I WAS STITCHED UP
Boris Johnson on how he got more than
he bargained for when he appeared on
BBC 2's Have I Got News For You WHENEVER we arrived in the country before 10 p.m. on a Friday, I would have the same argument with my sister-in-law. As soon as the parping theme tune of Have I Got News For You was finished, I would say, 'It's all rigged, you know,' and she would say, 'Oh no it isn't,' and I would say, `Oh yes it is,' and so we would bicker happily on, my sister-in-law defending the extempore genius of Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, and myself debunking them.
When, therefore, an amiable producer rang last Monday and asked me onto the show, it was a chance to settle the matter. Heated though this argument with my sis- ter-in-law occasionally became, no one could wish to have been so crushingly vin- dicated.
Not since Paul van Doren was shown to have been fed the answers on the 21 Show, in the scandal that tore apart 1950s Ameri- ca, can there have been such a fraud on the viewing public, and, I might say, such a deceit practised upon the licence-payer. Have I Got News For You is a whited sepulchre. The flagship of BBC 2 is a Potemkin programme.
It is not all it is cracked up to be; and before you say that I write as one stitched up — pot-roasted — let me confess that I was indeed made to seem a bit of a chump. Vainly, I thought they wanted someone to take part in a quiz show. Ha! As people have been pleased to tell me ever since, the game is to spring a nasty surprise on one of the guests — by tradition Paul Mer- ton's team-mate. To do justice to the pro- ducers, I think they were trying to warn me by saying things like, 'You do know the format of the show, don't you?'
Had I my wits about me, I might have paid more attention to the size of the con- tract, about ten pages long; and the myste- rious anxiety shown by the producers that I should sign. 'I gather you are having trou- ble with your contract,' said a girl just as we were about to go on. Gosh no. Perhaps, had I half a brain, I would have smelled a rat at the whacking appearance fee — a grand, actually. As it was, the regulars sprang their trap about three quarters of the way through, and it must have been dimly amusing. You missed it, did you? Well, my dear friend Hislop had a bit of fun with a tape-recorded conversation between myself and my old buddy Darius Guppy which has proved capable of mis- construction. What's that? You want to know more? It takes too long; and in any case, I write this not to be vindictive — no, no, no, heavens no; these are not the words of an angry man, just one sort of sorrowful-bemused.
Because I know that what I am to reveal will affect some Spectator readers, espe- cially young readers, in the way that chil- dren can be pole-axed by the discovery that Father Christmas does not exist, I have been wrestling with my conscience since the strange events of last Thursday afternoon; and I have won. I cannot keep silence about what I saw; but perhaps it will be easier for those innocents, like my sister-in-law, if we begin with the less painful revelations.
You might like to know, for instance, that a half-hour show takes about five hours to record. At 5 p.m. a beige BBC Mere takes you to the television centre on the South Bank, where a girl with a head- set and mouthpiece takes you through to I 'ad that John Prescott in the back of my cab.' your 'star dressing-room'. Using the three- digit code, you let yourself into a small, air- conditioned room furnished like a Japanese hotel. There is a shower, televi- sion, an easy chair, bottled water, Kleenex, fruit and a big pile of newspapers. These last you fall on, as one about to go into a viva hugs his notes. Then there is a knock on the door, and with your heart thudding, you open it to find a tall, smiling fellow who turns out to be Paul Merton. Or at least, that is what happened in my case; and it was then that the scales began to fall.
What horror shall I describe first, what last? You might not be surprised that Angus Deayton, the show's host, reads his script from prompt cards and an autocue for the bits where he is supposedly ad fib- bing. But you might be shocked that the cameras are rolling for an hour and a quar- ter. That's right. All that lightning repartee is the product of an editing process which, as Merton confessed afterwards, takes from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday.
Powerful computers juggle the flickering gobbets of fun, honing the response times, axing the longueurs, A man with earmuffs uses two lollipop objects, as though guiding a plane, to tell the audience when to clap. This same audience of 200 or so is kept in place at the end to allow Deayton to read again, and again, the bits he has fluffed, so that it is about 9.30 p.m. by the time you disentangle the mike from your shirt.
All this is forgivable. It is just profession- alism, like the wardrobe girl who kept ring- ing to assess whether my tie would 'strobe'. What left me stunned was what happened when Merton and the ear-mike producer girl took me down to meet Hislop and Janet Street-Porter, my fellow-guest. On the way into the studio Hislop blurted out his secret: the water. If in doubt, he confid- ed, he just raises a glass of water to his lips and smirks at the audience.
Doubt? Why was he in any doubt? The whole thing is a. fix. We were spoon-fed. We were hand-held. Two hours beforehand we were shown the questions. We were shown all the sequences, the odd-man-outs, the headlines, the lot. We were allowed back to our dressing-rooms to collude. Yes, Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, these demi- gods of the tart rejoinder, go into that show with their lines spread on the desk in front of them — pages of stuff — as if entering a scripture exam with lists of the Kings of Judah in the shirt-sleeves, only worse; and at the end, after the cast party, I went back to the star dressing-room and looked at the vast mound of papers I had brought with me to 'revise', and felt a fool.
Sometimes I think my sister-in-law might be partly right, in that there were flashes of brilliance that simply had to be impromptu; and then the suspicion returns, and I crave what little faith I used to have. Say it ain't so, Paul, Ian; say it ain't so.
Boris Johnson is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.