"Hello and welcome to Any Answers?" -- Jonathan Dimbleby, 'Any Answers?'

Radio Tonight, I attended a recording of BBC Radio 4’s discussion programme Any Questions? at the Everyman Theatre, introduced by Jonathan Dimbleby. For as long as I can remember I’ve listened to the Saturday lunchtime repeat of the programme, invariably shouting at the radio when one of the particularly small minded guests says something idiotic. I was passing by the Playhouse the other week, saw a poster advertising the visit and knew, if only for curiosity sake, that I had to go along.

The programme has always had a slightly scary ability to crop up in an area in which a major news story is happening and so the Radio Four listener tonight might infer that the programme was coming from Liverpool simply because of the tragedy that has been unfolding of the past couple of days. But I booked my ticket a week ago and it was advertised as coming from here in the Radio Times. It was simply one of those odd, scary, bizarre co-incidences.

I decided to wait until today before formulating the inevitable question. I wanted to get on the air so I made a point of trying to write something in the style of the questions that tend to be asked on air. I’m the last person who’d want to talk about what happened in Croxteth, so stuck to what I know and cribbing from the front page of today’s The Guardian wrote on the suggestion card: “Does the panel agree with Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s sentiment that the television industry is suffering from a ‘catastrophic loss of nerves?” Imagining a wry smile from Paxo when he heard it back tomorrow.

I arrived very early as usual and was ushered into the bar. A wooden box on a table with a bright Radio 4 logo on it was in place to take question cards. People were approached to put their questions to this oracle, slotting them in with some reverence. Apart from a woman who turned up with her question printed out five times because I think she thought it meant it would stand more of a chance of being used as though this was some kind of vote. There seemed to be a move for people to ask more than one question so I also dropped in something about the media holding up a mirror to society and about the climate protestors, but I didn’t really think either were good enough.

The Everyman is a surprising venue for the kind of programme. I always imagine Any Questions? happening in the same kinds of venues as its tv cousin Question Time, all grand halls and universities and whatnot. That must have given this a more intimate atmosphere than most programmes in the series -- and now and then the panellists seemed quite surprised to be able to see out disapproval or not up close as we eyeballed them or not. For those who don’t know, this is a theatre in the round and the panellists would be sat on table in the centre back of the ‘stage’ or more descriptively floor, at table covered in Radio 4 blue table closes with logos all about the place.

I was the first in the room and deposited myself on the second row -- behind the seats reserved for questioners. I was followed initially by what many Radio 4 comedy shows joke as being a typical Radio 4 discussion show type of audience, mostly pensioners and retirees who look like they’re on a coach trip. I felt a bit isolated as they gathered in the seats about me but as time went on the demographic balanced out and almost as though the BBC had selected them, I think there where people from every walk of society in there. I’d like to say there was a nervous energy in the room, some pent up anger perhaps because of what had been happening in the city, but there really wasn’t at least not in my section.

The man who sat next to me even turned and said:
‘Can you see the flashback?’
I looked about and wondered if suddenly that my own reality was indeed a facade and that any minute there would cross mix to me being born or my first kiss. It didn’t happen, so I counter asked:
‘What do you mean?’
‘The light’s reflecting.’ A spotlight was reflecting off of one of the name badges on the panellist’s table. ‘Put your head where I’m sitting.’
Not really seeing how I could do that since he was already there I grinned and said instead:
‘Don’t worry. This is radio. You won’t be able to see it.’
He nodded, taking that as a perfectly decent explanation (?) and began talking to his wife.

Above our heads, theatre speakers piped out the greatest hits of the station's theme tunes, including The Archers which in its extended mega mix lasts forever and has the usual tricked out solos these things always have because the composer has had to make up another five minutes worth of music around the stuff that people recognised. It’s surprising actually how many work shorn of their function and simply as musical pieces -- I wondered briefly if there was a best of album and then wondered what that meant I was turning into.

Eventually, the warm up lady, Alex, from BBC local radio appeared. She talked about working for the Radio Merseyside and talked about how friendly Liverpool made her feel, about how it was like coming home and how the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester mirrors that between Sunderland and Newcastle. She then listed a couple of things that might be said to try and get us in the mood for applauding and booing, asking us what we thought of Boris Johnson etc, underlined that the panelists aren’t warned what the questions are and then randomly threw the floor open for questions about BBC Radio.

