Opinion: Question Time: from the audience perspective

David Dimbleby and the Question Time panel at Scarborough's Spa Grand Hall.
David Dimbleby and the Question Time panel at Scarborough's Spa Grand Hall.

The introduction straight to camera, the catchy theme tune, the sweeping shot of the audience and panel and we’re off! Yes, Question Time had come to Scarborough.

The path to this point started two weeks earlier when David Dimbleby announced that Question Time would be in Scarborough on November 30. Viewers were invited to fill in an online form or phone a number if they wanted to 
apply to be part of the audience on the night.

Many people I have spoken to chose to exclude themselves at this point, saying “I knew they wouldn’t have me, so I didn’t bother applying.” Why? Start the process and be eliminated rather than try and second guess the criteria at the outset. I think the audience on the night represented a broad range of the middle ground plus one or two outlyers on either side. I say this from talking to audience members and from their comments on the topics discussed. There was also a good age range.

Question Time could not have chosen a worse evening in terms of the weather, to come to Sunny Scarbados. It was, literally, a dark and stormy night as we slithered along slushy pavements and dripped into the coffee lounge at the Spa.

We had our IDs checked and warmed ourselves with tea and coffee while we tried to think of two topical questions which would stimulate discussion. I failed miserably as neither of my questions were chosen!

David Dimbleby appeared to tell us what to expect over the next couple of hours and to ease us gently into the process. Firstly, a simulated Question Time with a panel drawn from members of the audience. Then a warm-up question with the real panel. Finally, into the real broadcast.

We filed into the Grand Hall into seating arranged on scaffolding erected for the programme. There was the big “Q” with Scarborough written on it – the evening was about to begin!

The audience was, as they say, “up for it” and there was no shortage of volunteers for the audience panel. The purpose of this part was to test the sound, lighting and camera angles as well as to get the audience used to the microphones moving in to catch their comments. It was also useful in stirring the audience up to open discussion. The audience panel was very amusingly chaired by the floor manager who, although a serious subject was under discussion, kept the debate upbeat and fast moving. The subject discussed was chosen because it was not a topical item that week, so there was no danger of overlap into the matters discussed in the programme.

The audience panel 
returned to their seats and a member of the production team announced which questions they would be using. She explained that all questions submitted had been sorted into piles by topic. A question was chosen from each of the most popular topics. About six or seven people had their questions selected. The rest of us could now relax and enjoy the programme! In the end, there was only time to air four questions.

David Dimbleby came back to introduce the real panel. A warm-up session followed on the subject of minimum pricing for alcohol.

Slightly disconcertingly, the panel chairmen (Dimbleby and the floor manager) can hear the production team talking to them through their earpieces. They respond by talking out loud, resulting in strange, disjointed, one-sided conversations. Then the real programme began.

The questions covered Donald Trump’s State Visit, Brexit, arms to Saudi Arabia and the problems faced by coastal communities. The discussion was very fast-moving. I put my hand up once but the discussion moved on.

Watching the recording, I noticed that very little of the noise the audience makes comes across on the programme. Throughout the programme the audience was chuntering, agreeing and disagreeing with the discussion but very little of this is heard on the broadcast. I also noticed how much more focussed I was on the debate when I was physically present.

I have to confess, I did drop my attention a few times when watching the programme later.

Soon the hour was up. We all stayed in our seats, as requested, and didn’t get up and put our coats on during the closing music. A smooth production process and enjoyable evening. And how do they achieve that opening sweeping shot of the audience and the panel? I’m not going to tell you – you’ll have to join the 
audience to find out!