You’ve been taking the mickey out of our politicians on Have I Got News for You since it began in 1990 – when last year The Guardian decided that you were the most influential voice in British politics, did you worry people were taking you too seriously?
Yes, it’s nonsense. Their point, I think, was that undermining politics means you will get worse people involved in it, no one who is any good at it will go into it again, and everyone will think politics is a waste of time, which again is what the politicians have said for almost 300 years.
I say what we do is take politics seriously. We are engaging with politics – and if we’re being funny about it, it’s because we want it to be done better. And if we are exposing things about it, it’s because we think it would be better if it was not done like that. I still maintain that is positive.
So laughing at our politicians is good for us?
Yes, but the fashionability goes in waves.
I remember talking to the old lot at Private Eye about how amazing it was to be there during the satire boom in the 60s, and now young people are saying to me, “How amazing, you were on Spitting Image in the 80s. It must have been amazing!” And I thought, “I remember being there, but I’m not quite sure that it was amazing.”
And are you friends with Paul Merton?
Yes. We don’t spend a lot of time in each other’s kitchen borrowing sugar, you know, we’re not Morecambe and Wise… but yes, we are friends.
Do you see him between series?
No. But we always go out and have a drink after each show, and have done always.
Have any of the guest panellists tagged along who you’d rather hadn’t?
Oh, yes. A number have made me think, “Surely you don’t want to have a drink after that?” But some people are very thick-skinned…
Who is the most thick-skinned guest?
There is no one thicker skinned than Sir Brucie. When he did Play Your Iraqi Cards Right – which is a low-point in taste for British television, where he had various Iraqi generals and mass murderers and he was literally asking the audience whether the booty on their heads should be higher or lower – I thought, “We can’t do anything after this! There’s nowhere for the show to go!” It was incredibly funny.
Who is the worst guest?
Sometimes the ones who are really useless are incredibly funny. Last year Bob Ainsworth, the former defence secretary, was just so bad it was hysterical. And Bob Crow of the RMT union picked a fight as soon as we started. I think he said I had never been down the Tube and I said, “That’s right, and I eat oysters all day and swill champagne.” That was aggro quite early on.
Is there anyone who surprised you with their sense of humour?
I wasn’t sure if Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, had a sense of humour, but he was very funny about how out of depth he was when he was put in charge of the Treasury brief. He thought, “God, economics, I didn’t think about this…” He surprised me. The Tory minister Alan Duncan is always funny, he surprised me with his indiscretion. Pre-expenses scandal he was happily boasting about his various homes, which he wouldn’t be
doing now! And Boris Johnson was a revelation.
Is it an act with him?
Er, no. People always ask me the same thing about Boris. They say, “Is he an incredibly clever bloke pretending to be an idiot?” My view is no.
And who have you most enjoyed taking on?
I think it’s the people that mattered the most who are the most fun. John Prescott was great. He wanted to come on and do his pantomime act. I wanted to say, “Well, you sat on cabinet, matey, and voted for all this stuff! Don’t say, ‘I had no idea what was happening.’ Why don’t you explain it?”
Is there anyone who won’t talk to you since they appeared on the show?
Erm… I’m not sure Prescott would.
What about original host Angus Deayton? You fell out with him – does he talk to you?
Angus doesn’t, no. I’m afraid not.
Some people would say that you are very old-fashioned, that you went from school uniform to wearing a suit and missed out the adolescent bit in the middle. Is that true?
I didn’t miss out, I had an adolescence.
I remember being identified as a “young fogey” early on in the 1980s and I suppose, yes, there are old-fashioned bits to my character, which I’m not embarrassed about, they’re just things I like. I’m not really embarrassed by them.
What do you watch and listen to? Give us a snapshot of your media habits and then we can judge whether you are old-fashioned or not.
