Paul Merton: Ann Widdecombe was Have I Got News For You’s worst ever host

Merton believes that the former conservative politician got cocky when hosting the topical quiz

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BBC1 panel show Have I Got News For You, which returned last night, has had many guest hosts since the departure of permanent chair Angus Deayton in 2002, including critically-acclaimed turns by Boris Johnson, Bruce Forsyth, Jo Brand and Alexander Armstrong.

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But not everyone manages so well in the role, and now team captain Paul Merton has revealed his least favourite host of all time – former Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe.

“The two worst hosts were Neil Kinnock and Ann Widdecombe, for various reasons,” the comedian said in a question and answer session at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last night.

While Kinnock apparently struggled with the autocue – “He was very mistrustful of every word he saw, he potentially thought it was a trip up” – Merton believes Widdecombe simply became overconfident on her second time hosting in 2007.

“The first time she was on, it wasn’t too bad… and everyone benefits from good editing,” Merton said.

“But I don’t think she realised how much help she was getting.”

“The second – and last – time she came on as a host, she [thought she] knew it all. She was telling the producers what was funny, what wasn’t funny – she suddenly turned into Eric Morecambe!”

In the episode in question Widdecombe was angered by comedian Jimmy Carr’s jokes at her expense, and later said in her Daily Express column that “there’s no amount of money for which I would go through those two recording hours again. At one stage I nearly walked out.”

However, in the same column she lauded Merton and fellow team captain Ian Hislop as “the fastest wits in showbusiness”. After Merton’s remarks, she may now have some less kind words to share in her own Cheltenham talk later today.

Merton also revealed in the Q&A that the rise of smartphones with internet access had impacted on Have I Got News For You, with some guests using them to cheat.

“Normally they show us the odd one out round [beforehand] so you’ve got a bit of thinking time. Some guests then go onto Google – so somebody says ‘ah yes, the dalmation was born in October, King Arthur had a butterfly called George.’

“So occasionally we don’t show anybody the stuff before it’s on air in front of people – but then it takes so long!”

Merton was speaking at Cheltenham to promote his new autobiography, Only When I Laugh, which charts his love of and desire to perform comedy from a young age, and subsequent journey to mainstream success.

“When I was a kid everything about me, really, was about the ambition to be a comedian,” he said.

“Comedy is just endlessly fascinating.”

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Paul Merton’s autobiography, Only When I Laugh, is out now