TELEVISION / News retorts: Jim White on the return of Angus Deayton's quiz Have I Got News for You

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The Independent Culture
It has been a tough week to be funny about. Fortunately, Have I Got News For You (BBC 2) returned from a summer recess almost as long as the one MPs enjoy. If anyone could lift the gloom, these boys could.

The programme's format emerged from its hibernation exactly as it had been left: the opening titles were the same, the set was the same, Paul Merton's T- shirt collection had not improved. Last night he wore one designed to upset BBC mandarins: 'Turn over at 11' the front read. Hat Trick, the producers of Have I Got News, would not have objected too much; like almost everything else on television at the moment, they are responsible for what was on the other side at 11 as well: The Paul Merton Show.

The guests were not exactly under-exposed either. Griff Rhys Jones and John Sessions had both been on the programme before. Apparently it is getting harder for the producers to persuade MPs on to the programme; they feel they have too much to lose. Most of this season's guests will be professional comic performers more comfortable in the intensely competitive format - Ken Livingstone or Edwina Currie, for instance.

In the end the participants ducked the challenge of being funny about the miners, the issue of the week. Ian Hislop thumped the table with something approaching passion and Angus Deayton's line - 'Arthur Scargill was wrong, as always: he said that British Coal were going to shut down half the pits in Britain. In fact they've shut down two thirds' - raised a wry smile rather than a belly laugh.

As usual, the teams seemed more comfortable with the tabloid agenda. Paul Merton, on top surreal form, voiced the question on everyone's mind: 'What is Madonna looking at over that wall that is so important she forgot to put her knickers on?'

Merton was off on his familiar tangents, delivering, for example, a monologue about the man who strangled his neighbour's parrot that was in pure Python territory. Rhys Jones kept up with him laugh for laugh; indeed much of the programme's enjoyment comes from the way the panellists develop each other's feed-lines. Before the end, they managed to improvise a gag which merged Madonna and the neighbour's parrot with police video camera speed checks. Which, Merton posited, explained why she was underwearless.

Angus Deayton, as his guests are quick to point out, is the only one with a script. Some of his material may be very clever, but fortunately most of it is on a lower evolutionary level. 'A huge cock was delivered to Madonna's hotel,' he revealed, before a picture of a man in a chicken suit flashed up on screen.

And, like all good comedians, the team have their catch-phrases to fall back on if the improvisation fails. 'Jason's a what?' asked Deayton during the blanked-out headline round, which set the audience tittering long before Hislop obliged with the traditional line 'a notorious heterosexual'.

Their cast of punch-bag characters has widened over the summer. Norman Lamont took up most of the programme, David Mellor got a look in, even Frank Bough got a sniff. In fact it was so crowded with comic bogey men that Michael Winner had to wait until Deayton's closing round-up for a mention and Jeffrey Archer didn't even merit a name check. No doubt he will be back.