Paul Merton on the birth of Have I Got News for You

In an extract from his new autobiography, the comedian remembers the beginning of the iconic panel show

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In 1990 Jimmy Mulville at Hat Trick phoned to ask if I’d be interested in making a pilot for a television programme. 

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“What’s the show about?” I said. 

“It’s a quiz based on the week’s news,” he said. “We haven’t got a title yet.”

“That’s not for me,” I said. “I don’t do topical jokes. In fact, I know nothing about current affairs.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just be funny. You can do that.” 

I wasn’t going to give him an argument so I agreed, and on a truly beautiful day, a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon, I, and 200 other people, sat in a swelteringly hot TV studio in Wandsworth for well over an hour and a half, all wishing we were somewhere else, like outside.

The programme’s working title was “John Lloyd’s Newsround”, principally because John Lloyd was hosting and introducing rounds about the news. There were two teams of two. I searched for laughs wherever I suspected they may be, but without much success. On the opposing team, the youthful editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, did his best to enliven proceed- ings, and in the company of two other journal- ists, we stumbled through a morass of uneasy banter and tedious bickering over the scores.

I was pleased to meet Ian, and as a loyal reader of his magazine I had noted how it had improved under his editorship over the past four years. I told him this. He mistook me for a minicab driver at first, but when we were properly introduced he seemed to be a genuine fellow. 

“Well,” I thought at the end, “that’s the last we’ll see of that idea.”

The pilot of Have I Got News for You was deemed promising enough for a series to be commissioned, but John Lloyd as our chairman would not be with us. I believe he found reading the autocue tiresome and restricting.

The question was, who would replace Oxford-educated John? Two candidates were auditioned. In the spirit of diversity, although they had both been to Oxford, they had attended different colleges. Angus Deayton got the job and immediately made it his own.

He played the host partly as a newsreader, which, combined with his impeccable timing, gave the show a subversive weight. He said things no newsreader would say, which helped the comedy along. Ian, as the opposing team captain, was slightly unsure of the programme. He was concerned that it might threaten his natural dignity, but I told him he had nothing to worry about. “I’m a serious journalist,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Your secrets are safe with me.”

The chemistry between us three was immediately apparent, and the show slowly built up an audience over the years.

A new series of Have I Got News for You started in the autumn of 2002, and to coincide with this one of the tabloids printed new accusations about Angus’s private life [the News of the World had broken the story in May saying Deayton had taken cocaine and had sex with a prostitute]. We had survived the first revelations but, with a second story, this time there was no escape…

The first time round, it was hilarious because he was the authority figure caught with his trousers down, but you can’t sustain that approach indefinitely. It stops being funny. The guests had no such concerns, and when Christine Hamilton challenged him on his repeated use of the word “disgraced” to describe her husband Neil Hamilton, the game was up.

“If he’s disgraced, what are you?” she said. Angus looked into the camera and said, “Disgraced, I suppose.”

He had become the wrong person to deliver a weekly script criticising people’s actions and foibles. The recording the following week was Angus’s last, a sad, low-key affair. An era was over. Angus had been an excellent host for 12 years, and had played a huge part in the programme’s massive success. 

The programme became a prestigious show to appear on. Salman Rushdie appeared, when he was still in hiding, and was greeted with extraordinary applause. The producers told me that when he had first been invited he’d sadly refused because our record night, Thursday, coincided with his two bodyguards’ night off. Once the two policemen from Scotland Yard learnt of the situation, one said, “We like that programme, we’ll come and look after you on our day off.”

Appearing on the programme can open doors. A few years ago, I was invited by a journalist to attend Prime Minister’s Question Time. I sat in the press gallery, eagerly anticipating the tussle between David Cameron and Gordon Brown, the then prime minister, when I noticed a journalist whisper into another journalist’s ear. The whisper quickly passed along the line.

I looked down the chamber to see MPs on both sides quickly strike up conversations with each other. The excitement was tangible. What had happened? A sudden attack on Gibraltar by Spain? The Argentines claiming back the Falklands? No, the news was far more surprising than that. The Daily Mirror journalist approached me excitedly. “Guess what?” he said. “John Sergeant has quit Strictly Come Dancing.”

And so the mighty wheels of government trundled on.

Extracted from Only When I Laugh by Paul Merton, available from the Radio Times bookshop here

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Have I Got News for You is on BBC1 tonight at 9.00pm