What's It Like to be a Guest on Question Time?
21 Apr 2018 at 14:00
So, what was it like? That’s the question I’ve been asked a lot over the last 36 hours. Everyone wants to know what it was like to be a guest on BBC’s Question Time. Well, on Thursday I appeared on it for the first time. I’d done ANY QUESTIONS on Radio 4 quite a few times, but had never been invited onto the TV version before. Given that I’ve been on every other political programme I had often wondered why the invitation for QT had never come. Well, on Tuesday morning I got a text asking if I would be free to do the show on Thursday. I was half excited and half filled with dread. Why dread? Well, quite a few people have made complete arses of themselves on Question Time, in a way that’s more difficult to do on Any Questions. There’s that constant fear of gulping like a goldfish when you get a question that completely throws you. Or you have a row with another panellist and come off worst. However, I talk for three hours every day about subjects I may know very little about or am not interested in personally, so over the years you develop an ability and a confidence to talk reasonably fluently about anything that’s put to you. But you do have to have some self knowledge. For instance, although I could be reasonably confident of doing OK on Question Time, I would certainly not have the confidence to do a show like HAVE I GOT NEWS FOR YOU. I’ve learnt over the years that although I am capable of being funny, I’m not hald as funny as I like to think I am! Would I turn it down? I’d like to think I would, but maybe the ego would get the better of me… Anyway, I digress.
My main problem with saying an immediate Yes to Question Time was were the logistics of doing my radio show and then somehow getting to Chesterfield. We solved that one by me travelling to Nottingham on Thursday morning and doing my show from Global Radio’s Nottingham studio. Nigel Farage kindly took over an hour early, so I could get to Chesterfield for the requested time of 7pm. Or so I thought. Instead of turning up at 6pm, the cab turned up 20 minutes later, with the cab firm having told me at least three lies in that time as to where the driver was. I was not very gruntled. Exactly the wrong mood to be in, 90 minutes before I was to face the TV cameras, where I was determined to be calm at all times!
Anyway, the driver drove rather fast and we arrived at the Winding Wheel venue in Chesterfield, close to the famous crooked spire, at around 7.10. The train carrying the others was running a but late so it turned out I was the first to arrive. The other panellists were Vince Cable, Liz Truss, Emily Thornberry and Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik. It was also Nesrine’s first time.
There then followed an hour of chit chat, briefing from the producers and make-up. David Dimbleby swept into the room at around 7.50 and made a great effort to sit down and talk to Nesrine and I individually. He was incredibly charming and put us at our ease and encouraged us to interact with the audience and the other panellists, and not to be shy to interject.
“Do you know the questions in advance,” is the second most often put question I’ve had and I can categorically say no. However, let’s face it, you have to be a bit of a dunce if you can’t predict the subject areas of at least two or three questions. It was obvious that Syria and Windrush would figure. I didn’t think anti-semitism would, as it had been on the programme last week. I had thought there might be a question on violent crime and the situation between North Korea and the US, and I was right on the first one. I thought the Customs Union might feature and given that HS2 and fracking are big issues in Chesterfield, they were also possibilities. What I hadn’t counted on was the final question on whether the Labour Party might split.
By the time we were called to go into the auditorium I had exactly the same feeling as I always have before ANY QUESTIONS. I become a nervous wreck, convinced that I am totally underprepared and won’t have a thought in my head to express when David Dimbleby calls on me.
Some panellists go on stage with no notes, others have reams. Nesrine didn’t have any noted, which I rather admired. I just took on small cue cards with 5 bullet points on each subject. I also had a newspaper article which I would have used against Vince Cable. had Brexit come up. But it didn’t. The notes are a safety valve. In the end I don’t look at them very often, partly because I have to take my glasses off to do so. If I don’t have the glasses on I can’t see individuals in the audience. If I have them on I can’t read anything. I know someone who was on QT recently and they looked over at their fellow panellist’s notes and every potential answer on every conceivable subject was more or less scripted. Too many notes, Mr Mozart!
