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

HIGNFY

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 back then 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. He had worked with Alexei Sayle and Rowan Atkinson and was a familiar face from shows like BBC2’s satellite TV spoof KYTV and for a supporting role in new sitcom, One Foot In The Grave, though this had not yet taken off. 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…

1990

The first ever series runs from September to November. Due to sheer bad luck, the show misses the one of the biggest British political stories of the century, the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher, 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.

1991

Appearances by Harry Enfield, Trevor McDonald and Scots comic and future US chat show star, Craig Ferguson.

1992

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

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.

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1993

Paul Merton’s wife comedy actress Caroline Quentin competes 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 considerable disadvantage of having an inanimate object as a team member, Paul’s team wins (as is usual).

1994

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

1995

An on-air row ensues between guest Paula Yates and Ian Hislop. Many see the episode as a class conflict with ex-public schoolboys Deayton and Hislop ganging up on Yates who is defended by the working-class Paul “I did woodwork” 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 and inaccurate sheen on her appearance.

1996

Shock news as Paul Merton announces he is leaving the show. He appears 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.

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1997

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.

1998

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 not once 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, following Deayton’s departure in 2002. Although he guest hosts twice in 2002 and 2003, this doesn’t happen. He in fact proves less effective as a host than as a panellist. He has since been critical of the show’s decision not to have a permanent host.

1999

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 following his premature death in 2015.

Sir Jimmy Savile guests. Following his death and the subsequent allegations of his involvement in numerous sexual offences over a decade later, an internet rumour suggests Merton and Hislop confronted Savile about his crimes on the show at the time. 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 on air which appear unsavoury in retrospect, however.

2000

The show moves from BBC 2 to BBC 1.

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2000-2001

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

2002

Angus Deayton quits as host mid-series following a second round of sex scandal allegations splashing 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 (a move which visibly rattles Angus). Deayton continues to work and has had acting roles in dark sitcom Nighty Night and drama Waterloo Road, but has never had the same profile he had as host of Have I Got News For You.

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.

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

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2003

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.

2004-2006

David Mitchell, then best known for the sitcom, Peep Show, begins to appear frequently. Dara O’Briain guest hosts frequently until 2005 when he becomes host on similar-ish topical comedy news quiz Mock The Week.

2007

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.

2009

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

2011

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

2013

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

2015

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.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue through the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, perhaps partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (Jim Hacker was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact that Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable and that Spitting Image not only managed to be produced so close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live) but that the show was so often on the mark, highly topical and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (rather sexistly) in a man’s suit (something which may actually have helped her image). John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot being secretly controlled by Thatcher before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere (notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence) either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He soon became a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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