Part One: “The Creosote You Can Trust”

By Matthew Rudd

First published June 2005

There is a little doubt that millions of lives would have been saved, or at the least made safer and happier, if the world had been as dull as some people, within their own existences, seemed to believe.

This is 2005; I’m writing this on the eve of my 32nd birthday, an event which shall be celebrated in a pub in an East Yorkshire village with a close friend. On the same date in 1990, I celebrated my 17th in the same pub (I didn’t look 17, never mind 18, yet somehow got served) with a close friend. Same event, same pub, same friend. I’ve travelled continentally, studied, worked and made financial and emotional commitments in that time, yet really my own existence has, in some ways, never changed.

Reality tells us the world has altered substantially, of course. If our own surroundings and habits have failed to progress or shift then maybe we become unaware of truly new eras on a global footing. I worked in a pizza restaurant to earn a few quid in 1990 and went home after every shift with a 10″ bolognese and mushroom crispy. I still go to that pizza restaurant now and generally order the same pizza. I still get my discount, too.

But aside from food and drink, there is one other thing which keeps me 17, and that is what has been my favourite television programme throughout my adulthood. To this day, only Coronation Street ranks with it as the show I would sit through an arson attack in order to watch; yet I never keep videos of Corrie (well, I had a few tapes of Eva Pope in “pout” mode a decade or so ago, but that’s another matter) and have only ever taped the programme in the event of a holiday or a threat of the sack prising me away from the screen.

But with Have I Got News For You (let’s call it HIGNFY, like the rest do), the agenda and the schedule for anything else is cleared. Every episode made of this programme until 2003 is on a videotape somewhere in my home. A few more sit on the Sky+ hard-drive, awaiting archive. Last year’s episodes were forcibly removed by a dodgy Sky+ digibox which needed replacing, but next year’s repeats will fill the unwelcome gap.

HIGNFY has been at the forefront of political and social swiping for a luxuriant 15 years now. The 29th series is just past the halfway mark as I bash my keyboard and even though the set and team captains have barely changed in that decade-and-a-half, plenty more has, largely dictated by the world it gleefully sends up week on week. Sometimes HIGNFY has produced lame TV, most times it’s produced strong, erudite and funny TV, but just occasionally it manages to scramble into the medium’s portals of legend.

Yet its clunky, workmanlike beginnings gave no clue as to the hold it would ultimately enjoy over the viewing nation once it found its feet and groove. In September 1990 (tiresome historical factoids alert – here goes), Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister and Paul Gascoigne was in possession of a working pair of knees. And BBC2 introduced a new topical quiz show late on a Friday with little pomp or trail.

What I knew of Angus Deayton before HIGNFY episode one was negligible. I’d seen him, curtain-haired, reading out the set-ups which enabled Rowan Atkinson’s visual stand-up act to transform sane people into bellyholding doofusses. I’d seen him again raising his eyebrows at his funny friend in Mr Bean, initially as a pool lifeguard but then more infamously as the suited luncher on a park bench, watching Atkinson try to make his own sandwich and brew with all the ingredients in his deepened overcoat pockets, helped by a credit card, scissors, baby’s feeder and hot-water bottle.

Er, that’s it.

Now he was here, sitting at the helm of a wooden desk with two pairs of competitors either side of him, reading an autocue in a rather alto-ish and unemotive manner – one of the things which would devastatingly improve.

I’d never heard of Ian Hislop, but I’d seen him. As he was introduced, I remembered him as the geezer who uttered that “if this is justice, I’m a banana” line outside the High Court on my 16th birthday after Sonia Sutcliffe had taken Private Eye to the cleaners and back. His cynical manner, fashion-free sensibilities and obvious, immediate ignorance of popular culture made me assume, very wrongly, that he was the eldest of the triumvirate for years afterwards.

Paul Merton was a different matter. As a massive fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? he had become a bit of a hero to me amidst all the pretensions of John Sessions and caterwauls of the awful Josie Lawrence. Deadpan (of course) but unswervingly apolitical, he provided the “common man” factor from almost the off as Hislop sought to take political points and puncture the mighty at any point he could. Merton was dressed in episode one, as he often was for his improv shows, in a wildly colourful and patterned shirt with the added gimmick of a child’s birthday badge. Suddenly I felt at home.

