when you talk quickly you don’t know what the end of the sentence is going to be! I withdraw that immediately!” Hislop, clearly happy with the explanation, still wasn’t going to let him get away with it. “No, he’s Britain’s wittiest man! ‘That little shit’! Roll over Oscar Wilde – Merton’s in town!”

And so life, and HIGNFY, was back to normal as it moved into 1997, which would be an election year and a consequently eventful one. The first episode, just a fortnight before polling day, saw environmental protester Swampy drop in, unwashed and unkempt (and what’s more, unperturbed), as the youngest ever competitor on the show. He made Ian corpse when, on hearing controversial Tory MP Neil Hamilton (a major figure for the wrong reasons during the election campaign) had expressed his public support for his direct action against countryside damage, replied: “Excellent! Who is he?”

The series also showed a new side to Hislop, who had always managed to keep personal political beliefs fiercely indoors throughout his Private Eye editorship and HIGNFY‘s run, but now he was making obvious connections between the Labour theme song Things Can Only Get Better and the Labour Party – essentially supporting the party and the ideals without actually saying so. The last episode pre-poll saw old schoolfriends Hugh Dennis (brilliant again) and Will Self (immortally brilliant) swap daft anecdotes about playing rugby together (Dennis: “I had to stick my head right up Will’s backside.”) and applying to universities from their educational establishment, University College School in Barnet (Dennis: “It was awful when filling in the forms to go to university because there was a section which said UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE/SCHOOL and you had to write it all out again – and expect them to let you in!” Self: “I always thought that just writing: ‘Yes’ was sufficient”). All this japery suggested the election stuff was being held over for the mid-series special six days later, to be broadcast, like the 1992 episode, the moment the polls closed.

The ensuing edition was not much of an event. Labour luvvie Richard Wilson joined Hislop and political and social broadcaster Nick Ross was recruited to sit with Merton. Nobody really got going, though when Wilson correctly answered a missing words question right, Ross did reveal it had come up accidentally on the guests’ monitors and therefore, essentially, his opponent had cheated. Under the hoots of derision, Wilson protested: “If something comes up, I read it. I’m an actor!” though Hislop (“The first Labour sleaze!”) was having none of it. Undoubtedly it was a strong ending, but it was the post-election episode which set precedents both in show structure and in the formation of a new career opportunity, “appearing in the media”.

Initially the plan was just to feature Christine Hamilton as Merton’s guest, but she turned up with her ousted husband Neil at the recording and asked if they could both do it. Seizing the chance to make some sizzling telly and really let Hislop go off on one (having a pop at a Tory wife is only half the fun of having a go at a beaten Tory husband – and his wife), an extra chair was acquired and the Hamiltons made the first of what would be many appearances as a celebrity couple as they sought to redefine their lives following their loss to Martin Bell.

In truth, they were superb. They were torn apart at times, but the wifely Hamilton gave as good as she got and had some clever lines. When Merton told a story about a cow falling out of a plane, Mrs Hamilton said: “If you expect me to believe that then I’m a banana”, with a timely glance at Hislop. The audience appreciated the gag and her awareness, and she received deserved applause. Later, her rather nervous husband commented: “It’s better making political jokes than being one,” and his sportsmanship at such a remark also gained applause and a begrudging acknowledgement of agreement from Hislop. As it ended, they even laughed when Deayton gave them their “fees” – in two large, brown envelopes. Somehow they got away with it and would do so for years to come.

The rest of the series couldn’t match the heights attained during the electioneering. Debuts came and went, without great incident, for Michael Parkinson, who was introduced with his own theme (and yes, we saw that poxy emu incident again, with the curmudgeonly chat show host telling of how Billy Connolly was on the same edition and ‘told’ Emu: “Come near me and I’ll break your neck and his bloody arm”); Eve Pollard, Sue Perkins and Dominic Holland, while writer and talk show host Jack Docherty made his third appearance which equalled the unremarkability of his first two. Opposite him was Channel 5 boss Greg Dyke, whose anecdote about someone having a sausage in the back of the telly to guarantee a decent signal was the only worthy part of the episode.

