For over three decades, the long-running satirical British panel show Have I Got News For You has been projected onto TV screens, offering up a plate of political parody. Having initiated under Thatcher and having two new series every year since 1990, it is expected that the show would have seen more share than its controversy with accusations of political bias and court cases a-plenty. Yet what about when there is trouble on camera?
What links Stephen Fry, Neil Kinnock, and Piers Morgan? These are the panellists who will never return to HIGNFY, as well as a list of five of the most hated panellists (hated either in retrospect and/or by the panellists themselves).
Before we jump into the list, it would be remiss of me to not give mention ex-host Angus Deayton. From 1990 to 2002, the long-running satirical news programme was hosted by Angus Deayton.
However, in 2002, allegations about Deayton’s private life rose to the surface. The now-defunct News Of The World newspaper reported that Angus had not only taken cocaine in a hotel but allegedly also had hired a prostitute for sex whilst his partner was pregnant.
Front page news, on the next episode after the controversy, Angus was endlessly ripped into by team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, with Ian pulling out a copy of a magazine headline and Paul wearing a shirt with the emblazoned headline. The episode drew in huge figures of 8.12 million viewers, an all-time high and the last time viewership was over eight million.
Angus was eventually sacked, apparently in the face of these claims. Angus continued the series and even a few episodes into the 24th series a few months after before getting the boot, either voluntarily or by force depending on who you believe.
The decision seemed very last minute as Paul Merton took over hosting for the first episode. Although names such as Alexander Armstrong (the guest with the most appearances) were thrown up, instead, to this day – 20 years later – the programme is hosted by different presenters every week.
Hosts as diverse as Mastermind host John Humphrys, footballer Gary Lineker, ex-James Bond Sir Roger Moore, trash TV’s Jerry Springer, chef John Torode, and future Prime Minister Boris Johnson have all hosted since Angus’s departure.
Now, let’s get into the list…
10. Never Returning: Stephen Fry
On the topic of Angus’s sacking, where better to start than with Stephen Fry?
Fry had previously made three appearances as well as a special double crossover with Never Mind The Buzzcocks and They Think It’s All Over.
Upon Angus’s departure, Stephen Fry was an odds-on favourite for the position but turned it down and then some; he went on to host QI the next year (2003).
Dismayed by Deayton’s dropping, Stephen Fry called his dismissal: “Greasy, miserable, British and pathetic”, adding that “With the best will in the world for the guest presenters, I’m personally boycotting it from now on until they reinstate Angus.”
Fry also vented his anger at the permanent panellists Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. It is well-known that neither Paul nor Ian liked Deayton, seeing him as an autocue puppet who seemingly thought more of himself, with their jibes about Angus’s private lives culminating – one way or another – in his hosting cut-off. The future president of Mind said: “I wouldn’t do it anymore because I’m very, very, very cross with the BBC and Paul Merton and Ian Hislop for allowing Angus to go.”
He has stayed true to his word and outside of QI, rarely appeared on many panel shows – largely sticking to radio shows such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and Just A Minute, the latter of which features Paul Merton.
9. Hated: David Shayler
In the 19th series in 2000, one of the guest panellists was David Shayler. Just one issue with this: Shayler was in exile at the time.
To cover who he is, Shayler was an MI5 whistleblower who leaked secret documents and insider information to various newspaper publications.
By 2000, he was living in exile in Paris with the Home Office refusing entry, Angus said as he introduced the guest. Shayler instead appeared via an electronic monitor – foreshadowing the pandemic-era online video call era of the show – which had a two-second delay. He was not the first appearance of a celebrity in diplomatic limbo, that being a 1994 appearance of Salman Rushdie who was under police hiding from Scotland Yard after having a fatwa put upon him for his work The Satanic Verses.
The ex-spy’s time issues led to a string of gags from Merton, who was disgruntled by the delay, believing timing to be intrinsically linked to comedy. This allowed some jokes about the overweight Shayler without giving time for a response. Hostilities were further on the show with fellow panellist Stephen Fry referring to him as “David Traitor” and cultivating an interrogative style towards David.
Paul eventually turned the monitor off mid-way through the episode and later took to the audience and came back with a newspaper.
Shayler’s appearance was criticised not only as an act of faux heroism but also as publicity, something the whistleblower was accused of with acts such as a mock crucifixion in Paris and planning to run against Tony Blair in the general election.
If you want to know how he is doing now, he believes 9/11 was an inside job, claims David Icke is the “John the Baptist to my [Jesus] Christ”, and lives in a squat under with a transvestite alter ego.
8. Never Returning: Peter Hitchens
Have I Got News For You has always been a show with a left-leaning perspective and has admitted difficulty in finding right-wing guests but one they could get was Peter Hitchens.
