Twenty five years of Have I Got News For You: A timeline


A quarter of a century ago this month, Maggie still ruled Britain, the Soviet Union still existed and a new topical panel show came to BBC2. The host and team captains of Have I Got News For You were all in their earlier thirties and while not unknown were not exactly household names either. Angus Deayton had been on Radio 4’s Radio Active, toured Australia with comedy band the HeeBeeGeeBees, had worked with Rowan Atkinson and Alexei Sayle and Rowan Atkinson and was a familiar face from shows like BBC2’s satellite TV spoof KYTV and for his part in new sitcom One Foot In The Grave. Paul Merton was best known for his appearances on Channel 4 improvisation show Who’s Line Is It Anyway…? while Ian Hislop was best known as the “young fogey” editor of satirical magazine Private Eye.

Twenty five years and 49 series on, Angus is long gone from the show and Merton and Hislop (the latter still at Private Eye) are both now well into their fifties. But they are still there, indeed Hislop is the only person to have appeared in every one of the show’s 429 episodes to date, even discharging himself from hospital to appear once in 1994.

But what have been the high and low points of the last 25 years? Let’s take a look…


The first ever series runs from September to November, missing the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher, one of the biggest British political stories of the century, by just one week. Early guests include Sandi Toksvig (who is in the first ever episode), future London Mayor Ken Livingstone (then a Labour backbencher), Tony Slattery and Clive Anderson.


Appearances by Harry Enfield, Trevor McDonald and Craig Ferguson.


The first ever (and indeed only) General Election special features Rory Bremner and Alan Coren. Defeated Labour leader Neil Kinnock appears on the show after retiring as Labour leader later in the year.

The show has two series a year from now on.

Rising Lib Dem star Charles Kennedy makes the first of a number of appearances. Author Douglas Adams appears (and flops), Frank Skinner and Stephen Fry appear for the first time.

Have I got a guest presenter for you


Paul Merton’s wife comedy actress Caroline Quentin appears on Ian’s team, a running joke being that Angus is having an affair with her. Although this isn’t true, the couple do divorce in 1997.

Labour politician Roy Hattersley is famously replaced by a Tub of Lard after he cancels appearing on the show at short notice for the umpteenth time. Despite the drawback of having a Tub of Lard as a team member, Paul’s team wins (as is usual).


Appearances by self proclaimed Messiah David Icke, author Salman Rushdie (then still in hiding due to the Iranian fatwa) and Bob Monkhouse.


An on air row ensues between guest Paula Yates and Ian Hislop. Many see the episode as a class conflict betweenpublic schoolboys Deayton and Hislop ganging up on Yates who is defended by the working class Paul Merton.

Tory MP Teresa Gorman appears to be drunk on air and does a bizarre impression of her “alien” colleague, the recent Tory leadership candidate John Redwood. Her later autobiography puts a positive sheen on her appearance.


Shock news as Paul Merton announces he is leaving the show, appearing only as a guest on Ian’s team in the first episode of Series 11 before missing the rest of it. He is replaced by Eddie Izzard, Alan Davis and other temporary guest captains for the rest of the series. Thereafter, he returns and has been in every series since.

In an early TV appearance, Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan embarrasses himself after losing his temper with fellow panellist Clive Anderson who mocks him for his success in making the paper “almost as good as The Sun”. He also crosses swords with rival Ian Hislop. He never appears again.



Disgraced Tories Neil and Christine Hamilton appear only a week after Neil is ejected from his previous ultra-safe Tory seat of Tatton in the General Election.

Ian Hislop coins the phrase “were you still up for Portillo?” with regard to election night, later used as the title of a book by Brian Cathcart.


Boris Johnson guests for the first time in a series of appearances which greatly boosts his profile while re-enforcing the impression that he is a buffoon. He is yet to become an MP or the editor of the Spectator at this point though is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He appears seven times in the next decade, four times as host, though never since being elected Mayor of London in 2008.

