“I don’t normally do too badly exchanging acerbities” Conrad Black said the other day, when Adam Boulton questioned the wisdom of his decision to appear on Have I Got News For You.
Back then his confidence was understandable. There’s a lot that’s bull-like about Black on the rampage – eyes narrowed as he contemplates the outrageous presumption that a conviction for criminal fraud might impugn his reputation, nostrils flaring at the scent of liberal prejudice.
Two of current affairs’ foremost toreadors had come at him waving their clipboards and he’d flicked them aside without breaking sweat. Last night though it was the turn of the picadors, taking it in turns to jab and goad from a distance. And the question was whether the treatment would leave Black weakened or spectacularly enraged. He was never going to be defeated – you can’t shame the shameless. But there was at least the possibility that he might end up looking foolish.
In the event it was something of an anti-climax. Black started reasonably well, with the only strategy available to such a guest: answer back smartly. “I salute your balls”, said Alexander Armstrong, acknowledging his nerve in taking the pillory seat. “I will give you the opportunity to do just that”, replied Black and got a laugh that was with him not at him.
But if you feared that he was going to master this format as brazenly as he’d controlled his one-to-one interviews earlier in the week, reassurance came quite quickly. He unrolled a laboured joke about badgers which didn’t get a laugh at all, and as the scriptwriters took every opportunity available to remind the audience of exactly why he was there, he could only occasionally find a snappy line back.
“I said I could live on $80 million”, he said at one point, correcting a line in Armstrong’s script. “That’s the spirit! Chin up”, replied Armstrong drily.
Ian Hislop had a crack at a frontal assault and had wisely opted for condescension rather than indignation as the best tactic: “You’ve come here to say you’re innocent. Which is sweet. But not true”, he said concluding one of the few rattlier exchanges. That got a big laugh but it was also followed by one of those sharp swerves of tone that tell you a lot has disappeared in the edit.
Whatever happened in the gap it wasn’t funny enough or interesting enough to retain. And after that there wasn’t a lot of action. Black was teased and tickled but never really wounded.
In the end the most forensic moment was supplied by an on-screen picture. “My wife didn’t even have a costume” Black insisted, recalling a notorious occasion when he’d gone to a fancy dress party as a cardinal. The image we saw next showed his wife in full fig as a French countess. If that was representative of the accuracy of his memory, you found yourself thinking, it’s really no wonder he was convicted.