Now a writer for The Mail On Sunday, Hitchens was a member of the Conservative Party as of the episode’s airing in 1999, amidst Tony Blair’s first term.
Hitchens’s appearance on Have I Got News For You is still an oddity, with both Hitchens brothers – Peter and older brother Christopher, themselves often at political and ideological odds – being very stern and serious figures, more suited for strait-laced shows such as Question Time.
Hitchens’s Have I Got New For You appearance saw him placed on Ian’s team in a loss against Merton and Fat Woman (as in a member of the group Two Fat Women) Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Hitchens, who was good on the programme, making some witty off-the-cuff remarks, has criticised the programme on multiple occasions since his one-off appearance.
Hitchens has commented about Dickson Wright’s attempt to dismantle and dominate the show, accusing her of “vast self-aggrandisement”. Peter also points out the significance of Boris Johnson’s Colbert bump from his appearances around the same time. The show has further been lambasted by Peter as “a repellent programme” in one of his columns.
7. Hated: Colin
Colin the parrot from the 10th series nearly caused a major change to Have I Got News For You.
HIGNFY has seen its fair share of gimmicks. This includes the famous Rt. Hon. Tub of Lard MP replacing Labour’s Roy Hattersley after a late cancellation with the MP and tub of lard being “imbued with many of the same qualities” and series 52 seeing a £950 handbag replacing Nicky Morgan – who was keeping a low profile after an expenses disagreement with prime minister Theresa May with her alleged hypocrisy exploited by the show. Yet none is more infamous than Colin.
The panellists featured Lee Hurst and Mark Little – to age the episode, somewhat – as well as the trained parrot which would heckle Deayton. Unfortunately, the parrot only said one word: “Hello!”, near the end of the episode.
Paul even remarked the following, breaking the fourth wall: “Let me just say that it was the producer’s idea – Harry Thompson – to have this parrot on because it would be really funny… and it hasn’t said a bloody word!”
Paul has credited misfires like this for his brief departure during series 11 in which his future on the show was in doubt. Guest captains like Eddie Izzard, Clive Anderson, and Alan Davies took over after the feathery failure nearly led to a damaging change to the show.
6. Never Returning: Will Self
Will Self first appeared on Have I Got News For You in 1997 and made further appearances up to 2007 setting a record for the most appearances on the show, a record now held by Andy Hamilton.
Self was always a popular guest, with a dour, lugubrious delivery to the topical news items of the week.
After the airing of his ninth appearance, Self announced via a column in The Evening Standard that he would not be returning, only a week after Ann Widdicombe’s permanent exit (more on that later).
In particular, Self-noted that “the BBC seems to have lost its bottle so far as edgy satire is concerned: the sharpest crack I made all evening – and the one that received the most audience laughter – was cut for transmission.” He further added “The American writer Hunter Thompson once said that satire became impossible when reality itself was too twisted – and I fear that’s become the case.”
Rather than with a grudge or hostility, Self left with gentlemanly honour, composing his reasons whilst not attacking the show.
Will has not failed to get work since, continuing writing for many newspaper outlets and getting TV appearances, most notably on Shooting Stars.
5. Hated: Max Clifford
Max Clifford, publicist and media mogul, made two appearances on the show.
Clifford is best known for his style of ‘kiss and tell’ stories. He created the famous “Freddie Star Ate My Hamster” headline whilst serving the public image of clients such as Simon Cowell.
Clifford was generally a disliked figure, with his image not helped by a negative portrayal in the documentary When Louis Met… when discovered to be lying via microphone. Louis said of him: “The curious thing was that when caught out he wouldn’t come clean, and I wasn’t sure he ever would.”
In 2012, Clifford was arrested as a part of Operation Yewtree. In this, he would eventually be charged with the count of eight indecent assaults (some argue they were more likely rapes, although not charged under this claim), going on to serve a lengthy prison sentence for the crime.
The BBC gives one account, in which it becomes immediately clear that power and manipulation: “She said she was “blown away” when he told her she “could be the UK version” of Jodie Foster, and felt unable to say no when he asked her to take off her top and bra. He forced her to perform oral sex on him and indecently assaulted her.” One victim claimed: “When I think of him, he makes me shudder.”
4. Never Returning: Ann Widdicombe/Neil Kinnock
When asked about the worst hosts, both Ian and Paul picked the names of ex-MPs: the Conservatives’s Ann Widdicombe and Labour’s Neil Kinnock.
