Part Three: “Well, Daddy’s Dead”

By Matthew Rudd

First published August 2005

At this point in the Have I Got News For You (let’s quickly establish once again that it’s HIGNFY from now on) story, I must confess a vested interest. There used to be a website on the programme called The Definitive Guide to HIGNFY which was a real labour of love to me. I worked hard on it. The BBC acknowledged its existence by linking to it (while quickly shirking any responsibility through its disclaimers) on their own site whenever a HIGNFY story appeared on the entertainment pages of the BBC website. And, with the new century underway, there would be lots of them to come.

The promotion of the show to BBC1 in the summer of 2000 must have really annoyed the powers-that-be at BBC2, who had loved and cajoled it into top form over one decade and 19 seasons. But in public, all they could do was express their pride that the series was so good, its move to the major channel was a reward for all their efforts. With the news shifting to 10pm (thereby seriously annoying ITV too), HIGNFY was given a slot of gold dust at 9pm on Friday. The move to the mainstream would not affect its output, surely? Somehow you knew the Beeb had recruited a few extra call centre staff to handle the inevitable complaints from people who didn’t previously know BBC2 existed.

So, on 20 October, 2000, HIGNFY made its BBC1 debut. It felt like a great moment in television, a watershed point (and not just because it was on at 9pm), but maybe I was biased because my site was doing well, it had been acknowledged by the very people who could have forced its closure – and because I was in the audience for the first time.

Going to HIGNFY is ace. You nip under the Thames to Waterloo and then cross the road to LWT for about 7pm. Once your ticket has been ratified, you are given a visitors pass which you must wear on your lapel. There are two colours of pass – one for the “ordinary” punters, and one for the guests of the production staff, which entitles you to entrance to the post-show hospitality on the top floor. You then make your way to the bar area under the studio.

You wait in the bar – in my case with a pint of Guinness which was undrinkable because a) it was too warm and b) I was too thrilled to consume it – until the tannoy calls for you to make your way up a floor to the studio. Once there, you form an orderly queue and start to fill the seats. I was second in, therefore I bagged a spot right behind where Ian Hislop would be sitting.

The floor manager would then go through the audience sound check to ascertain the levels of the mics round the studio (lots of test-applauding at this point) and issue the instructions regarding how long to keep applauding for at the start and end of the show (“Clap for as long as I do!” he said, holding his clipboard up and patting his hand against it). This was in an era before everyone needed reminding to switch off mobiles, so no such warning was given (though Boris Johnson should have one the following year) and then the warm-up comic, Stephen K Amos, was introduced. He did 20 droll minutes before introducing Angus Deayton for the main event.

The host ambled on, smirked at the crowd and went through what he called the “contractual obligation” of pointing out where the fire exits are (“So here goes – there are no fire exits”) before bringing on Hislop and Paul Merton. Both were carrying their clipboards and waved to the audience before settling in to be mic’ed up. Merton was wearing a rather curious looking metallic tie.

Then Deayton introduced the guests. Batting with Hislop was debutante Richard Blackwood; paired with Merton was John Simpson, making his welcome third appearance.

I think it’s true to say the experience is funnier in the studio than it is when you watch it afterwards on television. This doesn’t dampen the TV experience, of course, but certainly from this episode and the two I subsequently attended I recall laughing very hard at the jokes, then finding it a little laborious when watching afterwards. Naturally nobody is ever going to crack-up quite as much, if at all, at a joke or aside they had heard just 24 hours previously, but certainly the televisual experience was different. I found myself trying to remember as much as I could from the recording, in order to decipher what had been left out of the final cut.

The episode was fairly good. Deayton assured longtime viewers in his introduction that the move to BBC1 “will in no way affect the show’s content” – cue a troupe of semi-clad, high-kicking girls shuffling rhythmically across the studio to some big deal, light entertainment theme tune which wouldn’t have sounded out of place if Steve Jones had done a voiceover on it. Anyway, the fuss died down, allowing Deayton to beautifully time his pay-off line: “Good evening, I’m Carol Smillie.”

Blackwood, a likeable man but below par comic (and woeful rap artist), had clearly read his papers but had difficulty articulating his explanations of film footage in front of him. Hislop got very fraught at his partner’s attempts to put across the saga of Peter Mandelson and his large home loan, and felt the need to butt in. Simpson, also taken by Blackwood’s stunted sense of linguistics, asked him: “Have you thought of taking a job on our new 10 o’clock news?”

Simpson for once wasn’t required to refer to hallucinogenic experiences in far-flung thickets of the world, but was still embarrassed when Deayton mentioned he had once split his trousers in front of the Queen at some grand public event. With both guests duly made to look like berks in a gentle manner, BBC1 viewers now knew what this was all about.

The series ambled along nicely, with Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth – an ex-agony aunt for lads mag Front – Deayton: “You were known as Luscious Lauzza”) – making an entertaining appearance where she happily stayed clear of any nepotism; moaning about Euan’s friends deserting him when her nephew had his unfortunate street-inebriation moment, and willingly telling her powerful family that the Dome was a waste of time. Her only expression of loyalty was when Deayton told of how Bill Clinton reacted when Leo Blair was born (“He was just relieved the baby didn’t look like him”) though Merton was the one who protested (“What are you saying?”). Booth’s splendid observation that fellow guest Andrew Rawnsley had a look of a Portillo about him (“You’ve certainly got a bit of a do there”) proved she was unafraid to start the debates herself rather than merely fend off her family ties.

Though Alex Salmond did three worthy turns on the show while leading the SNP, the reappearance of Charles Kennedy on the programme was a genuine high point for the show’s influence within political circles. As a backbencher with a known voice but little clout when debuting on HIGNFY eight years earlier, Kennedy relished what became almost an annual invitation to the programme, and though it added fuel to the accusatory fire that he was “chat show Charlie”, there was little doubt his profile as an MP – and therefore the profile of his party – was greatly boosted by coming on. But now, in 2000, he was there as Liberal Democrat leader. The series really had come on a long way.

