Election '97: They'd rather have quizzed John Prescott

A long day's wait and the Prime Minister's answer on Europe deflates `Question Time' audience
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Question Time's producers are based in the same suite of offices as the Wandsworth Job Club. But proximity to south London's unemployed is not allowed to influence the television production company's selection of QT's audience - even if the Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe maintained once that Labour voters must be pretending to be Tories in order to get on and heckle her.

The audience for Thursday night's election QT with John Major were the lucky ones. Capron Productions, which has been making QT for the last three years, estimates that each year more than 30,000 people apply to be in the audience.

But this audience is a tired, harassed, lot. For security reasons, Thursday night's show was switched from studios at London Bridge to BBC Television Centre at the last minute and the recording delayed.

Unlike the usual QTs which travel the country, the audience has come from all overthe country and had been waiting for hours in the BBC's audience reception centre. For obscure reasons of fire safety the reception centre doesn't have enough chairs for them all.

"He's getting very bolshie," says worried producer Sue Ayling, indicating a tall man in a hacking jacket and Liberal Democrat sticker. "I think he's a Tory," she says oddly.

The QT audience strongly disproves smart media assumptions about electoral apathy. These people are refreshingly serious about who runs the country.

Before coming Julie Page, 34, from Redcar asked amongst her friends to see what they would ask the prime minister: "I feel quite a responsibility," she said, "because I'm representing a lot of people." She also read more newspapers and tried to keep up with the election, but she was a political animal anyway. "I shout at the screen every week," she says.

Others are hoping to get their question asked so they can alter the nature of the debate: "The environment just has not been mentioned," said Rachel Jennings, 27, a member of Friends of the Earth from Leicester. "I wanted to make sure it gets some airing in the media."

Her partner, Tony Thapar, 27, is another shouter: "Heseltine, definitely. He makes me swear at the telly."

Mr Boulton, 45, a road accident specialist from near Stoke-on-Trent, takes his love of televised politics a step further. "I record the news if I think I'm going to miss it," he says. As a Tory Mr Boulton is sorry about being on when John Major is the guest because he doesn't want to "bowl him any low balls".

Eventually the audience is allowed into the studio and a Mr Stirling- Whyte enquires about how to get into the front row. "They're all getting it taped at home you know," says one of the producers."

Settling into their seats the audience indulges in mass hair-primping, lipstick-applying, and tie-straightening.

But still no sign of John Major. Instead we watch a "best of" video of QT from the last three years to get in the mood. This is standard practice at every QT, but the grilling ministers are given on the tape, about everything from the Scott report to BSE, probably just serves to remind the audience of the shambles the night's guest has presided over.

Few of the audience come expecting to be won over, but there are moments of the kind of voter clarity that gets lost in opinion polls: "I came because I'm working for the Liberal Democrats," says Katie Path, 20, a politics student at the University of Greenwich, "but if Major convinces me he could sort out Northern Ireland I would vote for him. I feel very strongly about getting peace there."

After a warm-up with some BBC executives, nine lucky people are told their question will be one of those asked direct to the prime minister.

The studio manager then juggles around whole rows, swapping the questioners in their seats. This is supposedly for the benefit of boom mikes and cameras, but you can tell everyone suspects there is some aesthetic censorship going on.

Mr Stirling-Whyte ends up in a middle row. One woman sitting behind someone whose question will be asked looks pleased. She'll be on screen, but won't have to worry throughout the programme about fluffing her lines.

Eventually, after a slight nervous hesitation in the wings, Mr Major appears.

He need not have worried. Most of the audience has been on the hoof since lunchtime and it is now 10.30pm. They are tired and for his first 20 minutes Mr Major tackles the intricacies of Conservative policy on Europe. After that the wind is well and truly out of the audience's sails.

"That was very boring and very disappointing," says Rachel Jennings afterwards. But she did get a question in, "So I did get on the telly." But on the whole most of the people spoken to by The Independent would rather have seen John Prescott.

A veiwers' institution

Question Time was first transmitted on 25 September 1979, and since then has become a political institution. Broadcast every Thursday evening on BBC1 during the political season, it allows members of the public to put their questions to politicians and key people from a variety of spheres.

Question Time is broadcast from all parts of the country, as well as from Washington and Paris.

It has the largest audience of any political discussion programme - around 4 million, and a studio audience of 200, who are able to cast their vote electronically on a range of issues. There have been more than 1,700 pannelists since the programme began.

The programme has been presented by David Dimbleby since January 1994. His predecessors were Peter Sissons (1989-1993) and Sir Robin Day (1979- 89).