BBC1 is airing two of the UK's most popular panel shows back-to-back every Friday night, but how well are these formats coping with the strains put under them?
The evening begins with deception-based panel show Would I Lie To You? Now in its sixth series, WILTY remains fresh enough to stake a claim as the funniest panel show on TV. This is probably because it's more of a parlour gameshow than most others in the genre—which are often quiz-based because it's easier to attach scripted jokes to that format. WILTY's more like Call My Bluff, only with humorous anecdotes replacing esoteric words. Two teams of three celebrities tell each other personal stories (sometimes with the aid of props) in order to trick the opposing side into thinking the yarn is gospel truth or a barefaced lie. More often than not, this makes for a highly amusing half-hour of trickery and repartee.
It helps that the team captains are perfect in their roles, each bringing a specific style of humour to proceedings: David Mitchell's logical dissection of someone's story can sometimes get wearisome, but usually it's a delight to see him analyse things with such comical scrutiny; while opponent Lee Mack plays looser with the rules and manages to create a feeling of uncertainty because he adopts a level of ineptness in his truth-telling that might sometimes be a double-bluff. There's also comedy mined from how middle-class southerner Mitchell and working class northerner Mack (now that's a double-act name, Robert Webb!) are from different backgrounds and upbringings.
The only problem facing WILTY is that, as time goes on, you wonder if Mitchell and Mack will run out of stories that are sufficiently funny/bizarre enough to work. Not that the show relies on their stories alone, but I hope they each have good anecdotes left to squeeze out before everything they say becomes a lie because they've exhausted the truth. This is a problem that doesn't affect the rotation of guests, thankfully.
Fridays, 8.30PM, BBC1
Immediately after WILTY comes BBC stalwart Have I Got News For You? (arguably the panel show that started the country's love affair with this genre). Now in its 43rd series, amazingly, little has changed since the show was forced to ditch scandal-hit Angus Deayton as host (ironically WILTY's original presenter) for the successful but problematic "guest host" format. The thinking is that HIGNFY is kept fresh by having different celebs hosting the show every week, Saturday Night Live-style, and that's true to an extent—but it also means you have boring "safe pair of hands" episodes (here Stephen Mangan, usually Alexander Armstrong) more than the truly memorable hosts (like Boris Johnson or Bruce Forsythe). It also irritates me that the show still keeps in the "mistakes" a guest hosts make during the live recording, as if it's still a novelty having a "non-professional" sitting in the hot-seat and a fluffing a line or two. Isn't this the accepted format of the show now? Why are the still showing us what amounts to bloopers in the show itself?
HIGNFY is still incredibly popular and remains an entertaining watch, but I find myself wishing it would be overhauled. Ian Hislop and Paul Merton have been team captains for so long their shtick is fairly predictable, especially in the latter's case with his surreal meanderings. But more worrying than that, if we're honest HIGNFY is a much less perceptive satirical show than its reputation has us believe. If you note the type of jokes that are made off-the-cuff, or the writers have scripted for the guest host to read off the autocue, the majority of them are silly jibes about a particular famous person's public persona or physical looks. (Politician Eric Pickles is a particular target these days, just because he's fat. I guess Pickles is John Prescott's replacement because they've had the former Deputy PM on the show and now we know he's actually a straight-thinking and amusing man.)
Obviously not every joke can be a vividly perceptive gem that tackles the hot issues of the day in a fresh way, but I get the feeling that HIGNFY has less and less to say of real merit these days. It's like everyone who appears on it just follows the pattern they've seen play out hundreds of times, afraid or just unable to take the show down a different path. Why not alter some of the rounds, ditch some of the weaker ones, or bring in a few new ideas? For instance, why is there still a "guest publication" in the Missing Words round? Wasn't that a one-series joke that never got retired? Its weekly inclusion just removes the opportunity for a politically-based joke when the missing word has something to do with a niche topic like raisins instead of something topical and of public interest.
It just feels like HIGNFY could do with a facelift, because it's been around for so long that viewers find it comforting (some people have never known a world without HIGNFY, remember!), and treat it with a reverence it perhaps doesn't deserve anymore. It probably helps that there's no admirable challenger out there, with Channel 4's disappointing The 10 O'Clock Show and Adrian Chiles' The Sunday Show its closest competitors. In comparison to both, HIGNFY remains genius.