Paul Merton and Ian Hislop reveal the secrets of Have I Got News for You

ITV News at Ten anchor Tom Bradby meets the duo to discuss their working relationship, the worst politician they’ve had on – and why there aren’t more women hosting the panel show

Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, Have I Got News for You (RT shoot by Sven Arnstein, EH)

I’m not sure I’ve done many things more unnerving than appearing on Have I Got News For You. I mean, I have been really frightened out reporting in the field once or twice, but nobody likes to be made a fool of, and it occurred to me too late in the day that this was the likely, indeed probable, outcome.

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They seduce you by reassuring you that you don’t need to be funny. But the truth is if you sit there and say nothing of note, you are frankly going to come out looking a bit of a plonker.

As the guest, you know you are there to be ribbed. I racked my brains as to what they would come at me with, but decided there were too many possibilities and gave up. In the end, it was a piece of footage from the ITN library (thanks guys), in which I did a series of U-turns in a car to indicate the absurdity of endless government U-turns. I guess you had to be there.

There are a few notable things to say about the whole experience. The first is that it takes about five times as long to record as you might think (more than two hours on my night), and it is, inevitably, only funny in parts. But the show’s real secret is that, while intimidating from afar, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton are rather nice close-up. I was on Ian’s side and he could hardly have been more supportive. I think the best that could be said was that I survived.

Still, my memories of it were pleasant enough as I rocked up to the RT photoshoot in central London to mark the start of the 55th series, only to find Hislop and Merton in bed together. It occurred to me that these days they really are the country’s most notable comedy duo…

Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, Have I Got News for You (RT shoot by Sven Arnstein, EH)
Photographed exclusively for Radio Times by Sven Arnstein

Watching the photoshoot, with you in the flat cap, Ian, and Paul in the bowler hat, and then in bed together, it occurred to me that perhaps you two should be doing a sketch show…

Paul Merton I think that’s something that we probably could do, because of the relationship between me and Ian, and the fact we’re very different. We’re physically different, educationally different, and that’s what a lot of double acts have. I was dressed in the bowler, Ian was doing his best at a working-class accent.

Ian Hislop It’s terribly good.

Paul Circa Kind Hearts and Coronets. “Cor blimey, guv’nor.” So yes, maybe we will do something one day. The chemistry is certainly there. Maybe a Comic Relief thing, or a Christmas one-off…

I think people will be intrigued about your relationship. Do you see each other outside of work?

Paul No! We do 20 shows a year. How do you think that would work?

Ian We see each other every week and we always go to the bar afterwards, we have done since the early days, and we still tend to be there at the end!

Paul There’s an hour and a half, two hours after the show, where, if there’s something to talk about – that Ian isn’t happy with, or I’m not happy with – we’ll have a quiet word with the producers. That’s just us keeping an eye on it from our point of view.

So, spill the beans. Who’s the worst guest presenter you’ve had on?

Ian The one I remember was Neil Kinnock. Actually, that was the longest recording ever because I think he had been in Europe for too many years, so he literally asked the question, listened to the answer, summarised your answers, did a sort of précis of the entire issue, and then repeated it all again. I mean, it was about three hours!

Paul It was a long time. I think it certainly got into the third hour. He treated the autocue as if every word was a trap, so he was very careful. He said to me afterwards, “I’ve never been able to read other people’s speeches, I’d have been better writing my own.” So that’s what he was doing with the autocue.

How have you got on with other politicians on the show?

Paul My worst experience was when Ann Widdecombe hosted it the second time. Now, there’s a thing in showbusiness. The first time you do something, you’re going to be a bit rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights, but adrenaline gets you through. Then the programme is edited and her friends see it and say, “Oh, you were very good on that.” Second time she comes on she’s telling the producer what jokes will and won’t work. She turned to me at one point and said, “Come on, be amusing; that’s what you’re being paid for.” Even as I say it, it sends a shiver through my heart! It’s like, the arrogance of the woman, you know? Suddenly she thought she was Victoria Wood!

Ian John Prescott was very unhappy after the show. And Alastair Campbell was furious, because I’d managed to get the words “weapons of mass destruction” into every single answer. People who are used to being in control hate it, because the recording starts and he says, “I think we’ll move on.” And I say, “I don’t think we will. I think we’ll go back to it.” And that’s enormous fun, to get those people on and just bring it all up. I love doing that.

When something like Trump’s election happens, do you punch the air with joy or think, “This just isn’t funny any more”?

Paul There are two stories that don’t go away: Brexit and Donald Trump. From my point of view, it’s really difficult, because I’ve got nothing interesting or funny to say about Brexit after all this time, or about Donald Trump. So it’s not a gift at all to have the same stories every week.

