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26 October 2022

Why the political panel show is dead

Controversy-ridden Mock the Week is the latest show to bite the dust – is it any wonder when politics is already a joke?

By Ellys Woodhouse

Last week I attended the final recording of the satirical BBC panel show Mock the Week. There was a 100-person queue when I arrived but, despite the affection people clearly still have for it, the BBC had announced in August that it would be cancelled. When the programme was first broadcast in 2005, the landscapes of politics and television were unrecognisable compared with today. There were no streaming services; YouTube had only just been launched; terrestrial TV was populated with panel shows such as Have I Got News for You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and 8 Out of 10 Cats. Now only Have I Got News for You has survived in the same format as it was first broadcast in – the BBC political panel show Mash Report, for example, was cancelled last year.

Mock the Week‘s host Dara Ó Briain, and the last night’s male panellists Hugh Dennis, Rhys James and Alasdair Beckett-King were all wearing tuxedos to celebrate the final show – but ended up looking like they were attending its funeral. There was hope among the audience that past star panellists might make one last appearance. The show put regular comedians like Russell Howard, Ed Gamble and Rob Beckett into the public eye. It also struggled to erase the reputation afforded by some of its guests even after they departed, in particular Frankie Boyle, whose regular appearances in 2005-09 marred the show. The “Frankie years” were filled with controversies, including a joke about Queen Elizabeth and an insult to the way an Olympic athlete’s looked.

Mock the Week has also been reluctant to adapt to calls for diversity. A 2014 injunction may have disallowed BBC panel shows from having all-male line-ups, but the show was still dominated by white male contestants. At the final recording, two women (Angela Barnes and Zoe Lyons), and one person of colour (Ahir Shah) appeared – but previous female guests Jo Brand and Katherine Ryan have since revealed they stopped appearing due to the unequal opportunities for the women and the aggressive, bullish culture among the panellists.

The show used to provide a platform for quick reactions and reflection on the week’s news stories, but in the current political turmoil the news cycle moves too quickly. Barnes joked that on her first appearance on the show, the big story of the week was David Cameron’s inability to get phone signal while on holiday in Cornwall. When the final show was being recorded on Wednesday (19 October), Ó Briain announced, “At the time of recording Liz Truss is prime minister.” This was already out of date by the following afternoon, before the show was broadcast on Friday evening.

Perhaps this is the true reason for Mock the Week’s untimely end. Today’s popular TV comedies are strikingly apolitical, timeless and, most importantly, “silly”. This has led to the rise of the game show Taskmaster, Richard Osman’s House of Games, the panel show Hypothetical on the channel Dave, and the celebrity-filled Mel Giedroyc: Unforgivable. As the news becomes more absurd and our government becomes the joke, it would appear audiences can no longer laugh along with it.

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

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