What’s it like being in the audience on BBC's Question Time?

What’s it like begin in the audience on BBC's Question Time? Well the other day I found out. It came about via a note on a local Facebook group that my wife forwarded across, suggesting that I apply. Despite having a genuine interest in politics I've never really enjoyed Question Time as invariably it features either insipid politicians spouting platitudes, left-wing journalists or “celebrities” virtue-signaling about austerity, or failing that a partisan audience who are frothing at the chance to clap at the first aggressively-delivered sound bite that comes their way. But fine. It was in Dudley, which is not far from where I live and the application form took about two minutes to complete so I went for it. 

To my slight surprise I received an email from the BBC a couple of days later asking me to ring them to “discuss my two questions.” The program manager, a lady by the name of Alison Fuller, took my call and it quickly transpired that I had been selected to feature in the audience. 

A word then on the application process itself. Essentially you have to provide the usual personal details and then state who you typically vote for, whether or not you belong to a political party and whether you voted leave or remain in the 2016 referendum. When stating my two questions over the phone I was informed that they needed to be short, to the point and designed to fire up passionate debate without any unnecessary preamble. 

So then to the day of the program. I reached Dudley Town Hall at 6, queued in the freezing drizzle for five minutes and then made my way through the security and registration process (you need to ensure you don’t bring weapons in but you do remember your passport or driving license). I was handed two cards, rather like at a polling station, and told to write my two questions down along with my name and occupation. These were then handed in to be reviewed - they select the four or five questions prior to filming. We then had to wait for twenty minutes or so before Fiona Bruce suddenly appeared to give a “prep talk” on the program and what they expected of a Question Time audience. 

I have to say at this point that it was the experience of being part of a television program rather than the program itself that was the interesting thing and to see how someone like Fiona Bruce can just turn up in a new location in front of a hundred or so people she has never met and talk so freely and openly about what is going to happen and what to expect was impressive to say the least. We were informed that we would head down to the studio at around 7.15pm and that filming would start just after 8.30pm.

My mistake at this point was to remain in a seat at the rear of the waiting room and not get up and “hover” as 7.15pm approached because I ended up being stuck towards the rear of the queue as we filed down the stairs and into the studio. They fill up from the front and so by the time I reached the seats I was directed into a position at the far corner, the farthest from the introduction shot and completely out of the main frame of the audience cam. So my advice if you want to be at the forefront of the action is to get to your feet a few minutes before they take you to the studio and ensure you’re somewhere towards the front of the queue!

Once we were seated, the floor manager announced himself and basically took over for the next hour or so, keeping us under instruction but at the same time doing his best to engage and entertain the audience. They chose five volunteers to sit in the panel so that a faux debate could be started in order to warm everyone up and test the sound levels. This was on the one hand rather tedious (listening to five nobodies give their opinion) yet did provide some insight into how these sorts of programs are put together. What did occur to me fairly quickly was that I was surrounded by quick a few people who were unlikely to share my opinions should I get to air my thoughts later in the evening. There was a typical teenager to my right (I suspect his Palestinian lanyard had been hidden in his jeans pocket), some anti-austerity types in front of me and a couple of gobby teachers behind who had a highly irritating habit of clapping loudly and aggressively when they agreed with something as if to hammer home the point that they were undoubted morons. The topic of this “fake” debate was childhood obesity and who was to blame and, though I couldn’t really be bothered to engage at this stage in proceedings, it was alarming to sense just how many people were determined that the government had a responsibility for so much of their decision-making. The one man who suggested that he shouldn’t have to pay more tax just to help out a “load of salad dodgers” was roundly booed and heckled, whilst one woman in front of me came out with the most ludicrous comment possible. She claimed that she had enjoyed the taste of Caramel SomethingOrOther coffees at Starbucks for years but only recently discovered that they contain 11 spoons of sugar and how outrageous that was and that the government should make them put that on the side of the cup as that would have made her think twice. The fact that a forty or perhaps fifty-year-old woman hasn’t managed to sync her taste buds with her brain cells and put two-and-two together in order to figure out that perhaps the “lovely” sweet taste is down to the sugar content and moreover that the inclusion of the word “caramel” might suggest the sort of beverage that top athletes would typically avoid paints rather a bleak picture for the state of our society.

Losing the will to live...

Anyway, after an hour, Fiona Bruce appeared to rescue us from this meandering garbage and continued from where she left off, picking up everyone’s energy and explaining what was about to take place. Four or five people were called out whose questions had been selected (alas not me) and whilst they were taken to one side to be prepped by the floor manager, Fiona explained that Margaret Beckett had been stuck in traffic and would be a few minutes late – in the meantime the four other panelists were introduced and took their seats. These were Owen Jones (left wing media journalist), Iain Martin (centre-right media journalist), Javed Khan (charity leader) and Dominic Raab (Tory MP – ex Brexit Minister). As they settled in, Fiona took the opportunity to quickly film the introduction to the program, before taking a non-broadcast question to get things going (something about the hapless Christ Grayling from memory). A few minutes later the tiny figure of Margaret Beckett arrived and we were ready to go.