The first series didn’t find its feet. Guests were either 1990′s ubiquitees (Sandi Toksvig, Tony Slattery), unknown freelancers needing exposure (Kate Saunders, Robert Harris – though when Saunders was introduced as a hack I was surprised, as I only knew her as the policewoman whom Rodney Trotter pulled in an episode of Only Fools and Horses) or politicians who weren’t bothered about individual, party or programme reputation (Ken Livingstone, Tony Banks). The rounds were plentiful – eight (yes, count them) of the buggers. Film footage, quickly now as we have tabloid headlines to revolve at you next, no monologues this time because of the connections round, now here’s some archive, come on, just halfway through now, odd-one-out then, into sub-heads round, swiftly let’s move to the props round, and finally fill the blanks. Caption from Ian? Caption from Paul? Goodnight.

It was all a bit quick. The ratings weren’t bad. Merton was funny, Hislop wasn’t. Deayton could be but the potential for his monologues to dominate the programme had yet to be noticed. But his quizzical stares into the autocue camera soon gave Hat Trick their relaunch tool for series two. And here we got what we wanted.

Series two of HIGNFY was absolutely fantastic. The idiotic, meaningless sub-heads and props rounds were out of the door and the guests started to become less predictable. Deayton was getting booked for voiceovers. Merton began honing a reputation beyond the Comedy Store and Channel 4. Hislop was still not very likeable, but became reliable for a bit of verbal wrongrighting when required. The news stories of late 1991 helped considerably – Maxwell, Judge Thomas, William Roache’s libel case – and the inspired decision to commission a Christmas review of the year took the programme to even greater heights. The guest roster throughout 1991 still maintained some of the Toksvig-Slattery-Anderson in-crowd stuff, but the emergence of harsher political presences like Edwina Currie and Clare Short and more workable journalistic bylines like Michael White, David Thomas and (most notably) Trevor McDonald widened the appeal. HIGNFY started to get plaudits and complaints in equal measure, most notably when Deayton, in an odd-one-out question about Nobel prizes, said that Mother Teresa won the Peace prize “in the same year that she won the all-Calcutta shrivelled walnut lookalike competition”, a gag which had White trying not to laugh and fellow guest Stephen Frost doing the thumbs-down routine. The tabloids concentrated on the complaints, and as a result the show got plaudits for realising that its own controversy was proving a winner.

HIGNFY has always relied on luck in achieving success. It has always needed good fortune in the choice of guests and in the timing of news stories to discuss. Thanks to a great cast, tight script and a dedication to recording deliberately too much material, it’s consistently hit the spot. BBC2 was still showing it at 10pm on Friday nights by the time the third series was underway in 1992, and the confidence in the programme had clearly grown to two significant extents – firstly, the commission was for the spring, with another run due in the autumn, therefore the emphasis on the show to succeed had been backed up by real hours on the air. Then, in a surprising and unannounced move midway through the third series, two more rounds were suddenly ditched. The connections and archive questions, one per team, were removed without notice, leaving the staple quartet of rounds which, daft one-offs, experiments or gimmicks aside, have been pretty much the housework for the show’s longevity ever since. This left lots of room for argument, debate, tangents, walkouts and sturdier fare via the autocue and the Deayton delivery.

The guests kept getting that little bit more experimental, and it became gratifying to see that people away from politics and comedy were more willing to send themselves and their jobs up in the hope they could garner a good laugh. Trevor McDonald, for example, was mildly ribbed during his second appearance in 1992, but barring his TISWAS cameo more than a decade earlier to surprise Lenny Henry, we’d never seen – even during his turn a year earlier – what the vernacular might refer to as the “real” him. By the end of the episode he, like fellow guest John Sessions, was helpless with laughter to the point of requiring oxygen as Merton disappeared off into a world which involved Margaret Thatcher being unable to stop a runaway pig because it could dash straight through her bandy legs. HIGNFY made the stoic and stout seem human and vulnerable, another good example of which came with the appearance of Joan Bakewell, whose reputation as an elitist broadcaster with little realisation of the “real world” was swiftly shredded as she easily swapped groanworthy puns about flaccid penises with the irreverent and brilliant Donna McPhail in the week when For Women magazine first hit the shops.

