Living life remotely and Have I Got News For You all boxed up…

With many of us living remotely, it is understandable that BBC1’s Have I Got News For You should give it a go, too.

Our interactions now commonly take place at a technological remove.

Over the past week or so, I have joined a Skye group call about a smallish Covid-19 pay cut at one of my jobs. Had a couple of family conference chats on Skye and met up twice with York friends on Zoom: lovely but not like a real meeting in a real pub or walking across real countryside together breathing real air.

‘Meetings’ with students look set to go that way too next week, and my usual guitar lesson has been replaced with a Skype lesson.

The first post-real lesson was sabotaged by my laptop or my incompetence or something. Andy the teacher could see me; but I couldn’t see him. He’d been replaced by a black-and-white pixelated blur, his forehead blown to fill the screen. But he could hear me, I could hear him, so the lesson carried on.

Have I Got News For You is now filmed with Ian Hislop, Paul Merton and co at home and connecting, Zoom-style, in a series of boxes.

Two episodes in, and this format fits the moment: it’s generally terrible and nothing like the real thing; much as this disconnected, home-based existence is nothing like real life. The show is oddly of the moment, even if not much cop.

The lack of a studio audience leaves the jokes to bump around, naked and alone on the screen. Usually, Paul Merton is pollinated by audience laughter, going off on an improvised comic riff, sometimes brilliantly so, but here he seems isolated.

It’s a game attempt at reproducing the normal show, but not that successful.

The actor Stephen Mangan hosted last week, looking his cheerful self again after all that moping around in the perversely enjoyable divorce drama The Split. Normally, he’s a good host, witty and inventive, pushing things just a little too far. Without the audience, it all seemed a strain and a stretch.

It’s easy, or it has been so for me, to retain an affection for this panel show, even when it seems past its best.

Merton is good at the jokes, while Hislop seems avuncular until he lets the twinkle fade as he turns on a politician guest, giving them a good filleting.

Hislop did this brilliantly back in April 1998, when Boris Johnson first appeared on the programme. He needled Johnson about that notorious phone call with his friend Darius Guppy.

As the novelist Jonathan Coe reminds us in an article for the London Review of Books in July 2013, this was when the pair “are alleged to have discussed the possibility of beating up an unfriendly journalist. Hislop was doing what he does best, remaining genial but suddenly toning down the humour and confronting the guest with chapter and verse for a past misdemeanour”.

In a long article, Coe also argues that Hislop nails Johnson, but then allows him to make a funny joke so laughter lets him off the hook. He also argues that permitting Johnson to then host the programme established his ‘lovable’ reputation as a self-mocking buffoon.

Hislop has since deflected criticism that HIGNFY helped inflict Boris Johnson on the country, a charge that turns him a touch prickly.

Another point raised by Coe is that, by generally insisting that all politicians are useless and duplicitous, Hislop has helped create the anti-politics mood in this country.

Is that criticism a bit of a stretch? Possibly, but the show has also become a cuddlier version of its once more vicious self.

Will I still watch? Oh, almost certainly as some habits are too deeply ingrained.

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