John Sergeant, political correspondent (and onetime comedy performer) makes the first of several acclaimed appearances. He is later widely expected to replace Angus Deayton as permanent host. Although he guest hosts twice in 2002 and 2003, this doesn’t happen. He is in fact less effective as a host than as a panellist and has been critical of the show’s decision not to have a permanent host.


Charles Kennedy is elected Liberal Democrat leader and acknowledges his “chat show Charlie” beginning an early speech as leader with the words “Have I got news for you?” He continues to appear on the show during his time as leader and even after his resignation amidst revelations of alcoholism, clocking up nine appearances, once as host. The show paid tribute to him on his premature death in 2015.

Sir Jimmy Savile guests. Following his death and the revelation of his involvement in numerous sexual offences over a decade later, an internet rumour suggests Merton and Hislop confronted Savile about his crimes. In fact, this is untrue: like most people they knew nothing about them and the issue didn’t come up. Savile did make some comments which appear unsavoury in retrospect, however.


The show moves from BBC 2 to BBC 1.



Numerous guests including Peter Stringfellow, Nigella Lawson, M15 rebel David Shayler, who appears by video link in 2000 and Andrew Marr (later a regular target of the show).


Angus Deayton quits as host following a second round of sex scandal allegations splash across the tabloids. His last show proves extremely memorable with Paul and Ian both visibly annoyed with Angus, Paul at one point revealing that he is wearing a t-shirt with a tabloid version of the story emblazoned across it (something which visibly rattles Angus).

Paul hosts the next episode himself and a number of one week guest hosts take over initially Anne Robinson, John Sergeant, Boris Johnson (by now an MP), Liza Tarbuck, Charles Kennedy (by now party leader) and Jeremy Clarkson. It is assumed a new permanent host – perhaps Sergeant or Alexander Armstrong, will eventually take over permanently. This has never happened. Angus has now been off the show longer than he was ever on it and despite acting roles in dark sitcom Nighty Night and drama Waterloo Road, his career has never really recovered.

Stephen Fry criticises the decision to drop Angus and in protest never appears on the show again.



Alexander Armstrong appears as guest host for the first time (he has never been a panellist). He has since become easily the most prolific guest on the show ever, notching up 26 appearances to date. He claims he was offered a permanent guest hosting role at this time but the BBC changed their mind.

Other memorable guest hosts include Sir Bruce Forsyth and Charlotte Church (then 17) probably the youngest and oldest hosts (Forsyth was 82 by the time of his second time as host in 2010. Bill Deedes also has appeared as a panellist aged 88). Former Tory leader William Hague also hosts during this time.


David Mitchell begins to appear frequently. Dara O’Briain guest hosts frequently until 2005 when he becomes host on similarish topical comedy news quiz Mock The Week.


Ann Widdecombe refuses to host again after she is offended by guest Jimmy Carr.

Author Will Self who had appeared nine times, says he will not return soon after as he has gone off the show.


In what now appears to be an unfortunate decision, Rolf Harris appears as guest host.


Death of Big George, composer of the show’s memorable theme tune.


Guest host Brian Blessed divides opinion with numerous jokes about Margaret Thatcher on the week of her death.


Victoria Coren Mitchell hosts the show, appearing for the tenth time. Her husband David Mitchell has been on eleven times while her late father Alan appeared four times.

The show is scheduled to return for its 50th series next month.



House of Cards Vs. House of Cards


The new Netflix US version of 1990 BBC drama House of Cards has met with widespread and deserved critical acclaim. But how does it compare to the original series by Andrew Davies, itself adapted from a novel by Michael (now Baron) Dobbs? (Expect spoilers).

The essence of the story is the same. In the UK version, Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is denied a cabinet position after a broken promise by incoming Prime Minister Henry Collingridge. Using young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) as a conduit, Urquhart plots revenge and begins a steady rise to power. In the US version, House Majority Whip Frank (or Francis) Underwood is angered after the new President Walker retreats from a pre-election promise to back him as his nominee for Secretary of State. Journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) plays a similar role to Mattie in the original.

