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It’s time for radio comedy to have more trust, more risk and a lot more fun

Miles Jupp
Miles Jupp Credit: Jeff Gilbert

What now for radio comedy? I can’t believe it’s already been four years since Miles Jupp took over from Sandi Toksvig as host of The News Quiz (Friday, Radio 4), but times are changing – last week Jupp announced that he’s moving on. Maybe it’s because Toksvig did that same job for almost a decade and Nicholas Parsons has hosted Just a Minute for 52 years, but Jupp’s time in the radio comedy sun feels brief as a mayfly’s.

Jupp has been an impeccable News Quiz host: affable, funny, and with the appropriate sense of general bewilderment at the week’s news, whatever it happens to be. When he got the job, some people grumbled about diversity levels because he was a middle-class white man taking over from a woman, but those criticisms proved short-sighted. Under Jupp’s stewardship, the show has actually become more diverse than I can ever remember, with a much broader range of accents and class perspectives on the panel than before, and much of the show’s writing team is now female. There are more ways to fix a diversity problem than parachuting in a host as a box-ticking exercise.  

Plenty of comedians will be eyeing up the host’s chair, and probably any of the regulars would do a good job. I’ve enjoyed contributions from Frankie Boyle, London Hughes and Elis James, in particular. But, after 99 series (yes, really), it’s a good moment to ask where The News Quiz is going next.

This is because, despite the addition of different voices, the show feels tired and stiff at times. The jokes are often so painstakingly, obviously pre-written that the guests might as well remark “it says here” after they finish reading each one off a card. Whatever happens next to The News Quiz, I hope it learns to loosen up and forget some of the choreography. 

Jeremy Hardy Credit: Getty

There was proof that The News Quiz used to be a lot more elastic in the excellent first episode of When Jeremy Hardy Spoke to the Nation (Thursday, Radio 4), a tribute to the wonderful late comedian, broadcaster and sparkling News Quiz regular who died of cancer in February this year at the age of 57.

It somehow feels much too soon for such a tribute. Can he really be gone? I still haven’t accepted it: Hardy livened up every radio show he was on, as well as leading his own programmes with wit and passion. This series isn’t a straightforward biography, but more of a pick ’n’ mix review of his memorable moments assembled by his colleagues. It’s presented by his friend Sandi Toksvig, at whose wedding he heckled at the height of the ceremony by calling out, “It should have been me!”

Clips of Hardy on Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The News Quiz in full, quick-witted flight, singing horrifically or delivering exquisitely elaborate rants that always ended up somewhere completely unexpected, were joyous. Hardy’s political views were always clear from the moment he opened his mouth, but it never seemed to matter whether you agreed with him or not; his comedy was so clever, self-deprecating and freewheeling. And, as Toksvig said, in the days when Hardy was a News Quiz regular along with Alan Coren and the late Linda Smith, the show was like a big, squabbling family every week. 

Comedian Phil Wang

Those days are sadly gone, but what of the next generation of British radio comedy? On Sunday night, I tuned to Phil Wang: Wangsplaining (Radio 4) to find out. It turned out to be a fresh and funny pilot from the young British-Malaysian comedian, which was half an hour of stand-up in the form of an upbeat lecture on British colonialism. 

Wang’s father is Malaysian and his mother is from Stoke-on-Trent (“a dark corner of the Empire”, according to Wang), and his thesis was a more positive take on some aspects of Empire than the one we often hear. His family witnessed the British Empire bringing free healthcare and education – and the music of Cliff Richard – to communities in Borneo that previously didn’t have those things.

Wang acknowledged the Empire’s atrocities, but also the fact that it brought his parents together, and therefore gave him his life. There were a lot of thoughtful ideas and some good jokes, and I hope it gets a full series with more space to develop. What radio comedy needs now is a bit of trust, a bit of risk, and a lot more fun.