John Lloyd: When the laughing has to stop


Not The Nine O'Clock News once announced on air that the TV picture of anyone without a TV licence would go black. It did so, then a phone number appeared and a voiceover invited culprits to call the Director-General and explain themselves. From that moment the phone in our production office started ringing. Stifling our laughter, each of us in turn fielded calls from frantic viewers promising to pay up. After 40 years in entertainment, I believe making people laugh is "a Good Thing". But – like power, money, science and religion – comedy is a powerful tool that can be used for good or ill. And, on rare occasions, it can be lethal.

In 1975, I was the 23-year-old producer of a late-night topical comedy show on Radio 4. We often ran sketches mocking the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, then seen as a buffoon rather than a mass murderer. On one occasion, having heard the show go out, I lingered for the midnight news. It led on a statement from Amin saying that, if the media made any more jokes about him, he would shoot Denis Hills, the British teacher arrested for sedition. You can imagine how little sleep I had that night. But I was lucky. The Queen intervened and Hills was released unharmed. We never did sketches on the subject again and, overnight, I became a more thoughtful broadcaster.

The Queen, unfortunately, was unable to save Jacintha Saldanha, the poor nurse who took the prank call last week. Her death is a desperately sad. Why did the radio station allow the hoax to take place at all? The Duchess of Cambridge was seriously unwell; what possible good could have come from pestering her or the hospital staff?

There's a long tradition in Britain of setting out to make people look foolish, as long as they are public figures who can reasonably be said to have done something to deserve it. But this wasn't true of Mrs Saldanha. Prank calls are the new lowest form of wit. Meanwhile, as a father of three myself, to Mrs Saldanha's husband I offer heartfelt sympathy on behalf of all of us who have been young and foolish and hopefully learned a lesson: that not everything is a laughing matter.