And he grasped the chance superbly. Never had a poor display come from Kennedy – in his second appearance he was notably funnier than David Baddiel and he willingly argued with Eddie Izzard when the two paired for the Merton-less series of 1996 – but this one was his crowning glory. Right from the off, he was sniping at the political powers, now that he was one himself. The first question was about the massive flooding in the south-east. Asked by the host what John Prescott’s response to the crisis had been, Kennedy barked back: “Unintelligible?”

Wit and humility has always taken Kennedy to the heights of the show’s guest roster down the years, and even those who wouldn’t or couldn’t vote for his party have felt entertained by his presence on the show. The humility angle is crucial, above all for politicians, as they find themselves constantly open to scrupulousness, especially when their appearance on a show like HIGNFY is always going to be regarded as an attempt to appear hip, likeable and worthy of support. Kennedy’s people have never denied their belief that HIGNFY appearances are worth a few extra, vital votes; however, the man himself still has to be good on the show to really earn them. Luckily, he was funny because he could be; he was also naturally humble, especially in this episode. As the new leader, HIGNFY really went to town on him – claiming that Labour spies earwigging outside his office were discovered when shortly after Kennedy started his meetings they were disturbed, according to Deayton, by the sound of “a light thud followed by a gentle snoring behind the door”. They also showed Kennedy in photo-opportunity mode, taking part in a game of carpet skittles at an old people’s home – and managing to miss every single pin from two yards. Each time, the leader giggled, didn’t rise to the bait and let them have their moment, reacting superbly to the latter dig with: “I’m just not the violent type”.

On the other side was Germaine Greer – again – in an episode of HIGNFY heavyweights. Of the four in the panel, she was discovered to be highest placed in a “power list” produced by some Sunday supplement. This was an odd-one-out question featuring the four contestants suddenly finding their live pictures being put in the quartered screen (Hislop and Merton immediately trying to show their hands could be cut off over the borders of each quarter; Kennedy asking if the programme had “run out of budget”). Merton got the answer right (“I’ve never been on a power list”) though had a different theory initially (“Is it about homosexual relationships at university? Only I never went to university”). The show ended level on points (only the second time ever – the first time featured Kennedy too in that 1993 episode also featuring Baddiel), with Merton winning the tie break game of paper-scissors-stone. Hislop was ruffled by his loss (“I’m gutted. If I’d had Lottery money, I would have won.”)

American comic Rich Hall, who spent much of his 1996 debut appearance trying to understand exclusively-British terms (“Who’s David Mellor? Also, earlier, what’s the SFO? I’m still back on another page here …”) returned the following week and put in a performance of real superiority. Though other Americans have been on the programme – Greg Proops, PJ O’Rourke – it was undoubtedly the right decision to get the Montana comic over in the week his country folk were electing a new President. Or were they?

It was Al Gore versus George W Bush at the polls. “One of them’s actually been clinically dead for the last eight years. The other one – his father was President but he’s actually older than his father. And as we speak it’s down to Florida. Many of you people have been to Florida – you know what it’s like. Many of the people there are shrunken, shrivelled. In the ballot, Gore’s name was up high, Bush should have been beside it but it was actually much lower. A lot of people couldn’t reach Gore’s name.”

Deayton showed him the ballot paper and the names thereon. Back came a classic line.

“It says ‘Gore/Lieberman’ – it sounds like a chant at a Jewish bullfight.”

Given that he knew most of the other questions wouldn’t mean much to him on a British news quiz, Hall continued to let rip. The topic shifted to Bush’s assumption that he’d won. “He said, ‘Well, according to my brother Jeb, it’s a done deal!’ Is that how he’s going to run the whole presidency? ‘They told me this Arab-Jew thing was a done deal! My uncle Lester told me that yesterday!’”

Onwards the new BBC1 attraction rumbled, with Jeremy Bowen adding his name to the growing number of staid TV journalists showing their humorous side and upstaging the professional comic in the process (in this case Linda Smith, who had suffered the same fate previously when all the attention was paid to the BBC’s ex US correspondent Gavin Esler), while GMTV’s Lorraine Kelly proved herself an extremely sharp tool in the box, preempting the thoughts of both Deayton and Merton and having a whale of a time in the process. When the host said the Americans had a problem with the word “pregnant” while describing unpunched voting chads, Kelly retorted: “But they advertise pile cream and all that!” “Not quite the same,” responded Deayton. “Oh no, the two go together, believe you me!” said Kelly.

Meanwhile, Merton and Hislop were having a debate about nationality. Footage of Catherine Zeta Jones in her hometown of Mumbles drove the Private Eye editor to casually mention he was born there. “So you’re Welsh?” quizzed Merton, a gleam in his eye.

Later, when Hislop got into a middle-class lather over his belief that Judith Keppel wasn’t the sort of person who should have gone on an ITV quiz show, Merton wasn’t slow to chime in. “What are you going on about? You silly Welshman.” Then when Hislop claimed never to have heard of the gay magazine Boyz, his opposite number leapt in yet again. “Don’t you have homosexuals in Wales?”

The last two episodes were a bit of anti-climax, though sideburned art critic Matthew Collings showed a tremendous disdain for principles when he admitted he supported the anti-art protestors outside the Turner Prize headquarters, but decided he’d prefer to be inside where there was “free champagne”. Meanwhile, the irresistible Nigella Lawson – following hubby John Diamond and dad Nigel onto the show – wore a “DELIA” T-shirt and was asked by Merton if she’d ever had lesbian sex with Delia Smith. Her reply was great: “Yes. But then again, I’d not be able to have any other kind of sex with her.”

