Janet Street-Porter has a potty mouth. Her verdict on the Leaders Debate?
“Too much fucking testosterone. May as well just have been done with it and had the three blokes just slap their cocks on the table.”
Dimbleby raised a wry smile. The audience chuckled. There were two minutes left before we went live. The naughty schoolboy in me willed her to say that again on air. But you knew she wouldn’t – it was just a Ferguson style mind-game to knock the politicians thoughts before the first questions. The lights dimmed, the cameraman counted down from five with his fingers Ted Rogers style. Dimbleby put on his serious face; “That’s it. The three debates are over. Tonight Question Time is live from the University of Birmingham….”. The music kicked in.
I knew that Question Time was coming to Brum a few weeks ago. Getting in the audience is something of a fixed lottery. You fill in a form on the BBC Website, and have to confess your age, ethnicity and political leanings. To decide which applicants to invite they want to make the audience reflect what the BBC see as a representative cross-section of Britain. I’d taken a phone call a week before, the researcher wanted to check I was telling no porkies – yes I’m in my thirties, yes I am a Conservative. So far, so good, then the conversation got a bit sticky. “Are you an actual member?”. I confirmed I was. “How active?”. I could see I might get squeezed out here if not careful. “Active”. I replied, adding; “Sometimes delivering leaflets kind of active”. I didn’t say that as I was speaking to him on my mobile, he had interrupted me on a doorstep actually pushing a Tory leaflet through a letterbox. He paused. You could sense his mind whirring that I might somehow be ‘too risky’ and that anyone who is properly politically active nowadays is far too freaky to qualify as a component of a ‘typical cross-section of the community’. I filled the silence: “Look, I promise I’m not a councillor or candidate” (which is truthful, though I suppose not declaring I was an Agent could be a lie by omission if you’re being harsh) . He paused again – it was 50/50 but with a sigh he decided to go with me. I was in.
It was a long night. Because QT this week was essentially the first public reaction to the leaders debate immediately preceding it (same venue, same presenter) for security reasons we had to be there early. We were all basically prisoners of the BBC from 6pm through to just before midnight.
First off we were put in a University gymnasium for sandwiches and tea while they tried to gather questions. It was quite socially awkward. Most people were there on their own – the people keenest to speak and introduce themselves were the kind of political bores that can empty a room at a party. Keen to avoid an argument with a socialist I chose a quieter looking table and made small talk about anything but politics.
Eventually, a producer came in and gave a briefing. All common sense stuff – if you want to speak keep your hand up. If you put it down at any point David will assume you no longer want to comment. If you do speak remember to put your hand down again when you start. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your mother and four million strangers to hear you saying. That kind of stuff.
We were then ushered into the actual studio (in another University gym). The keen beans had rushed to the front and got the best seats. Being the polite chap I am I ended up towards the back near the end of a row. They had a brief rehearsal where they got folk from the audience to pretend they were in the panel to check the sound and camera angles. One observation is that every single person who went on the rehearsal panel was later ‘called on’ during the live program. So if you ever go to one and are desperate to get on telly do volunteer at the rehearsal stage!
They wheeled out the big screen and we watched the leaders debate (actually taking place only a couple of hundred yards from us) on the BBC feed. It was OK watching it cinema style – and the audience was quite lively with their heckles and giggles. I couldn’t help but feel it would have been more fun with some booze though. For me personally, interesting though the communal viewing was it wasn’t as good as my watching it with Sky the week before.
Once that was all over we had about half an hour before the program. I chatted to the chap next to me who proclaimed that he couldn’t stand Cameron and was tilting to the Lib Dems. I made the mistake of sharing I thought their views on the Euro and the immigration amnesty were bonkers. I then got chapter and verse of the logic for the amnesty thrown back at me. I don’t know why folk assume that if you don’t agree with something it must only be because you don’t understand it. I fully accept that you can put together a coherent argument for an amnesty and I understand that argument. I just fundamentally don’t agree with it. This bloke, who rather strangely told me he was really an anarchist, seemed so chuffed at being able to articulate it that he couldn’t seem to grasp that I still didn’t agree and tried to explain it to me again. I get it. I get it. I get it. It is still bonkers.
Dimbleby arrived with ten minutes to go. He walked in imperious, to loud applause, having just done what must have been one of the most prestigious gigs of his career. He seemed unruffled about now having to do a live Question Time with next to no prep. He played down the leaders debate saying he was just a glorified timekeeper and Question Time was the one he was looking forward to this evening. The fibber. He has the same aura in the flesh that has does on screen – the job he does is a difficult one and he does it superbly. He remains a national treasure.
They pulled on the panel. Other than Street-Porter it was A-list stuff. We had Liam Fox, Vince Cable and Ed Balls representing the main parties – with Alec Salmond taking up the fifth place. I’ve little time for Salmond but I will give him credit for the quip of the night. When asked if his taking the BBC to court to get in on the leaders debate was ‘just a cheap publicity stunt’ he shot back deadpan; “I can assure you it was not cheap”.
The show itself, although an hour long, flew by. I had wanted to get in on a couple of points but never got called. The supposed anarchist Lib Dem sympathiser next to me had his hand up for the entire hour without any luck. For me the moment of the show was Ed Balls response to Liam Fox’s charge that “Labour keep saying we’ll take £6bn out of the economy, they confuse the government with the economy”.
Balls shook his head; “Cameron keeps saying that. I just don’t understand it. What does it mean? ‘The government is different from the economy’? Can anyone explain it?”. No Ed. That you do not understand that money taken OUT of the real economy(the cashflow of companies and individuals) through taxation to be spent on the faux economy of State excess is obvious to everyone in the UK. It’s why we are in the mess we are in.
It is frustrating not getting your moment of glory, particularly when some of the people who did get called seemed to have no coherent thread but just wanted to be filmed ranting – but I guess it is those rants that make Question Time the show it is and why the format is far better than the stilted format we had to endure for the actual leaders debates.
After such a long evening it all seemed to end quite abruptly and we were out just before midnight. Desperate for a drink I headed into town. I’d missed going to the Conservative’s Midland screening of the debate/activists bash to go and so caught up with the hardcore who were still out at a city centre hotel. Cameron had popped into the party straight after the debate and given a rallying call which had left everyone uplifted. The bar we were in was packed with the journos and politicians returning from the debate – Gove was there, Fox came in not long after me looking very relaxed after his appearance – multiple nationally renowned journos who I will leave nameless were absolutely ratted at the bar and even Charlie Wheelan was doing the rounds at a venue dominated by Tories. Finally a beer. I turned my phone back on (having forgotton the beeb had made me turn it off earlier) and it went nuts with incoming texts. Although I never got to make my point verbally, it turns out that whilst Ed Balls was speaking the camera cut away to the crowd and you couldn’t miss me shaking my head in rabid disagreement. People who I haven’t spoken to for donkey’s wanted to let me know they’d spotted me. This little head shaking prod to the nation is therefore my only mass-media contribution to the ousting of this government. As pathetically small and insignificant as this gesture is I honestly wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to make it for the world. If you ever get the chance to go and watch Question Time live – do it. It’s a decent night out.