It might seem odd to re-evaluate an episode of Have I Got News For You from November 1995 but the reason I’ve chosen it is because it’s the one time I was in the audience for the show. A young, innocent, unsexy twenty one year old at the time, I absolutely loved the experience, partially because a fair amount of material was edited out of the aired version for legal reasons but also because it was a real thrill to see Paul Merton and Angus Deayton perform in the flesh.
Have I Got News For You is of course a programme which dates rather quickly due to the topical nature of it’s satire but I was hoping it’d be something that I could still enjoy, especially as one of the guests, Bob Mills, was responsible for In Bed With MeDinner, some of which still stands up to this day. On the downside the other was Alex Salmond who is currently on trial for sexually assaulting ten women, which is of course all kinds of bleak, but as at the time of writing he has not been found guilty (or innocent) I tried my best not to let that colour my view of the episode.
As with every episode back then it starts with then regular host Angust Deayton reading a number of daft gags from an autocue, some of which are okay and some of which are just fucked up, with Deayton’s comment that “A strange discovery is made in Michael Barrymore’s cellar” being accompanied by footage of a guy in his underwear being stuck in a half built wall, because homophobic jokes were apparently a-okay in the mid-nineties it seems (this being six years before Stuart Lubboch’s death for the record, so nothing to do with that). It’s the only abjectly shit joke in the episode, but still one I was surprised to see and I can’t understand how they thought it was okay to say something like that even if it was a couple of decades ago.
The first round then starts with a story about John Major and Jacques Chirac meeting after French Nuclear tests in the pacific, with Ian Hislop making jokes about “The Frogs” (ugh) and Alex Salmond delivering a dry one liner which was weak, it’s a poor start for sure and had me concerned that I was really going to struggle with the following twenty five odd minutes. Then there’s a story about a Canadian prank call which made fun of the Queen, and though there’s some vaguely amusing gags it also includes a fair few quite weak ones too, given the subject matter it should be the kind of thing which was funny to this day but sadly that’s not the case this time around.
Thankfully it at least the episode picks up after this with a round about Channel 5, which hadn’t yet launched and so they weren’t aware of the lows it would plummet, but they still give it a nice kicking, and Deayton delivers a great dig at the expense of Greg Dyke. Decriminalisation of Cannabis is the next story, jokes about Mr Blobby being stoned are the highlights, along with Bob Mills’ suspiciously in-depth knowledge of hash, but a lot of it is bland and trades on the kind of stoner tropes that lazy stand up comedians who have never been anywhere near a joint used to make.
A round about pollution on the beaches of England comes next and ends up being a discussion about whether it’d be illegal to walk around in a shirt but no trousers, which probably sounds funnier than it was, towards the end Deayton says “We’re talking bollocks now” and he is not wrong, though he does at least have a great scripted line about the ease of finding toilet paper and three week old chicken curry in the sea which while not making up for what came before at least elicited a brief laugh.
The show’s on slightly firmer ground when they start the “Odd One Out” rounds, with the first including pictures of “The back legs of a mouse”, “E-Coli”, “A Nematode worm” and “Some Raw Sewage” – with Merton getting a big laugh by suggesting the back legs of a mouse is the only one which hasn’t been offered a job on Channel 5. It turns out it’s related to things found in McDonalds in what’s easily the best round so far, with everyone involved getting some great lines in at the expense of the fast food restaurant.
Unfortunately the next Odd One Out round is rubbish, with pictures of “The Queen”, “King Midas”, “Duncan Ferguson” and “Wild Harry McCann” leading Alex Salmond to ramble away in a tiresome manner, Salmond says at one point “I’m not a comedian” which of course is the case, but in that situation you think he’d try not to talk quite so much. The answer is poor too (three of the four struck gold, apparently), and there’s nothing of value here. The next two are at least a bit better with one involving Pierce Brosnan, Bob Holness, David Niven and Julian Clary giving Merton something to work with, and a brief argument about who the first Bond ever was (Barry Nelson) is surprisingly amusing. Unfortunately the last round is the back on shaky ground (The Labour Party Conference, No. 10 Downing Street, a cruise ship and George X) and even though it gives everyone a chance to mock group 4 only a couple of jokes are vaguely amusing.
The missing headlines round ends the show, with “International Pig Topics” magazine being the guest publication, which has a picture of pigs fucking on the cover somewhat bizarrely and because I’m sometimes a very sad man that made me laugh. During this round Bob Mills makes a vicious dig at Paula Yates (who was still alive then, of course, so it’s not quite as offensive as it sounds, though Ian is still appalled), yet otherwise it’s reasonably amusing stuff. Then Angus announces the winner, Paul seems genuinely annoyed that it wasn’t him, and it comes to an end.
If you’ve skipped to the end of the review to find out the result of whether it’s worth rewatching old episodes of the show, well I don’t blame you, but also the answer is that it’s definitely a mixed bag, with about half of the gags not having aged too badly, but the other half made me wince. Angus Deayton’s scripted jibes were often the funniest aspect of the episode, Alex Salmond was surprisingly occasionally amusing at times (though how many of his jokes were written in advance is impossible to know, but it was definitely something that took place even back then), while Bob Mills is pretty witty, and a strong addition to the show.
Surprisingly there was very little of Paul Merton’s trademark surrealism, he had the odd silly train of thought (one involving fake Eurovision songs being the funniest) but didn’t go off about drunk rabbits dating nuns or any nonsense like that, and is on par with Deayton and comes out with the best improvised lines. As for Ian Hislop, well, he’s not the colossal cunt he is nowadays (a biased view, admittedly, but his stewardship of Private Eye has seen the publication become mostly depressing these days), he’s not that funny, but hey, at least he’s only occasionally irritating so that’s something.
Though I can’t ever imagine watching old episodes for pleasure, unless I was enormously fond of the guests involved, despite being so old it’s certainly funnier than many of the more recent episodes of the show at least. And it also highlights just how greatly missed Angus Deayton is, how funny Paul Merton could be when he was at his prime, and how Ian Hislop should have been replaced by someone much more amusing over two decades ago.
(A generous) ★★1/2.
You can watch the episode on Dailymotion here.