Saturday, August 16, 2008
The 'Any Questions' Experience
I must admit I don't normally get nervous before appearing on radio or TV, but yesterday was different. There's enormous potential to make a complete dick of yourself on ANY QUESTIONS, and the thought of the four hour drive home afterwards thinking I had done really badly nagged away at me all day. As the panel walked on to the stage at the King's School in Ottery St Mary I whispered to my fellow panellist Sarah Sands: "I'd rather be interviewed by Paxman."
We were all asked to arrive at the Bowd Inn, near Sidmouth, for a pre-programme dinner with Jonathan Dimbleby at 6pm. Sarah Sands and Mary Beard were already there when I arrived, having travelled down by train. I had left Tunbridge Wells at 10am and had a good drive round the M25 and down the A30. I arrived in the area at around 2pm and spent the afternoon relaxing and reading the papers. I kept asking myself if I had done enough preparation, while all the time knowing in the back of my mind that I often perform best when I have done absolutely no preparation whatsoever.
The pre-programme dinner was very jolly, with Jonathan Dimbleby entertaining us with anecdote after anecdote, and telling us of his new job chairing Index on Censorship. Although I had met Sarah Sands before I didn't know Mary Beard (a left of centre Cambridge Don) or Tim Smit from the Eden Project. Attending the dinner beforehand was very useful in that it enabled us all to build a little bit of a rapport and size each other up. It was clear from the outset that Tim and I might well have a major disagreement on the programme. Jonathan left the dinner before the rest of us to head to the venue and choose the questions with his producer, Lisa Jenkinson.
There wasn't much discussion about the likely question areas, although we were all obsessed about the final 'funny' question'. But we did agree that GM foods was a definite possibility, given Jonathan Dimbleby's position as the recently retired Chairman of the Soil Association.
At 7.30pm we were taken the five miles to the School and spent ten minutes in the library, while the audience was warmed up by a man from BBC Radio Cornwall. There were about 350 people packed in the Assembly Hall. The local paper took a group photo of us as 'show time' approached.
As we walked out onto the raised stage, I looked out to the audience almost willing them to be responsive. I know I perform best when there is audience reaction - it's almost immaterial whether it's positive or negative. At 7.55 Jonathan asked a member of the audience for the warm up question which was: "Forty years on from Woodstock, which Woodstock Act would you like to see in a 2008 Woodstock". Oh bugger, I thought, I haven't got a clue who sang at Woodstock. I was called on last, and explained that my musical knowledge didn't extend back before 1974 and Abba, but the only sixties act worth hearing again would, of course, be Sir Cliff Richard. The men in the audience groaned, and all the 'women of a certain age' cheered!
Before we knew it, we heard the Radio 4 pips and after the news, off we went. That empty feeling in my stomach was disappearing... Jonathan finished introducing me by saying that I host the theatre show 'A Night With Ann Widdecombe'. He mischievously looked at me and asked: 'Is that a whole night?' I rolled with the audience laughter and replied: 'That's for me to know and you to guess'. Cue more audience laughter. We were on our way and having got an audience reaction my nerves had gone. It was a good way for Jonathan to put me at my ease.
We had three questions which I had predicted - on Georgia, Policy Exchange and GM Foods, and two questions which I hadn't - and nor had anyone who left comments in the previous thread. One question asked if we agreed with the Judge who said that a broken society was equally as apocalyptic as global warming and the other one posed the question as to how we could encourage boys to read more books. The final 'funny' question asked what alternative career path we would have taken had we not chosen to do what we currently do.
I had a good spat with Tim Smit on global warming. I expressed some scepticism about man made global warming, which both Tim and Jonathan seemed rather surprised by. He asserted that not a single scientist disagreed with the fact that global warming is entirely man made. I took issue with that and quoted the example of the UN report, for which many dissenting scientists had lost their jobs and were considered almost heretical. Tim had to agree I was right. I also layed into Greenpeace and others for refusing to debate the issue because they regard the argument as already won. Jonathan then asked the audience if they shared my scepticism and rather to all our surprise found that half of them did. Greenpeace clearly haven't won the argument if the Ottery St Mary audience is anything to go by.
Anyway, it all seemed to go by very quickly and I found the whole experience most enjoyable. I think I avoided the 'making a dick of yourself' factor - unless of course you tell me different! - although I think there were a couple of questions where I missed a trick or two.
After the programme we had a drink with the Ottery St Mary town councillors who had hosted the event and I left at around 9.30pm to drive back to Kent.
Much of the journey was spent thinking about how I could have done better, but also wondering if I had hogged it a bit. Sometimes saying less is more. Hopefully I did well enough to be invited back. Time will tell!
NB The programme is repeated at 1.10pm today, and then followed by ANY ANSWERS. It's then available for 7 days on the BBC iPlayer. If you listen to it, I hope you enjoy it.
Mary Beard's blog, A DON'S LIFE is HERE.
The transcript of ANY QUESTIONS is HERE.