Have I Got News for You

Friday, November 8, 2002 by

The high profile sacking of Angus Deayton from his role as host on Have I Got News For You has left the BBC with something of a problem. As with many shows, the topical news quiz worked because of a specific chemistry that had built up over many years between the presenters. Unlike other panel games where the host and team captains are as interchangeable as the guests (see They Think It’s All Over) it was always difficult to imagine the show without any one of the three.

In fact we saw the effects some years ago when Paul Merton took a series off to get his head sorted out, to be replaced by Eddie Izzard and Clive Anderson amongst others. Funny men in their own right, but without the specific wit and knowledge of the news displayed by Merton. Izzard was particularly numbing as he frustratingly offered “jam” as the answer for everything. And since the show has only recently become a cornerstone of the BBC1 schedule any change would no doubt affect its ability to entertain.

Merton tried his best last week under extreme pressure (no time to prepare, Deayton’s chair still warm). In a familiar studio but forced to put on his Room 101 style presenter hat, he was by turns squinty and nervous. The writing was probably as good as usual, but the script filled with the nuances of Deayton’s speech patterns lay there coming from his lips. During the missing words round he suddenly became Roy Walker on Catchphrase telling the guests that their joke answers were good but not correct. Now and then he seemed to glance over at Ross Noble, borrowing his seat for a week wondering if he would ever be back there.

Tonight he was much more comfortable as team captain again, as the second guest presenter in as many weeks Anne Robinson took charge. She had been one of the names that had been mooted by bookies as a possible permanent replacement along with John Sargeant and Chris Moyles. As is usual when such lists appear, none of possibles fitted the bill, the closest being Stephen Fry, although his showing during a special episode as part of last year’s Comic Relief didn’t inspire confidence. Of the rest, Robinson seemed an odd choice and so it proved during the show.

Things didn’t begin well. In a move which was supposed to provide context but in fact gave little cause for confidence, Robinson advised she “hadn’t watched the show since 1995″ (and she was going to present the thing?) and a clip of an old episode was presented as the reason why. Merton was off on one of his old tirades, this time about Anne Robinson’s wink as presenter of Points of View. It was a classic piece of nostalgia from when the show was arguably at the height of its powers, the late Paula Yates the guest, that very episode being the one in which she called Ian Hislop the “sperm of the devil”. For a moment some viewers might have hoped that this episode was going to get a repeat showing. No such luck. We were cruelly brought back to the present as Robinson stumbled through some japery about giving Hislop some extra points up front for Paul’s cheek. Merton tried his best to milk the moment but it didn’t really work.

The sinking feeling continued as Robinson stumbled through the introductions of the guests, John O’Farrell and John Simpson. These are hardly ever the best jokes of the show. Last week Merton didn’t even try. Here it wasn’t clear when O’Farrell’s introduction had ended – pregnant pause then laughter. This was something that continued throughout the show. The audience often seemed to wait for Robinson to get the line out, so that they could work out how Deayton would have said it then laughed. In many ways this isn’t Robinson’s fault. She isn’t a comedienne and is more used to the ad-libs which are written for her on The Weakest Link. But often after shows, Deayton was allowed to re-film his fluffed lines (seen on some of the series videos). This privilege didn’t appear to be available to Robinson which lessened her impression overall.

Luckily Hislop and Merton were largely on form in their savaging of the host. Hislop in particular was keen to turncoat her by bringing up her time on The Mirror under Robert Maxwell. Robinson squirmed uncomfortably after the reminder, and there was some sport as she turned against the Private Eye editor, who was relishing the chance to trot out his old (admittedly funny) Maxwell jokes. Oddly (in this edit) Merton’s last infamous television meeting with the former Watchdog presenter on Room 101 didn’t warrant a mention, although he did get one of the best lines. At a moment when the show was flagging Merton shouted “Bank!” crippling the audience. When told by Anne that she was pleased that he watched The Weakest Link Paul explained that he “only ever saw the last five minutes because The Simpsons was on after it.” Even the host smiled at that one. For a moment there was chemistry and spirit amongst the group.

The one thing Deayton was good at was shutting up at the right moments and letting the team captains speak. Presumably used to lengthy recording blocks when you can’t fall behind, Anne must have assumed she had to get the entire show recorded in half an hour and kept talking over the guests and captains. At one point she told an indignant Hislop to shut up so that she could say something. As his forehead furrowed he must have wondered whose show it was. Since the programme had become the story the guests felt slightly beside the point. John Simpson was like a walking (or seated) re-run of his past appearances, so we got to hear again about the interview with Gaddafi in which the Colonel farted constantly. It’s a surprise his rainforest psychedelic drug experiences didn’t put in an appearance, but that may have been in poor taste. But he was up to the challenge when Robinson tried to make something of his proclamation that he had liberated Kabul. Simpson told Robinson: “Do you know the burkha covers your entire face? Perhaps you might like to try one.”

Filling the role of the guest no one outside Whitehall had heard of was John O’Farrell who offered a couple of good one-liners but failed to make an impression because he became Robinson’s whipping boy. At times she seemed to be victimizing him as though he was a guest on The Weakest Link. There the host has a habit of constantly referring back to the one thing she knows about a contestant and here it was again – his failure in an election. It hadn’t been all that funny in her introduction, but it came back up time and again.

And so half an hour passed. On the evidence of tonight’s performance Robinson won’t be the permanent presenter of Have I Got News For You, but the experiment will have helped Hat Trick and BBC bosses to decide what they won’t want from a new host. While it’s difficult to see Deayton being invited back next series, it’s equally hard to see the show’s continuation without him, despite the best efforts of Merton and Hislop. The last name to be mooted was Johnny Vaughn. Personally I would prefer Johnny Vegas. He couldn’t be any worse than Anne Robinson was tonight.


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