The thing is, if you have children [he has a son and daughter] you are just not allowed to be that out of touch. I mean, I was watching Raw Meat – er, Fresh Meat – with Jack Whitehall. He is very funny in it but I think, “Is student life really like that now?” I mean, it’s terrifying, isn’t it? It’s one of those comedies that is both sort of deeply worrying and, of course, very funny. I’ve been watching some very odd things. I watched Made in Chelsea, which is terrifically funny and slightly gobsmacking. When I first came to London it was The Sloane Rangers’ Handbook and Peter York. Nothing’s happened! They’re still there! Except they’re on reality telly now!
What’s your guilty pleasure?
At the moment it definitely is Homeland, which I know lots of people say is terrible hokum but it’s awfully good, and I think Damian Lewis [who appears as a guest host in the new series of HIGNFY] is great. Ever since I sat through the Band of Brothers, I’ve found him irresistible.
If you were channel controller for the day…
I’d buy the Greek television serialisation of my wife’s book, The Island, which is 26 hours of brilliant TV. I have a cameo role as the father of the heroine, so I’d have thought it’s desirable.
Do you speak Greek?
I do in that clip.
Could it be the start of an acting career?
Yeah, I think it’s probably the start of something very big. The Island: don’t miss it.
So you wouldn’t use your powers to bring back Spitting Image?
The trouble is you can never go back. Everyone always says: oh, let’s resurrect that and things are often… They did actually try a while back but you’d be competing or I’d be competing with something that’s already worked once. I think it’s usually a very bad idea to go and revisit things. I’m trying to think of anything much that I think benefited from coming back again. So on the whole no, it’s happier in the past. There’s loads of people coming up with good stuff now. We should let them get on with it.
Do you still have your puppet?
I never had it. I once tried to bid for it and it was so expensive – some lunatic in America bought it. So sadly, I haven’t got it. It was terribly flattering. It was thousands and thousands of dollars, I think. They must have been mad.
What do you wake up to?
I wake up to the Today programme and after I’ve finished shouting at whoever is on for about half an hour, I go to work.
Who lulls you to sleep?
I find the best thing is Professor Brian Cox. I find him very soothing when he’s talking
about the death of the stars and how everything is heading towards a cold, sterile, miserable end, the end of time. That’s very restful.
Are you a star-gazer yourself?
No, not at all.
What’s your radio tuned to?
Radio 4. I quite often listen to Radio 3. I listen to Steve Wright in the afternoon on Radio 2 and sometimes not in the afternoon.
So no, I do move around. They’re doing the life of Danny Kaye on Radio 2 tonight – unmissable. So yeah, default setting is Radio 4, but I sort of move it around. I like radio.
What about music?
Pfft! I’m not much good on popular music, this is true.
So if someone says Mumford and Sons?
Yes, I know who they are. They’re not a removals company… they’re a folky band. What’s one of them called – Jason Mumford? Yes, and I know who Tinchy Stryder is and
I know what dubstep is… I’m not ignorant but I haven’t warmly embraced any of those particular genres.
What do you curl up with on a wet Sunday afternoon?
A book. When I was less employed, I used to be quite a fan of those black-and-white films they always used to show, like A Night to Remember – the really good Titanic film with Kenneth More – or In Which We Serve.
Who was your first crush?
The blonde dancer in Pan’s People. I believe her name was Babs. We were allowed to watch Top of the Pops in prep school. I think they were trying to encourage us to be heterosexuals.
Who makes you turn off the TV?
Who would you rather be stranded on a desert island with – Jeremy Clarkson
or Piers Morgan?
Clarkson, definitely – well, he once hit Piers.
What has been the most embarrassing moment in your TV career?
There’s a clip they show occasionally on HIGNFY where I was trying to make a point about Sarah Palin, saying she was the first attractive politician there’d been, and I forgot that I was on a panel with three other politicians who were all hugely offended, especially Alan Duncan. So I might try and re-word that one.
Who would you choose to play you in a film of your life?
It’s got to be Damian Lewis, hasn’t it? Although I’m sure it will end up being Toby Stephens. But one can only hope.
Which HIGNFY guest would you like to have round for dinner?
Gosh, given my record, anyone who’d accept.