IF ANY programme was going to take on BBC censorship and win, it was bound to be last night's Have I Got News For You. The instant the BBC issued an edict banning any mention of the private life of Peter Mandelson, the programme makers sat down to devise a show to make the BBC look silly.
But it was never going to be easy. The plan was to weave Mandelson jokes all through the programme, forcing the BBC to make an agonising choice between allowing its ban to be ridiculed for a full half hour, or dropping the programme and creating yet more embarrassing anti-BBC headlines.
On Thursday morning Jimmy Mulville, the boss of Hat Trick, which makes the satirical news quiz, armed himself with a script and prepared himself to do battle with BBC2's controller Mark Thompson. The arguments had to be resolved by 7.30 that evening, when last night's broadcast was recorded in front of a studio audience at the London Studios on the South Bank.
As it turned out, the meetings between Mulville and the BBC went on all day, with Thompson caught between keeping Hat Trick sweet and obeying the corporation's edict that "under no circumstances whatsoever should the allegations about Peter Mandelson's private life be repeated or referred to in any broadcast"
The two men went through the script line by line, with Mulville giving way on the "repetition" of the most blatent references to Peter Mandelson's sexuality, but standing his ground on keeping in jokes that "refer" to the fact. At the end of it all, he seemed to warm towards Thompson, perhaps perceiving that the controller was, in fact, far more sympathetic to Hat Trick than it was to the much-ridiculed dictat. But the process was tortuous and, later that night Mulville described it as like "being in Alice in Wonderland written by Kafka".
As 7.30 drew near, there was a certain tension in the air at the studio. Everybody knew that although a peace agreement had been secured on the script, most of the programme would consist of unscripted repartee and asides from the show's three stars, Angus Deayton, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton.
The BBC's head of features, Jane Lush, and the BBC lawyer, Simon Dowson- Collins, arrived to sit in a little glass box at the back of the gallery with Mulville. Their job was to watch the programme and to decide how it should be edited.
The minute the show began, it was obvious that the audience was in the mood for an evening of wall-to-wall Mandelson jokes. As the first "odd one out" round began, the crowd roared. The four pictures were: Michael Jackson, Jason Donovan, the Queen and Peter Mandelson.
Then, matters took another turn. One of the guests, the New York Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, mixed up Peter Mandelson with Ron Davies, and referred to forays on Clapham Common. This was not going to be acceptable.
At the end of the show, Mulville and Lush emerged, smiling. Hat Trick had got away with it. The programme would be broadcast regardless of the embarrassment to the BBC.
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