How Frankie Boyle’s departure turned Mock the Week into a corporate conference

Michael Hogan
Photograph: BBC/Angst Productions

Fourteen interminable, increasingly lol-lite years. That is how long Mock the Week has been serving up tepid topical gags to an indifferent viewership who nowadays get their news-based laughs elsewhere. Frequently, let’s face it, from the actual news. When “MTW” – as literally nobody calls it except the publicity material – debuted on BBC Two, Tony Blair was PM, Sven-Göran Eriksson was England manager and a Crazy Frog was top of the charts.

The newsy panel game’s “classic” lineup was Dara Ó Briain in the host’s chair, where he remains today, like a chortling thumb in a Jacamo blazer. On the left-hand team: Frankie Boyle, Hugh Dennis and a guest comic. On the right-hand team: Russell Howard, Andy Parsons and another guest comic, often the token woman at this satirical sausage fest.

Boyle was its MVP, providing a counterpoint to the perkier panellists with his blistering rants, savage attacks on celebrities, gasp-inducing gags and bleakly bitter worldview. Fatally for the show, though, its dark heart bailed in 2009 after two lines – deadpanning that swimmer Rebecca Adlington resembled “someone looking at themselves in the back of a spoon” and saying something extremely rude about the Queen – caused a pearl-clutching Daily Mail kerfuffle.

He has since criticised the show’s producers for ducking hard-hitting topics and diluting risque material for fear of “frightening the horses”. Jo Brand and Rory Bremner have also broken rank to lament the show’s blokey bearpit atmosphere, while Ross Noble has publicly claimed the quips are pre-scripted.

Without its scary Scottish uncle to keep it on its toes, the series lost its edge. Puppyish West Country whimsy-pedlar Russell Howard jumped ship the following year. Even stalwart Parsons departed. Which leaves Mary Whitehouse Experience veteran Hugh Dennis – who’s been getting sympathetic “at least you tried, love” titters on Radio 4 since some time around the iron age – and Ó Briain as the only ever-presents. Two besuited middle-aged dads, desperately trying to keep the angry young dream alive, despite their greying temples and impending Ocado deliveries.

Mock the Week has become a backslappy corporate conference. Cosy old eps are in constant rotation on Bantz FM, AKA the Dave channel. Even the theme tune, News of the World by the Jam, sounds knackered, what with being four decades old and named after a phone-tapping tabloid that went to the great recycling bin in the sky eight years ago. Current regulars such as Milton Jones, Stewart Francis, Gary Delaney and the two Eds (Byrne and Gamble) are solid standups but favour punning one-liners and surreal riffs over righteous fury. Wearyingly obvious pub-level jokes have become the default setting. Boris is posh! Trump’s got shit hair! So has Boris! Brexit, eh lads?

Fourteen years and 200-odd episodes in, Mock the Week has all the satirical bite of a gummy turtle hatchling. The only thing it’s making a mockery of is itself. Stop the Week, more like.