So the first series on the new channel was done. How did it go down? Well it wasn’t a cracker in terms of news. The American election fiasco dragged on and as it maintained its stranglehold on the bulletins there wasn’t always going to be a Rich Hall around with acidic homeboy observations to reignite the interest. But the viewing figures were solid, complaints were at a minimum (which could be good or bad for a show such as this) and preparations began for the year ahead.

Series 21 needed to get going with a bang, so two guests were booked who had a bit of a history. The unscrupulously forward John Humphrys, who made a habit of monstering politicians on the radio and TV, came in for a second appearance and this time had more scope to live up to his reputation, as opposed to just giggling at Will Self’s unspeakable eccentricities. This was because sitting opposite him was Tracey Emin, the modern artist who did herself up like a dog’s dinner. The two had clashed before on the Today programme, so it wasn’t long before they again were at each other’s throats.

The vitriol began when Emin described Humphrys as “such a rude and arrogant man”. He snapped back with masterly sarcasm: “That’s not fair, especially coming from such a talented artist”. The applause thundered through the studio and screen, with the nature of it leaving Emin in no uncertain terms as to where the sympathies didn’t lie. Spleen had not been vented like this on HIGNFY before – and it was a BBC1 audience who got to see it.

After this hefty start, the series then went back into jobbing episode mode, with Bill Bailey practicing his spaced-out shtick once again to equally risible effect and Dermot Murnaghan, presumably in the midst of his negotiations to shift to the Beeb, happily deriding ITN’s capacity to be investigative in its journalism (“We discovered Fergie was fat”). Sun columnist Jane Moore and first rate comic Sean Lock contributed to another high point in episode three, but seven days on and the visual comedy king Dom Joly found himself wanting with the spoken word, while left-wing columnist David Aaronovitch only emerged from his shell when arguing with Hislop on how to pronounce “clematis”. The problem wasn’t so much the guests, more the news. An election was looming but somehow there was an air of inevitability about the whole thing, which didn’t make for good knockabout yarning.

Then John Prescott smacked that egg-throwing geezer in Wales. The next episode began with Deayton dealing with a “heckler” on the show – by pulling out a revolver and shooting him. It was going to be a vintage night. “Here’s that moment which made you feel proud to be British,” said a thrilled Merton as footage of Prescott’s brawl began to roll on his monitor. “Get in there! It’s like our version of Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald – where were you when Prescott lashed out?”

Merton was off on a pro-Prescott crusade. “No other politician in this country, probably in the history of politics, would have done that. It’s one of the most exciting things to happen in politics for years. People were shouting: ‘Leave it John, he’s not worth it!’”

Hislop wasn’t convinced. “It’s going to be a bit of a problem when we talk about yob culture in years to come – bam! Did you notice he led with the left? Very un-New Labour!”

The debate between the two, a fantastic one, continued with Merton unrepentant in his support and Hislop equally persuasive in his criticism. “He’s an emotional man and people thought that showed a human side to him”, said Merton. “Yeah,” retorted Hislop, “and when his finger’s on the nuclear trigger – boom!” But Merton had the last word: “A nuclear war is not going to be started by someone throwing an egg!”

This was fantastic. It was one of those episodes which had every audience member transfixed. There was no let-up, no chance to draw breath. The guests – Keith Chegwin and Michael Grade – contributed too, with Grade especially displaying comic timing which had previously gone undetected as an attribute of this most telegenic of television executives. He was not in telly at the time, enjoying a non-executive directorship of Camelot, which had just denied a Lottery winning couple the jackpot because they couldn’t provide the ticket, even though Camelot themselves had established they were bona fide winners. “We decided we couldn’t give out the winnings, because …” “… you were too mean!” muttered Hislop, to huge laughter. “… We were told it would be better if we didn’t on legal advice,” Grade continued.

“And you’re a non executive director,” ascertained Deayton. “What does that mean?” “Well, it’s a bit like a bidet,” replied Grade. “You don’t know what it’s for but it adds a touch of class.”

Chegwin’s moment of mockery came twice over; firstly when mention was made of his naturist quiz ignominy The Naked Jungle. “I only had a small part on the show,” he grinned, before asking Hislop if he watched it. “Er, I missed it,” replied the team captain. “A lot of us saw it and missed it,” jumped in Merton.

Chegwin was also played a clip of a song called I Wish I Could Be Keith Chegwin For A Day by some band called Obvious Pseudonym. “Is it ironic?” asked Grade.

It was an outlandishly good episode after many weeks of reasonable but not climactic editions. It was one of those editions which the production team must dream of every time they put the blank sheet of paper in front of them for the next instalment – great news stories to discuss, captains on form, and the just the right guests popping in.

The rest of the series petered out by comparison, though interest was sparked by the appearance of Elton John the following week, confirming stories a fortnight earlier in the tabloids that he had agreed to go on. The rock star himself, though, said nothing at all. The studio audience and the home audience were treated differently by the scam which was going on, prompted by a last-ditch withdrawal by the rock star and no time for a quick call to some comedian’s agent to try to hitch up a last-minute replacement. The difference was that the studio audience weren’t let in on the gag.

I was in that audience. It was my 28th birthday and I was really looking forward to it. Sitting at the back this time, I saw Deayton do his usual “no fire exits” routine before introducing the skippers and then Janet Street-Porter. Then he said: “Our second guest is here but not quite ready. He’ll be joining us shortly.” The crowd were expecting Elton John, so when the second guest walked out about 30 seconds later and took his place by Merton, we all cheered as it was clearly him. Settled and ready, the theme music began.

Over the next 45 minutes yer man with Merton said about four words, and at least three of them were “yeah”. Rumblings in the crowd surfaced briefly, but it’s difficult to whisper to one another when you’re so interested and enthralled by the action in front of you (though the inexorable Street-Porter was doing her best to make the whole thing as unwatchable as possible). Eventually, word spread that it was a lookalike, but even then I was trying to be too clever and suspected it was the real Elton John just deciding to have flouncy moment by saying nothing at all. It’d give him more headlines than a steady-as-you go appearance.

