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21 October 2022

Have I Got News For You creator: “Being good on telly is not necessarily a good CV for being prime minister”

Jimmy Mulville, co-founder of Hat Trick Productions, wants no credit for Boris Johnson’s career but wouldn’t have him back on the show.

By William Turvill

Jimmy Mulville is running 15 minutes late. This gives me ample opportunity to inspect the workplace of a man who has helped to shape British television over the past 36 years.

Mulville, the co-founder and managing director of Hat Trick Productions, works from a spacious office perched above Regent’s Canal in Camden, north London. The walls are lined with more than a dozen frames containing souvenirs from his storied career. There are celebrity photographs, inspirational quotes, a showreel, cartoons and press clippings.

Beside the door is a lined whiteboard detailing 30 shows that are in various stages of development for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Disney+. “That’s the inside of my head there,” says Mulville, a Liverpudlian with a watered-down lilt, as he strides into the room accompanied by his two dogs – Manny, a French bulldog, and Sunny, a beagle. 

Mulville, 67, has made his fortune and he surely could have retired by now, but he retains a palpable passion for his work. “Being in a room with somebody, convincing them of the brilliance and efficacy of your idea and then watching their eyes twinkle as they start to agree with you is a fantastic feeling,” he says. “Of course, then you leave the room having got the commission. Going down in the lift, your heart sinks, thinking: Oh, shit. I’ve got to go and make this fucking thing now.” 

Hat Trick, founded in 1986, has produced hits including Father Ted, Outnumbered, Derry Girls and, perhaps most notably, Have I Got News For You. As our conversation turns to the BBC’s hit Friday night news-comedy show, I learn that there is one British phenomenon for which Mulville would like to take no credit: Boris Johnson.

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In the mid-Noughties, as a backbench MP and editor of the Spectator, Johnson was regularly invited to appear on Have I Got News For You. I ask Mulville whether he feels the programme provided a launchpad for Johnson’s political career. “I know someone wrote that a while ago,” he says. “And like all things that are written, they can become part of the narrative. But the truth is that we’ve had lots of politicians on who haven’t become prime minister.” 

But, he adds, “I wouldn’t have Boris Johnson back on the show.” Mulville says he regrets having Alastair Campbell, the New Labour spin doctor, on in 2012 because he felt it gave him an opportunity to laugh off criticism from his time in Downing Street. “That’s how they rehabilitate themselves,” Mulville says. “They come on television programmes and they look like they’re just good blokes.” 

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Mulville, a father of four who lives with his wife in South Kensington, west London, grew up in a working-class household and went on to study French and classics at Cambridge. His “boyhood dream” was to become an actor. While in recovery from alcoholism and cocaine abuse in the late 1980s he gave up his dream to focus on Hat Trick. The company has had ups and downs, but it’s ultimately proven a success. Mulville has dozens of employees and the company made revenues of £17m last year.

Hat Trick today makes quiz shows, crime dramas and dating programmes, but it remains best known for comedy. Mulville, who started out his professional life as a comic, keeps his finger on the pulse of the UK’s comedy scene and made it to 16 shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The last time we spoke, about two years ago, Mulville expressed concerns about political correctness and “cancel culture” stifling comedy on TV. Today he reels off instances of the BBC getting squeamish about something on Have I Got News For You.

“It’s not the entertainment executives, it’s the editorial policy unit at the BBC,” he says, “who live in the shadows and issue these edicts, which are f***ing ridiculous.” Mulville shares tales of jokes about Abu Hamza’s hook being labelled “disabilist”, requests for the programme, which is tied to the news, not to mention Prince Philip on the eve of his funeral, and a 2009 analysis that found the programme had more jokes about Gordon Brown than David Cameron. Mulville explained that it tends to “attack the people in power more than people in opposition… But I said: ‘Don’t worry. In May, when Gordon Brown’s kicked out, which of course he will be, we’ll be having a go at the Tory tosser more than whoever is in the Labour seat.’” 

Have I Got News For You doesn’t appear to be at risk. Mulville says the BBC recently agreed a new three-year deal for the show, which he says still regularly attracts 3.5 million Friday night viewers. He also says the BBC took no issue with a recent Boris Johnson special, which angered the Mail on Sunday and some Tories. “I got some nice emails from the BBC, saying: ‘Really, really good show.’”

However, Mulville is worried the BBC does in general appear to be “running scared of the Tory party. And, to be honest, the BBC have every right to be. If someone’s planning to attack you, fear is a very healthy reaction.” He believes the Tory party is currently made up of a “vindictive bunch” and he is concerned by proposals for changes to the BBC’s funding model. “They think the BBC is run by communists. Well, let me tell you, it’s not… But they see it as some kind of war. Some kind of culture war. So, I think that [the BBC is] right to be anxious about it.”

As for the Labour alternative, in Mulville’s professional opinion, Keir Starmer would make for duller content on Have I Got News For You – “he’s beginning to own this thing about not being very interesting”. But, he adds, “I hope we’re going into a period where we’ve realised – we’ve come to our senses – that being on the telly all the time, and being good on telly, is not necessarily a good CV for being a great prime minister.”

[See also: The last thing Tories like me want is cuts to BBC World Service]

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