The original series was set in what was then the near future. Collingridge succeeds in a leadership contest following the fall of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in fact, Thatcher fell while the series was being broadcast, a fortunate stroke of timing as it made the series hugely topical). The US version is simply set in an alternative 2013 in which Walker is president instead of Obama.

The US version is about three times as long as the UK one and includes a number of new storylines. Blogging, instant messaging and other 21st century innovations also play their part.

Underwood is a southerner, perhaps making him feel like an outsider. The north/south divide has no real equivalent in UK politics at least not in the same way, largely due to the American Civil War.

Urquhart is from an extremely privileged background which in 1990 was reasonably unfashionable for a prospective Tory leader (Heath, Thatcher and Major all came from quite humble backgrounds while Douglas Hurd was harmed by a perception that he was “posh”). Class plays less of a role in US politics and Underwood is, in stark contrast, from a very poor background.

Underwood is a Democrat, not a Republican as one might expect (the US Republican Party is closer to Urquhart’s Tory Party than the Democrats are). Perhaps this is simply to give the show extra contemporary resonance as the US currently has a Democrat president.

Although Urquhart’s wife plays an important supportive role in the British series (and even more so in the follow ups To Play The King and The Final Cut), Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) plays a far greater role in the Netflix series. There is a strong Shakespearian vein running through both versions. Both Ian Richardson and Kevin Spacey had backgrounds in Shakespearian theatre.

Frank Underwood is actually a very different character to Urquhart and much more obviously ruthless from the outset. Urquhart conceals his true aims behind a veil of false modesty. Underwood speaks more crudely than Urquhart too but with a sort of eloquence reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson.

The wry asides to the audience remain, however. Underwood even waves to the audience during President Walker’s inauguration ceremony.

The relationship between Underwood and Barnes has a more overt sexual undercurrent from the outset. This could be because of their use of instant messaging or simply because Barnes is a more flirtatious character than Mattie Storin was. It could also be because Underwood appears much younger than Urquhart did, making a relationship seem more credible from the start. In fact, in the actor Kevin Spacey was only three years younger than Ian Richardson was when he performed the role (Richardson was 56 in 1990, Spacey was 53 in 2013).

The president barely appears in early episodes of the US series. Underwood complains he is not present at the meeting in which he is denied promotion. In the British version, Urquhart meets Collingridge frequently.

The affair between Congressman Russo and his staffer no longer has an interracial dimension as that of his equivalent Roger O’Neill did in the UK series.

“You may very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” This catchphrase remains. Essentially, as an answer to a direct question, it is a euphemism for “yes, you are right”.


Michael Heseltine: the best Tory Prime Minister we never had?



Before: it began with an envelope. As a schoolboy, the young Michael Heseltine mapped out his future. In his 20s, he would become a millionaire. In his 30s, he would become an MP. In his 40s, he would be on the Tory frontbench. By his 50s – between 1983 and 1993 – he would enter Downing Street.

Today, eighty year old Lord Heseltine claims not to remember this incident which comes from his friend, the late Julian Critchley, who also later served as a Tory MP. But his ambition was unquestionable. By the 1970s, Heseltine had achieved almost all of these ambitions. He was a multimillionaire and already a popular favourite at Tory Party Conferences.

“The government should go and if it had a shred of pride it would go today,” he raged in one 1976 speech about the Callaghan Government. “The reality…a one-legged army limping away from the storm they have created. Left, left – left, left, left!”

The audience roared as Heseltine limped across the stage.

It was all going so well. And then the career of Margaret Thatcher got in the way.

“Tarzan” as he became known maintained a high profile in the Eighties, first as Environment Secretary then AS Secretary of State for Defence. He espoused an early form of “compassionate conservatism” (a term that did not exist at the time) on touring Liverpool and combated CND protesters in a bomber jacket at one point. Both were good for publicity. However, both these and a 1970s incident in which he picked up the mace in the House of Commons, contributed to the Spitting Image stereotype of him as a swivel eyed loon.