For the regulars, it had become meat and drink and we now knew what to expect. Deayton would flower-up his links to camera, deliver some great lines to autocue and try with varying degrees of success to keep some flow to the programme, all while wearing a brand new suit. Hislop would make the political points and take the piss, still with little real humour but with no little credibility; and Merton would do as he pleased, which invariably involved taking off the more ridiculous tabloid stories into his own far-flung gangplank world, coming up with and then maintaining the running gags for each series and, far more often than not, winning the contest on the grounds that he was the only captain who was competitive enough to revise. Hislop, for all his intelligence and wisdom, seemingly couldn’t bring himself to swot up the content of any tabloid, any sports section or any gossip column, even though his ignorance regularly cost him episodes.

Once this formula established itself, the main course of intrigue and anticipation for the viewer became the identity of the guests and, when these were handily given to us (pre-www) by the Friday issues of our local evening paper, establishing whether we knew them and whether they’d fit in to the HIGNFY format. In series three, one turned up who prompted expectation of teeth-gritting car-crash telly. Cecil Parkinson? The new peer? Maggie’s big mate? He’s never agreed to go on there, surely? They’ll eat him alive!

They didn’t. Hislop tried, but they didn’t. Parkinson’s appearance alongside Merton in the 10th and final episode of series three gave all future guests a yardstick to plan and guide their own performances by. For all the political and personal scandals, for all the skeletons, for all the peccadilloes, just do two things and you’ll be fine.

The first is laugh, I mean really laugh. Parkinson found Deayton and especially Merton completely hysterical and spent sizeable minuteage just chucking his head back and guffawing. The boxes marked “sporting nature”, “awareness of theme” and “sense of humour” were all duly ticked and nobody, even from the looniest of left-fields, could dislike him as a result. The second is, don’t tell jokes if you’re not funny. Parkinson learnt this. He answered the questions, laughed heartily and didn’t shirk anything thrown at him, but never once tried to amuse. Nobody could quite believe it, but all three regulars afterwards admitted that he had been completely charming and affable and had earned lots of friends within the inner workings. It was right that he never went back – if anyone was going to go out on a high …

Oh, for all the joke-free guests to do as Lord Cecil did. But we’ll come to that later.

The pressure to deliver two series per year from 1992 was eased by the strength of draw the programme had now earned for itself, meaning the production team could, within reason, pretty much get who they wanted. Series five saw Livingstone become the first and only person to appear in an episode per series, though his amiability never really spread its wings into a fully-fledged appearance of folklore and we didn’t see him again for a while. But the political expansion, undoubtedly helped by Parkinson’s awesome performance during the spring run, was further enriched when Jerry Hayes became the third Conservative politician to do a turn, pre-scandal, and his status as one of the acknowledged minority of eyes-open younger Tories helped him put in a good turn. A future political leader in Charles Kennedy, then just 33, made his debut appearance on a programme which would doggedly cling to his national profile forever; a previous political leader in Neil Kinnock would also arrive, little more than six months after he contrived to snatch election defeat from the jaws of victory. Both excelled themselves. The politicians had started to realise and research what sort of programme it was their free-thinking agents were sending them along to. Meanwhile, Frank Skinner became the first guest to appear twice in one series and Ian got to sit next to his mentor and hero Peter Cook in an astonishing episode which pitted him up against Merton and the very matter-of-fact, unemotional, pen-waggling Douglas Adams, whose in-depth analysis of a man who was having a sexual relationship with his own Austin Maestro became and remains one of the most idiosyncratic moments of the programme.

This was the series where we also got the first truly endearing extra-curricular features of the whole project – a Merton running gag. In the days leading up to the Jerry Hayes episode, Deayton did a colour-piece with the Sun about his blissful domestic life with singer Stephanie de Sykes, which Merton quickly rebranded as a minor sordid affair with Eric Sykes. In the same episode, Deayton was markedly suffering from a throat condition which had evaporated much of his voice (“That’s the last time I French-kiss Bill Clinton”) which prompted Ian to suggest he was doing too many voiceovers … and so another theme got underway. A third came in the Kinnock episode when Deayton’s brown suit was mercilessly ribbed for its blandness, with subsequent clothing choices being branded as “brown” for the rest of the series.

