I have read somewhere that the already large audience gained by Have I Got News For You increased every time that Angus Deayton got on to the tabloid front pages. This does not suggest to me that people are interested in Angus Deayton's discomfiture. What it suggests very strongly to me is that there is more truth than I thought in Kington's First Law of Radio and Television: "Every chat show develops sooner or later into a soap opera."
I first noticed this strongly with The Moral Maze on Radio 4. This programme was ostensibly a moral and ethical debate about things in the news, about everything from slavery to chequebook journalism. Nothing there, you would think, that would tempt a programme to become like The Archers or EastEnders, where nobody ever debates anything. But you would reckon without David Starkey. Starkey was an argumentative historian who tended to browbeat witnesses, and bash a point over the head until it was dead. He was the Mr Nasty of the programme, and other members of the panel used to argue back, or defend the witnesses, or get cross themselves, while chairman Michael Buerk, as peacemaker, tried to pour common sense on logically troubled waters.
It got so that people would tune into the programme as much as anything to hear the by-play between Starkey and the others, much as, many years ago, people tuned in to What's My Line? to hear Gilbert Harding being grumpy. What was happening was that a bit of real life drama, a bit of genuine characterisation, was creeping into what was otherwise a bloodless discussion. A chat show was tending towards the state of a soap.
I don't think this ever happens intentionally. I am sure that when the News Quiz was first aired on Radio 4, no one had intended that there would be a real-life contrast between the editor of Punch, Alan Coren, who was always desperate to win, and the then editor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, who had a wonderfully lordly insouciance about the scores, and to many ears was desperate to lose. But there it was, and half the fun of the programme was in the tension and contrast between the fast-talking funny swot, and the slow-talking funny gent.
This doesn't happen so much in the current News Quiz because there are fewer permanent characters. Alan Coren is still there, still snappy, still keen to win, but he is an elder statesman now, and when younger people like Linda Smith appear they sometimes find themselves playing the apposite part. "You'll get some fresh air and a walk later, Alan," she will gaily cry when Coren half-forgets something, or, "I'm sure the nurses aren't stealing your flowers." When Jeremy Hardy does one of his brilliant left-wing rants, Andy Hamilton will as like as not say: "Have you ever thought about going to Rage Management Classes, Jeremy?" and for a moment you get the inkling of some latent character development and conflict.
But Have I Got News For You is where my theory came gloriously good. There was always a friendly though barbed rivalry between Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. Then they would unite against Deayton, as football players unite against the ref, and they would also unite against guests that they didn't like or wanted to take the mickey out of.
And then they both decided to give black sheep Angus Deayton a hard time in a way that distracts one's attention from the week's news, but which makes great soap opera. Three weeks ago, I gather, Christine Hamilton also gave Deayton a hard time. That hasn't happened before – the guests turning on the errant chairman. Indeed, on Deayton's last-ever edition even the audience got involved. As Hislop and Merton were baiting Deayton in his role as Mr Naughty, a female spectator shouted: "Leave him alone!"
Quick as a flash Merton turned to the audience and shouted: "Are you a friend of his? Don't worry, the show's nearly over. You'll have him back in 20 minutes...." And Hislop followed up wickedly: "Have you got a friend with you? She might be in luck as well...."
The plot line was clearly getting out of hand here. Whoever had created the character of Angus Deayton couldn't see how future developments could go. There was only one answer. Deayton had to go. The scriptwriters clearly hoped there would be a monster audience for the next show, the first one without him, to see how the other characters would cope. So don't forget: Angus Deayton was not fired from the show. He was not sacked. It was an artistic decision. He was written out of the script.