The truth emerged after the show, and by the time the edit was broadcast the following night, it was obvious that close-ups (which are hard to see in the studio when you have to crane your neck so obtusely at the monitors) gave the game away immediately when Deayton introduced him. After the first round, the applause rang out and the caption came up “Oh alright then, it’s not Elton John.” We were then introduced via the same set of captions to Ray Johnson, a Colchester cabbie and part-time Elton John impersonator. The rock star was labelled a “bastard” three times. The last caption prior to the closing asides said “Next week, it’s Britney Spears and Prince Philip. Definitely”.

The fabled Will Self did a top turn again before the series culminated in a third election special, this time filmed as a “morning after” edition, with the set depicting half-deflated campaign balloons and part-torn, discarded leaflets. Filming on a Friday morning instead of Thursday evening took the show to the BBC Television Centre for the first time, instead of LWT. The election result was known, as was the immediate fate of William Hague whose virtues as a future guest on HIGNFY were extolled by Gyles Brandreth (“He’d be very good, and he might bring Ffion!”). Hague as a guest? Not quite, but close …

One of HIGNFY‘s great strengths has always been its ability to know where the line has to be drawn. In 1997, a new series began two months after the death of Princess Diana and the subject was kept at arm’s length, even though the summer break’s stories had started to be incorporated into the opening episode of any new series, especially if it was too grievous or long-running to ignore. But the death of a young Princess was deemed too near the knuckle, even though cash-in books were coming out and the papers were full of daily junk, conspiracies and hand-wringing nonsense destined for the cat basket.

But on 19 October, 2001, the first show of a new series had to deal with the World Trade Centre atrocities. In a shrewd move, HIGNFY once again recruited Rich Hall and addressed the subject towards him, on the reasonable understanding that it’d be harder to complain about jokes or frivolities on the subject if an American was the one making them. But with so much aftermath emerging – the war on terror in Afghanistan now firmly underway by the time the opening titles were rolling – it meant the programme could concentrate on the response to the atrocity and the side issues which emerged, rather than the awful events of 9/11 themselves.

The superb Hall was scathing about the relief effort in Afghanistan, with particular attention paid to the food parcels which were being dropped onto the territory.

“It said it was a gift from the United States,” explained Hall, who then listed the foodstuffs enclosed in the humanitarian bombardment, which included peanut butter and jam. “And also there was a moist towelette – I’m not making this up – a moist towelette, and it said in three different languages ‘do not eat’. Given that there’s a three-year drought, I’d say that was the most mouth-watering item on the menu.”

The other big story over the summer was the incarceration of Jeffrey Archer (“Oh, that’s Jeffrey Archer, the liar. Oh look, there he is again, the liar” – Merton) and therefore Michael Crick, main nemesis of many to the Archer legend, was also summoned to appear. He attended every day of the trial – only he and the judge managed that, and was quite happy to answer one especially dormant and closed question from Hislop. “Do you feel even a little bit sorry for him at all, Michael?” “No.”

The applause was long and loud.

Where did HIGNFY go from a start like this? It was, again, quite a beginning. The immediate response was to make one of those fateful episodes when an MP tried to be funny and died completely on his backside. Labour’s Andrew Mackinlay learned quickly – after failing to joke about how whips treated MPs by donning a latex glove, he subsided into laugh-along politician mode, and proved a good sport. This was anthrax week, and Hislop had easily usurped Mackinlay’s efforts (“Can I borrow that? I’ve got to open some post tomorrow”). On the opposite side, Jennie Bond told how she climbed a ladder for a story having forgotten to put her knickers on. One assumed that somebody did feel compelled to ask how you can just “forget” to wear your underwear, especially on a working day, but it was presumably edited out.

Then came episode three. Welcome back Boris.

It definitely feels like there is a Muhammad Ali effect when Boris Johnson is due to appear on HIGNFY. Michael Parkinson always said he had the same number of people watching his talk show week on week, year on year, except when Ali was booked, then it would rocket. Something about Johnson’s befuddled performances (not that the man is anything but a master craftsman who knows that being supposedly ignorant does his public image the power of good) makes people alter their social plans for Friday nights when he’s due on. More videos get set too.

Johnson came along for his third go at ritual humiliation, sitting alongside Merton with comic Shazia Mirza placed opposite. It wasn’t long before Johnson’s mobile phone went off (the Nokia signature tone – nothing more exciting than that) and as the audience yelped with laughter, he muttered something into the mouthpiece, hung up and apologised profusely to Deayton, who accepted it. Merton was impressed with Johnson’s mutterings and shared them with us.

“Did you just say ‘I can’t talk now, I’m on the television’?” Hislop got involved: “It was Iain Duncan Smith, saying ‘You’re fired, Boris!’”

Johnson was there to plug his book of the election campaign “which by an extraordinary coincidence, I have a copy of right here!” he announced, feeling very pleased with himself. He perched the volume on the desk as Deayton asked him to clear up a slight inconsistency. “On the front it says ‘Jottings on the Stump’, but inside it says ‘Jottings from the Stump’,” said the host. He asked for an explanation – and what an explanation he got. “They produced the jacket,” said Johnson, “before I’d written the book. I must have forgotten what the title was.” Nobody had ever seen Hislop laugh quite as hard as he did at that point.

Johnson then found himself an unwitting victim in a daft deal brokered between Merton and Deayton. After much mockery of billionaire turncoat MP Shaun Woodward’s terraced house in his constituency, Merton asked Deayton how much his house was worth. Deayton didn’t know, so Merton offered 20 quid for it. “What he doesn’t know,” said Deayton in a mugging moment to camera, “is that I only paid a tenner for it. So yes, I accept.” “Okay! That’s legally binding!” shrilled Merton, enjoying the tangent. But he had no cash on him. He had to ask for a loan from his teammate. Johnson, seemingly getting the joke for once, took out his wallet and handed over a score, which Merton then gave to Deayton. Joke done, successfully!