The running gags often served to salvage episodes and gave Merton ammunition to go off on one when somebody or something within the show needed to be exited and forgotten. It also added a sporting element to the viewing experience, with a stored wonderment at the back of the mind trying to decipher if and when an item up for discussion would give Merton an excuse to find the running theme of the series. Not that he needed to time it as such – for him, there was no time like any time to recycle an old joke and make it that bit funnier.

In 1993, the guest roster balanced itself out nicely between the square pegs (David Steel MP, pink-suited Amanda Platell in MGN managing editor mode, John Simpson and the first of many anecdotes about hallucinogenic drugs in the jungle), the topical (Chris Evans vs Fiona Armstrong in a self-unstyled “battle of the breakfasts”) and the rest (Slattery’s final appearance, Mark Thomas in a Nirvana T-shirt talking about self-abuse next to a confused Hislop). But there was a tiny fourth category – the absent. While Slattery kept his appointment for the eighth and final episode of the run, Roy Hattersley didn’t, and not for the first time. Everyone seemed to see the results, even though as a joke, the presence of the tub of lard next to Merton (in his “I Drink Cooper’s Creosote” T-shirt, a fictional brand he invented in the Evans/Armstrong episode after he was challenged about some ads he’d been filming) wasn’t that funny. What made it work was the way Merton showed he didn’t need any attention-seeking guest alongside him to know the news, entertain, tell the gags and win, and the fact he managed it while filling in blanks on foreign-language headlines in the missing words round (“Now, bearing in mind I did metalwork … “) just added to the brilliance of it all. Hislop’s reaction at the final scores (“It’s getting very sad when I can’t win against Paul when he’s accompanied by a tub of lard and all the questions are in a foreign language. I feel like Graham Taylor.”) evoked genuine sympathy amidst the completely show-stealing performance from Merton. The tub of lard, meanwhile, was barely mentioned after the first round, aside from Deayton’s score recapitulations.

Meanwhile, we got to see an air of real tension – of the sexual variety – during the fourth episode of this run. Caroline Quentin was largely unknown to the general public in 1993, but once she’d been introduced, sitting alongside Hislop, as “Mrs Merton”, a new element of plot developed, as well as a running gag. Deayton casually said that some guests may sleep with a captain to get on the show; this one had gone as far as marrying him. Introduction, applause and then the comeback – “Why did I have to sleep with you as well?” “Oh, it was just in the contract. But thank-you anyway.” A nice exchange, real tension between guest and host, and no further mention during the show. But the innuendo of Merton’s wife and the HIGNFY host having a liaison was brought up for humour purposes by Merton himself the following week (lots of “I’ll give you one” non-gags afterwards) and it went on for quite some time, beyond Quentin’s second and final appearance, this time with hubby, a year later.

There had been Christmas specials for the previous two Yuletides, while the 1992 election had been commemorated with a one-off episode – featuring Alan Coren, Rory Bremner and the infamous line “he was arrested in an area known as Gobbler’s Gulch” – which began at 10pm on the Thursday night as the polling stations were being locked. The next away-from-the-norm billing came in October 1993, with the BBC asking Hat Trick to put together an episode chronicling the life and career of Margaret Thatcher, whose memoirs were just going on sale. Naturally there needed to be one political ally and one political enemy recruited, so a charmless and unfunny Derek Hatton sat alongside Hislop, while a gossipy, softening Edwina Currie sat next to Merton. Much of the programme was useless, the captains looked very bored and, with the release of historical memoirs hardly accounting for topicality, the show buckled under the strain and went very rubbish. It was quickly asserted that if HIGNFY could devote an episode to one news story, that story needed to be fresh in its own right – the only thing fresh about Margaret Thatcher’s life and career was that she’d decided to tell everyone else about it.

Still, a week on and things reverted to normality, though there was nothing normal about Roy Hattersley actually turning up as booked and promised. As the last “proper” episode had parodied him as a tub of lard, the least the programme knew it could do was invite him to try again in the new series, and he emerged a funny and highly aware contestant. When the time came to fill the blanks at the end, Deayton looked to the camera and announced that “just for the sheer hell of it” they’d included some headlines from Wild About Animals magazine. Though this was earmarked as a temporary gimmick to account for a considerable lack of worthy headlines, the motif stuck and guest publications remain to this day.