Firstly, let us start with Neil Kinnock, who had twice previously appeared as a panelist, and a good one of that, before taking the hosting chair. Paul has poured scorn over Kinnock’s hosting skills, saying “He was very mistrustful of every word. He thought it was a potential trip-up. His delivery was very slow.” On Radio Times, he elaborated: “He treated the autocue as if every word was a trap, so he was very careful”, which meant that the recording lasted about three hours. Paul added: “In a parallel universe, that show’s still being recorded.”
This hesitancy was in part due to accusations of political hypocrisy by fellow panelist Will Self after Neil accepted peerage despite years of criticising the House of Lords. Linda Smith and Paul even resorted to reading newspapers with Smith making a paper swan, saying it “could have beaten John Major”, referring to the open goal 1992 election that Labour still lost.
Meanwhile, Ann Widdicombe hosted in 2006 prior to an invite again the next year. Merton remarked: “Second time she comes on she’s telling the producer what jokes will and won’t work. She turned to me at one point and said, ‘come on, be amusing; that’s what you’re being paid for.’ It’s like, the arrogance of the woman, you know?” He actually called this “My worst experience”.
The heavily-Catholic Widdicombe also has made her thoughts heard on the matter. He second gig saw Jimmy Carr as one of the panelists. Carr’s distinct brand of comedy turned off Widdicombe, who called his material a “barrage of filth”, stating “There’s no amount of money for which I would go through those two recording hours again. At one stage I nearly walked out.”
3. Hated: Rolf Harris
In 2009 on the 39th series, the acclaimed Australia musician and presenter Rolf Harris presented an episode. Harris had become a national icon, with famous hits such as “Tie My Kangaroo Down” and “Two Little Boys” (the latter a Christmas number one in 1969) whilst also bringing bizarre Australian instruments to prominence such as the didgeridoo and wobble board. Harris had established presenting skills as shown by hosting his own TV shows, such as Animal Hospital.
Harris had also painted the Queen’s portrait for her 80th birthday a few years earlier.
Rolf said prior to his appearance: “I’ve been a fan of Have I Got News For You for many years and am very excited to be invited to sit in the hot seat – but also rather nervous, as Paul and Ian are both as sharp as a tack.”
In 2014, Harris was infiltrated in the aforementioned Operation Yewtree for indecent assault on 12 girls. Harris wrote a song about his victims calling them slimy woodworms after his brief imprisonment for just three years. He has been stripped of all honours but is still alive today aged 92.
2. Never Returning: Piers Morgan
The long-term rivalry between Ian Hislop and Piers Morgan trails back over a quarter of a century ago.
There had likely been tension between the editors of Private Eye and Daily Mirror even prior to the Have I Got News For You episode in 1996. This episode occurred in series 11, when Paul was absent from the show, with Clive Anderson taking his place as guest host.
Heated conversations started as Morgan threatened to send photographers around the personal residences of panelists. When Morgan asked Anderson “What do you know about editing newspapers”, Clive replied: “About as much as you do!”
Hislop and Morgan have been at each other’s throats since including spats over one another’s books and Piers’s sending into Room 101 by Hislop.
Very happy to state that I was the one who caused newspaper reporting and a Piers Morgan Instagram post after I posted an image lifted from the ‘No Context Have I Got News For You’ Instagram account. In response to my post, Morgan stated: “My first… and last appearance on Have I Got News For You back in 1996. Thanks for the (awful) memories.” Morgan seemed to take it well, in all fairness to the man, with his hostility with Hislop having a playful tinge even if there may be real underlying tensions.
1. Hated: Jimmy Savile
Because of course.
The Leeds-born Savile was perhaps the biggest celebrity in Britain in the 1970s. From DJing to hosting Top Of The Pops to Jim’ll Fix It, Savile earned immense fame as a public figure in his lifetime. Described by The Guardian as a “prodigious philanthropist”, Savile raised an estimated £40 million for charity in his lifetime, earning a knighthood and mixing it up with royalty, premiers, and high-profile global figures.
Yet, especially in the last few years of his life, Savile was subject to speculation about his private life with everybody – from Andrew Neil to Louis Theroux – unable to crack the enigma of the northern icon. Posthumously, the true extent of Savile’s repugnancy was revealed. Savile sexually abused perhaps upwards of 400 victims, making him one of the most prolific sex offenders in British history. Over five and a half decades, Savile used his status and authority to ruin the lives of people aged 5-75 in addition to likely necrophilia.
Thus, Savile’s 1999 appearance is made all the more creepy. Jimmy would make only cryptic answers to hide his crimes including an infamous exchange about what happens in his caravan. On the show, Savile made perhaps the remark he is most remembered for: “I’m feared in every girl’s school in this country.”
As with fellow sexual offenders captured in Operation Yewtree Rolf Harris and Max Clifford, their episodes will never be aired again.