‘Wow, that’s brave,’ said John Kampfner, the former editor of the New Statesman. ‘I’d never do that.’ I had just told him I’d agreed to be on Have I Got News for You and, as soon as he said this, I began to have second thoughts.
‘Oh Christ. D’you think I’ve made a terrible mistake?’
‘It depends how quick-witted you are,’ he said.
He was right — and the truth is I’m not that quick on my feet. For instance, when I appeared on Question Time in 2005 I had to field one of those dreadful ‘funny’ questions at the end and completely fluffed it. The exchange went like this:
Audience member: If the two contenders for the Tory leadership were animals, what animals would they be?
David Dimbleby: OK, have we got any wits on the panel? Who’s got a quick answer? Toby Young?
Me: Er, two velociraptors disguised as teddy bears?
I have not been asked back since. In the run-up to my appearance on HIGNFY, I became so nervous that I asked Lloyd Evans — the Spectator’s drama critic — if he could come up with any topical jokes I might be able to steal. He suggested emailing one of the writers on the show — a man he vaguely knew — to see if he’d be willing to sell me any of the jokes he’d written for that week’s show which the producers had rejected.
‘Brilliant,’ I said. ‘Send him an email.’ The following day, Lloyd forwarded me his reply:
‘Nice to hear from you. I have indeed written for this week’s show, so it would be tricky to sell him the second-rate gags that have already been rejected! I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with guests employing people to work with them on material for the show — but I think it might actually be a bit weird for it to be one of the show’s writers.