Why Paxo won't dare host Have I Got News For You and how presenting the show is the highlight of Damian Lewis' career
01:07 GMT, 9 November 2012
Favourite programme: TV star Damian Lewis, picture on Have I Got News For You, wants to become the most-used guest host on the show
Damian Lewis is riding high with his success in the U.S.-made TV thriller Homeland, which has brought him an Emmy award and a string of other acting plaudits.
But it’s not quite enough. ‘Having achieved everything else I want in life, there’s only one ambition I have left,’ he says.
‘I want to become the most-used guest presenter on Have I Got News For You. It’s unquestionably my favourite programme. I love it, I really love it.’
Yesterday he flew home to London from North Carolina — where Homeland is filmed — to take tonight’s HIGNFY hot seat for the fifth time. However, he’s got a long way to go before he beats Alexander Armstrong’s record of 21 appearances chairing the satirical news quiz.
‘I’m sick with joy to be doing it again,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited.’
Producer Richard Wilson says: ‘Damian was a real discovery. He did his first show long before he became a big star in Homeland. I’d seen him in Band Of Brothers and thought he would be good. He was. Now we are making a pilot show for a U.S. version of HIGNFY and we’d like him to present it, but he’s contracted to another network.’
Lewis confirmed this to me this week, and dropped a hint about his future in Homeland. ‘I am signed up to Showtime, who make Homeland, for quite some time, which is daunting. But I have a sneaky suspicion I won’t be there for ever.’
As much as he enjoys sparring with regular team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, the job has its pitfalls, as Old Etonian Lewis has ruefully reported. ‘I missed David Cameron at Eton, although it didn’t stop me making jokes about him before he became Prime Minister.
‘I bumped into him on London’s Hampstead Heath, and said: “I hope you didn’t mind me making sexual references about your good self on the show.” He looked at me blankly and said: “It’s all fine.”
Then there was the time the show’s gag writers fed him a joke against cyclists. ‘I got gyp about it from my local bike shop, so I vowed next time I went on I’d make a public statement that I love cyclists and I was weak and in desperate need of a joke.’
Tough gags: Damien Lewis loves sparring with Ian Hislop, left, and Paul Merton, right, on the show
Tonight’s show is a special one, marking a decade and 178 shows with guest hosts since Angus Deayton was sacked as permanent host ten years ago.
Allegations about Deayton’s private life involving sex and drugs cost him his job, with Hislop and Merton shedding no tears as he went. ‘Angus is a dull man and his departure is no big deal,’ said Merton at the time.
But Stephen Fry called Deayton’s sacking ‘greasy, miserable, British and pathetic’, and has refused to appear on the programme since.
There are other refuseniks, too. Jeremy Paxman is regularly asked to chair the show at least once every series, but always says no. Helen Mirren is always ‘too busy’. Joanna Lumley declines. ‘I think the host’s job is done better by men,’ she says.
Jeremy Paxman has been asked to present the show numerous times – but always turned it down
‘Downton’s Dan Stevens isn’t a comic, but he did a marvellous job. Or else you have to be a good woman comedian like Sandi Toksvig, or an authoritative figure, like Ann Widdecombe.’ Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, refuses ‘because I am only an actor’. He adds: ‘I’m not sharp enough to compete with the regular panellists.’
However, most big names who accept the offer do not necessarily do it for the money — reportedly around 12,000 for half a day’s work — although Hislop and Merton are thought to earn double that for each episode. Guests do it because the show is a final endorsement of stardom, a signal they have truly arrived.
It boosted Sir Bruce Forsyth’s career and led Alexander Armstrong to his show Pointless.
Armstrong says: ‘When you first step into the studio, it’s a bit like being on the Buckingham Palace balcony. As the presenter, you’re guaranteed the funniest gags. It gives you confidence. But I wouldn’t want the job permanently.’
Sir Bruce, who was then 82 and the oldest guest host, says he had been warned Hislop and Merton would make mincemeat of him.
He says: ‘After the first five minutes the audience was like a game show crowd. It rejuvenated my BBC career.’
Hislop recalls Bruce’s chairmanship as a classic moment.
‘When he introduced a Play Your Iraqi Cards Right sequence, some people thought it was a low point on British TV — but it was incredibly funny.’ Rolf Harris also underwent a revival. After his stint, when he rocked out on the Stylophone, he was asked to perform at Glastonbury.
He says: ‘Paul and Ian are both so sharp, but I resolved not to try to compete with them, as I knew I’d come off third best. When it came to it, my nerves disappeared and they were very gentle with me.’
When Joan Collins accepted, everyone was expecting a diva, ‘but she just walked on and said: “OK, boys, tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.”,’ says producer Wilson.
Riding high: Damian Lewis, pictured with Claire Danes in Homeland has received an Emmy award and numerous other plaudits for his role in the hit series
William Shatner of Star Wars took his seat never having seen the show, not knowing who Merton or Hislop were and, as he says, ‘having no understanding of British humour, but still finding it very funny.’
Politicians including William Hague and John Prescott have hosted, cheerfully sending themselves up — in Prescott’s case he had to endure jokes about his weight and an extra-marital affair, raising the biggest laugh when he struggled to pronounce the word vasectomy.
Novelist Will Self, though, took himself seriously enough to complain publicly because his best joke had been cut out, and he has never been invited back.
HIGNFY had been going since 1990, with Deayton as host for every show until his fall from grace in 2002. Guest hosts after that invigorated a format that was beginning to look tired.
The rejuvenation began with The Weakest Link presenter Anne Robinson. ‘The gag writers were all men and it took a while for me to convince them I could say all manner of insulting lines about other women that guys couldn’t possibly get away with,’ she says.
‘I also had the chance to pay back Paul Merton for saying in an earlier show my crooked face made me look as if I’d had a stroke. It does, but that’s beside the point.’
Actor Brian Blessed’s chairmanship resulted in near chaos with half the set being damaged. He recalls being ‘so full of adrenaline I deliberately got their names wrong and made a mess of the scoring’.
He adds: ‘In the unedited version, I said f*** 30 times and s*** another 30 and I poured water over my head to cool down. Ian and Paul were incredibly sympathetic, and realised I was larger than life and would find a way to delightfully spoil the programme.’
Ann Widdecombe says: ‘They have you rehearsing all day and can make you funny. Ian and Paul can be cruel but it’s not permanently wounding. It is comedy, and uncomfortable, but they do not set out to destroy people.’
Sir Trevor McDonald remembers his time in the hot seat as ‘the funniest day of my life’.
And least sporting of all was celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who promised to buy the panellists and crew dinner at his restaurant at Claridge’s if he failed to read the script on the auto-cue correctly. He stumbled over his words, but the dinner never materialised.
Wilson says Deayton is still annoyed about his departure.
‘I don’t imagine he would want to do even a guest appearance if he was asked, which he won’t be.’
Not that Hislop, for one, is bothered. He’s said he’s a great admirer of Damian Lewis, though.
‘He’s great. I find him irresistible. I’d choose him to play me if ever there was a film of my life —although I’m sure the part would end up going to Toby Stephens.’
Damian Lewis presents Have I Got News For You on BBC1 at 9pm tonight.