The rest of 1997 saw the series begin it’s 14th run with the welcome return of Bob Monkhouse, whose recent anguish at losing his favourite joke book prompted Merton to admit his part in the dishonesty, stating he was done for “receiving stolen goods.” Once again, the show felt comfy. The public didn’t though, as this was the first episode of the first post-Diana run, and with Private Eye shamelessly scoring satirical points (and dividing its readership completely in the process) with its cover story following the Paris crash, the public waited to see if HIGNFY would follow suit. It didn’t. It avoided the issue entirely. Again, this was a divisive tactic – some would question the programme’s status as the nation’s first port of call for sharp riposte to the political and social ills of the globe; others welcomed the space it allowed for two teenage boys to grieve properly. It was never really resolved fully as the shows rumbled through to Christmas, though gags did begin to seep in the following year when enough time had elapsed.

Ken Livingstone came back for another go in the first episode and kept hold of the record for guest appearances for some time thereafter. A devolution special in all but name followed, with Alex Salmond coming back to sit opposite professional Welsh raconteur Max Boyce, though the highlight of this programme was when a round regarding foot-in-the-mouth moments down the years from high-ranked dignitaries was played, culminating in a rundown of the Duke of Edinburgh’s long roll call of insults and faux-pas when touring the world. Salmond seemed especially amused when Philip was reported to have asked a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough for them to pass the test?”

Dermot Morgan appeared for a second time on the show; three months later and a heart attack would kill him at just 45 years of age. Hislop and Merton then dominated an appearance from Channel 5′s news anchor Kirsty Young, where the Private Eye editor proceeded to ape her presentation style by answering the first question while sitting on his desk. She would later make a massive impact on the programme from a different chair. Meanwhile, Merton found himself staring at a cigarette thrown onto the studio floor by someone in the studio audience, after hearing the comedian had given up smoking that week. Sunday Sport editor Tony Livesey, a man expected to be quite loathsome, turned out to be pleasant, witty and articulate and not slow on the uptake. When fellow guest Arabella Weir revealed she was once in a pop group called the Li-Lets, he replied: “You only did one gig a month, I presume”. He also took great delight in the round devoted entirely to weird headlines from his own publication and had Hislop pleading with him not to carry out his offer of sending him a subscription. “I live in quite a nice area …” said the horrified team captain.

Seven days later and the parping, big deal theme tune from Big George changed for the first time since the opening series, as the show took on an American sitcom theme. The credits rolled at 20 times their normal speed, rendering them entirely unreadable, and canned laughter accompanied the introduction. British institution Warren Mitchell stole the show with his tale of how he was only allowed to appear in a film with Telly Savalas if he agreed to wear a wig, because the Kojak star insisted on being the only bald man on camera. “But I was still a better actor than him”, was the tremendous pay-off. Art critic Brian Sewell then appeared (in cravat) to pontificate about paintings and women drivers, and displayed a determination to not laugh too much at the others, though when chirpy comic Jeff Green completed the headline “Hague devises ___ for Tories” with “Ffion rota”, he guffawed long and loudly.

1998 proved an important year for HIGNFY as it featured the debut performances of two of the show’s most important and memorable guests, both of whom had seemingly been warned by superiors not to accept the invitation, but to the viewers’ great benefit, chose to ignore the advice. It’s genuinely difficult now, for example, to imagine the programme without Boris Johnson.

Nobody really knew him prior to his appearance; but by the end, while the viewing public related to him in no way whatsoever, they adored him. It was clear from the off he was someone whom Hislop loved, even to the extent of the ribbing he got over his taped telephone conversation with fraudster friend Darius Guppy and his plan to beat up a hack who was looking into him. “I’m way out of my depth here,” said a bedraggled Johnson after a thorough verbal kicking over the incident. “I’ve been totally stitched up. I want it on the record that I’ve walked into a massive elephant trap. I should have spotted it!” Merton smiled in pity and amusement as the audience applauded Johnson’s graceful admission of defeat, but he got angrier. “This man Hislop is quoting verbatim a conversation I had on the phone … 10 years ago!” “Yeah, because it’s a terribly funny transcript which I have a copy of!” retorted Hislop. “And I reprint it in my magazine whenever humanly possible – usually when you’ve just made some right-wing speech about law and order and I try to remind you that you were involved in a conspiracy!”

