Behind the Scenes at BBC’s Question Time

FOR LITTLE over 30 years, Question Time has hosted the important debates, sometimes causing them,  due to the questions content, the audience or the panel. But how do they do it? What goes on behind their set every week? Writes Teo Beleaga

I got the chance to speak with Rob Hopkin, the current Director of Question Time, who gave me an insight into the show’s secrets.

“At the heart of the programme is the audience,” states the Question Time website page; a rather bold statement that one could easily perceive as advertising. But Alison Fuller, the Audience Producer for the programme, will prove you wrong. Every week she has to select the audience, and depending on the city they are in, this might mean she has to consider over 4,000 applications a week.

This process involves checking the background of everyone against their political affiliations, campaign involvement’s, advertising intentions and many other factors. As the 150 people she singles out are to embody the image of a city in the eyes of the rest of the programme’s audience, one could easily argue her job is probable the most important one.

Rob explained the routine audience members go through each week: “When the audience turns up, we give them tea and biscuits, and they go through the whole process, but most importantly of all, we give them pens and paper and little cards for them to write their questions on.”

He added: “So whilst they are waiting, we show them the BBC 6 o’clock news, the ITV’s 6.30 news and the Channel 4 7 o’clock news. It is very important that people ask questions about what is in the news that day.”

Although people get to prepare questions before they arrive, it’s likely that the questions  are in regard to old news and not be of any interest for the show’s editorial team to pick up.

Rob Hopkin describes the selection process: “Most of the questions are selected on the day. All the pieces of cards with the questions are brought to the editorial team, and they just separate the good questions from the not so good ones, and they end up with about eight to ten questions. But we won’t have time for that; we might have time for five or six questions. But we need to have extras, just in case.”

Talking about the nature of the questions Rob stresses: “This is the crucial thing because we are always being accused of telling the audience what questions to ask. People think that what we do is take our questions, give them to the audience, and get them to read them out. But that absolutely does not happen.

“Doing that would undermine the whole premise, and what’s the point in that. The programme is absolutely upfront; it does what it says on the package: this is the audience asking questions to the politicians.

“The other thing that we are accused of is that we have told the politicians what the questions are. I can guarantee you we do not do that. They sit there and they do not know what the audience is going to ask, because of the mystery you get when you catch people unaware. Again it is crucial to get the initial reaction to the question. You can see that, and we are here to expose and to reveal things by getting the slightly more honest response from people.”

This gives the programme a journalistic edge, with every member of the editorial team having years of experience behind them.

“To actually achieve the level of technical expertise, you have to have the confidence in operating this heavy equipment, as quickly as we ask them to,” argues Rob, “you can’t put fairly young or inexperienced people in; they’ve got to have some years of being in control of things and be prepared to put independent thought into it.”

The reasoning behind this it’s rather obvious. Although the show is not live, the production team has less than an hour after they finish recording, and before the show goes on air. This means they have no time for bad shots to be edited and all they do is crop bits of filming here and there, tacking in account the legal matters and the audience’s emotions when talking to a camera.

Rob explains: “I’ve had conversations with experienced journalists who have watched this, but never seen it in operation, and they say, ‘Well you must do an awful lot of post-production and editing.’ and I say ‘No, it goes out as we record it. We record it and send it, and that’s it.’ and they say ‘But you must do a lot of edits to tighten the sound up.’ and I say ‘No, there’s never high end tie, because the boom mikes have a spotter, who’s watching and saying “That person it’s pointing to the person up here. That’s Green mike.” and Green mike goes “That’s me.” and when David goes “Gentlemen on the front row of the back…” he’s already there. So the person says “Oh yes, I’d like to ask so and so…” and that way the system works. It’s a technique and a process that’s been honed over 30 years of this programme.”

Being a show with little or no script, where people are brought together to argue their views and get their answers, it might seem impossible to keep an audience of 150 and a panel of 5 strongly opinionated personalities together, but Rob confidently claims: “That’s all David’s work. He’s the chairman and he’s responsible for them.”

By Teo Beleaga


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