Alan Coren, star of radio comedy, dies of cancer aged 69

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The Independent Online

Alan Coren, the humorist and broadcaster who could generate laughter from such unpromising subjects as land mines, the death of Princess Diana and his own encounter with necrotising fasciitis, has died of cancer at the age of 69.

The Oxford-educated son of a plumber was best known as a team captain on the long-running BBC quiz show Call My Bluff and for his 32 years on Radio 4's The News Quiz, which provided a regular forum for his unabashed and worldly brand of humour. He told one recent edition of the show that he regularly changed his date of birth in his entry on Wikipedia, the internet encylopaedia, to make himself look younger.

Coren, who was diagnosed with cancer only recently, died at home surrounded by his wife, Anne, and their children, Giles and Victoria, who are both journalists.

Last night, friends and colleagues paid tribute to a man whose career encompassed the editorship of the satirical magazine Punch, writing children's books and a column for The Times, and the development of various comedy screenplays.

Mark Damazer, the Radio 4 controller, said: "Alan was the heartbeat of The News Quiz, the man around whom so much turned for nearly 30 years. It was not only that he was consistently brilliantly funny but, above and beyond that, his humour burst with humanity and warmth. He could pick out the foibles of the mighty – and his own – with pinpoint accuracy and yet, at the same time, he evoked sympathy for the human condition."

After graduating from Oxford and obtaining a PhD in English literature from the University of California, Coren started work at Punch. He became its youngest-ever assistant editor at the age of 24 and later edited the magazine for nine years from 1978. In between, he worked for national newspapers as he established a reputation as a wit and raconteur. He joined The News Quiz team in 1975 and retained a role on the programme until just before he died, deftly treading the line between taboos and irreverent satire about the newsworthy – and unworthy – events of the week.

In one episode, he quipped: "I don't know anything about land mines or Princess Di, but I do know you'd be mad to poke either of them."

Despite winning the affection of millions of listeners, Coren described broadcasting as a "hobby" and considered writing to be his first love. He had a brief stint as editor of The Listener, the BBC's weekly cultural magazine, before concentrating on his role as a columnist, often reprising his experiences as a resident and champion of the north London suburb of Cricklewood. He once said many ideas for articles came from looking out of his window and watching the world go by.

Giles Coren, the restaurant critic of The Times, said his father would be buried in Cricklewood. He said: "It's called Hampstead Cemetery but it's what my dad always called Cricklewood and that's what counts."

Writing for The Times, Coren applied the same unflinching examination of the absurd to his own life as he did to that of others. In his Christmas column last year, he revealed he was recovering from his encounter with the flesh-eating infection, necrotising fasciitis. He said: "Something bit me as I snored, [it] could have been a gnat, could have been a scorpion, could have been a werewolf.

"It left no note, merely a breach into which a billion opportunist streptococci plunged and set up a colony called Septicaemia. It is an inclement little country, where your flesh falls off."

The broadcaster Libby Purves, who was a protégé of Coren's after winning a student journalism competition to work on Punch, said: "He was such a master of words and parody and style.

"He loved people and the absolute absurdity of life and he was one of the good, good guys. He was extremely kind. I will miss him desperately."

Coren on ...

* television

"Television is more interesting than people. If it were not, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms."

* democracy

"Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they've told you what you think it is you want to hear."

* the Netherlands

"Apart from cheese and tulips, the main product of the country is advocaat, a drink made from lawyers."

* souvenirs

"The word 'souvenir' has, of course, slightly extended itself in meaning until it now denotes almost anything either breakable or useless; but even today, 90 per cent of the items covered by the word are forgettable objects in which cigarettes can be left to go stale."

* the Germans

"Having lost the last war, they are currently enjoying a Wirtschaftswunder, which can be briefly translated as 'the best way to own a Mercedes is to build one'.

* Switzerland

"Since Switzerland has nothing else to identify it and since both its national products, snow and chocolate, melt, the cuckoo clock was invented solely in order to give tourists something to remember it by."