Long Runners / No 30: Have I Got News For You

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The Independent Culture
Age: 4. It began its TV life in 1990, and there have been 59 episodes so far.

Did it exist in another form before then? Yes, sort of. Radio 4's The News Quiz, which was first broadcast in 1977, is based on a similar format. There are three series a year and it has become one of the network's most popular programmes. Hat Trick, the phenomenally successful comedy production company, saw its television potential and seized it from under the Beeb's nose, giving their producer Harry Thompson the job of revamping it.

Frequency: eight half-hour episodes per series, for two series a year. Thompson says that by 1991 'the BBC wanted it every week of the year, but we refused, as we thought everyone would get fantastically bored with it'.

Ratings: viewing figures rose from 1m for the first programme to about 6.5m for the fourth series onwards. It won the Bafta Best Light Entertainment Programme award in 1992.

Formula: televisual Private Eye thinly disguised as a news quiz. Two teams of two, captained by Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, confront each other against a garish blue-and-red backdrop of a collage of news clippings. Dapper Angus Deayton introduces the programme with a couple of spoof news stories, before presiding over four rounds of ferocious repartee, triggered by film clips, photos and headlines taken from the week's events. Satirical banter is fired back and forth across the semi- circular desk. Deayton then awards points, supposedly according to accuracy and wit, although more often arbitrarily. He's also notable for his arch links between rounds: 'these idle whimseys bring us meandering on to Round Two . . .' is a typical example.

Secret of success: marrying 1980s alternative comedy to political comment.

Hallmarks: a willingness to go further in the expression of its contempt for public figures than any other BBC programme. One whole edition was devoted to the insinuation that Lord Archer of Grantchester was less than 100 per cent honest. Has also (like Private Eye) created its own catchphrases, such as 'allegedly'.

Theme tune: cacophony of ear-splitting sounds accompanied by an equally brash and manic cartoon-strip - Westminster, the job centre, the Royal Family, sport - enough to give you a headache before the show even starts.

Little-known facts: it is John Birt's favourite programme. Despite popular belief, the only parts of the show that are scripted are Deayton's links, which he writes himself. The teams see the material half an hour before the show - not enough time to think up all the wisecracks in advance. Allegedly. Since 1990, the recording time has spiralled, from 32 minutes for seven rounds to an hour for four rounds - due, says Thompson, to 'an expanded capacity for blether' on the parts of Hislop and Merton.

Has anyone refused to be on it? Every cabinet minister invited and most female comedians. Ex-ministers are the exception: Cecil Parkinson is supposed to have confided that his appearance provoked the most positive response he ever had. Probably not saying much.

What about Roy Hattersley? Oh yes - the infamous tub of lard which took his place as Merton's partner last summer. It was the third time that Hattersley had pulled out of the show at the last minute. The stunt was covered in the next day's papers and provoked the MP to write a reply in his weekly Guardian column.

Rivals: in Thompson's words, 'nothing since Crystal Tipps and Alastair'.

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? Jokes about Deayton's ties, Deayton's forays into advertising, Deayton's private life, Deayton's appearances in the tabloids - who cares?

The bottom line - is it any good? It was excellent. It is still good, but it has become a victim of its own hype. The novelty of the formula has worn off, to be replaced by predictable, triangular wordplay as Merton and Hislop scramble for self-trumpeting wisecracks and Deayton interjects with characteristically dry monotony. Jokes can fall flat and guests are pushed to the sidelines. Perhaps a redirection along the original News Quiz lines, eschewing big egos but keeping the news comedy, is in order. Sophie Barker