* Contains spoilers about some jokes which may make the final programme in tonight’s edition of Have I Got News For You *
When Jeremy Clarkson was due to sit in the host’s chair of Have I Got News for You just after the fracas-gate scandal, team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton and producers Hat Trick had quite a lot in store for the former Top Gear presenter.
One of their planned gags for the April show, I was assured, involved presenting Clarkson with a steak and chips – a replica of the controversial hot meal (or rather lack of) which prompted his altercation with producer Oisin Tymon and his dismissal from the programme.
Little wonder Clarkson politely declined the chance of entering the firing line so soon after he defenestration from the BBC.
But you can’t keep an old dog down and last night he finally recorded his planned edition of the show which airs tonight on BBC1.
And he got what can only be described as a right ribbing according to sources we have spoken to who were in the audience and behind the scenes. Although I can assure you that there was no set-piece steak gag. But there was a lot else…
Clarkson arrived on time for the recording to a blaze of paparazzi photographers but settled down on his own in the green room to look over his notes and was deep in thought, according to a source. He was clearly hoping to be well prepared.
And then the fun began…
When Richard Osman, who was on Paul Merton’s team, asked if he regretted punching Tymon, Hislop interjected. The Private Eye editor told the audience that Clarkson “wasn’t all bad” because he had once also allegedly punched Piers Morgan, the former Daily Mirror editor and a Hislop bête noire.
Clarkson’s new employers Amazon – for whom he is making a new car show with James May and Richard Hammond showing on Amazon Prime Instant Video – also came in for some stick.
At one point there was a technical problem involving the sound and Osman joked: “This wouldn’t happen on Amazon Prime. Are you sure it’s Amazon Prime and not Amazon past-their-prime?”
Hislop quipped to Clarkson: “I thought you’d be delivering packages to my door.”
In another sequence, Clarkson stumbled over the autocue and loudly proclaimed “oh f*** off”, prompting Merton to shout “don’t hit me” before cowering theatrically behind his chair. This required the intervention of the studio crew to reattach Merton’s microphone.
But Clarkson gave as good as he got when it came to mocking himself.
The former Top Gear host insisted that he was not allowed to speak about motoring matters, saying: “I can’t talk about cars on the BBC. I can’t say the C word.”
In a missing words round which revolved around a news story about a lost tuna sandwich Clarkson quipped “sandwiches are particularly dangerous if it’s 11pm at night” – a reference to the Tymon altercation.
He later said “What are they going to do? F****** sack me? They can’t. This is fun.”
Said one witness: “Richard Osman was on fire – he was very funny – but in fact everyone was. There was a lot of teasing but it was taken in good spirits.
A production source added: “Jeremy has done the show a lot of times though not for a while. He enjoys doing it and he gave as good as he got.”
In fact the recording was done in such good spirits that Clarkson was up late into the night drinking with the team after the recording. So whatever makes tonight’s show – the programme is still being edited as I write – it’s certainly going to be fun and good-natured.
Have I Got News For You is on BBC1 on Friday October 2 at 9pm