The 1986 Westland affair precipitated a fatal personality clash with Thatcher. He stormed out so suddenly, that many present did not even know he had not resigned but gone to the loo. But he had quit. The next four years would be spent in the wilderness, waiting for Maggie to grow vulnerable enough for him to strike against her.

Thatcher recovered from Westland, saved in part by a long winded attack in the Commons by Labour’s Neil Kinnock. She won a third victory in 1987 but by 1990, Thatcher was acutely unpopular over the Poll Tax and mounting European divisions. Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor had resigned in 1989. When Geoffrey Howe followed in 1990 and unleashed an incredibly damaging resignation speech, Heseltine knew it was his time.

Opportunity 1: “He, who wields the dagger, rarely wears the crown”.

Heseltine challenged Thatcher. His own campaign was undermined by a somewhat arrogant attitude towards his fellow backbenchers. But the Thatcher camp made errors too. Thatcher won the first ballot but was two votes short of the number needed to win outright.

A second ballot was inevitable, foolishly, Thatcher pledged to fight on. Soon she was forced to resign.

Surely now was Hezza’s time? He had overthrown Thatcher just as she had overthrown Ted Heath in 1975. But Tories were shocked and angry at what had happened. The wounds have not entirely healed even today. A “Stop Heseltine” movement was formed. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor John Major were drafted to fight Heseltine. The little known Major emerged triumphant.

Opportunity 2: Major catastrophe?

Heseltine returned to the Cabinet under Major as Environment Secretary. It was the same position he had held when Thatcher came to power in 1979. Eleven years on, he had toppled Thatcher but was back where he started. It must have been a bitter time.

However, the Major leadership soon proved vulnerable. Although Heseltine remained loyal throughout this period, opportunity never seemed far away. First, there was the 1992 General Election. Heseltine fought hard for the Tories and to his credit, he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting Labour to win.

Yet if they had, Heseltine would undeniably have been the frontrunner to succeed. And the Tories were widely expected to lose.

But the opinion polls were wrong. The Tories had won a fourth successive victory (although have never won again since). Heseltine was awarded with the position of President of the Board of Trade, the job he had coveted almost as much as Prime Minister.

But Major was not out of the woods yet. His premiership would soon prove a total disaster as the Tories lost their record for economic competence after Black Wednesday and fell into open civil war over the Maastricht Treaty. Sleaze would soon rear its ugly head too. Worst of all for the Tories, Labour started to get its act together first under John Smith and then after 1994, under Tony Blair.

Although a likeable character, Major proved a weak and decisive Prime Minister. His leadership remained under almost perpetual threat from the autumn of 1992 until the May 1997 General Election.

But who would succeed? Heseltine still looked strong but several points counted against him.

Firstly, Heseltine had courted unpopularity by overseeing the pit closures at the end of 1992. Also, many Tories still blamed him for Thatcher’s removal (she was now, at least in the House of Lords). But if it was Major’s pro-Europeanism that was giving him problems, Heseltine offered no solution. He was, if anything, more pro-European than his leader.

Even worse, health soon became an issue. Heseltine suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1993. His father had died the same way and though Heseltine soon made a full recovery, his age (he was now entering his sixties) had become an issue. The sudden death of John Smith, the Labour leader from a heart attack in May 1994 did not help.

Heseltine also now faced rivalry from Chancellor Ken Clarke and rising star of the Right Michael Portillo. But all had “issues” in the same way Heseltine did. Portillo (then in his early forties) was seen as too young. Clarke was too pro-European too. And Heseltine was too old. Perhaps this is why Major survived as long as he did even after openly inviting a leadership contest in 1995.

Major had expected his disgruntled ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont to stand against him. Instead, the Eurosceptic John Redwood did. Major won easily, removing the possibility that any of the big three leadership contenders would run. Heseltine was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Perhaps Tory defeat was inevitable whoever the leader was by 1995. At any rate, John Major led the Tories to their biggest defeat of the century in May 1997. Major resigned soon after.