Ian These things are very cyclical, and I think people have always said, “It’s beyond satire”. Because I’m slightly boring, I think Juvenal was the first person to say that in AD 100. He said, “I can’t even say, things in Rome are just too awful.” The job is to find something to say. With Trump and Brexit, it’s not the concept that’s funny, it’s the detail – and that’s really where we can score. In terms of saying, you know, “Trump is orange and has funny hair,” yeah, all right. What else?

Donald Trump (Getty, EH)
Donald Trump (Getty)

Is the political scene now better or worse than when the show started in 1990?

Ian Well, people say it’s really toxic now, and I say, “Do you remember the poll tax riots?” We had people rioting in London! Now there are people being unpleasant to each other on Twitter. Yes, that’s quite toxic, but it’s not street fighting, is it? I think people get hysterical – “Oh, it’s so awful now.”

Where does this government fit in the panoply of governments you’ve seen? The worst, the best, in the middle?

Ian Generally, this one’s going for the most incompetent prize, but most of them do, I find, after a while.

The show has been credited with raising the electoral appeal of Boris Johnson. Guilty as charged?

Paul The first time he came on was a bit of a disaster for him. Ian was trying to pin him down on the stuff about Darius Guppy and Boris was trying desperately not to talk about that. [In 1990 Johnson was recorded having a telephone conversation with businessman Darius Guppy during which they discussed the possibility of having a journalist beaten up].

Ian He was very cross about that.

Paul Then again, people would have said to him afterwards, “Actually, you were very good on that.” And then he came around to the idea that if you associate yourself with popular culture, with something that’s funny, that’s what any politician is looking for.

When recording day comes around, is there joy in your heart, or occasionally a bit of, “Oh, right, got that to do again”?

Paul As soon as you do that, your programme is dead. I always try to have the mentality of, “This is the first time I’ve done this show.” And next week, I can’t repeat what I did this week. I’ve got to do something different. I think it helps that, among the five people sitting in the studio, three of them weren’t there the week before. You have the constant of me and Ian, but we can’t rely on the fact that it’s been good in the past because it has to be good now.

Ian I mean, because I don’t really perform, as it were, the rest of the year, I really like it, but I still get nervous, and I still think, “Oh, there’s 300 people there.” And, you know, the audience are perfectly capable of just murdering you.

Paul Their loyalty can switch from one person to another, if they think that someone is being bullied or something.

Ian But for me it’s a chance to go and sound off, which is terrific.

Paul Merton, Tom Bradby and Ian Hislop (RT mag, EH)
Paul Merton, Tom Bradby and Ian Hislop

Paul, you took a break from the show in 1996, saying you were tired. We’re many years on from that. Do you ever both think, “Soon I’ll have had enough”?

Paul Well, I’ve been doing Just a Minute longer, and I’ve been doing my Comedy Store show longer, so it’s up to you to keep it fresh. It’s that simple. And as long as it works, it doesn’t matter if it’s been going three years or 30 years.

Ian I’ve been editor of Private Eye for 30 years, so there is a clue in that the two of us tend to do the same thing for a long time. Have I Got News is still huge fun to do and if it remains fun to watch then I want to go on making it. Obviously I think that news and the presentation and distortion of it is endlessly interesting.

The success of the show seems built around the strength of the relationship between the two of you. If one of you left, would it be possible for the other to carry on?

Ian I can’t imagine it.

Paul No show is entirely dependent on the people that do it. But it would be different. I don’t know. It’s the same as Just a Minute, when Nicholas Parsons retires or whatever, but the style of the show is the show…

Looking at the stats it seems that of the 11 politicians who have presented the show, only one has been a woman. Is that because there aren’t as many women MPs?

Paul The producers always ask more women than men. More women say no.

I can believe that, actually.

Paul It’s true. And right from the early days, that’s been the case.

Ian And everyone you think should have been asked has been. Really, they really have.

Paul Is Ann Widdecombe the only female politician to host?

I think she is, yes.

Ian That’s extraordinary. I mean… and again, there was a period when people said, “Why haven’t you had French and Saunders on? Why haven’t you had the following people?” And you say, “Well, it’s not compulsory.” And on the whole, women are slightly more reticent and think, maybe modestly, “I can’t do that.” Maybe more men in public life say, “Yes, I can do that.”

I found that when I was doing my ITV show The Agenda, it was incredibly difficult. The thing is, any man in public life, any male CEO, tends to wake up, look in the mirror and think, “The world would be a much better place if it had my views on a wide variety of subjects.” And maybe successful women don’t automatically assume that.

Paul I mean, we have had a lot of women present the show. Kirsty Young has done it a few times. Jane Leeves from Frasier has done it, Liza Tarbuck a long time ago, Jennifer Saunders has done it a couple of times, Jo Brand has done it maybe half a dozen times… So unless Ann Widdecombe has put off an entire gender, it must be because they have been asked and they’ve said no.

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Have I Got News for You begins on Friday 6th April at 9.30pm on BBC1