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The Mystery of The Disappearing Hislop


Continuing our series of articles by the much-loved TCW writer Nick Booth, who died in September. It was first published on April 9, 2021. You can read Kathy’s introduction here.

THIS week on Disappearing Britain we examine the case of Ian Hislop, the cheeky chappie who disappeared from our screens to be replaced by a clone.

Comedy fans are asking: How did this happen? Who was behind it? Has the real Ian Hislop gone on the Witless Protection Programme?

There are many wild theories about the disappearing satirist. Some say he was a time traveller. What else would account for his sudden materialisation as the editor of Private Eye in 1986, usurping contenders who’d spent years anticipating their chances? How else did he get access to an 18th century tailor?

But the time-traveller theory doesn’t explain everything. If Hislop has moved on, who left behind the unconvincing copy that now occupies his space?

There is another school of thought, described in the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatcherswhich some say was a plan of action.

In the story (or is it a documentary?) members of the community are systematically replaced by humourless duplicates. The alien invaders’ method of replication involves hiding a pod next to the target and waiting for the target to fall asleep.

Hiding a pod under Hislop’s desk would have been the work of a moment, and Private Eye’s editorial team hold a boozy lunch once every two weeks.

These are just theories. But why speculate? The facts about Hislop’s Damascene conversion are dramatic enough.

As the editor of Private Eye and host of the BBC TV show Have I Got News For You, Ian Hislop was admired for his intelligence and loved for his independent spirit. He was hilarious, too – and in those days a sense of humour was considered an advantage in comedy.

His integrity made Private Eye one of the few news sources people trusted. Even if you didn’t like what he said you paid attention. So his critiques of the EU were a powerful influence.

As this 2003 clip shows, Hislop was once an outspoken critic of the corruption of the EU project. Note how he demolishes a comic for using the cheap and nasty ploy of smearing Eurosceptics as racists.

People loved Hislop because he articulated their own suspicions.

However, independence is incompatible with the political union created at the EU-lobbied BBC, and there was pressure on all comedians to adapt their material to the Single Joke Market.

People sensed a change in our hero. Hislop was no longer the playful fellow who took the mickey out of everyone. He appeared to have suppressed his hallmark scepticism to gain his rubber stamp from the Jestapo. He even stopped poking fun at drunken, corrupt and xenophobic EU commissioners.

He started to look compliant and aligned with other EU-approved comedy clones. The new Hisbot had less humility and seemed more sanctimonious and smug. Seeing this, one lorry driver kicked in his TV set in anger. ‘If that’s Ian Hislop, I’m a banana,’ he told reporters.

Worse still, Hislop seemed to have submitted to peer pressure, which was not like him at all. Suddenly every EU-themed cartoon in Private Eye was based on the myth that most British people are racists. This is the very same base tactic he used to oppose.

Hislop’s ‘golden shower’ jokes about the US president were a case in point. The genesis of these stories was a smear campaign arising from US party politics. These fake news items were ripe cheeses, processed by a fromagier moonlighting from his day job in the FBI, packaged by unpaid interns and distributed by political fanatics. The original Hislop wouldn’t have chosen sides in such an undignified squabble. The HisPod did, however, and spent four years repeating ‘golden shower’ smears.

There is another theory. Hislop has not been abducted by aliens. He’s just very weary and stuck in his ways.

Many of his anti-Brexit jokes are variations on the ‘Bloody Woks’ sketch performed by Tracey Ullman in Three of a Kind in 1984.

When Ullman set up a routine with the words ‘they come over here and take our food’ and ended with the punchline ‘bloody Woks’, that was cutting-edge social comment. Thirty-seven years later, it’s a bit tired.

Society moved on. Hislop didn’t.

The other foundation for his ‘British people are racist’ trope is a sketch written in 1977.

The Monty Python sketch ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ was brilliant in its time. Forty-four years and a billion repetitions later, its satirical edge has long been blunted. Yet Hislop will repeat the grizzled catchphrase every single time the EU is mentioned. He shoehorns it in like a man who has only a hammer and is desperate to see everything as a nail. To misquote from Life of Brian: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very haughty boy’.

Will the mystery of the disappearing Hislop ever be solved? Probably not. We should remember how brilliant he was in his prime. Though it would be nice if he’d stop endlessly shouting racist when he’s lost for a gag.

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Nick Booth
Nick Booth
Nick Booth is a freelance writer.

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