The other great arrival to the fray was less buffoonish, better known and perhaps more surprising as a source of amusement. But unlike Johnson, who was very much a willing butt of jokes, this man was a purveyor of them. BBC political correspondent John Sergeant’s 1998 debut on HIGNFY would later be described by Hislop as: “The most entertaining guest appearance we’ve had”. Sergeant, with his bashed look and wry put-down humour, was comedy in human form and had a history in his undergraduate days as a good sketch writer and performer, before journalism beckoned. He appeared in a week where the arms to Sierra Leone scandal had broken and the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was trying to claim ignorance, blaming the officials. “He’s got all the documents inside his box, and they’ve been put there by officials to incriminate him,” said Sergeant, as footage showed Cook and his red ministerial container. Probed by Deayton on Cook’s culpability, Sergeant continued: “Totally innocent. He’s a very wonderful person and throughout the show I’ll be saying this about all government ministers.” On he went. “I’m looking forward to the film. You know, you’ve heard of a film called Out of Africa, this is going to be called Into Africa.” “I gather Tom Cruise is going to play Robin Cook,” said Hislop. But Sergeant’s skit was prepared. “Well, I think when you think of Robin Cook, you think of Kenneth Branagh. But would he get the laughs?”

The round then moved on to the Eurovision Song Contest, with pop mogul Jonathan King allowed to comment upon his specialist subject. But Sergeant was ready to maintain his contribution. “But what about Switzerland? They had ‘nul points’, right in the middle of Europe, nothing! That’s a warning, isn’t it? That’s a warning!” When King expressed his concern that Sergeant knew too much about the competition, the BBC political expert had the right reply: “Well no, we’re told we have to do Eurovision first. We’re going after the bigger audience now. ‘Dumbing up’ we call it!” The smile on Merton’s face was genuine. This was a fantastic performance from someone unexpectedly clued-up and droll. Sergeant maintained this hot streak for the rest of the edition, reaching another peak when his famous live snub from Margaret Thatcher in Paris, mid-leadership contest, was shown and he faux-moaned: “It’s a very badly edited version of that. I addressed the points to her, she responded at length – ‘John’, she said, all that.” Merton, loving this, played along: “It’s been cruelly distorted!” “Yes,” replied Sergeant, with fabulous mock protest, “I came over looking silly there!”

While these two show legends were picking up the plaudits, there were strong debuts for John Humphrys (though his tour-de-force would come later), Labour MP Oona King and chef Antony Worrall-Thompson. Much fun was to be had in a science-centric episode midway through the spring run when medi-comic Phil Hammond and astronomer Patrick Moore pitched up. Moore professionally explained a story about gravitational pull from the planets with the aid of a bowl of fruit and a liquorice allsort; Hammond asked Hislop for precise details of his appendicitis operation which occurred immediately after an episode in the seventh series. “Did they give you a rectal?” he demanded to know. “In my days as a doctor, it was routine. Anyone who might have appendicitis, they used to give you a rectal examination to see if you had an awkward lying appendix because they could feel the end of it. But they only do it now to patients they particularly dislike!”

Also doing good business was Viz editor Chris Donald, who had a delightful argument with Germaine Greer over an issue of whether a scheme which saw a bunch of students go to Scarborough but claim they had been to the Costa Del Sol was art. Donald said it was a scam; Greer said it was art. “I was at the same school, and in the sixth form we went to Scarborough to celebrate when we left school,” said Donald. “But we all had to pay ourselves, we hired a bus and went ourselves. We didn’t make a fuss when we got back either.” Greer protested that he was getting too “solemn” about it, but Donald was adamant. “In the old days, when it was art you would paint a picture and say: ‘Look, that’s a good picture, now I’m going to do another one’. In 30 years time they’re going to be coming back saying ‘I’ve been to Torromolinos this time!’” Greer thought she could fight back: “There were supposed to be 13 of them but all the pictures show 11. I don’t know where the other two are …” but Donald was ready – “well, one would be taking the picture.”

In the final episode of the series came a great piece of self-defence from Danny Baker, who appeared on the show in the week when Paul Gascoigne, fresh from being photographed on various drinking binges with Baker and Chris Evans, had been left out of the England squad for the World Cup that summer. “The papers said that Chris Evans and I used Paul Gascoigne for showbusiness ends. We use him to further our careers. I’ve known him 10 years – it’s failed, hasn’t it? So that’s that. And Chris Evans uses him for publicity purposes. That’s like saying the Queen needs Prince Philip for air miles.” People were on his side until he declared that Glenn Hoddle was a “bourgeois fool”, prompting Paul to double-check the allegation – “He’s only picking posh people to play for England? Like D’Arcy Shearer?”