At this point, it is fair to say that there were a few nerves and a tentative, collective intake of breath as people realized they were about to be filmed for the next hour on a program that would air within the same evening. I was positioned just behind the lady who would be reading out the very first question and so tried to hold my pose (I don’t even know what a television pose is but it didn’t prevent me from trying) – yet I would later discover that the angle of the camera excluded me from view. This is both a good and bad part of being in a television audience in a debate: whilst you never know when you will be in shot, it does mean that you relax a little, after all it is impossible to stress about being in view for that length of time (unless of course you know you have been chosen to ask a question). The debate began with a question on knife crime before moving inevitably to Brexit (I had submitted questions on both of these topics). As the debate meandered on, all of my typical annoyances with the program came to the fore – for instance Owen Jones is as petulant and child-like off camera as he is on camera, his delivery manner over-exaggerated for effect and his every comment leading inevitably back to his common theme of austerity, Corbyn-worship and socialism. Just as I found myself wanting to throw a brick at his head, he then gave a cheeky little grin to one of the crew members and I’m then overcome with remorse: how dare I allow myself to grow incensed at his gibberish when this is a small boy we’re talking about? He shouldn’t be on a program like this, but at home with his mother. Bless him. Beyond Jones, it is (as it often is) the case that most of the stupidity comes from the audience, typically from certain young woman of the shawl-wearing variety who seem intent on the fact that the police are racist and untrustworthy, Brexit is a bad thing, the government needs to put taxes up and spend way more (in fact they need to fund anything they are asked to fund) etc…etc. As the debate became heated during the Brexit question (specifically on the likelihood that no deal would not growing unlikely) I took the plunge and raised my hand in the air, deciding that the time had come to take Margaret Beckett down a peg or two.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. I typically don’t have a problem speaking in front of an audience. I wouldn’t say I love doing it or that I thrive on it, but I’m okay with it. Here, though, was a mixed audience – many of whom were not necessarily sympathetic to my general philosophy of low-government, small state, libertarian, anti-EU aspirations. Moreover, I had been sat on my now-numb backside for nearly two hours under the heat of studio lights and my mouth was dry. Then there was the small matter of being televised to an audience of millions (whoever missed the airing later that evening would be able to catch up on iPlayer – and perhaps a few thousand clips splashed across Twitter and YouTube over the coming days). As I held my aching arm in the air I then realized with a sudden dash of panic that I hadn’t actually formulated the wording of my question. This is quite an important consideration if you are ever contemplating joining a Question Time audience in the future. In the general course of my existence I ask quite a few questions and certainly make a number of points, but at no point am I ever placed on the spotlight to the extend where I have to mentally prepare then rehearse my actual phrasing. The gist of my point appears in my head and my mouth tends to do a decent job of articulating. Now, I’m no Rumpole of the Bailey and when I have an off-day I’m sure I’m capable of fluffing my lines, but even when garbling, I’m still able to deliver because, let’s face it, I’m hardly ever thrust into the sort of environment where this sort of thing really matters. And yet, here I was stuck to the rear of a crowd of strangers, being recorded by the BBC, about to make a point to one of the most recognised politicians of the past couple of decades.

Shit,” I thought. “What am I actually going to say?”

The gist of it was this – why can’t MPs still realise that had the starting point for negotiations with the EU been no deal (i.e. we’re going to walk away) and we had actually begun to prepare for that scenario then the likelihood of having been offered something way better from the EU would have increased – in the same way that you’ll only get a decent offer on a car if the dealership know you might not buy at all. At this late hour in the day to take it off the table altogether shows a complete lack of competence from so many of our elected representatives.

Instinctively, I had glimpsed a vision of delivering this to rapturous applause, with Margaret Beckett looking furious and Owen Jones looking sullen, then looking forward to days of my triumphant comment being shared across social media (I might even get an invite to go shooting with Charles Moore or perhaps granted an interview with the Spectator). In reality though, as I switched arms due to cramp, I realized that the greater likelihood lay in my ballsing my delivery up completely and becoming a laughing stock. Perhaps I’d get the deal / no deal wording the wrong way around, develop a spontaneous stammer, lose my voice or generally just mess up spectacularly. Or maybe I’d make my pointy adequately but to no applause, then to be shared online not by joyous Brexiteers but by the sneering remain class, the James O’Brien-loving FBPE po-faced offence-architects who would feast on my failure like a hoard of crazed Dementors.

Let me have a turn you b@stards!

As Fiona Bruce gave each panelist in turn an opportunity to speak, oscillating their voices with contributions from the audience I continued to keep my arm raised, trying to catch her attention, whilst trying to keep tabs on the exchange in case the wind was taken out of my sails, all the while trying to formulate my precise words. Alas, after several more audience points (including a couple of utterly vacuous offerings from another shawl-wearer and her friend the “woke” lefty social-justice warrior in the back row, the topic was moved on and my moment passed, somewhat to my relief.

The hour passed very quickly and when everything was finally wrapped up we simply had to wait in our seats for five minutes or so during which time the crew checked that nothing had to be re-recorded, then we were free to go. It was, as I say, an experience and I would recommend it purely for the insight into how these things are put together. If you are thinking of applying for a future program and want to speak then perhaps my advice will be of use, regardless of your political viewpoint. But I think I might continue to give Question Time a miss for the time being.