How to get ahead in broadcasting: look at the questions in advance

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I WAS a bit surprised at the weekend while watching the most recent edition of Have I Got News For You?, when Paul Merton roused himself from his usual sleepy-eyed attitude of watchful torpor and waxed indignant over something that Norman Tebbit had said in the Daily Mail.

I was surprised on several grounds. One, that Tebbit wrote in the Mail. Two, that Merton bothered to read it. Three, that Merton ever got worked up about things, at least on air. Most of the time he spends semi-slumped, trying to avoid eye contact with the uncongenial team partner he has been lumbered with, in this case Patrick Moore. But what had got him enlivened, even if temporarily, was a disparaging remark by Tebbit to the effect that that he didn't believe the exchanges on Have I Got News? were spontaneous. Tebbit had said, apparently, that the wit was so thick and fast on Have I Got News? that a lot of it was prepared in advance.

Merton pulled a long face at this, said something disdainful and then said: "That was live! That was actually an ad lib!" and everyone dutifully laughed.

I find this all a bit odd. What Tebbit wrote was actually a compliment. He said the programme was so funny it must be scripted. To say that something is scripted is not an insult. Maybe it is slightly insulting if the people on the programme are pretending it's impromptu, but plenty of programmes which pretend to be impromptu are clearly pre-planned (Blind Date, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue and so on - good heavens, even on the old Gardener's Question Time the experts were given advance sight of the questions ). No wonder we use the expression "off the cuff" to mean "genuinely spontaneous" when it actually means "written down on your cuff in advance". Perhaps we cannot tell the difference any more.

What is also odd is that Merton should feel offended by what Tebbit wrote in the Mail, which was pure supposition, but not, apparently, by what Boris Johnson has written in the current Spectator, which is first-hand and much more condemnatory. Johnson, the Telegraph columnist, was a guest on Have I Got News? recently, and was given something of a going over by Ian Hislop over some long-forgotten episode with Darius Guppy. Johnson, however, let this pass (as he would have been wise to do on the programme) and concentrated his amazed wrath on the amount of preparation that goes into the supposedly unrehearsed programme, preparation which he had actually observed and not, like Tebbit, merely suspected.

Johnson seems never to have done any television before, as he was amazed by the amount of retakes that had to be done, the amount of supposedly off-the-cuff stuff that Angus Deayton read from autocue, the time it took to film enough stuff to make half an hour, the drudgery to which the audience is subjected. This is all pretty normal for TV. But what especially disturbed Johnson was how little chance they were given to do anything ad lib: "Two hours beforehand we were shown the questions. We were shown all the sequences, the odd-man-outs, the headlines, the lot. We were allowed back to our dressing rooms to collude. Yes, Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, those demi- gods of the tart rejoinder, go into that show with their lines spread in front of them - pages of stuff - as if entering a scripture exam with lists of the Kings of Judah in the shirt-sleeves... "

If this is true, and I can't see why it shouldn't be, then it seems a little naive of Paul Merton to get worked up during the programme about accusations of not ad- libbing, or even to mention them. Have I Got News? is clearly presented as a spontaneous, unprepared programme. It is equally clearly nothing of the sort. I am told by normally reliable sources that some comedians who have appeared on the programme have not only been shown the questions in advance, but have brought their own scriptwriters with them in order to work up topical jokes for them. If the result is good, does it matter?

There is, oddly, a parallel to Paul Merton's denial of pre-planning and pre- scripting. No, not the Carlton TV Colombian drug thing. It is Robin Cook's denial of pre-knowledge of a Sierra Leone arms link. I know nothing of West African arms deals, but I feel instinctively that the man on Radio 4's Broadcast House was right when he said that whether or not the Foreign Office was doing a good job over Sierra Leone and backing the right side - and they probably were - it was correct for Robin Cook to claim ignorance of the whole thing, though he almost certainly was in touch.

So there we have it. Paul Merton is the Robin Cook of comedy. Or is Robin Cook the Paul Merton of foreign policy?

To put it another way, one is as unlikely to say, "Yes, I knew all about the arms deal in advance and I think we did the right thing" as the other is unlikely to say, "Yes, I knew all about the questions in advance, and I think I made up the right jokes."