Enter the rentagob. The rentagob would appear again during the radio broadcast but this time he had Alex in his sights. ‘What I’d like to know is why you people always want to suggest that us scousers are always doin down Mancs’ Tough crowd, I thought. ‘I was joking…’ Alex said, ‘You all knew I was joking didn’t you, who thought I was joking.’ Claps, cheers, show of hands. Then I said that it was lovely to see them here and where there any plans for the comedy shows to make an appearance? She said that they’d been invited to the Everyman and suggested we write to the particular shows themselves. Then, brilliantly Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of the Everyman said that she had invited them, but they only ever want to come during the theatre season. Question answered, job done.

Then executive producer Peter Griffiths strode onto the floor for the pick-me moment. His researcher had the pile of questions. He began reading and to but to the chase my name came up third. How exciting. I put my hand up and walked to the front and sat in my designated chair as the researcher handed my a script copy of my question with my name at the top and my words underneath. Except ‘Does’ had become ‘Doe’ which made no sense which is why I was sure I’d read it out that way on the radio. I stepped onto the floor and walked up to the researcher who was still directing people to sit down.

‘Can I borrow your pen?’
‘You’re fine sitting there.’
‘No.’ I showed her the sheet. ‘I need to change this. I know I’d say ‘Doe’ otherwise.’
After actually saying ‘Ulp’ as though it’s a real world, pen was lent, correction was made.

Finally the panel were brought out and introduced in much the same way as you’ve seen happen before US sitcoms, perhaps without the bows and self-aggrandising. I’d read the names beforehand but now I could put names to faces. They were, reducing their biography (available beforehand) with my own prejudices intact: Peter Oborne, a columnist for the Daily Mail who I actually recognised; Paul Vallely, the associate editor for The Independent who I didn’t; Louise Bagshawe, the novelist and Tory; and Ian McMillan the poet and Radio 4 presenter who I also recognised and quite like. Then close behind, Jonathan Dimbleby who as with all people who meet off the television or radio is shorter than you imagine.

After Dimbleby thanked us for being there and said a few words about what our behaviour should be whilst on the radio (largely ignored during the programme) and asked for the rehearsal question to check sound levels. It was about the cancelling of Celebrity Big Brother and even though some of the panel were under the impression that the whole programme had been cancelled, they generally thought its loss was a jolly good thing although Oborne was already in controversial mode suggesting that the racism incident was simply the media holding up a mirror to society (ahem).

Rather than simply beginning as the show went to air, the eight o’clock news was piped into the auditorium. That’s when the atmosphere changed, as we listened collectively to the latest news about the teenager being arrested in relation to the murder. I wondered if this had been what it was like before television when people had to gather in cinemas to watch news reels, dispatches from wars, collectively experiencing the ills of the world. Sure enough, the deaths in Afghanistan were mentioned. Then, lights up and the show began.

You can listen to it here online for the next week after tomorrow's repeat on Radio 4 at 1:10pm. As you’ll hear, Dimbelby was the consummate broadcaster capturing the mood of the coincidence of the show being in Liverpool at this moment. Obviously the first few questions were about the incident and I would say the whole first half was dedicated to them. I agreed with everything the panellists said -- it was difficult not to except for Oborne who turned into a stereotypical conservative, knocking on at length about the erosion of family values and father figures and fulfilling all of the expectations this leftist had of him.

The producer held up three fingers and the researcher sat next to me, microphone in hand. I tried to take it off her because I thought she was passing it to me, but she pulled it away.
‘Gentleman in the front row.’
And you can hear the results. I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t flub and took it slowly. I’ve done voiceover work before don’t you know (email me and I’ll tell you the details) and it’s all to do with stress patterns, I think. Only afterwards did I realise that wasn’t Paxman’s juiciest quote (the wry smile I was imaging now becoming a role of the eyes) and indeed the panellists didn’t really answer the question instead leading off into a ramble about the ills of television and whatnot, with Oborne once again saying some very silly things and because he went on I didn’t get to offer my follow up comment (running out of time) which would have been:

“Well I think actually there’s a catastrophic loss of trust in viewers; for some reason programme makers think they have to sensationalise subjects or hide mistakes as though viewers will lose faith in the magic of tv if they find out the truth when something goes wrong or isn’t quite as exciting as programme makers wish they were. I’m much more interested in what goes wrong sometimes…”

Or something like that. It would have been a winner anyway.