Spoke too soon.

“I want that back, by the way,” said Johnson. Merton’s head fell into his hands. “That’s his money,” said the comic, trying a salvage job. “Well then I’ll have to reclaim it from you.” “Oh, no I was just the go-between!” Johnson was now becoming increasingly exasperated as the crowd corpsed. “What transaction has just taken place here – have I just bought your house?”

And we weren’t halfway through yet. Johnson was soon forced into a surprise Mastermind parody round, under the spotlight, in which he had to answer questions on his party leader. He claimed to know a lot, but he failed to get any of the five posers correct.

Once Boris Johnson’s done a turn on HIGNFY, it takes a very special kind of guest to at least equal his standing within the show. Six episodes still remained, but debuts for ex-Express editor Rosie Boycott, ex-Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, hack and offspring of an ex-premier Carol Thatcher (who was actually truly awful) and Sky News political editor Adam Boulton were pale by comparison.

The sixth episode brought more fun and games, with the anecdotal quality of the sublime Clement Freud proving a real highlight. Deayton asked if Freud had seen anything nasty happen in the kitchens at the Dorchester when he worked there. “Yes.” “What was it?” “Disgusting.”

He was pressed to continue.

“Somebody doing something into a pot. But not as bad as that – they urinated.” Hislop’s fantastic expression of acute nausea suggested urination was as far as he’d assumed.

Another week later and Sara Cox, the Radio 1 breakfast show host, appeared in a sober suit next to Hislop, belying her ladette persona. Hislop, forever known for his disdain at popular culture, laid on his ignorance thickly for his guest’s benefit. “You said ‘sod’ this morning,” he accused his guest, in a faux-tetchy manner. “You were listening to Radio 1, Ian?” inquired Merton. “Doing my homework!” “Has Jimmy Young got too cutting edge for you?”

Merton was joined by Andrew Marr, surely only the second political editor of any media organisation (after John Cole) to acquire a cult following. He told a fantastic story about how he wrote in his newspaper column that he planned to boycott Christmas shopping. “The next thing I know there was this deeply offensive and personal attack on me in the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph – by my wife.” “Didn’t you say you were going to get her a burqa?” asked Deayton, with one eye on the Afghanistan-related question which had started it all. “Yes, I said I was going to put her in a burqa, and she said it wouldn’t matter because I’d never get the right size.”

Three of the show’s star turns were among the four guests of the final two episodes – Francis Wheen returned and then Charles Kennedy came back, to be joined by John Sergeant, but the episodes wimped out a little by comparison. It still appeared, by and large, that the show could do no wrong as a new year beckoned.

The year 2002 has, with hindsight, been regarded by many HIGNFY devotees as the beginning of the end. If that is the case, then it is a very long beginning, given that three years later the show still holds a 9pm slot in the Friday schedules for at least 16 evenings of the year. It is understandable to hold such a viewpoint, yet amidst all the scandal and controversy which emerged in that year, the most notable aspect of the whole escapade was that the first five weeks of series 23 were among the least inspiring in the programme’s history, giving rise to just a little bit of cynicism about what really happened.

Of the 10 guests who appeared over that period, a whopping eight were debutantes and it’s tough to pick out a better-than-average performance from any of them. Phill Jupitus was let down by his ubiquity on every light-hearted panel game of the last decade. BBC economics boffin Evan Davis found himself unable to pass on fully the bouncy, excitable persona he exuded on his reports when detailing inflation rises or pension crises. Comedian Ben Miller achieved nothing apart from a quick mention of his alter-ego as the ITV Digital monkey; co-guest Charlotte Church managed to tempt Hislop into suicide by mentioning she’d studied Pop Idol for her GCSE English, and broke Tory boy Robert Reed’s record for the youngest guest in the process. GMTV anchor Penny Smith barely said a word as Graeme Garden, back for a second go, completely stole the show. Radical humourist Mark Steel managed to offend his own socialist peers and the people of Hartlepool and Congleton without ever being funny; columnist Matthew Wright failed to recover from the revelation that he slagged off a theatre show in a review without actually going to see it. DJ and Pop Idol judge Neil Fox was probably the best of these newbies, but he was still upstaged by the returning 90-year-old Bill Deedes, who quizzed him about his Harley Davidson and former tag of “Doctor”.

Then the papers came out on Sunday.

“TV’S DEAYTON IN DRUGS ROMP WITH VICE GIRL” screamed the banner on the front of the News of the World. The HIGNFY host had, according to the meticulous questioning of the girl in question, had a night of passion with her at a Manchester hotel which also involved in the inhalation of cocaine. Deayton was not a single man at the time.

The press started to hype up the possibility that the following week’s episode of HIGNFY would be a killer one; that the supposedly smug personality of the sharp-suited anchorman would be duly ripped apart and left open for us all to savage. As in all such cases, the build-up was completely out of context (and many claimed it was all a wheeze to usurp the launch night of that year’s Big Brother on Channel 4) but nevertheless a vintage episode was made. Brilliantly, this was thanks to Deayton’s willingness to take everything thrown his way and let it become an exercise in burying him. He couldn’t have handled it better.

As Hislop and Merton produced copies of the paper and quoted verbatim (“‘He made me groan all night’ – what were you doing; reading the autocue?” – Hislop) Deayton just took it all in his stride. He was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable, but made his humble stance known from the start with his intro (“Good evening and welcome to Have I Got News For You, where this week’s loser … is presenting it.”) and from that moment, the viewer’s sympathy was grasped.

It was a stunning episode of sacrifice. Merton wasn’t as bothered by the sexual allegations as Hislop, but did wonder about the drugs (“I suppose you didn’t know where to put your face, really, once you’d heard the story. Or did you just take it on the chin?”) and the method used to inhale them (“I want to see the 20 pound note because there’s no way you’ve spent it in the last week. Where is it?”).