And so the time came. We all stood in the wings waiting to be called in by David Dimbleby. I was first, as I was seated on the far side of the stage. I walked in and smiled at the audience before taking my seat. All the others then took theirs. Emily Thornberry got a very loud cheer, which made me think it would be a very pro-Labour audience. In fact, it was a very fair audience and devoid of some of the usual frothing at the mouthers that there have been on the programme in recent months. The whole set is much smaller and more intimate than it seems when watching on TV. You’re much closer to the audience than the TV pictures show.
The warm-up question was a complete surprise. “Was the Derbyshire Chief Constable right to order the Police Male Voice Choir to change its name and include women?” I always think the thing to do in a warm up question is to make the audience laugh, which I tried to do, although I now can’t remember what I said. In fact, to be honest, the audience members gave far better responses than any of the panel. And with that it was off. David Dimbleby pressed his stop-watch, turned to face the camera and introduced the panel.
It flew by. I won’t go into every answer here; you either watched it at the time or can watch it above.
I didn’t go in with any pre-prepared lines because I think it rarely ever works. Having said that, I had thought carefully about what I would say if Liz Truss tried to minimise the Windrush issue and play party politics with it. In the end, her total apology knocked any wind out of those particular sails.
One bit of advice Piers Morgan gave me in advance was to make sure you give a direct answer to the question. He reckoned too many people skirt around the original question, forget what it was within thirty seconds, and then go on a tour of the whole subject. It was good advice and I think I did answer every question directly.
The biggest dilemma is to know when to interrupt another panellist. On a debut show you don’t want to be too much of a shrinking violet, but then again you don’t want to appear too dominating. I know from previous experience of being on a panel that I always come off the stage thinking I didn’t have enough of a say, and yet when I watch it back I’ve probably spoken more than anyone else. Sometimes less is more. If you ramble, you know you’ll be cut off by David Dimbleby. On Thursday I reckon Emily Thornberry got about twice as much air time as Vince Cable, Liz Truss or Nesrine Malik. I think I spoke more than them, but not nearly as much as Emily. She constantly complained about being interrupted by David Dimbleby or me, yet she still got far more airtime than the rest of us. Some people are never satisfied.
I adopted a policy of only interrupting when I really had something to say. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge of whether that worked.
And then it was all over. I had assumed we would stay on and talk to the audience afterwards but we were quickly ushered back stage. I don’t know whether they do that because there have been some bad experiences in the past, but I’d have liked to have had a word with some of them. We then went back to the green room for a few minutes before being whisked off to a local restaurant for a late dinner with the production team. Bear in mind that the programme, contrary to what a lot of people think, isn’t live, it is recorded from 8.30-9.30 or thereabouts. So by the time we were tucking into our main course, the show was just about to go out on BBC1.
At around 11pm the cab arrived to take Emily and me back to London. There has been quite a lot of social media comment about the fact that this must have been a rather uncomfortable journey. I just don’t understand why people think that just because we are individuals with differing political opinions we therefore wouldn’t get on on a personal level. I’ve always liked Emily and got on with her. The journey back took around three and a half hours due to the M1 being closed on one section, and I can assure you there wasn’t a cross word between us. In fact, there were a lot of laughs. We’re adults.
I’m long enough in the tooth to know when I’ve performed well on a programme and when I haven’t. I knew when I came off stage I’d done better than I thought I would, so I was quite content. Reading through the tweets in the car on the way home I was astonished at the praise I was getting. In fact, there was barely any criticism at all. That only started the next morning when the Left decided the best way to bring me down to earth was to retweet the video of my incident on Brighton Beach in 2013 with the anti nuclear protester. And then the abuse really started. Hey ho. All’s fair in love and politics and social media, eh?
All I know is, that I am very sad that my mother didn’t live long enough to see me do Question Time. I know how proud she would have been. And you know, that’s all that matters to me.
PS I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to wear a tie on the programme. I took one with me – a Duchamp, which I felt compelled to show to David Dimbleby! Nicholas Soames was up in arms on Twitter in reaction to my suggestion that I would wear a tie. However, when I ot to the green room I started going the other way. I asked Vince and he was definitely wearing one, but all three women panellists advised me not to. In the end I didn’t want to feel all formal, and given that I very rarely wear a tie to anything nowadays, I thought I’d feel far more relaxed if I didn’t. Decision made.