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Behind the scenes at BBC’s Question Time

February 11th, 2010Posted by in Broadcasting

For a little over 30 years, BBC panel show Question Time has been at the centre of controversial debate in the UK. But how do they do it? What goes on behind the set week in week out? I got the chance to speak with the programme’s director Rob Hopkin, who gave me an insight into the secret of producing a show like Question Time.

According to the the Question Time website, the heart of the programme is its audience. “We don’t invite anyone” said Hopkin. “We have a dedicated producer who chooses a representative audience that reflects the demographic length. It is an honestly picked audience.” Every week audience producer Alison Fuller has to select the audience and, depending on the city they are in, this can mean considering more than 4,000 applications. This process involves checking the background of every applicant against their political affiliations, campaign involvements, advertising intentions, and many other factors.

As the 150 people she selects are intended to embody the image of their city in the eyes of the programme’s nationwide audience, her job is one of the most important for the programme’s production.

Those selected to appear in the audience are invited to arrive at 6:00pm, but the programme records from 8:30pm to 9.30pm. This gives them over two hours of waiting. So what happens while they wait?

“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,” explained Hopkin. “While they are waiting, we show them BBC’s News at Six, the ITV’s 6.30pm News and Channel 4’s 7:00pm news. It is very important that people ask questions about what is in the news that day.”

Hopkin described the question selection process: “Most of the questions are selected on the day. All the pieces of card 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. And often there are questions which are very good but on the same topic, so we might have two questions on the same topic. But we need to have extras, just in case.”

Asked about the origin of the questions, Hopkin stressed that they come from no-one but the audience: “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 we do not do that. They sit there and they do not know what the audience is going to ask. […] You can see that, and we are here to expose and to reveal things by getting a slightly more honest response from people.”

This approach gives the programme a journalistic edge, with every member of the editorial team having years of experience behind them. The average age of these “very sharp cookies”, as Hopkin describes them, is in the early 30s.

The production team, roughly 50 strong, is also made up of very experienced staff. “To achieve the right level of technical expertise you have to have the confidence in operating this heavy equipment as quickly as we ask them to,” said Hopkin, “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.”

Although the show is not live, the production team has less than an hour after they finish recording before the show goes on air. This means there is not time for serious editing. All the team can do is crop bits of film here and there, taking into account legal matters and the audience’s emotions when talking to camera.

Hopkin explained: “I’ve had conversations with experienced journalists who have watched Question Time 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.’ 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 says: ‘That’s me’. When David says ‘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.”

On the set, a simple count reveals four spotters with boom mikes and eight cameramen. One of these is the steady cam, which needs another member of the team to carry the wires. “Given timing, for my role as the director, I can’t direct and call every shot,” confesses Hopkin. “What happens is that they all know the areas they can cover from where they operate, and they know the kind of shots they can get, and they know the programme so well that when somebody starts to speak they immediately offer the shot. So my job becomes one of saying, ‘That’s lovely. Thank you very much indeed, I’ll take that’ or ‘No, I won’t have that’. It’s more selection than direction. You don’t have to drive this crew, the crew are very safely driving themselves.”

During their two rehearsals they check the mikes and the shots over and over again. They even do a mock question, with the panel and David Dimbleby, right before they start shooting, adding up to a staggering three rehearsals and many more checks. Being a show with little or no script, where people are brought together to argue their views and get their answers, it might seem quite impossible to keep an audience of 150 and a panel of 5 strongly opinionated personalities together, but Hopkin very calmly says: “That’s all David’s work. He’s the chairman and he’s responsible for them.”

The show runs in a different city every week, produced out of the six trucks it travels with, as there’s no Question Time headquarters except for production offices in Oxford, London and Scotland.

I ask Rob if the travelling can get too much, but he shrugs it off:  “Oh I don’t travel for over 30 weeks. You come up and you do the show, and then you go back home.” It’s a busy schedule, but to him it’s just another job: “I have lots of other things to do; this is just a day a week.”

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