So, who's coming on fifth?

As comedy invades 'Question Time', Jasper Rees worries that television's top political forum is dumbing down
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You may have noticed a change or two to Question Time on its most recent resumption, now two editions into a 36-long stint. The panel has been enlarged from four to a more-or-less permanent five. The studio audience has an even greater remit to participate noisily, while the wider audience has gone global via the worldwide web. More than half of the current series, as opposed to the usual less than a third, will visit the regions; even the production company that now makes the programme is based in Birmingham.

As if this weren't evidence enough of Question Time's relentless democratisation, its retreat from formality and the dull monochrome of bipartisan ping- pong, for the first time viewers were invited to digest the political pensees of one half of the comedy partnership, Hale and Pace.

Entertainers like Jo Brand and Clive Anderson have capably aired their views on Question Time before. You can expect the satirist Rory Bremner to follow this season, and it would be a surprise if invitations were not extended to comic firebrands such as Ben Elton and Jeremy Hardy. But there are comedians and comedians. Although they belong to the alternative generation which cut its teeth on Thatcher gags, Hale and Pace have not cracked a political joke in their 20-year career. So what on earth was Norman Pace doing on Question Time?

The simple answer is that he met a producer when making a Sky Sports programme about golf and, over dinner, impressed him with his articulacy and seriousness. The producer, Nick Pisani, ended up working on Question Time and, putting his neck on the block, duly invited him along.

The longer answer is that each party can offer the other a chance for mutual repositioning. Question Time gives Pace class: Pace gives Question Time demotic appeal. It's a frank, almost cynical quid pro quo. "My only reason for wanting to go on the programme," says Pace, "was to display the fact that there's more to me than Do Do Ron Ron (Hale and Pace's cockney gangsters)." In return, Question Time dangled Pace like a carrot in front of channel-surfing Generation Xers, though they don't put it quite like that. "Comedians can surprise some of the notions and conventions of the programme and produce a different chemistry," says Mark Damazer, the head of political programmes at the BBC. "It also sends a signal to the audience: you might want to stay and watch what that person's got to say because you've not seen them in that particular light."

The addition of a fifth seat at the table makes the maverick guest a weekly probability. Damazer claims that "in terms of the energy of the programme it probably works better with five than four. But also with four the non-political guest could be isolated."

There is a drawback to this, though. In the first answer of the new series, about ambulances, Ann Widdicombe clocked over two minutes, or one-thirtieth of the entire programme. But the old Kinnockian school of roomy response will be closed down. Politicians' answers will have to make room not only for those of the fifth guest but also for the larger volume of questions. They will be shorter, and therefore sketchier, and no one is better at sketchiness than a comedian. "Comedians are used to having to be snappy and to the point," says Pace, "otherwise they boo you offstage."

This levels the playing field somewhat. Non-political guests will feel less exposed by the thinness of their research. It is Pace's perception that politicians are "extremely well briefed", although Widdicombe is careful to distinguish between being in government and in opposition. "In government it is crucial that you don't make the slightest movement away from collective responsibility on the most obscure thing. In the week you were going on Question Time you received from each department a note on the outstanding issues and the line. In opposition your researcher guesses what the most likely subjects are and you just think of the sorts of way in which you'll answer."

While you can hear a ripple of applause for the idea that politicians have to make their points more concisely, the fact remains that Question Time is their principal televised debating chamber. It is, says Damazer, "absolutely part of the accountability, democracy-in-action stuff", though he may overestimate the extent to which politicians agree, especially now that they have to surrender debating time to journalists and comedians. "I don't feel accountable," says Widdicombe, who wants the fifth panelist removed, "because I don't feel it goes deep enough. It can't always be crunched into a soundbite. Sometimes you need a few sentences."

There is another change that has crept up on regular guests over the years. Christina Odone, the deputy editor at the New Statesman, made her third appearance in the edition Pace made his first. "Three years ago the audience got to ask questions," she says. "But the second time, and this time even more so, the audience was positively encouraged by David Dimbleby and the warm-up act to interrupt and steal the show. It makes it much more of a bearpit because you now know that they could have it in for you. It gives hecklers more space."

Brevity of responses, volubility of the mob, thinner penetration of the issues: we may be witnessing the creeping tabloidisation of Question Time. Damazer even admits that "one of the aspirations I've got for this series is that we'll get more tabloid journalists on."

In its 20 years, the programme has never lured a sitting editor at the Sun. Piers Morgan, the editor of the Mirror, has also turned the programme down. But that may change. Pace, seeking tips on how to bone up for Question Time, was advised to read agenda-setting dailies nominated by the programme; two of the three were the Sun and the Daily Mail.

Pace, who last week went back to his proper job filming a new series of earthy comedy for the BBC, is himself regarded as a tabloid comedian. "Before we went on," he says, "David Dimbleby gave us a little talk and basically said, 'If you want to interrupt, please interrupt. What we want here is an old-fashioned barney.' He wasn't saying 'be rude' but he was saying 'be exciting'. I think they're all aware that's the way to get the viewing figures up."