It was a strong opening series, galvanised further by the news that Conservative MP Rupert Allason, a willing guest two years earlier, had failed in his libel bid against the show and the BBC when he was labelled a “conniving little shit” in a tie-in book, something which Merton was happy to check up on over and over again.

The second series of 1998 was the 16th in total. John Simpson and the marvellous Magnus Magnusson were the guests in a cracking opening episode in which the journalist recounted his hallucinogenic experiences again after discussion of the Blue Peter drugs scandal, which saw presenter Richard Bacon fired. Deayton’s autocue gags were among the finest ever prepared for the programme, claiming Bacon had “left the BBC under a cloud – he sneezed on his way out. It’s not known where he got his drugs from but it’s believed the Blue Peter garden now has a street value of £200,000.” Meanwhile, Magnusson’s presence prompted a Mastermind special – Merton given the Starr report as a specialist subject; the quiz show host answered questions on Mastermind itself; Simpson was asked to complete Christmas cracker jokes (and had to rely on Hislop whispering the answers); and Hislop tackled the life of Rupert Murdoch. Magnusson’s round was the highlight (Deayton: “What was the question you got wrong in Quizball in 1968 which would have won it for Kilmarnock FC?” Magnusson: “‘What was the name of the American playwright who married Marilyn Monroe?’” Deayton: “Correct – and what was the name of the American playwright who married Marilyn Monroe?” Magnusson: “I had problems with that, because all I could remember was the name of the surgeon who operated on my mother’s kidneys.”).

Further episodes included a daft cameo from Ian McCaskill, who told of the fan mail he got from women who were “of a certain age, you know. Past their reproductive best”; a stoic Michael Mansfield, whose legal achievements were overshadowed briefly by his revelation that he once invented a hat with built-in umbrella; and a pampered Jackie Mason, flown over at great expense on Concorde to talk about Bill Clinton’s success in the States (“He’s gotten more popular every time he does it. When he got the first girl he was 59% in the polls. Then he played around with another – 62%. He fooled around with another girl – 65%. If he fools around with one more girl he’ll become the Emperor of Japan.”) and also to hear the others’ take on the Peter Mandelson “outing” scandal and the bizarre BBC ban on referring to it again – which HIGNFY satirised by showing film of Mandelson with a white stripe covering his eyes.

Outspoken Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews was an enjoyable turn, especially when he revealed ministers’ plans for the Westminster pigeons (“We’re permanently trying to get rid of the pigeons – we put de-stabilising ointment on the ledges, sort of similar to what we’re doing to the Liberal Democrats”); George Melly spun a good yarn over his alleged “seduction” of Peregrine Worsthorne when the two were at school together (“He said I seduced him expertly – expertly I like!”); and then the last episode introduced a completely dominant, all-compassing, fascination-filled Tom Baker who was awash with anecdotes – being mistaken for Shirley Williams and trying to get something from the Body Shop which would make him “smell like a bonfire. I once went out with a girl who smelt like a bonfire. She was a goer!”

In 1999, the 17th series seemed reliant on debutants. Of the 16 guests brought in, only five had been on the show before. Stephen Fry was among them, his first appearance in six-and-a-half years since the 1992 Christmas special which arguably still ranks as the greatest individual performance ever seen on HIGNFY. One of the few guests ever to make Hislop really, really collapse into hysterical jelly, Fry was ribbed on his re-appearance twice over – firstly over his invitation to attend Prince Edward’s wedding (but not his stag night – “I have not penetrated Prince Edward’s intimate circle”) and then about the Brazilian singer who composed a tune regarding Fry’s infamous desertion of a West End play after one set of poor reviews (Merton: “Is there a video? Lots of doors closing!”). Meanwhile, newcomers such as Richard Whiteley, fresh from a “planted answers” mini-scandal on Countdown (“I’m just hesitating because I’m not getting the answer in my earpiece”), David Aaronovitch, Paul Daniels, ex-Treasury spin doctor Charlie Whelan and the superb Bill Bailey (on Sean Connery’s support for the SNP: “He’s on the ‘I live in Marbella, wife-slapping’ ticket”) all contributed richly and effervescently to the series. Brian Sewell revisited his “women drivers, bad artists” shtick, but complemented it with a phenomenal admission that he had rung numbers put on cards in telephone boxes and proceeded to tell a story about how he called one, couldn’t agree a fee, so he rang another and realised it was the same person (Merton: “She must be rushed off her feet, and I could use a better word than rushed”); and Clarissa Dickson-Wright equalled her partner-in-thyme Jennifer Paterson’s stunning debut giving as good as she got to Deayton and Hislop over her weight and support for GM crops.

