The panel show is a strange beast. Get it wrong and you have some of the hokiest TV imaginable: all telegraphed setups and flatlining payoffs. Get it right and you have the kind of concrete slab foundation upon which broadcasting legends are built. For just over a decade, Have I Got News for You got it very right. Launching just as the wheels came off Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in September 1990, it made an immediate impact with its sparky wit and inventive format. Team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton dished out scabrous and surreal quips on the news of the week or at their hapless guests. Holding it all together was chairman Angus Deayton, whose suave but deadly one-liners made him the don of smartarse sophistication, the Bruce Lee of urbane badinage, the James Bond of taking the piss.
TV satire had come hard before but the latex grotesques of ITV’s Spitting Image could often be dismissed as low abuse; silly voices and head butts for punchlines. Not so with Have I Got News for You, when it had three great comic minds in their prime making celeb julienne of the great and the good. Hislop’s intellectual heft, Merton’s lightning-fast absurdisms and Deayton’s polished barbs were a formidable formula. Early triumphs included Hislop kebabing a squirming Piers Morgan, the regulars trading fatwa wisecracks with a then-in-hiding Salman Rushdie and Deayton handing cash-for-questions MP Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine their appearance fees in a brown envelope. The political points hit home and the show was feared, but above all it was a huge amount of fun.
Then came the fall. After a series of revelations about his private life in the press, Deayton suddenly became prey. Satirists, like sharks and sacked publicists, are soulless killers once they see a weakness. Hislop and Merton mauled their hapless anchor brutally in an October 2002 episode in a performance as uncomfortable as it was necessary, Deayton submerged under a blizzard of “alleged” coke-and-hookers gags. Mr Unflappable flapped like a sad penguin, weakly smiling as the blows rained down. The mutual respect that binds all crime families together was gone. Like a rat gnawing through its leg to escape a trap the show publicly hacked off its ailing limb. Deayton was fired a week later.
It has never been the same. It’s still a good show, but Deayton was the difference between good and great. Hislop and Merton had a healthy mixture of comfort with, and contempt for, him that they haven’t been able to attain with others. There have been decent individual turns among the guest presenters (Charles Kennedy, Jack Dee and Alexander Armstrong spring to mind) but the rotating chair means they never get to fully gel with the team captains. The original holy trinity had a peculiar chemistry that has been impossible to recreate. That they haven’t settled on a permanent replacement in 15 years suggests they know it. An emotional reunion is out of the question. Sentiment is in short supply in these parts.
Deayton’s departure remains a cautionary tale for those who engage in satire as bloodsport. One day, the hounds may come for you and, when they do, that time you totally owned Boris Johnson will count for nothing.