The tour-de-force came when Merton put some reflection on the whole incident.

“I’m surprised you had the nerve to turn up this week, really” he said. “You knew it was going to be like this.” “Well, yes I did, because of you two”, replied Deayton. Merton’s riposte was priceless. “Yes, in a way it’s our fault, isn’t it?”

The comic, who went as far as having a T-shirt printed with the headline on the front, was in fine form, happy to use the incident purely for comedy. Hislop, ever the moralist, tried to find ways of belittling Deayton to make him see what an idiot he’d been. The two guests weren’t to be left out – Ken Livingstone, back for the first time in years having been a series regular in the earliest days, claimed with some panache that “this must have been one of those days when Stephen Byers could have leaked some more news”; while comic Dave Gorman chose to be sinister about it (and got criticised in some reviews for it) when, in a round concerning EastEnders, he mentioned that “it’s terrible at the moment. Ian Beale slept with a prostitute and she’s threatening to blackmail him for money”.

The upshot of it all was that Deayton got a slap on the wrist from the BBC and kept his job. Two episodes remained, with no mention of his peccadilloes in the first (made notable for the much-improved Linda Smith’s obvious adoration of co-guest David Dickinson and his tan – “it’s a beautiful mahogany stain!”) and only a brief nod towards it in the second. This episode was made great by the fabulous Ross Noble, the unkempt Northumberland comic who stole the show during a quick fire round about the Queen, this being Jubilee week.

“According to her decorator,” asked Deayton, “what does the Queen have in her bath?” Noble buzzed in quickly. “Is it an old man tied up?” The answer was a crown and a plastic duck (“That is until Prince Philip spotted it and blasted it out of the water” – Deayton) and then the next question prompted similar brilliance in response from Noble. “Renting what costs the Queen an estimated 30 pounds a year?” The buzz from Noble. “Videos.”

A later question established Philip’s nickname for the Queen was “Sausage” – “presumably because she’s fat and German”, pondered Deayton. There were “ooh”s everywhere and a classic reaction from ITN’s Katie Derham, who laughed at the gag and then quickly stopped when she realised the camera was on her.

And so the host and the show survived another day. But the one-off ritual slaughter of the anchorman did produce a two-fold problem which would ultimately see the programme’s consistent spell over the public broken forever. Firstly, it revealed a genuine air of contempt between the captains and the host – nobody had ever believed that Deayton was best buddies with Hislop or Merton , but there was little evidence of real dislike or disrespect either, unless you counted Merton’s perennial rubbishing of Deayton’s job as “reading out loud”.

More worryingly, it proved to tabloid types with a genuine axe to grind that it was possible to disturb the show’s flow, groove and impact if it could dig up sufficient dirt on either the programme or one of its protagonists. Previous attempts by one paper and (in a tragic shadow of its former self) the revived Punch magazine to dismantle the series’ aura by claiming it was a “sham” (rehearsed and scripted, basically) had failed conclusively. The public didn’t care. It was funny. It was clever. It contained truth. It kept the powerful in check. Only those scared or wounded by it had a grudge.

So, if it was possible to curtail the programme’s force and influence, then how to go about it? The show itself had no secrets left in its formatting or production. Merton was untouchable, pretty much without an enemy and scandal-free. Hislop got comeuppance frequently as an editor, but as a man he had scruples aplenty, a married father with an idyllic and blameless lifestyle and a value on life and a believer in standards. No dirt on him, despite the best efforts of the Daily Mirror under the gruesome Piers Morgan to find some. So, as he had form, it was clear that getting at the host was the way forward for those hell bent on destroying the programme. It had also become apparent that the team captains would willingly take the matter further on the programme if Deayton was once again subjected to tabloid debasement.

It’s worth pointing out that nothing Deayton ever did should be condoned, whether it was using prostitutes, taking Class A substances or having sexual relations with someone other than his partner. But there has always been a nagging doubt that the intention when reporting his next misdemeanour was to bring the programme he represented down rather than exercise any moral crusade or show him up for all the dubious things he clearly was. When Richard Bacon lost his Blue Peter job after being caught taking cocaine, it was seen as a natural consequence of his misdemeanour, as he was anchoring a kids’ show and an example needed to be set. But when allegations about sex ‘n’ drugs surfaced concerning Deayton again (this time the sexual theme was a long-time affair with TV scriptwriter Stacy Herbert) a huge outcry ensued from folk whose idea that famous people should indulge in sexual intercourse, illicit or otherwise, filled them with fear and disgust.

The Daily Mirror wasn’t the only paper to report that Deayton’s job was under threat, but it was the most vociferous in its demand that the host should be fired forthwith. Piers Morgan’s agenda was clear. His paper’s weekend sister had broken the story; now it was his weekday version’s responsibility, so he believed, to make sure it stayed news long after any element of titillating interest had passed. Or, if you prefer, long enough to make sure Hislop and Merton had enough ammunition to fire at him. He even had the nerve to ring Hat Trick productions and demand to be on the next episode. He got short shrift.

Impeccably – and coincidentally, of course – timed with the opening episode to present maximum awkwardness for Deayton, HIGNFY‘s 24th series got underway with a ballsier Christine Hamilton making her return, seven years after the forceful but willowy Tory wife provided a loyal crash barrier for her husband in the aftermath of election mortification. Since then she’d acquired lots of financial and media savvy, done her bit in the jungle and was ready for any remarks about her husband’s ever-lingering sense of ineptitude.

Deayton only ever co-wrote the autocue scripts with the programme associates, but even he must have realised, in his predicament, that it was always going to be a question of trusting his luck that nobody would have a cutting response to the decision to constantly label the Hamilton husband as “disgraced ex-Tory politician Neil Hamilton”. He was right to be concerned. “If he’s disgraced, then what are you?” said an indignant wife. Deayton’s reply (“Disgraced, I think. But I haven’t spent the last eight years banging on about family values”) worked but there was a sense of tiresome duplication about the whole thing.