Again, some tremendous stuff emerged from regulars and guests alike in this series. New politicians on the block included Gerald Kaufman who playfully called the studio crowd “a rigged Tory audience, just like it was a rigged Tory electorate” after he’d insisted that the nation hated Jeremy Paxman, only for the crowd to disagree unanimously with some help from a goading and gleeful Hislop (“No Gerald, no wonder you lost the last election – completely out of touch!”). There were some specific guest categories in this series – the likes of comic actress Maria McErlane, not a household name then and still not today, and also Lesley Abdela, who was easily the show’s most nervous contestant of all time and was possibly only invited on in her role as Political Editor of Cosmopolitan so that Deayton could tell us all to enjoy her article entitled “Labour Transport Policy and the Multiple Orgasm”. There were brilliant debuts for Alexei Sayle (who nicked a lot of voiceover work for years afterwards as a result of admitting it was the only reason he’d gone on the show – “Still using big box powders? Don’t!”), Tony Hawks, Jo Brand and Maureen Lipman, while the Christmas special saw Hislop and Merton swap seats and sartorial preferences – the Private Eye editor shifted from his unswerving suit-and-tie garb into a flamboyantly open shirt, (with a coloured pencils design) in the hope that Merton’s fashion habits and seat would give him a Merton-esque victory. Sod’s law – Merton won 23-10, at that time the biggest margin ever. The glutton for punishment award went to Frank Bough, whose tabloid-fodder stockings-and-snorts activities had been mercilessly used as gags on the Deayton autocues, yet only Brand (and a bit of Hislop) had a dig at him when he went on the show. It did him no harm at all.

If we’re talking about gluttons for punishment, then the first series of 1994 – the seventh in total – had two of the very best. We waited a while as episodes went through the mill, including the husband-and-wife pretend-angst games between Merton and Quentin which got quite dull, especially as they lost the episode and proceeded to throw faux-wobblers at each other, with Merton calling his wife a “thicko”. The same episode brought us an outtake after the credits, with Hislop expressing disbelief that an assertion the Maxwell brothers were “heartless, scheming bastards” was going to be allowed into the final cut. He then detailed the maximum custodial sentence for contempt of court, allowing Merton to point out “you’ll know what a brown suit is in there.” A magnificent debut alongside Hislop for Bob Monkhouse (“An anagram of ‘Michael Portillo’ is ‘I talk bollocks’; obviously that’s give or take a letter”) was complemented by a bow on the other team for Hislop’s batman at Private Eye and all-round egghead Francis Wheen, who would become one of the greatly reliable semi-regulars over the next decade. Eddie Izzard (“Dying, death, smoke and fuzz on water!”) and Hugh Dennis would also make memorable opening appearances; Kinnock came back to an even greater ovation than his post-election appearance of two years earlier, while Hislop would end the same episode in acute pain to the extent of an emergency appendix removal, the finer details of which he would reveal at later dates.

But these people were the show-stealers, and one such rogue certainly did so without intending to. In fact, it’s tough to accept he was aware what programme he was on or what he was supposed to be doing. Sir Rhodes Boyson MP’s appearance, sitting alongside Merton, was so amazingly ignorant of the format and the audience it caused genuine discomfort amongst the viewers both in the studio and at home. His turn made him a figure of fun but, crucially, not unlikeable. He went off on tangents with no beginning, middle or end, made contradictory political points, argued with Hislop without realising the opposing captain was making him just dig deeper, forgot to answer the questions, and didn’t get any joke at all. This called for a Merton salvage job, and his charades while Boyson droned on – looking suspiciously at a jug of water, pretending to strangle himself – kept the show alive. The other guest, Maureen Lipman, cried in hysterics and pity under her fingers at the car-crash before her: an emotion and action reciprocated by the viewing nation.

Another glutton got it right, like Parkinson and Bough before him, by learning to be the joke and accepting the form of the others. The papers went potty when they observed his appearance though, as Salman Rushdie was still under a taxpayer-funded 24-hour armed guard from the Ayatollah’s fatwa of 1989, and such was the secrecy which secured his appearance, the BBC told the listings magazines that the tub of lard would be one of the guests, along with a second showing for Donna McPhail. Rushdie took the studio audience by surprise when he turned up; the viewing public had not seen him for some years when the cut was screened 24 hours later. But it was a great showing, with a claim that Ray Illingworth’s banning of Bibles from the England cricket team dressing room was blasphemous “and I think he should be sentenced to death” proving a particular highlight, though in truth the best jokes were aimed at him by McPhail (“Salman, you should get out more!”) and Merton (“Going anywhere nice for your holidays this year?”).

