It’s odd to find myself talking about my having a ‘big break’ when I’ve already established myself as TV’s most popular talk show host. Yet having conquered an audience to whom the menopause was a vague and distant memory, I’ve always longed to establish myself with a younger crowd for whom the juices have not yet ceased to flow. I’m still a relatively young guy and I like to think that my finger is on the pulse of today’s audience.
My chance arrived this week and the result will be broadcast tonight. I’m actually relieved that the day is here. It means that I can finally tell you all about it. If you check BBC1 this evening at 9PM, you’ll be in for an early Christmas treat. The last episode in the current series of Have I Got News For You has a very special guest presenter.
I’m not saying who it is but I arrived at The London Studios early last night. The production facility sits on the South Bank, an area I know quite well since it was once the home to London Weekend Television where I made many shows in the eighties. It’s now home to the UK’s most successful satirical quiz show.
The two stars of the show were very welcoming, although they’re not what you expect. Ian Hislop isn’t as funny in the flesh as he appears on TV while Paul Merton refuses to speak to anybody before the recording. He spends fifteen minutes kneeling in a corner of his dressing room where he has constructed a small shrine to the Comedy Gods.
‘Best not to bother him,’ said Hislop as he walked me past Merton’s dressing room. ‘He thinks he’s channelling the spirit of Buster Keaton.’
‘I thought Keaton was a silent comedian,’ I replied.
‘Which probably accounts for a lot of things,’ commented a producer who was passing us at the time.
‘Producers,’ cried Hislop after him. ‘What do they know about comedy?’
‘We know that our last laugh wasn’t at the expense of Anthony Eden,’ said another, going the other way.
Hislop took the insults in good spirits. ‘Bastards,’ he muttered darkly as he led me down to the studio.
The host’s seat is possibly one of the most envied chairs in television. All the greats have sat there. Forsyth, Aspel, Corbett, Fry. I adjusted it lower, it having been left from the previous incumbent the week before. Jo Brand hadn't done a bad job hosting the show but I thought that by saving me for last, the producers were doing the right thing; ensuring that regular viewers went away from the series with a proper sense of edgy, topical satire.
Once I'd lowered the chair, I proceeded to spend some time getting myself in the comedy zone. My main job for the evening would be to read jokes from the autocue, but, unknown to the guys, I’d written myself some topical material I knew would go down a storm. My favourite joke was going to be:
"Gordon Brown couldn’t sign the reform treaty in Lisbon with other European leaders. Critics accuse him of staying in London to avoid the embarrassment of being seen giving away all our rights to non-elected officials in Europe. A spokesman for the Prime Minister said ‘Je n'ai aucun commentaire’ from his office in Brussels."
Like a true professional, I'd memorised my own material so I'd be able to slip it in when the moment was right. As it turned out, I'm glad I was on hand to provide additional laughs. The actual recording went well enough but the writers on the show had struggled to fill the autocue with good material. It was a shame since the audience seemed to have an endless amount of affection for me. However, once I began to ad lib, I think I managed to turn the show around. The audience listened in awe as I began to ad lib a rap around the subject of Ed Balls and primary schools. I then managed to get my Gordon Brown joke in, right after the ‘Odd One Out’ round, when I also made a quite cutting remark about Al Gore and tumble-dryers. I just hope they keep it all in the final edit. Other than that, I really can’t say too much in case I spoil the show.
Afterwards, as a way of thanking me, Paul and Ian took me for a meal in a crowded little bistro not far from the studio there on the South Bank.
‘Order what you want,’ said Paul in a loud voice as we took our seats. ‘After all, you’re paying.’
The bistro broke out into spontaneous laughter and then a small round of applause. Paul milked it for all it was worth while Ian sat gloomily with his nose stuck in a menu.
‘You two must get rather jaded after all these years working together,’ I said.
‘Not at all,’ replied Paul as he sat down. ‘I wouldn’t know what to do without Ian. He’s my little bald Judy.’
There was more laughter, more applause, and, from Paul, more standing up and bowing.
‘Does he does this all the time?’ I whispered to Ian.
‘Only when he’s trying to impress people,’ he said.
‘So I should feel honoured?’
Ian shrugged. ‘Put it like this, I’ve not met a person he doesn’t try to impress.’
Paul sat back down.
‘Me and the real Judy have our marriage to keep us fresh,’ I said. ‘There’s much to be said for sleeping in the same bed as your television partner.’
‘We tried that once,’ said Paul, his voice reaching out above our heads to the rest of the diners, now hanging on his every word. ‘I couldn’t put up with his snoring. Although, to be fair, he was funnier than when he’s awake.’
‘Look, cut it out,’ snapped Ian, somewhat petulantly I thought.
‘Oooh,’ went the crowd.
‘It’s like doing pantomime at the Hackney Empire, this is!’ cried Paul to more applause. ‘Richard, here, take these magic beans I’ve purchased from that bald little elf. Let’s plant them and we’ll see what grows.’
‘It’s always the same,’ complained Ian. ‘He can’t switch off.’
‘I can’t help if,’ said Paul. ‘Once you’ve started to channel the comedy greats, you can’t just turn them off like it’s a tap.’
‘They’re still coming through you now?’ I asked.
‘Of course. I can’t stop them.’
‘So who is it now?’
Paul looked pensive for a moment, his eyes losing focus as though he were staring into the middle distance. Then his eyes cleared. ‘Yootha Joyce,’ he said. ‘Earlier on I had Hancock for five minutes.’
‘Yootha Joyce?’ I cried. ‘You’re channelling the star of a mid-seventies situation comedy. And a bad one at that!’
‘George and Mildred was comedy gold,’ protested Paul.
There wasn’t much I could say to that. The meal soon arrived and we ate it in comparative silence. We chatted occasionally about the business and I told them about my big hopes for Dick Justice, coming to ITV this Spring.
When we’d finished the meal, we slipped out onto the South Bank and the two of them started to argue about a taxi. I would have offered them a lift but Paul had started to channel the spirit of Lenny Henry, despite protestations from both Ian and myself that Henry isn’t dead.
‘He’s as good as,’ said Paul. ‘What’s death if it’s not doing a one man show at the Dudley Town Hall?’
I suppose he had a point. After saying my goodbyes to Ian, Paul, Yootha, and Lenny, I walked back to my car reflecting on what had been an odd evening.
Catch the show tonight and I’m sure you’ll all agree.