Miles Kington: It's no laughing matter: comics have hijacked the airwaves

They have learnt to think on their feet, to be at ease with a microphone, and, when all else fails, to come up with a relevant joke
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The Independent Online

If you listen carefully to Radio 4's The News Quiz, you can hear a curious clacking sound in its signature tune. It's rhythmic and it's vaguely mechanical. Yes, it's the sound of typewriters being operated in time with the music. That's because the sig tune of The News Quiz is meant to symbolise Fleet Street - I think it's called "Fleet Street Rag" or "Morning Edition" or "Hold the Front Page" or something corny like that - and the sound of busy typewriters should make everyone think of Fleet Street.

This may have been true when the programme started, but there are flaws in the argument now.

One is that there are no newspapers in Fleet Street anymore. Another is that there are no typewriters anymore - indeed, most younger people would not even recognise the sound of a manual typewriter, replaced as it has been by the soft rattle of a computer keyboard.

And the third misconception raised by the signature tune is that The News Quiz still features journalists. Which it did when it started. Richard Ingrams, and Peter Cook, and the Private Eye gang were there, and Alan Coren from Punch, and there were lots of bright sparks from Fleet Street making guest appearances, but Alan Coren and Francis Wheen are the only stalwarts who could be said to have a connection with the press anymore. All the others - Jeremy Hardy, Andy Hamilton, Fred MacAulay, etc etc - are comedians.

The last chairman of The News Quiz, Simon Hoggart, was a journalist, but he has been replaced by Sandi Toksvig. Who is also a comedian. Comedians are taking over everywhere on Radio 4.

When Saturday Live presenter Fi Glover was away recently, she was replaced by comedian Sue Perkins. Excess Baggage, the serious travel programme that follows it, is presented by comedian Sandi Toksvig.

The programme Chain Reaction, on which last week's interviewee becomes next week's interviewer, is limited almost entirely to comedians - the last one featured Marcus Brigstocke interviewing Clive Anderson.

Chain Reaction works quite well, which is more than can be said for Personality Test, the excruciating programme on which well-known people take it in turns, week by week, to come on the programme and be asked questions about themselves. It's a quiz in which the guest is the host and the subject matter.

Who, you might ask, would be big-headed and shameless enough to think they were interesting enough for us to want to know about their personal tastes? Well, looking at recent volunteers, I see names like Claire Rayner. And Esther Rantzen. And Greg Dyke. And Adam Hart-Davis. People like that.

None of them comedians, you might say. Ah, but the four people asking the questions are Sue Perkins, Lucy Porter, Robin Ince and Alan Carr. Who are all comedians.

You might think I am now about to trace a huge conspiracy in this, a plot whereby comedians are plotting to take over broadcasting, and do all the interviewing and presenting and reviewing and investigating available on Radio 4 and later the world.

Not at all. I merely think that comedians are quick-witted people who have learnt how to think on their feet, to be at ease with a microphone, to be unfazed by an audience and, when all else fails, to come up with a relevant joke. They are ready made, pre-trained broadcasters. So when a radio producer thinks: "Hmmm. I need a person who can react quickly and not dry up, to present Saturday Live/a travel programme/new quiz/chat show/series of trailers saying how much good comedy there is on Radio 4..." the first person who comes to mind will be, not these days, a broadcasting name; it will be Arthur Smith (or Paul Merton or David Baddiel or Sandi Toksvig or Sue Perkins or Marcus Brigstocke...).

If you don't think comedians are taking over, have a look at the new Radio Times. At the radio programmes, of course. But look at the cover too. It sports a big picture of Torvill and Dean. But there is a third person, stuck between them. It's Sandi Toksvig. It may be later than we think. They may already have taken over.

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