Opportunity 3: Last chance?

The Tory defeat in May 1997 was devastating. Labour won a majority of 179, a bigger victory than any achieved by Thatcher, Attlee or any other post war leader.

Unexpectedly, Michael Portillo also lost his seat. The way seemed clear now for Heseltine. A number of candidates stood: William Hague, Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. But Clarke was the only serious contender.

And yet, it was this point fate played a cruel trick. It was now that Heseltine suffered an attack of angina and announced he would not stand.

It was the end. He would never serve on the front bench again. Boris Johnson would succeed him as the MP for Henley on Thames in 2001.


Could Michael Heseltine have ever been Prime Minister?

Clearly, yes although several points went against him.

He would probably have won the Tory leadership had he been able to stand in May 1997. But would he have wanted it? The Tories had just been routed. Most estimates suggested it would take at least two elections to overturn the Labour majority (in fact it took three). Heseltine would have been close to seventy even before the next one in 2001 or 2002.

Perhaps 1995 would have been a better chance? But no. Heseltine would not have relished bringing down another Prime Minister. And General Election defeat in 1997 seemed inevitable even then. Even had he won in 1995 (by no means a sure thing), he would only have been Prime Minister for two years. Although even this was longer than he ultimately got.

Perhaps Heseltine’s best chance would have been not to have overthrown Thatcher at all. Thatcher would then have lost to Labour in 1992 leaving the leadership free for him.

But with Michael Heseltine close to sixty by then, it would have been a risky strategy. Perhaps like Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, he was just unfortunate that his political heyday coincided with that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.



Thatcher didn’t save Britain: and other myths of the era dispelled

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher “saved Britain”: Whatever you think about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, David Cameron and the Daily Mail are clearly wrong. While Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill arguably saved Britain from invasion and President Kennedy’s actions may have saved us from nuclear destruction over Cuba in 1962, Thatcher cannot claim this. Without her, you might argue we might have lost the Falklands, still be strike bound or a poorer nation than we are currently. Or alternatively, you might think, we would have a fairer, wealthier society, fewer homeless, less crime  and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.

Thatcher won the Cold War: Thatcher identified Gorbachev as “a man she could do business with” early on (in 1984) and this is to her credit. But the thaw in East-West relations had little to do with US President Ronald Reagan, less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any difference whatsoever.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher: She did cut free school milk as Education Secretary, yes. But her Labour predecessors had already done so too. The name “milk snatcher” only stuck because a) she’s a woman and b) it rhymes with “Margaret Thatcher”.

She enjoyed warm relations with Reagan: This is generally true. But they almost fell out in 1982 when the US threatened to remain neutral in the Falklands dispute. They almost fell out again in 1983, when the US invaded the Commonwealth nation of Greneda without even warning the UK in advance.

Thatcher was consistently anti-European: Not so! As Opposition leader, she enthusiastically campaigned for the successful Yes campaign in the 1975 EEC Referendum ensuring continued membership. In power, the Single European Act passed in 1986, went much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.

Delusions of grammar: as Education Secretary, she closed more Grammar Schools than anyone before or since.

She was Britain’s first woman prime minister: Okay, this is true!


House of Cards Revisited


“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”



The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.


Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.


(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.  


Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

The Sunbang-a-history-of-britain-in-the-1980s

Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” bollocks. If it really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t be reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic mostly male smoke filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to see a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had IPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB).  EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the Sixties.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the Winter of Discontent wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the Barber Boom and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the Argies, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.


Great Oscar disasters …explained!


