HIGNFY via video chat: a dinner party without the food
22 April

Jimmy Mulville discusses how Hat Trick is learning a new grammar for BBC One's flagship topical quiz. When the BBC gave the government a list of its essential programming, Have I Got News for You was one of the shows on it.

The team behind Hat Tricks topical quiz then threw themselves into figuring out how to bring the 59th series of the BBC1 panel show, usually filmed in front of a crowd of 400, to life.

Hat Trick managing director Jimmy Mulville likens the tone the show has had to employ under lockdown to a dinner party without the food.

It has, he says, been an interesting technical and editorial challenge. Like any kind of challenge, the blood pressure is up and adrenaline is kicking in, people are working their arses off and holding their breath thinking: Is this going to work?. Its like making a new show.

Steph McGovern proved a fortuitous booking as host for the first episode in the run a fortnight ago, says Mulville.

Having familiarised herself with the process of filming in isolating after a week fronting her new Channel 4 daytime show in her home, she was one of the presenters best positioned to steer a five-way chat over video link and deliver half an hour of what could still comfortably considered a topical panel show.

That first episode on 3 April was watched by a consolidated audience of 5.5m (21.9%), Have I Got News for Yous best performance in almost four years. The second, brought forward to 8.30pm, also outperformed the slot average with 3.8m viewers.

The audience has stayed pretty faithful and we had a great review in The Telegraph, says Mulville. There will be a bunch of people who dont like this version and prefer it with the audience - and I completely understand that.
For those who may have complaints about the show, the picture quality may not be one. The producers enlisted the help of digital producer Electric Robin, which went into the homes of panellists Paul Merton and Ian Hislop just before lockdown was announced, equipping rooms with a rigged high-quality camera and boom mics.

The company is employing the same set-up, while adhering to the rules of social distancing, with the series weekly rotation of guest hosts.

To account for increased editing time the shows timelines have been rejigged. The show is filmed on a Wednesday and edited until Friday lunchtime.

With five separate shots edited together, Mulville explains that theres alchemy involved in giving the show ensuring the programmes visual vocabulary isnt jarring.

We watch a couple of edits and then the BBC watches an edit - its a more intensive process, he acknowledges. Its taken just as many people to make the show, its just that were not doing it in the studio.

Three episodes in, the team, headed by executive producer Richard Wilson, continues to finesse the format, making small tweaks to tighten it up and creating a new editing grammar.

An early edit of the second show, fronted by Stephen Mangan, appeared to be slower than usual. Having the camera trained on a guest to get their reaction to a joke - a tool normally used to absorb audience laughter - slowed the programme down in this version.

We went back through and cut out all those little pauses and when it went on telly, it moved a lot quicker, says Mulville. Week in and week out, we are learning about how to improve both the technical and editorial offering.

Within this new way of working keeping pacing is paramount. Where the audience usually gives the show its rhythm without them, right now this responsibility falls to the host.
The shows writers have had to take a different, more low-key approach to joke writing. The clip-based gags at the top of the show have been dropped in favour of the host simply asking how the panellists have been.

The writers are learning to adjust the material to be slightly more throwaway, maybe not looking so much for a big laugh anymore, explains Mulville. Instead, you make the conversations as witty, as trenchant and as quickfire as possible.

The lockdown is the biggest fundamental change to the 30-year-old show since the departure of original host Angus Deayton in 2002 when, Mulville recalls, we were in a crisis for at least two weeks when we were dancing on the edge a bit.

But just as that crisis spawned a new format tweak in the shape of rotating hosts, so Mulville is optimistic about the potential lessons that come from lockdown production.
Sometimes with enforced changes, there are unexpected silver linings. It may not be totally compensatory but there are always positives in these crises, he continues.

We have learned more about our show by pulling it through the wringer like this. When we go back to doing this with the audience, I'm sure there will be lessons to learn.