Any Questions: A View from the Studio

by Bill & Ann Woodhouse

Now we know it is set up! We had Any Questions in Sturminster Newton last night and it was interesting the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how they handle it. We had to book in well in advance and were given a postcard sized ticket, perforated in the middle, half of which had space for name and address and question to be asked.

Bill set his question up weeks ahead querying whether the panel enjoyed being governed by unelected apparatchiks from Brussels. Ann set hers up on the day:- “Given the unfavourable publicity the government has received recently do we have an incompetent administration or an unlucky one?”

We had to arrive at 6.45 p.m. for the 8 p.m. programme. We were sent into the bar and reception room together with ballot box into which to post our questions. Artfully placed around and on every surface was an A4 sheet of “POSSIBLE QUESTION TOPICS FOR TONIGHT’S PROGRAMME”, listing 10 questions, mainly those listed by Jonathan Dimbleby in his trail in the R4 Today programme earlier.

We were then let into the theatre for a 45 minute “warm up”, mainly to check sound with us clapping, booing and so on and, we were told, to give Dimbleby and the producer time to select (well actually vet) the questions. Towards the end the producer came on and told us whose questions had been chosen, ten in all, and the front row at the centre of the audience was set aside for the “lucky” few with numbered seats and one’s question printed out nicely for one to read. Ann got in at number 8 but was told only four or six questions were likely to be chosen.

Perhaps not surprisingly the numbers one to six that got in were pretty much as “requested” by the “POSSIBLE QUESTION TOPICS . . . ”

The panel were Nigel Farage, John Redwood, Ben Bradshaw and some excessively stupid journalist from the Guardian, Independent and Red Magazine called Viv Groskop. It was mainly a good humoured exchange by the politicians, with Nigel clearly winning most arguments and most applause. You can listen to the repeat recording at 13.10 this afternoon 7th April.


One comment

  • An anonymous follow up:

    It’s interesting: About 28 or so years ago, I too was in Sturminster Newton, in a school hall, actually, if I remember correctly. On that occasion I was transmitting Any Questions as part of the BBC team.

    Back then I worked on AnyQ a fair bit and Any Answers almost weekly. I knew the producers, Michael Bowen, Carole Stone (who went on to start Question Time on BBC-TV), and others, the presenters, David Jacobs and John Timpson (slightly), and how the programme operated.

    There were a number of principles deemed important: Firstly, the location of the production offices was considered important. Any Questions had originated on the West of England Home Service, but it was also a deliberate decision to keep the programme there, in order to ensure the London elite didn’t have undue influence.

    Secondly, there was a permanent ban on government members and opposition front benchers, on the basis all you got was the party line, literally, which made for a boring, predictable programme.

    Thirdly, the questions were chosen on the night by the producer, and NOT staged.

    The programme’s independence was taken so seriously that the principal sound engineer for the transmission was always allocated from Bristol, not the local BBC centre. This was to ensure the programme was consistent and it was always done the ‘right’ way, and the rule was followed even in London and on one occasion, New York.

    In short, the programme was supposed to reflect the views and concerns of ordinary ‘middle England’, not the London elite, nor the ‘political class’ either.

    In the early 1990s the production moved to London and the old rules were discarded. Any Answers ceased to be a letters programme on the Thursday night before the next week’s transmission, and became a phone-in the day after. One consequence of this is that the feedback it now provides is now usually less considered and often banal (although emails are occasionally read out).

    Instead of being a barometer for the nation’s opinions, Any Q is now just another spin doctor’s tool.

    Question Time was this from the outset, although mitigated somewhat by the refusal of Robin Day to kow tow to the establishment. It was thought that nobody would watch ‘just anyone’ giving their opinion on current affairs. Big names were needed for the launch (and were habit-forming).

    So if anyone in the BBC bangs on about political impartiality and representation of the nation, ask them why Any Questions has never been given back to Bristol, to whom it belongs, and the old rules about panellists reinstated.

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