As the programme progresses you do enter a kind of trance as you begin to balance what the panellists are saying against your own opinions on a given subject. No, in relation to slavery, people who haven’t done something shouldn’t apologise for it so I’m clapping McMillan, Vallely and unbelievably Bagshawe (who looked like she’d walked off the set of Party Animals) but booing Oborne. That actually tended to be the pattern throughout the fifty-odd minutes -- I think McMillan won on points, but Vallely was rambling if insightful and I thought Bagshawe talked some real common sense all of the way through -- which considering my own liberalism is interesting -- perhaps she’s a moderate Tory (well she did join the Labour Party for a few months in 1996 according to her biog!).

The debate, though, was fairly well controlled. Only the panellists and us questioners were miked, so although people where shouting from the floor, they were warned throughout that they couldn’t be heard. You can hear the rentagob during the slavery question but that’s not the only time he shouted out and there were some other professional hecklers but none of them really made too much of an impact other then to interrupt the flow of discussion. Oborne was being deliberately controversial and was largely treated with contempt as he entered preach mode here and there -- he seemed to be allowed to ramble on far longer then the other speakers because Dimbleby and his producer were having a small discussion while he was speaking. I’ll be interested to hear how it came across when I listen again tomorrow.

I'm glad that the discussion touched on the capital of culture which has become a rather larger issue in the local press as hints and allegations are tossed around and people are asked to resign and don't. Obviously it was given a more wider national feel with Oborne trying to win the crowd back and Bagshawe looking cute whilst mentioning The Beatles because someone had to mention The Beatles, there's a rule. McMillan is right though -- it is the perfect opportunity to help bring communities together and it would be a shame to squander it.

The show ended abruptly as the names of next week’s panel were read out. After the return to broadcasting house, Jon thanked us again for coming, apologised for not everyone being able to be heard and thanked the panel, deliberately screwing up Oborne’s name as revenge for his bloopers during the show. He directed us to listen to Any Answers? and then that was that.


  1. Anonymous12:56 pm

    Amusing programme, with scouse hecklers taking the opportunity to hurl the F word at people they usually don't encounter. Just caught by the mic, presumably couldn't be edited out.

    But this constant discussion of 'pool is tiresome. Community spirit, great accent (no, McMillan, its not), treated badly by the best of the country blah blah....fact is, much of the 'pool is a sad crap hole of deprivation and, sometimes, petty criminality. People constantly try and glamourise it - and fact is, city of culture or whatever, it's not. Much of the city is just crap: admit it, acknowledge it, and maybe it will improve. Pretend its not true, and it won't.

  2. Anonymous8:31 pm

    Viva la stereotype ! Have you actually ever been here ?? Care to tell us which part of Utopia you are from, or is that a secret along with you own real name Mr/Miss coward ? I'd like to know exactly what evidence you base this typical media driven view of Liverpool ? Is it the Toxteth riots in the early 80's, or perhaps Harry Enfield's slightly amusing character's from his early 90's show ? I quote - "A sad crap hole of deprivation" - just about sums up your obvious lack of knowledge on the subject in which you are making such un-educated observations. I guess the enormous re-generation of the city centre and surrounding area must have completely passed you by. Liverpool is a city on the up, and has been for over a decade, not just since being awarded Capital of Culture for 2008. Your ill informed views seem to reveal a deep rooted jealousy of that fact. I look forward to more comical bile . . . *dons black curly perm wig and goes off to to fulfil scouse stereotype of picking up Giro before nicking somebody's car tyres*

  3. Rentagob was a bit of an embarrassment, wasn't he. "I've got some black in me" indeed.


    All in all, though, a good evening. And the crowd reaction to Oborne was a wonder to behold.