Tune in, switch off - Don't mess with a classic

8th May 2009 at 01:00

Back for its 37th series, Have I got News for You is reassuringly familiar. There were three great jokes - two visual and one verbal - in this first episode hosted by Frank Skinner.

First, our dear Prime Minister (that's dear in the monetary sense) was shown grinning inanely on YouTube. It reminded me that just because you can see the tiger's teeth, it doesn't mean it's smiling at you.

Next he's following President Obama into Number 10. The President graciously shakes hands with the policeman guarding the entrance. Well the guy's there to single-handedly prevent terrorists from breaking down the door. He deserves a break. And he's a London tourist attraction after all. Mr Brown copies the Obama gesture, policeman holds out his hand, and the PM changes his mind at the last minute and goes inside. The timing is perfect Chaplin. Or should that be Mr Bean? It's definitely a clip for citizenship classes.

Best of all is Mr Brown's public apology for the Damian McBride email affair: "I take full responsibility for what happened; that's why the person responsible went immediately." Just run that past me again. With this logic I can stop sweating about the GCSE results this summer. "Yes, governors, I take full responsibility for what has happened and have sacked the teachers responsible." No more sleepless nights for me.

However, the show also illustrates that revamping a format that works is totally unnecessary.

I can remember the mesmerisingly mirth-inducing programme The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin starring Leonard Rossiter and weep that David Nobbs and Simon Nye have wasted their talent on a remake.

Instead of enjoying the comedy, I was furious about the alterations. Now I know why classes, especially exam groups, get so wound up about teacher changes.

In the original, Rossiter's Reggie, reminiscent of H.G. Wells' Mr Polly, flees his job at Sunshine Desserts where life is dull, in search of new experiences. "What shall I call myself?" he muses as he walks, a free man at last, down country lanes. "I know, the first thing I see when I look over this wall. Colin ... Colin ... Cowpat." So simple and so memorable. I saw it 30 years ago and still haven't forgotten.

The new Reggie, Martin Clunes, no longer works at Sunshine Desserts, but at a disposable razor company. It would be the equivalent of Steptoe and Son as removals men instead of rag-and-bone dealers. And we all know the running joke about the whoopee cushion on the seat in the boss's office that featured in the original. Gone. How dare they? The optical illusion of big and little chairs misses the auditory gag. Even Mr Brown could have told them that.

As for the audience, either the responses were canned and someone forgot to turn the volume down, or they'd been drugged with laughing gas. Pure cowpat.

Genius is another make-over from Radio 4. It was a switch-off then and is now. Members of the public offer zany inventions for comment, and this week Germaine Greer offers the feedback. Onion juice and women-only voting rights were the highlights, that's how bad it was. My Year 9s on an enterprise day this week came up with better: expanding shoes and a mobile telephone glove.

Memo to BBC bosses: "Take responsibility for these failed revamps and fire those responsible."

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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