First Night: Sure footwork from Dimbleby: 'Question Time', BBC Television

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DURING a near hour-long warm-up that the Question Time audience received last night, they practised how to put their hands up.

It was clearly effective. A man in the front row kept his right hand raised for the first 30 minutes of the show.

It contributed to the transformation of Question Time into performance art. David Dimbleby, chairing his first programme, did not trust in the angels on his Paul Smith tie to bring him luck, but in being a man of the people. Fifteen years of Sir Robin Day and Peter Sissons glued to their seats were overturned as Dimbleby leapt up at intervals to join the audience and marshall the questioning.

He was like an amiable shop steward rallying a mass meeting to hector the bosses at the top table.

At the start of the programme, in another break with tradition, the panellists strode on one by one as Dimbleby read out his descriptions of them. A panellist can keep a straight face while being insulted, but not always his footing. The Chancellor almost tripped as he entered to Dimbleby describing his Budget as 'one of the most unpopular since the Tories came into office'.

Dimbleby told the audience during the warm-up at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster: 'This is your programme, it's your chance to say the things you want to say to politicians.' He proved a popular chairman in a debut that promises well.

But there were lessons for him from last night's show. Leaping down to the audience after two panellists, Ken Clarke and John Prescott, Labour's employment spokesman, had spoken on 'back to basics', he asked the audience if they had any comments. They challenged Mr Clarke and he made lengthy riposte, leaving the two panellists who had not spoken looking disgruntled.

Dimbleby was also probably wrong to devote the whole show to politics. A planned question on royalty defecting from the Church of England could have proved lively; and one of the warm-up questions: 'When they were little, what did the panellists want to be when they grew up?' was the kind of light relief the programme often needs.

But having passed his head-to-head audition with Jeremy Paxman, presenter of BBC2's Newsnight, for the role, Dimbleby had a good first night. After the show he said: 'It's a difficult programme as unlike an interview programme where you set the agenda, the agenda is set by everyone. You've got to be on your toes. But it was a lot of fun.'

(Photograph omitted)