Earlier this month, they celebrated the 25th birthday of The News Quiz on Radio 4 with not only a special laugh-packed quiz, but a special, history-packed edition. In it, Matthew Parris told the tale of the 25 years in which journalists and comedians have made fun of the news. And when you come to think of it, it hasn't been much longer than 25 years in which we have been allowed to make fun of the news and the people in it. Can you imagine if The News Quiz had been in operation in the 1930s, at the time of the Abdication? Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, made fun of? Never!
All right, there was Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week that Was, and there was Private Eye, but going back earlier than that, whoever dared satirise the people set in power over us? Tell me that!
Yes? Yes, you over there. Yes?
Rowlandson, you say. And Hogarth. And all the great, savage caricaturists of the late Georgian era.
OK. Fair enough. I grant you that. But that's history. That's going back too far. And we don't count history as real humour.
As, indeed, Matthew Parris didn't count history as evidence, because to listen to his otherwise excellent programme, you would think that there had only ever been two news-quiz programmes in the history of the world: Radio 4's The News Quiz and its slightly inferior TV offspring, Have I Got News for You. The accepted version of history is that The News Quiz is the Old Testament of news quizzes and Have I Got News for You is the New Testament and there have been no others.
Which is rubbish, because I was a guest on a predecessor of Have I Got News for You, long before that programme was ever thought of. It was called Scoop and it was produced by the BBC in Bristol in the early 1980s. (I remember it particularly well because if I had not been a guest on the programme, I would never have met my wife, who was working for the BBC. But that's another story.)
The idea of Scoop was to have two teams, who would be fed questions about the week's news and then make witty, incisive jokes about it. Clearly, it was quite different from Have I Got News for You, in which two teams are fed questions about the week's news and then have to make witty, incisive jokes about Angus Deayton. When Scoop was made, Angus Deayton was only a baby.
In fact, when Scoop was made, the Falklands War was beginning, and someone brave at the BBC decided that we shouldn't use any questions about the Falklands War, as if to refer to the real news was in bad taste. When I met the producer, Colin Godman, again years later and asked him what his memories of Scoop were, he said they were mainly of despair of finding any news that wasn't linked to Exocets, the task force and the Belgrano. If this war against Iraq ever happens, how much will we hear about it on Have I Got News for You?
I was a guest several times on the show, and every time I went down to Bristol to record a programme, there seemed to be a different chairman. Barry Norman, I remember. Nick Ross, too. Richard Stilgoe, too, or am I imagining that? This wasn't a lowly, provincial programme; it lured down lots of people from London, such as Pamela Stephenson and Willie Rushton, Esther Rantzen and Graeme Garden. My wife remembers seeing Reginald Bosanquet spilling wine all over himself before the programme, and insisting on taking his trousers off. Did he put them back on for the programme? Who knows? In most TV quiz shows, the contestants could be trouserless, or even bare from the waist down, and nobody would know.
Nor was Scoop the first TV news-quiz programme. At the time, I thought it was, but then I was shown an archive extract from a much earlier TV news-quiz show dating from the 1960s, which was in black and white, and featured such panellists as Tariq Ali and John Wells. Richard Ingrams was there again, and the one startling thing I remember about Ingrams's appearance was that he smoked like a chimney throughout the game. Richard hasn't smoked within living memory, as far as I know, yet here we have documentary evidence of his former habit. In those days, you knew if TV people smoked, because they got out their fags and smoked on screen, but now nobody smokes on TV at all, so we don't know who are the real smokers.
So, yes, TV has changed in the past 25 years. We can now make fun of people in the news. But I think it may be a stronger indication of the way things have changed that a) naked people are now allowed to do sexual things on television a lot of the time; b) nobody, even if fully clothed, is allowed to smoke on TV; and c) we don't find that at all odd.