Good morning Lemmings and brace yourselves because we've got a slightly different flavour of Questionable Time this week. Had this been just another Thursday, 10.35pm would find me arranged in a supine position on the sofa, mouthing obscenities at a flickering screen and berating the cats for their obvious lack of interest. This Thursday however, was different. Instead - thanks to a mixture of bluff, guile and Twitter-stalking - I somehow managed to scale the walls of the QT fortress, negotiated my way past the guardhouse (“This isn't the obsessive dork you're looking for...”) and found myself watching the show in the all-too-horrible fidelity of real-life. I saw things Lemmings, things no man should see... Allow me to explain.
The holding area is a people-watcher's dream...
Having been in the audience before, I am no stranger to the holding area (the place where the audience assemble prior to filming) and I know well its terrifying power. If I cast my mind back to that first encounter I can feel my stomach turning all over again, remembering the awful sensation that comes with the knowledge that a) you're about to be on telly, b) you might actually have to say something and c) there's every chance that you might make a pigs ear out of it in front of an audience of millions. It's buyers remorse writ large. Luckily for me, that wasn't the case last night as having blagged a 'guest seat' (the out-of-shot row off to the side) I was well and truly out of harms way. I could just kick back and take long, deep breaths of other people's fear. And oh, what a heady scent it is.
There are two distinct groups in the holding area and their anxiety plays out in different ways. For the first group – the loners whose friends were canny enough to turn down an invitation to tragedy – it's a quiet but visible terror, one which makes the legs jiggle, the eyes dart and the palms sweat while for the others – the team-handed – it's a more vocal display of nervous laughs and high velocity yammering. Most of the loners busy themselves by endlessly going over the question they're going to submit but every now and then you see a pair of them gravitate towards one another, gingerly at first but then all of sudden looking like they've known each other for years. This pairing-off quietly ripples across the room and as it does, you can feel the tension easing...That is until the Big Man arrives.
Time to pay Dimbleby his dues...
It's been a solid Questionable Time rule that aside from applying his face to the ludicrous, I don't do much in the way of Dimbers. This law stems from a mixture of the practical (it's somewhat challenging to write about the same person week in, week out) and the judicious (he holds all the cards and that just doesn't seem fair in a weekly deathmatch format). This week though, I'm saying to hell with the rules and finally giving credit where credit's due: Dimbers is damn good at his job.
The first time the audience meet him is in the holding area and the sight of this angst ridden rabble suddenly going weak at the knees is another one of those things that makes the whole process so fascinating to watch. On this occasion the holding area happened to be in a lecture theatre and given that I was loitering near the lectern I was treated to a grandstand view of an angst-ridden rabble suddenly melt into a slush of dreamy eyes and blissed-out grins.
So how does he do this? Well, part of it is that he just looks mischievous but it's mostly down to his ability to make you feel like you're in on a secret. For example, this week we were treated to an anecdote about how a Question Time crowd got inadvertently swapped with a Top of the Pops audience (Oh, the money I would give to watch a QT crowd being made to get down and boogie!), a frighteningly good Tony Benn impression and the tale of an audience member who claimed to have been murdered. More than that though, he conveys a sense that no matter how slippery or evasive the buggers are, he's going to make those poor saps on the panel pay and he needs your help to do it. Again, the change is visible: The crowd's mile-wide-smiles take on a more fangy, savage edge, their nostrils flare and you can almost hear the chanting in their heads: Kill the pigs! Cut their throats! Kill the pigs! Bash them in!
So the show itself?
I have to admit that I didn't catch that much of the show last night as my seat was so tucked away that I couldn't actually see what was going on but I will say this: Despite my usual fear of Gove, he actually did rather well last night. Of course, York - a stud of deep blue on that belt of red leather that keeps the nation's political trousers from falling down – was always going to be a benign climate to operate in but his use of the Yadda-Yadda Play marks a first in QT history.
As for Thornberry, I thought she got a tougher ride than she deserved. I know the Red Team aren't that popular in York but at least she managed to go the whole evening without blowing chunks of One Nation and Squeezed Middle over everyone (something that's been a particularly annoying habit of Labour panelists recently).
And what of the noobs? Well, not a bad first innings for Bennett (although she's got big shoes of hemp and sunbeams to fill following Lucas' departure), Horowitz seems to know what he's doing in a very crowdpleasing sort of way and Littlewood is stone cold crazy but assertive enough for that to come across as So Crazy That It Might Just Work. And that'll do for me.
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