Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Have I Got Radio Times Listings for You

Way back in the 1990s, the producers of TV programmes used to get to write their own synopsises for episodes that would be used in the Radio Times. This was particularly interesting when it came to comedies. Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, writers of Red Dwarf, liked to slip in extra jokes: here’s a good one from the original broadcast of “White Hole”, and one from “Better than Life” that subsequently ended up adapted for use in an episode the following year. David Renwick, writer of One Foot in the Grave, deliberately submitted highly misleading descriptions; the ‘unlikely love affair’ described in the synopsis for the first showing of “The Exterminating Angel”, is in fact Margaret trying to set up Mr Swainey on a date, whilst Victor ‘taking to the road’ refers to his new job as a chauffeur.

Whilst having a good laugh at some of these, I thought: What about non-scripted comedy shows – more specifically, panel shows? Did the producers of those ever think to muck about with their listings in such a way? So I trawled through the BBC Genome for every mention of Have I Got News for You it had, and here’s what I found.

Now this one, erm, isn’t actually a joke at all, but it is an interesting piece of trivia. One of the show’s most infamous episodes is the occasion where Roy Hattersley MP pulled out of a recording at the last minute for a third time, and was replaced with the Rt Hon Tub of Lard MP. The Genome informs us that this was to be the first occasion; he would be replaced by novelist Robert Harris. There are plenty of other occasions where the Genome’s listed guests differ from what was actually broadcast; if there are any other particularly interesting ones, I’ll list them here.

(Had Hattersley appeared at this recording as scheduled, he would have become the first ever MP to appear on the show. That honour would end up going to Ken Livingstone three weeks later.)

Not actually an episode of the show at all, but this is the first listed reference to the show causing controversy, as viewers of Biteback take issue with the Duchess of York becoming the butt of the show’s jokes.

Interestingly, BOTH the guests scheduled to appear on this episode changed: they’re listed in the Radio Times as being Clive Anderson and Alan Coren, but ended up being Stephen Fry and Frank Skinner. Skinner had already been a guest on the show this series, perhaps indicating some pretty last-minute scrambling to fill an empty seat.

This is the Tub of Lard episode, and the Radio Times carries Hattersley’s name. (I can find no reference to the second occasion on which he pulled out.) Interestingly, this is another case of both guests changing: it’s Sandi Toksvig’s name in the RT, but Tony Slattery’s on broadcast.

This was the “Margaret Thatcher special”: it was part of one of those theme nights BBC2 used to do, in this case looking back on Thatcher’s time in office. This is the only time an episode of HIGNFY was made for one of these, and the only broadcast episode ever to be anything other than looking back on the week’s news. The only reason I mention this episode at all is because Merton and Hislop both unanimously agree it to be the show’s worst episode, due to the two guests (Derek Hatton and Edwina Currie MP) do nothing but ‘spit poison at each other’.

This is the episode where Hattersley finally actually shows up. Although, hilariously, it seems he wasn’t originally scheduled to do so! The Friday listing only has Tony Hawks with no second guest named, and the Saturday repeat (linked to above) says the second guest was originally going to be Tariq Ali.

For the first time, we get back to the point of this article: finally, the HIGNFY writing team thinks to mess about with their listing. Caroline Quentin (then Paul Merton’s wife) makes her second appearance, and to celebrate the Radio Times listing describes the show in the style of a 1970s sitcom.

As is the case with many other episodes, the Radio Times listing doesn’t have both guests listed. Although this would usually be because they weren’t confirmed yet, this one doesn’t do so because it was the one where Salman Rushdie was a guest, and it made obvious sense to not promote his appearance.

Incidentally, it was about this time that a tie-in book based on the series made a joke about how guessing what time the repeat was going to be on was absolutely impossible, but looking at the listings it doesn’t seem that erratic to me…

The RT manages to successfully refer to Jack Docherty as ‘John’ in both the listings for the Friday premiere and the Saturday repeat.

This episode’s synopsis claims that it will include some new rounds, including one about “celebrity quangos”. Although the episode does include some new rounds, that isn’t one of them. (Possibly it didn’t make the final edit?)