The emergence of the internet by 1998 posed a problem for the show in the coming 12 months, when a “transcript” appeared which was quickly forwarded to everyone with half an interest. It was supposedly of an out-take from an episode featuring Sir Jimmy Savile and was unerringly offensive, crammed with libellous statements and designed to cause maximum damage while protecting the perpetrator’s identity in the way only the internet can. It was also entirely fictional. Savile’s appearance was uncontroversial and quite respectful, though Hislop looked scornful when, having seen an ashtray on the desk, his guest lit a trademark cigar. Conscious that his captain was unhappy at the thought of passive-smoking, Savile turned his back on him (and audience) with the words: “Let me know when you need me”. Hislop looked at his watch and grinned knowingly to the crowd. During the same episode, one of the great common traits of Hislop was to the fore again, when he proceeded to explain articulately and knowledgably about how good a tactical game Manchester United managed to play to win the European Champions League, only to confess it was all about memorising and parroting something he’d read (Merton: “When you say Giggs had to go outside his marker, what do you mean?” Hislop: “I’ve no idea!”).

HIGNFY was now at flagship stage for BBC2. The final series of the century was the 18th, but the start was quiet. An excellent debut from the humorous and humane Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, complete with his fantastic asteroid attack obsession (“My grandfather was an asteroid … enthusiast …” [To audience] “He wasn’t an asteroid …!”) in the first episode was tempered by a rather haughty and self-protective appearance seven days later by Gordon Ramsay, who would later learn how to use TV much more effectively. Hislop enjoyed the chef’s company though – on AA Gill’s infamous spat with Ramsay at the restaurant, the firebrand said: “He was just being very rude and obnoxious”. Hislop retorted: “You want to keep that sort of thing in the kitchen, don’t you?”

Then along came the Earl of Onslow. Hislop has always been a socially higher class of person, but he had to bow to the hereditary peer – figuratively – whose plummy accent and daft cravat hid an engaging, aware nature (on the Spice Girls: “I think they’re totally delicious”) as well as a thorough and occasionally loud appreciation of Paul’s humour, no more so than when Deayton asked the other guest, Glenda Jackson, what her school motto had been, with the politician being unsure as to whom the host had directed the query, therefore replying: “Who are you looking at?” Merton piped up: “That must have been a tough school”. The Earl also took Jackson, still as defensive as she was five years previously, to the cleaners for charm and you could almost hear a small countrywide cheer when Deayton announced in post-production over the credits that the Earl had been judged “worthy” of maintaining a place in the Lords (he came on the show at a time when hereditary peers were being axed from the upper house – hence Hislop doing throat-cutting actions at the crowd) and thus retained his seat. The Private Eye editor would later put him alongside Sergeant in the entertainment stakes.

Sergeant himself was back the next week, and turned in another gloriously unfazed and frivolous display, followed by a wonderful episode which hit real heights thanks to the sharpness and anecdotal flow of raconteur and Tory MP Gyles Brandreth (“John Prescott heckled me. I was giving almost my maiden speech to the House of Commons and heard this sophisticated voice coming across the chamber – ‘woolly jumper!’ – I tried, but he continued – ‘woolly jumper!’ Eventually I had to pause and point out to Mr Prescott that the joy of a woolly jumper is that you can take it off at will, whereas the blight of a woolly mind is that you are lumbered with it for life.”) Alex Salmond came back a week later for an impressive third run, before the long-awaited return of Boris Johnson, sat alongside Hislop this time, with the team captain unafraid to keep badgering and teasing his fellow editor despite their being on the same team. Not that Merton wasn’t going to do likewise – when asked what sort of art he had on his bedroom wall at home, Johnson replied: “Well actually, I paint myself.” Quick as a flash, Merton said: “Do you get into bed before you’re dry?”