Hislop and Merton jibed in their expectedly sneery manner at the host’s misdeeds, but the programme survived, largely because ex-Today editor Rod Liddle, not a million months away from his own sex scandal, seemed as hell-bent on scoring moralistic points off Hamilton as the skippers were off Deayton. The following week, however, there were few spats possible between the captains and guests, so they could adopt a more concentrated attack on the host as more allegations reached the papers in time for filming deadlines.

Ross Noble and Gerald Kaufman made their second appearances and unwittingly became part of HIGNFY history as within three days of the episode’s transmission, the BBC announced it had requested Deayton to step down as anchorman forthwith. There was ludicrously over-zealous rejoicing in the tabloid press, though notably Max Clifford, so often the man to help the wounded make the most of celeb-connected sex scandal, was one voice who bemoaned the decision, claiming it had made the show even funnier and more watchable. The tone of most of the comments from ex-guests of HIGNFY all congratulated the decision, though many would say later they were appallingly misquoted.

From my point of view, I just found myself wondering what the show would be like without him. It didn’t bear thinking about in many ways, largely because he’d had a dozen impeccable years at the helm and had essentially introduced a freshly smug-but-sporting style of humour which the likes of Nick Hancock and (especially) Mark Lamarr found almost impossible to imitate, much as they tried. I also recalled how awful HIGNFY was to watch when Merton was away and suspected, with some justification, that the rest of this series would not work as well without the best man for the job to deliver those scripts. Most of all, though I just felt cheated as a fan of the show. The real fans, not the ones made up on tabloid letters pages, would have suggested a cut in fees and a reprimand, but never a dismissal. Deayton was damned good and very popular and all that seemed to have been lost under an egotistical battle between wronged public figures and those trying to salvage the programme’s name.

All that said, there then emerged a very British sense of morbid fascination for the coming weeks of the programme, which the anti-Deayton sections of the press interpreted to their own ends, claiming more people had come back to the show now he had gone. While that was literally correct, the semantics were poor. Every casual viewer wanted to be there for the first post-Deayton episode to see if he or his transgressions would be cited again; how the show would flow without him there, and how good the guest host would be. For the intermittent watcher and the channel-hopper, this week’s episode had a reason beyond the norm to be tuned in from titles to credits.

The timing of Deayton’s sacking meant Merton was immediately installed as host for the following week for the basic reason there wasn’t time to start negotiating with anyone else. As one of two folk who readily claimed lots of the responsibility for Deayton’s demise, Merton took the job on with some relish but died quite spectacularly. Comparisons were clearly going to be made and the smoothness of delivery that had trademarked the show was notably absent when he sat in the chair. He was scruffy, tongue-tied and had no real ability to read ahead and establish the structure of delivery which allowed the jokes to work to their full potential. He was also rather generous with the points, which bothered one of the guests, Andrew Neil.

“Wouldn’t have happened under the old regime!” said Neil. “Ah well, Daddy’s dead,” came the haughty reply.

Merton’s place as captain had been taken by Ross Noble, who became the first non-regular to appear on the show for two episodes in a row. Noble, a teetotaller, was asked by Merton if he’d ever been tempted to drink alcohol. With wink duly tipped to the week’s events, his reply was superb. “Is this the plan – you get me pissed and then fit me up as you continue your quest to take over every comedy job in the world?” Merton was unabashed by this dig. “Is it that transparent?” was the rhetoric reply.

The rest of the series became a succession of impromptu auditions as personalities, actors and comics were placed in the central chair to do the autocue and introductions and take the flak from the teams. A relieved Merton was back in his familiar spot seven days later while Anne Robinson (for some reason I still don’t quite know) was given a go as hostess. Scripted ad-libs on The Weakest Link worked because the contestants didn’t answer back, but any element of genuine wit with which her apologists have tirelessly credited her didn’t surface. Opening the programme by claiming she hadn’t watched the show for seven years (ever since Merton went off one about her wink-led farewell, claiming she looked like she’d had a stroke) wasn’t exactly a way to endear her to the regulars. If she hadn’t been bothered, why accept an invitation to do it now?

She had been a guest, pre-surgery and premieres, back in 1992 when she spent most of the episode staring down at the monitor while fending off Hislop’s taunts about her time working for Robert Maxwell. Now she was back, in the flesh (well, somebody else’s flesh) and ready to take them on in her new guise as queen of the screen. They tore her apart, with John Simpson – now a guest worthy of a Hall of Fame – taking her on delightfully when he talked about wearing the burqa in Afghanistan (“It completely covers your face. Perhaps you might like to try one”).

The website I owned had been raided (figuratively, and with crediting) by for stuff about the names which had been put forward by lazy tabloid entertainment hacks as Deayton’s replacement. Clive Anderson was on it and so was Stephen Fry – even though the former was known as a dead televisual duck when using someone’s script, and the latter had already gone on record to state he would never appear on the programme again because of the way Deayton was treated. Other candidates were the newsy types like John Sergeant, Andrew Marr and, for some inexplicable reason, Dermot Murnaghan. The latter two had complete professional incompatibility with the show going against them (aside from countless other reasons); the former was on the job hunt, but had proved how joyful a listen he could be without a script when he’d spent his working life resolutely sticking to one.

Sergeant had a bland stab at helming the following week, thereby ensuring all future guestings would be alongside a team captain, before Boris Johnson’s triumphant half-hour in the host’s seat which he actually completed extremely professionally, given the inevitably chaotic bouts of blundering and panic which envelop any of his TV appearances. Being an MP and a magazine editor meant he didn’t have the compatibility (or, presumably, the time) to do the job full time, plus the joy of Johnson is that he is a beauty to watch in small doses. The remaining turns were the dire Liza Tarbuck, the unpracticed Charles Kennedy (who donated his fee to charity) and the irascible and rather good Jeremy Clarkson, the only host at this stage never to have previously been a guest of the programme, and the man who delivered the best gag of the whole series, on the subject of Bill Clinton’s trip to speak at the Labour Party conference.

