Have I Got News For You.



Now here's something that we have an increasing amount of in the UK, but only a few of which have been around for any length of time, and they firmly come within the comedy content that we usually expect simply to be broadcast and never really shown again because of their contemporary nature. Best example then, well it's certainly going to have to be 'Have I Got News For You' - going since 1990 and having usually had two series per year, it's on in original or repeat form at most points of the year it seems - which is a weekly Friday night show using the news of the past seven days as a basis for what at first appears simply to be a panel game show, reveals itself to be a disguised opportunity to deal with the stories in a way which slices through all the delicate approach that news programs feel it's necessary to adopt. A great opportunity then to make a different way of dealing with the increasing dumbing-down, trivialisation and lack of intelligent discussion and manipulation of what we sense is really going on, almost a companion to another early 90's comedy show about news culture - Chris Morris's 'The Day Today' - but an altogether different beast in most departments.

The scoring then, on the show, is completely unnecessary and jokingly dismissed or ironically focused upon, and everyone knows it's the journey that's the important thing. What do we get? Well, originally hosted by Angus Deayton until a few years back and now hosted by various guests, there are rounds involving video clip montages, newspaper headlines, quotes from stories and so on - bring in two sharp and differing team captains in the shape of 'Private Eye' mainman (or editor?) Ian Hislop, a man who revels in his political knowledge and understanding but lack of connection with popular youth culture, and Paul Merton, the comedians' comedian, a man who can swing his way from one part of his brain to another at such pace and with such imagination and scathing insight that it's here that a lot of focus of the show seems to be.

Paul Merton first seemed to appeared regularly on TV with 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' on Channel 4 during the 1980's, and it's here that we grew to know the man as a master of improvisation, potentially partly where he developed that skill (as well as in similarly-themed improvisation nights at live comedy venues) and gained a fan base that spreads throughout the nation in all quarters. His surreal leaps of imagination were less successfully exploited when Channel 4 later gave him his own show, and the less spontaneous nature worked well but not quite as dramatically so, sketches involving half man / half dolphins never quite graspable as obviously comedic for many - almost not grounded in reality at all. Ian Hislop then, he's the straight-man, the non-comedian with a different kind of view on the weeks stories, the man not afraid of suffering from 'foot in mouth' disease (he has frequently been sued for libel, leading to the almost catchphrase on the show of adding 'allegedly' in order to legally escape the danger of comments) and swipe at anyone and everyone that made even the slightest slip of the tongue that week.

As the host of the show in its most popular or formative years, Angus Deayton was the dry intellectual and intended focus of the show. His scathing tongue certainly was entertaining, his observation coming from a different angle to team captains Merton and Hislop, but it could be cringe-worthy to watch a mans mind and opinion of himself uncontrollably rise above the others around him, and the show (and the BBC itself, also the press who reveled in his downfall at the hands of those he criticised weekly for so much of the year) struggled to control his mind and behavior increasingly. Ironic that throughout the 90's he showed what I believe to be his true talent, as a comedy actor in one of the most iconic sitcoms of the time, 'One Foot In The Grave', in which his dry delivery was an ideally pompous contrast to the bumbling, moaning main character of Victor Meldrew. During recent years, since his departure due to controversial liaisons with Women of the Night and various Recreational Medications, his comedy acting has continued in the stunning dark comedy of 'Nighty Night' by Julia Davis - the darkest comedy show since 'The League of Gentlemen'.

Although we have a pretty frivolous press in the UK, dominated by tabloid tattle and gossip, there's a lot of political coverage in every paper in all kinds of approaches. In conjunction with the press and their bizarre and often misjudged, sensationalist, misguided, petty, xenophobic, and generally faulty thinking - the cracks are all there to be spotted, but they're often obscured - the show has proved to serve an important function that news coverage can't manage. Here's the eternal value of the show, why it keeps going, because the papers are a law unto themselves and the TV coverage is very stand-offish and mostly fails to really approach issues. Making it palatable with comedy then, the show can confirm that the public is in tune with what many parties would like to think we weren't aware of - we know people do dodgy deals, twist the English language to their advantage, we know people cover-up mistakes, waste huge slices of public cash and generally get away with it - whether they're politicians, public figures, celebrities, businessmen or generally 'with cash' but 'without brain'.

Not afraid of ironic use of stupidity and silliness itself, we often find faults in the show with it being impossible to completely avoid failures in a format that relies on no major planning or pre-consideration, but which films in front of a live audience for a tightly-timed slot which has the slightest of edits to fit its 30 minute format. Sometimes the quality drifts, and sometimes episodes are misjudged in one or more departments, generally it maintains a very high level of watchability, and it is certainly of the few comedy shows that intentionally aims for the most obvious 'laugh out loud' approach to what's on offer, rather that the numerous levels of desire to simply not be taken too seriously or to allow people to laugh inside their own thoughts, this being an approach of various other comedy shows.

It has inspired numerous other comedy panel shows throughout the 90's, to various levels of quality and success, some making slight and subtle connections to 'Have I Got News For You', the most popular of which often feels like Stephen Fry's 'Q.I' (literally 'Quite Interesting') or Mark Lamaar's music quiz 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' with Bill Bailey now being a regular team captain. There's also '8 out of 10 Cats', a show about statistics, beliefs and questionnaires with Sean Lock (sometimes spelt Locke), a man who I rate as the new king of the ground opened by Paul Merton (a man who in recent years seems slightly restrained in comparison to much of his 90's efforts before his very public health difficulties which may have been partly due to the effort and dynamic thinking of his work) many years back. Most potentially similar is 'Mock the Week', created by the same people behind Merton's original home of 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' almost 20 years ago.

As for the repeatability of the show, well I think it's a mixed result when we get series of what's titled 'Have I Got Old News For You', the contemporary nature of the show being its greatest power but the value also coming from the freedom of thought and scathing insights. I certainly can't think of many shows that have maintained quite as much appeal to the public over such a long period, shows which appear as regularly but still seem as fresh, or shows which I will go out of my way to watch because I know it has numerous facets and valuable elements, as well as just being damn funny. There are compilation DVDs, the most obvious to recommend are the two volumes of recent years which contain the variety of the various Guest Hosts, and each lasts a good few hours. Very funny, and probably one of the few shows to manage an impact beyond its original intent.

'Have I Got News For You' Fansite; a little out of date but contains lots of stuff.
'Have I Got News For You' Reviews One & Two (from 1999 & 2002) at 'Off the Telly'.

'Have I Got News For You' History Parts One, Two & Three at 'Off the Telly'.
'Have I Got News For You' Episode Guide with Guest Appearance List.

'Have I Got News For You' Guest Host Clips with Charlotte Church; not safe for work, probably.
'Have I Got News For You' Dialogue Extract from Joke File.

Best of the Guest Presenters Volume 1 [Amazon.co.uk / Direct Link] & Volume 2 [Amazon.co.uk / Direct Link] on R2 UK DVD.

Angus Deayton in 'Nighty Night', Series 1 [Amazon.co.uk / Direct Link] & Series 2 [Amazon.co.uk / Direct Link] on R2 UK DVD.

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