The final episode of the series saw the show’s eldest guest in the shape of Bill Deedes, the ex Tory minister and Telegraph editor, whose mildly slow manner endeared him to the audience and the others round the arc, though the fabulous Will Self refuted his suggestion that “the difference between you and I is that I have danced with Miss World and you have not”. Self replied: “That’s not the only difference, surely?” Deedes was also awash with anecdotes, including his confession that he took some purple hearts (“I didn’t inhale!”) prior to making a big speech to the Conservative conference to counter his nerves. Deayton said: “Well, it’s highly irresponsible to be high on drugs in front of a Tory prime minister – eh Will?” Self, infamous for his bong in the bog of the same plane as John Major, could only sigh his agreement.

As HIGNFY sauntered ably through its 19th series, it was announced there were plans to shift the BBC’s main news bulletin from 9pm to 10pm, in order to counter the gap left by ITN as they messed around with their scheduling. New additions to the BBC1 line-up were sought – and HIGNFY was one of them. Series 20 would mark the show’s switch to the mainstream and expectations were high that those who never watched BBC2 simply because it was BBC2 would join the programme’s expansive fan list.

Meanwhile, the current series enjoyed some moments of innovation, not least in the first episode when alongside Merton was exiled MI5 officer David Shayler, sitting in a Paris studio while banned from re-entering the UK unless willing to be arrested. Referred to by Hislop’s guest Stephen Fry at least once as “David Traitor”, Shayler appeared via a widescreen TV on the desk, prompting serious problems with flow and comic value through the two-fold dilemma of a three-second time delay and the fact that Shayler was highly unfunny, though interesting when telling tales. Ultimately, Merton switched off the telly (under the applause, Shayler shouted: “You can turn me off but you can’t silence me”) and then walked off to the crowd to shake hands, such was his boredom. Handed a newspaper by one audience member, he proceeded to take the rise out of Shayler further by asking him for his star sign and then making up his horoscope, including: “You will do a joke which won’t go down very well”.

Dominic Holland and Sir David Steel (now a peer) returned for the second episode, which included a fantastic debate involving all five protagonists about the rights and wrongs of using hamsters to make fur coats (Deayton: “There are several advantages of using hamsters in tailoring – not only is the fur machine-washable, but they turn the spin-drier round themselves”); in episode three, ex Tory MP Michael Brown was cornered so much about his directorial endorsement of tobacco products he shrugged and replied: “Yeah, wasn’t my finest hour, was it?” Angela Rippon’s appearance the following week was clearly a moment to savour for salivating Merton and Deayton – the former being highly protective of her when Deayton kept asking questions (“Do you want to go out with Angela?”); the latter looking quite pleased when she approached him to sniff him close-up and see whether he was as “particularly well deodorised” as a critic had claimed. Merton, anxious for some similar attention, piped up: “One of the critics says I don’t wear any underpants!”

Teen Tory and sixth form prodigy Robert Reed smashed Swampy’s record for the youngest guest on the show and was clearly too youthful to be scared, allowing him a spot of cockiness and confidence which forced Hislop, aware of the lad’s age, to bite his tongue in a way he wouldn’t have done with a more wizened guest (“I’ve only got a certain amount of patience, Robert!”). Back came Clive Anderson, Jon Snow, Phil Hammond and Richard Wilson for further outings, with a debut for Liza Tarbuck proving worthwhile purely for her explanation of a “wedgie” (“Pants being pulled up your arse – I went to a boys school”) which Merton hadn’t understood. A debut also came for Michael Brunson, just retired as ITN’s top political bod, though he was forced to spend some of his time getting allegations refuted (“Let’s get this on the record – I do not have a drink problem, I do not have haemorrhoids and I have never, ever, kissed Margaret Thatcher!”)

So HIGNFY was continuing as part of the BBC2 furniture, knowing a new era and a new responsibility awaited as the year 2000 approached its autumn. Anticipation was high and keen. BBC1 would make the show or break it. 9pm on a Friday night was some slot to fill. Could the series cope? Could the standards be maintained? Would it make concessions to light-ent? Pretty much yes on the first two, while the only concession made as the new era settled in was one forced from the host, and the BBC itself …

<Part One