The listing for this episode’s repeat points out how unexpected Michael Winner’s presence is, given two years previously he had started legal action against the programme.

This episode’s billing states that, apart from Frank Skinner, the other guest panellist will be a “surprise guest”. The guest in question was Dutch comedian Raoul Heertje, making what seems to be his debut on UK TV. (Heertje would go on to be a team captain on the Dutch version of HIGNFY.)

Somewhat surprisingly, the RT makes no mention at all of the fact that Paul Merton is not appearing this series. (One wonders if his absence from the listing means that the decision for him to appear as a guest on Ian’s team in the first episode was made quite late on.)

This seems to be the first ever case of an old episode being repeated – the infamous Paula Yates appearance.

Here’s something interesting. Usually if a guest pulls out, then they’ll be rescheduled for a few weeks later, or the following series. However, here are two examples of guests pulling out and then never appearing on the show at all: Ardal O’Hanlon in the former, and Jim Davidson in the latter.

During the summer of 1999, there was another chance to see the Autumn 1998 series again. However, for some reason the final episode – with guests Tom Baker and Muriel Gray – was not repeated, and one episode was shown twice instead (once in its usual slot, and again in place of the ‘missing’ episode). Answers on a postcard…

Bus-related liar Boris Johnson is already notorious enough to be described as a ‘semi-regular’, in spite of this only being his second appearance.

There’s something rather odd going on with this repeat run of the Autumn 1999 series. It shows episodes 1 & 2, then skips to episode 5, then episode 8, before showing episode 7! Who can fathom the mysteries of BBC2 summer repeat scheduling?

Elton John was due to appear on this episode (he did a Hattersley and was replaced by a lookalike)… but despite this appearance receiving a fair bit of publicity in the build-up to it, it’s not mentioned in the RT listing.

This is the only occasion in which the sentence “Jerry Hall pulls out and is replaced by Marcus Brigstocke” will ever be accurate.

The show receives its first, and to date only, BBC Four airing, as a recent edition hosted by Jack Dee is part of the channel’s Jack Dee Night.

So, having reached the end of the Genome’s records and finally getting back to the reason I was writing this in the first place: it turns out the HIGNFY production office only ever thought to provide a ‘funny’ synopsis on one occasion. Which is a shame because a) the one time they do it it’s very good and b) the quality of the tie-in books show they could have done this a lot more. Why they would only ever do it once is a bit baffling, too. Still, there’s also a few other interesting things hidden away there, so hopefully this article was only mostly a complete waste of time…


  1. Interesting to get a little glimpse of 'what could have been' re guests who were scheduled to appear but didn't (without having to do this work myself). I've seen only two people listed to host the show who've never appeared: Fiona Bruce and Jeremy Paxman. Is it true that they ask Paxman every series?

    1. Just a quick update. Ms. Bruce is now the only person I’ve ever seen listed as host for the show who has never appeared, now that Paxo has finally broken his duck. (I remember it was the edition in 2007 which eventually was helmed by Moira Stuart.)

  2. They definitely did ask him on a fairly regular basis (there was a question about it in the HIGNFY board game). Not sure if they still do.

    1. It's a famous line but he replied once by saying he'd "rather crush his testicles between two bricks". Since then though he has done similar shows like Last Leg and C4's alt-election coverage. It's almost like the show is just keeping going until he eventually says yes. (Piers 'Morgan' Moron similarly declined a 2nd appearance by saying he'd "rather staple my eyelids to Hislop's arse".)

      Baddiel & Skinner's Fantasy Football Diary contains some of the rejection letters they received for the 1st series, and they seem pretty genuine. (There's no attempt to make them 'humourous'.) HIGNFY must have a sackful of those.

      I remember there were rumours about 10 or so years ago that they were in discussion with John Major to host. I thought it sounded unlikely at the time. Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson remains the person of highest office ever to have appeared. (Then it's probably Prescott and Clegg.)

    2. I *definitely* recall hearing the Major thing - I think it was for the Spring 2008 series.