Every year since 1928, the American Academy has awarded a Best Picture Oscar to the movie deemed to have been judged “Best Picture”. Sometimes they have got it right (Casablanca, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire). Sometimes they have got it wrong. Hugely dramatically wrong. Here are some of the worst foul ups and some possible explanations for them…

1941: How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is bad. It’s just that Citizen Kane is supposed to be the greatest film ever made. The young Orson Welles’ performance in the lead role as Kane himself is peerless as is his direction. Witness Kane’s convincing transformation from a charismatic young idealist into an embittered old man. The innovative use of light and shadows. The scene in which Kane’s marriage declines from untroubled romance into weary silence in the space of a few shots. Citizen Kane transformed cinema forever. Why didn’t it win?

The simple answer is that by basing Kane on the real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (who was still very much alive in 1941), Welles assured the film’s critical and commercial failure. The journalist’s quest to uncover the secret of “Rosebud” (the name of Kane’s childhood sledge and the character’s last word) in the film alluded to Hearst’s own private nickname for his mistress’s (ahem) private part.

Hearst was hugely powerful and buried the film amidst hostile reviews just as Rupert Murdoch would do if a similar film were made about a thinly disguised malevolent Australian TV and press baron today. The genius Welles who had read the complete works of Shakespeare before he was ten, ended his days as fat as a house and lending his distinctive voice to Transformers: The Movie. As well as probably the best beer commercial voiceovers in the world.

But critically he had the last laugh. It’s difficult to think of William Randolph Hearst these days without inviting thoughts of Citizen Kane.

And to be fair, for all its technical excellence, Citizen Kane is hardly a natural crowd-pleaser. It might not have won anyway.


1976: Rocky beats Taxi Driver (and a few other things).

1976 should have been a classic year. Sydney Lumet’s Network was a powerful critique on the media portraying a news programme’s cynical exploitation of one of its presenters when he suddenly has a breakdown and announces he’s going to kill himself on air. All The President’s Men saw Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real life Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein as they uncovered the Watergate scandal. Taxi Driver saw Robert De Niro deliver one of the finest performances ever committed to film as a Vietnam vet driven mad by insomnia and loneliness comes close to assassinating a presidential candidate.

But 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial year. the Academy are a conservative bunch and were keener to reward a film endorsing the American dream than one about Watergate (in an election year)  or one about Vietnam vets. This why Rocky beat all of these films, despite being clearly the worst of the lot.

1979: Kramer Vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now.

Actually for all Apocalypse Now’s classic status, I’m less sure this was such a bad call. Kramer is actually an excellent and extremely powerful film while Apocalypse Now does rather go on a bit and – let’s face it – doesn’t end properly. Besides, the much more conservative Vietnam film The Deer Hunter had already won the previous year.

1989: Driving Miss Daisy beats Born on the Fourth of July (1990 Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas).

Driving Miss Daisy was a ludicrously safe choice which barely even begins to discuss the issues raised by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Even worse, the Oscars opted for Kevin Costner’s picturesque western snooze fest the following year, thus snubbing Goodfellas, probably the best film of the entire 1990s.

1994 Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction.

The Oscars got everything wrong this year snubbing the most iconic and watchable film of the decade in favour of a film which a) portrays the entire anti-Vietnam movement as a bunch of sneering wife beaters b) suggests women should marry young and be good housewives or they’ll descend into drugs, promiscuity and prostitution c) spends a good half hour showing Forrest running across the US in a bid to win the Best Cinematography Oscar…which it didn’t win anyway! And d) is scared to mention the AIDS virus by name. In 1994. A full year after Tom Hanks had appeared himself in the Oscar winning Philadelphia which is all about AIDS.

Even worse: the one Oscar Pulp Fiction did win (Best Original Screenplay) should actually have probably gone to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Samuel L Jackson’s response on losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (visibly mouthing “Shit”) says it all.

2006: Crash beats Brokeback Mountain.

Were the Academy attempting to show their liberal credentials by awarding a film about racism? Or were they just being homophobic? Or were they just idiots? Who knows? Either way Paul Harris’s Crash must rank amongst the weakest Best Film winners ever. It’s barely any better than the David Cronenberg car crash fetish film of the same name.

The name is fitting though: the choice was a disaster.