‘Brown Envelopes and a Tub of Lard’: The Have I Got News For You Story

Written by Kathryn Robinson. Edited by Sam Ellis.

British satire has a long and successful history dating back to the 1960s. The popular television programme That Was The Week That Was – more easily abbreviated to TW3 – which made household names of the late Peter Cook and Sir David Frost – was perhaps the first example of satire on mainstream television. Poking fun at politics, the programme wasn’t without controversy and was eventually cancelled in 1964 as the BBC feared that to show it during election time would compromise their impartiality. Publications such as Private Eye have also been very popular, throwing caution to the satirical wind and ending up in many a libel case (and usually losing). It is safe to assume that the public have accepted satire and when once it was frowned upon, it now finds itself in many a television programme, most of which can be found on Dave of an evening.

On Friday 4th October 2013, long-running BBC television satire quiz Have I Got News For You started its 46th series. Introduced to the nation in 1990, it has grown in popularity and covered many changes in the political and social sphere. It has satirised everyone from John Major to its own host Angus Deayton after his infamous and highly-documented fall from grace and from the show in 2002. Its team captains Paul Merton and Ian Hislop – also the current editor of Private Eye – have seen, heard and probably said it all in the last 23 years but yet there still seems to be a demand for this programme on our screens. Therefore, it appears to be a very important part of British culture, in touch with politics and the media in a host of different ways.

The programme’s main source of satire is politics. Many politicians have been guests on the show and have been annihilated by the merciless Hislop and Merton. In 1997, only a week after losing his seat in the General Election in which Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, Neil Hamilton appeared on the programme with his wife Christine. In a humorous reference to Hamilton’s part in the cash-for-questions scandal in the Major administration, Angus Deayton handed them their ‘fees’ for the programme in a brown envelope. Perhaps most memorably, upon the last minute cancellation of the appearance of Roy Hattersley MP on the show in 1993 – the third time he had done it – the show decided to replace him on Paul Merton’s team with a tub of lard, claiming that it was “imbued with much the same qualities and liable to give a similar performance”. However, there were a handful of politicians that were well received and popular on the programme. Boris Johnson’s unforgettable stint as host of an episode in 2003 ensured that the show was nominated for a BAFTA and Merton and Hislop occasionally jokingly claim that it was his performance on the programme which elevated him to the role of Mayor of London.

The show has also had its clashes with the press. Robert Maxwell (owner of the Mirror media group and a Member of Parliament) was much insulted because it transpired after his death in 1991 that he had committed fraud by using money for the Mirror Group from other companies. Ian Hislop took personal vindication from this revelation as Maxwell had tried to sue him for libel in Private Eye on many occasions. However, after the show’s comments about Maxwell’s sons in 1994, the BBC and Hatrick Productions were fined £10,000 each.

However, in 2002, it was the media which would change the makeup of the programme. The News of World reported that Angus Deayton had allegedly had an affair with a prostitute and used cocaine. For the duration of the episode after the revelations, Deayton was grilled by Merton and Hislop, including Merton wearing a t-shirt with the front page of the particular edition of the newspaper printed on it. It was shortly after this that Deayton resigned and the show decided to have people guest hosting the show each week rather than having one regular host.

So what contribution has this television programme made to British society? Firstly, I would argue that it has allowed people to ‘get their own back’ on people in authority, either by getting some satisfaction from hearing jokes about unpopular politicians or by seeing politicians being subjected to the cutting and wit of Hislop and Merton, although this is to assume that everyone appreciates the humour of the two captains. It has also in many ways brought to light aspects of society that almost no-one else dared to have explicit views about, such as the Maxwell scandal and the Iraq dossier. It is also significant, in this issue about media, that the press which the show spends so much time slating was the institution that would change the show itself, although arguably if Deayton had not been so indiscreet, the press would have had nothing to report on. It has changed the way we think about politics and has opened our eyes to the nuances of society we believe to be sufficiently ridiculous to appear on Have I Got News For You. It has both mocked and been affected by the media generally. Not bad for a ‘disastrous plot’ starting life on BBC Two.