World of the News

25 years of Radio 4's topical comedy quiz

The News Quiz celebrates its 25th anniversary on Radio 4 on September 7. Here host Simon Hoggart, The Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer, talks about the show and his passion for politics, comedy and radio.

What was the root of your interest in politics and the news? I got to Cambridge University and started writing for the student newspaper, Varsity. That interested me in journalism, then The Guardian took me on in Manchester which was a stroke of luck. A month or so after I joined [in 1968], Northern Ireland erupted for the first time. It was a ready-made story on our doorstep and I ended up living there for over two years.

You're now The Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer. What do you enjoy most about that? Politics is absolutely fascinating. I've always loved gossip and office politics and the Westminster scene is office politics on the very grandest scale, except that it has a very direct and startling effect on the lives of the rest of us.

Do you have any favourite characters? Yes. We mythologise people to some extent. Take Michael Fabricant, the Tory MP for Lichfield, and his extraordinary hair. One of the great joys for me, recently, was discovering exactly what weave his wig is. This solved a little mystery for me, like some collector of rare books finding some incunabula which no one else has heard of. I like to think we sketch writers sometimes give little sacrifices to the gods to send us certain politicians. So, for example, we sacrificed two pigeons for Norman Lamont's resignation speech, a goat for John Prescott and an entire herd of cattle to be given Ann Widdecombe. These people make our lives far, far easier. There's a moment of sheer joy when you realise you've got something absolutely wonderful to impart, such as Tony Blair's speech at the 2000 Labour Party Conference, when he suddenly started sweating till it was flying off his forehead like a monsoon. You think, 'Oh this is wonderful. I'll have such pleasure telling people about this.'

And are these things important or just trivial? Both. Sometimes they tell us something. For example, on a walkabout I noticed that Thatcher drew as much sustenance from the booing and the jeering as she did from the cries of support. She always has to have an enemy and she sucked in their hatred in the way Frankenstein's monster sucked in the electricity from the lightning strikes. That was an important discovery, I think, about her. Very often the trivia teaches us a lesson which we'll never find from any number of manifestos.

Moving on to The News Quiz, was it an easy decision to become the chairman in 1996? Yes. It took me all of a 15th of a nanosecond to say yes. I'd done it before in the early Eighties when I took over from Barry Took, one of the heroes of British comedy, for a couple of years. It was very different in those days, really centred on journalists. We tried to get funny, witty, amusing journalists like Alan Coren of course, who's still the bedrock of the programme, but in fact the show was gentle, soft humour - funny but not fall-on-the-floor-and-roll-around hilarious. Then Have I Got News For You? came along and we realised The News Quiz had to smarten up its act and couldn't go on being gentle and bookish. You had to have the gagsters along. So, when I took over again, they had some brilliant regulars like Andy Hamilton, Jeremy Hardy, Tony Hawkes and Fred MacAulay: brilliant comedians but without the personal rivalry - that's great on Have I Got News For You but wouldn't work for us.

How would you describe your role? Nothing much at all. I just read the questions and jokes. Some of the jokes are my own. It's always painful when you see a cherished joke landing on the cutting-room floor. But the recordings are very long, so it happens.

What form does a typical week take? The producer and I start by looking through all the papers. We want a blend of the main stories and wacky ones. We tend to go mainly through The Telegraph and The Mail because they're the ones most likely to have funny, off-beat little stories. On Wednesday and Thursday the scriptwriters come in and set the questions, trying to make them cryptic. Fitting the question to the right person is important. We want one that will allow Alan Coren, say, to go into one of his marvellous surrealist fantasies or set Jeremy Hardy off on one of his wonderful comic rants. The panel are not given a clue about what's going to come up.

Is that important? Yes, very much. Alan Coren has said he wouldn't go back on Have I Got News For You because they do know the questions in advance and he can't operate like that. He needs to be able to wing it. I think the show would be very different if we let them know what they're going to get. It would seem very pat. It would lose that edge when someone simply doesn't know the answer to a question.

How does your approach differ from Barry Took's? Barry came from a showbiz tradition: the show must belt along, you mustn't lose the audience. He would tape a show [28 minutes long] in less than 40 minutes: a nice easy job for the producer. Whereas I, as a past panelist, know how maddening it is if you've got a good line but you can't say it because the chairman's moved on. So I make sure we've squeezed every orange dry before we move on to the next question. I'll look around the panel and see if anyone wants to chip in with a joke of their own and maybe it won't be very funny, but it might be brilliant and you won't want to lose it. So in the end, the poor producer is stuck with an hour of tape and less than a day to knock it into shape. We once went to an hour and 10 minutes, which was really ridiculous. But I usually feel like an umpire at Centre Court: privileged to see these geniuses biffing things at each other. And we've 'invented' some people too. Linda Smith is fantastically popular. She'd have made it without us but I'm delighted that we were perhaps the first people to give her a big national airing because, by golly, she's funny.

What's it like for newcomers? It's hell. The problem for a lot of them is that they talk too much. They're so terrified they'll dry. They just have to be shut up or helped through.

Presumably there's a lot of funny stuff that's never used... Yes. It's always tragic if there's a really good running joke and the producer decides it'll dominate the entire show. So, even if it had the audience in stitches, it has to come out. Filth is the main reason - and libel, of course But now and then you produce a joke which you know hasn't the faintest chance of being left in, but it serves a purpose. It gets the studio audience laughing, and maybe they feel it's something that won't be broadcast which they can tell their friends about. It makes the trip to Broadcasting House worth it. If it puts them in a better mood, then that suits us very well. Audiences vary immensely and there's absolutely no explanation. You get audiences who laugh at the first thing they hear and it climbs and climbs and climbs and it encourages the panel to be at their funniest. Sometimes an audience laughs then says: 'Okay. You've made us laugh. See if you can do it again!' But that's very rare. Our BBC audience appreciation index is very, very high.

And do you listen to the show when it goes out? Oh yes. You have to listen to yourself. Actually I love listening to the show because a lot of it passes me by. I'm concentrating so much on the next question, answer and score that I don't always catch the jokes. And Alan Coren mumbles into the microphone, which the audience can hear but I can't always, so it's always a great treat for me to hear his wonderful gags. You've got to listen. People who say: 'Oh, I never listen to myself on the radio' are simply being unprofessional. You will never learn how to do it properly if you don't listen to yourself. It's not narcissism. It's absolutely essential.

First published: August 29, 2002

Published: 22 Mar 2009

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.