The gluttons for punishment tag seemed to be working for the show’s bookers as the impact on your profession, reputation or public persona one reasonable appearance could have on you if you got it right seemed to far outweigh the process of taking the actual flak from the others round the arc. Series eight was awash with them – ex-crown court judge James Pickles did the first episode (“Hislop: “A great pleasure to sit opposite a judge again!” Pickles: “A great honour to sit opposite someone who should be in the dock.”) and survived the aggravation sufficiently to get his debut novel well plugged, though the show helped by introducing a one-off round of extracts from celebrity tomes (Hislop: “I didn’t know you weren’t a novelist!”). Pickles was assisted, to his considerable luck, by tabloid revelations from Deayton’s now ex-girlfriend, with de Sykes going public about their relationship and the regulars picking up on it to the extent of dominating the episode. A sign of things to come.

Others included Royal biographer Andrew Morton (Hislop: “You can write the same book twice, but you can’t give the same answer twice”); snooker-anchorman-turned-neo-preacher David Icke (Merton: “We need a miracle, David”), actress-turned-politician Glenda Jackson, whose paranoia boiled over to the extent she accused both Deayton and Merton of patronising her, and ex-Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie, who got one over Hislop by pointing out he’d won a libel case, which was one more than Private Eye had ever managed. But again, it was the token Tory who stole the series.

Like Boyson in the last run, Sir Teddy Taylor MP had clearly gone on the programme convinced it was as much about political debate and making points as it was send-ups and point-scoring. Whereas Boyson was eccentric and lacking in any real standing or credibility, Taylor did at least appear to have some warped sensibility as he rattled through his anti-Euro rants and the others seemed to like him, though Merton pretended to hang himself and Hislop moaned at him for wanting to bring the government down in a “no” vote, even though he’d had a go at HIGNFY for being nasty about those in power. But Taylor saved himself, and how. A whole political career of some notability and respect, complete with knighthood and an undefeated election record pale into insignificance when, on HIGNFY, during a question about the return of the Beatles using some old tapes of Lennon’s voice, Taylor announced in passing that he was a huge fan of Bob Marley.

The audience was dumbfounded, Deayton put on one of his “comic aside” muggings to the camera and Merton could not suppress the urge to quiz his guest further about this. But Taylor assured us all that travelling up and down the country in his car, he found some tapes belonging to his daughter containing “some of those funny pop records” and the person he took to was Bob Marley, even quoting from Three Little Birds to sum up the Euro debate. “So kids, try Bob Marley – but be careful!” said Hislop.

This was an almighty and worthy caveat to the belief that Taylor’s showing on HIGNFY was a calamity for himself and his party. Every time he got dull, someone would mention Bob Marley and his face would crack into laughter and appreciation. A fortnight later Deayton told us Taylor had accepted an invitation to present the prizes at the British Reggae Awards; a sure sign of the HIGNFY power.

This power had engulfed the nation and had regularly entered TV review columns. BBC2 took great delight in trailing it expensively and the regulars – especially Merton – became national superstars. Deayton got gigs which paid many thousands and Hislop’s TV work grew too, mainly with Channel 4 documentaries and appearances on arts review programmes and the odd Question Time cameo. The backbiting was there, of course (“It’s rigged! It’s scripted! It’s rehearsed!” screamed the non-believers) but this just served to tighten the powerful stomach muscles which the programme-makers needed to keep firm as the lawyers made noises about suing and the snitchers threatened to grass. Truthfully, only those who were frightened of HIGNFY‘s arrows were the ones who tried to break the string on the bow and they knew that one way to at least fray the edges was to interlope and bring it down from within. Yet ultimately, breaking the seal closed up by the three regulars didn’t require any sneaky tactics from outdoors, as one of that very triumvirate chose to do it himself. And when he did, the words “hard”, “work” and “very” leapt to mind …