Have I got views for you....

Alan Hazlie on the return of a perennial favourite

Have I Got News For You returned for its 44th series last week, opening with the middle-classes’ flavour of the month, Clare Balding, hosting and guests Graham Linehan and Ken Livingstone. The episode served as a perfect summation of how the show seems to have changed recently, and not necessarily for the better.

To my memory, the show has never shied away from dealing with the main news stories of the week, and so it was inevitable that the Jimmy Savile allegations would be discussed. But the tonal shift in the show when the time came was marked. Following cheerful party conference bashing, the panel then spent five to ten minutes (at least on the extended Have I Got A Bit More News For You verison I saw) locked in a quasi-Newsnight discussion about the case.

Peppered with the odd light-hearted line, it was probably dealt with about as well as could be expected, and did show sympathy and compassion for the victims, while still acting as a testimony of the BBC’s innocence.

It was a difficult subject that was dealt with in an adult and measured manner. So why is it that the show is so haphazard with other controversial subjects?

This week’s show also featured scripted jokes about Abu Hamza’s extradition to New York, where the punchline was that he would be disappointed to be flown into an airport rather than a tall building, and, following a discussion about Arabic women undergoing cosmetic surgery to achieve bigger noses, a line claiming that the same results can be achieved in the UK by dating Justin Lee Collins. 9/11 and domestic abuse; not exactly cutting-edge satire.

Both of these jokes were read by an uncomfortable-looking Clare Balding, who isn’t usually linked to such humour, to an audience which reacted with a near-mute mixture of disapproval and shock. Even the panellists seemed surprised that these lines had been included.

Over the years the format and nature of the show has changed, but recently there’s been evidence to suggest that the humour of the show is also shifting to meet what producers may feel is the current trend of ‘edgy’ humour.

Last year, Sharon Horgan, again reading from the Autocue, was forced to defend herself after a joke which claimed a train station described as the Mecca for suicides was ‘not to be confused with the Mecca for suicide bombers, which is Mecca.’

This at least drew a laugh from the audience, albeit after a delay, but invoked the ire of several groups over its vast generalisation of Islam, including The Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

There’s nothing new or shameful about scripted jokes, which seemed decent enough when written, bombing with an audience. That’s just part of the experience of comedy with a crowd. But why were they broadcast on a prerecorded show at all?

My theory is that it’s a lose-lose situation for the producers. Once a controversial joke has been judged by the audience to be unfunny, they have two options.

If they broadcast the joke unedited, then the viewers are subjected to an uncomfortable few seconds while the guest presenter squirms their way through the line. If they decide to cut it, they run the risk of someone who witnessed it going to a newspaper that dislikes the BBC (there are several) and selling a story about the Secret BBC Shame: The Jokes Too Offensive For Air.

Although the programme is to be commended for tackling difficult subjects in the news, it needs to be able to distinguish between satire and being offensive for shock value.

There are already far too many shows and comedians out there making a ham-fist out of the latter. The show has lasted for 22 years on the back of its clever take on topical issues, and it should hold true to those values.

Published: 21 Oct 2012

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