Have I Got An Idea For You...

Chris Hallam has a suggestion to revive the long-running satire

Twenty years ago next Tuesday, the very first episode of Have I Got News For You was broadcast. For a satirical panel show to have survived from the Thatcher era into the age of Cameron is a splendid achievement. Now Last of the Summer Wine has finally been corked, I actually can’t think (off the top of my head) of a current British TV comedy show of any sort that’s been on our screens for longer. And unlike Last of the Summer Wine, it’s still funny.

But let’s face it: it’s not as funny as it was. This is a familiar lament, of course. Every long-running comedy outlet from the now defunct Punch to The Simpsons is vulnerable to charges of having ‘jumped the shark’. But in HIGNFY’s case, the turning point is clear. The show has never been the same since Angus Deayton was fired in 2002.

I’m not going to revisit the arguments for and against Deayton’s sacking. Stephen Fry, for one, was so outraged by Deayton’s dismissal over two widely reported sex scandals that he has vowed never to appear on the show again. For my money, Deayton was a brilliant host, better, in fact, than any of the guest hosts who have followed him. But he fell out with his team captains. Both Ian Hislop and Paul Merton were clearly deeply annoyed that the sex life of ‘TV’s Mr Sex’ was distracting from the show. The situation was untenable.

And while Deayton is rumoured to be returning as a guest host for the start of the new series next month, clearly there is no real prospect of him returning for good. It’s been too long. His time has passed.

His final show, in which he was taken to task by Hislop and Merton was, of course, cruel but excellent TV. The introduction of temporary guest hosts until a permanent replacement was found – John Sergeant’s name was initially frequently mentioned – was a good idea too. There have been a number of great guest hosts over the years, novelties such as Boris Johnson, Brian Blessed and Bruce Forsyth being especially memorable.

But it’s been eight years now and only too obvious that the guest host idea has become an end unto itself. It’s long been clear that no permanent host is even being seriously looked for let alone ever going to be found.

The lack of a permanent anchor is slowly killing the show. Yes, it has lasted an impressive eight years post-Angus but both the lack of a permanent host and the decision to include outtakes in the finished episode has ultimately been to its detriment, cheapening the end product.

Picking a new host isn’t easy, of course. Deayton was more a familiar face than a household name when the show started in 1990, better known for appearances with the late Geoffrey Perkins in Sky News spoof KYTV or for his small part in One Foot In The Grave. But Have I Got News For You was a new programme then, with no pedigree. A more established show needs a more established star. And this is difficult as established stars are less likely to want to commit themselves to a long running series.

John Sergeant, always a better panellist than a guest host anyway, no longer seems in the frame. But what about David Mitchell or the most frequent guest host Alexander Armstrong?  Both are already parts of busy and successful comedy double acts but both would superbly fit the role.

Either way, the installation of an enduring replacement for Deayton would undoubtedly breathe life into one of the Beeb’s finest comedy assets.  If they find one and Merton and Hislop stay on board – certainly not impossible – Have I Got News For You could very well still be on in 2030.

Published: 23 Sep 2010

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