To the London Weekend Television studios to record an episode of Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY). The production runner, as is their wont, reminded me as he showed me to my dressing room that I was the long-running show’s most frequent guest, with 10 appearances notched up over the past decade or so. Sadly, I think last week’s was my last.
In its heyday, HIGNFY was in the very cockpit of British satire: a prototype kind of reality TV in which unwitting politicians were parachuted into a jungle full of backbiting repartee. The combination of a witty dissections of the week’s current events and an opportunity for viewers to see their rulers or wannabe rulers excoriated in front of a live studio audience was a must-see, and for some years the programme formed part of the political discourse, as well as provoking myriad belly laughs.
The show’s regular panellists, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, remain just as funny, and as committed to cocking a snook at the Establishment as they ever were, but inevitably, age and success have mellowed them. It’s difficult to believe in them as angry young men, when they’re so manifestly middle-aged and rather comfortable men. It’s hard to credit them as effectively wielding what is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful, when they’re so clearly part of an elite.
Meanwhile, the political class has got wise to the show’s format. No serving or aspiring politician can “win” HIGNFY the best they can hope for is to not lose. If, like Boris Johnson, they succeed in making a TV audience laugh, they’re never going to be regarded as truly serious ever again. If Johnson loses next year’s mayoral election, it will be HIGNFY that did it for Ken.
I’m afraid that without the reality element, the programme has become just like any other pseudopanel contest, where funny fellows sit behind desks cracking jokes. Moreover, in the post-Hutton era, the BBC seems to have lost its bottle so far as edgy satire is concerned: the sharpest crack I made all evening and the one that received the most audience laughter was cut for transmission.
I’d like to think there’s some other TV show that’s taking up the satiric mantle once sported by HIGNFY and by other programmes before it, stretching all the way back to the revelation of That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s, but sadly I doubt this is the case. On the one hand there is the Balkanisation of television itself, which means that no one programme can ever attract quite such high ratings on the other hand there’s politics itself.
Hunter Thompson once said that satire became impossible when reality itself was too twisted and I fear that’s become the case.