“The auditorium hushed as Clinton uttered the words ‘Nine, eleven’. Unfortunately a few seconds later a woman at the back shouted ‘House!’”

You may have noticed there hasn’t been much direct quoting like the one above in recent paragraphs. This is because series 24, both while Deayton was there and subsequently, had lost its purpose and nobody really cared enough what the protagonists were saying about the news any more. The show had become more anecdotal over the years anyway – fewer stories came up for discussion by halving the film clips or tabloid headlines round, or even giving just one odd-one-out question where in the past there had been four. But now, with all eyes on the host, it wasn’t so much what was being said that was important. It was who was saying it, and how it was being said.

Dissatisfied with the roster of guest hosts thus far, another round of them was booked in for series 25 in the spring of 2003. Martin Clunes got massive plaudits for his performance in the first episode (well, several tabloid papers made up stories about how “insiders” were claiming he was immediately offered the job – this was untrue) and deserved them.

He had become a good example, though, of the sort of person who wouldn’t take the job, for the reason that as an in-demand actor who picked and directed his own projects, reading autocue on a news quiz for 16 rubber stamped weeks of the calendar was blatantly unsuitable for a career shaped such as his. A working politician would find his or herself open to accusations of position compromising (not to mention constituency neglect) if they took the job, aside from the obvious concerns about losing their seat or getting a governmental position. Working television journalists would have natural concerns about impartiality, which would make the job a total non-starter. And, when all was said and done, a comedian was needed because the autocue was meant to be funny and required someone with practiced timing to deliver it.

Cameo turns were put in by William Hague (absolutely brilliant) and Charlotte Church (too ghastly for words) before the first real candidate seemed to step forward. Alexander Armstrong seemed to have it all – timing, suaveness, a cool-headed approach, enough speed of thought to snap back at smart contestants and captains, and a willingness otherwise to sit back and let the teams do the work. There was the added bonus that he wasn’t very well known, but in a world of instant gratification through recognition and less risk via the TV medium, others dismissed this relative anonymity as a negative. Hugh Dennis and Sanjeev Bhaskar followed him and were impressive enough also to be considered worthy of the Deayton seat, though to a lesser extent. Suddenly a shortlist was developing with one episode to go.

“Welcome to Have I Got News For You … for you have I got … ” – “NEWS!” yelled back the audience to Bruce Forsyth. Were we really watching this? The veteran entertainer bounded onto the set through a glittery entrance to rapturous welcomes, standing before the crowd to do his familiar “lovely audience” nonsense before introducing the opening gag clips. The teams were introduced as “couples” with Merton and Hislop having to tell their excitable (and exciting) host who they had “brought” with them. Merton introduced Natasha Kaplinsky (her first appearance of so many more to come outside a newsroom) while a bemused Hislop asked the crowd to welcome Marcus Brigstocke. Suddenly all thoughts of scandals and races for the host’s chair were gone. A glorious end to the series was upon us and required our undivided attention.

The next half-hour was quite extraordinary (“I’ve wanted the show to be like this for years! I’m having the time of my life here!” – Merton) as Forsyth did the housework of the autocue while taking the gracious adaptations of some of his famed game show moments firmly in hand – “Play Your Iraqi Cards Right” was round two (Hislop: “You know what? I never saw this programme” – hence Brigstocke being forced into explaining the original Play Your Cards Right rules to his befuddled captain) and ended with Forsyth stating there were supposedly weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “Still, it’d be nice to see them to see them” – “NICE!”

Later each team got a conveyor belt full of stuff to remember – and then pick an odd-one-out from. It worked like a dream. It was wonderful. Merton wanted it like this every week. Hislop wanted to go home for a hot drink and a lie down. Forsyth later credited the show with giving his illustrious career a major jump-start.

Since then, the programme has not managed to hit any more real heights. Guest hosts continue, with Des Lynam putting in a third stint on the final episode of series 29 as I write this. There were some who did the job superbly – Kirsty Young, Dara O’Briain (“Two weeks after an election, and already an immigrant is hosting the show”), Andrew Marr – and some who bombed completely – Robin Cook, Neil Kinnock and Nicholas Parsons.

Though the guest host has now become quite symbolic after five and three-quarter seasons since Deayton was dumped, maybe the time has come to make a decision and give HIGNFY the key quality which made it untouchable and vital in television schedules – consistency. Week-by-week for 12 years, we had the same three guys dissecting the stories and perforating the egos and prominence of those who had got too big, too suspect, too powerful, too egotistical, too highbrow, too snobbish. It worked because we believed in these fellows as individuals and as a team, no matter what strain existed beneath. The break-up, caused by Deayton but overplayed by fearful, high-minded killjoys in the media and the public eye, has dissolved the initial edge and purpose of the programme into a powdery sideshow while the viewers concentrate more on who the guest host is or how they might do. Watching Deayton on form in the otherwise rotten-to-the-core Bognor or Bust reminded us in a harsh manner of what we were missing.

Notwithstanding availability and suitability, at the very least, a shortlist of guest hosts should be drawn up and the possibility considered that they could do the show on a rota basis – Armstrong, who has gone public with his disappointment with not getting the gig full-time, would be on it, as would probably O’Briain (who’d also be keen to get the gig), Clarkson and definitely Kirsty Young, by some distance the surprise package and, as a non-comedienne and non-political TV hack, the exception which proves the rule about comedians and onscreen reports which I outlined earlier.

I leave you with news that HIGNFY is in need of work again, but is here to stay [cue shot of Deayton hiding behind the sofa, which he said he'd do prior to the Merton hosting when he was sacked].

Lots of laughter. Goodnight.

<Part Two