Archive for July, 2014

Questionable Time: The Reckoning


questionable time the reckoning

Good morning Lemmings and (as self-indulgently promised) I’m back for one last hurrah – a sort of summary of what 5 years of Questionable Time has left me with – before signing the lease over to Elizabeth and hanging up my QT cap for good. In fact, you can think this post much like the movie Downfall: Simply replace Hitler with myself as the increasingly unhinged tyrant refusing to believe that his nearly-5-year QT Reich is now but a charred wasteland, my cat Champ in the role of post-facto voice of reason Albert Speer, my other cat – Miss Penis-Marie – as the ever-doting Eva Braun and a hammock in place of a bunker. This is it, my Götterdämmerung, my Rapture, The Day It All Falls Apart… To the bitter end Lemmings, to the bitter, bitter end!

The Devil really does have the best tunes…

I’m not really a team player: If push came to shove I’d reluctantly throw my lot in with the Red Team but I’ve been known to stray to the Yellows when Labour have got a little giddy with the precision guided democracy and the Greens on the rare occasions where I’ve had too much hope for breakfast. However, the one consistent feature in my political make-up is that I can’t stand the Tories and on the most base, visceral level there will always this suspicion in me that they are up to no good. As you can probably tell, this is just as much a matter of the gut as it is of the head.

This is not a new thing either. I’ve always been this way and when I first started writing Questionable Time I was acutely aware that it could become a problem – you know, putting together an ostensibly ‘non-biased’ blog when you’re actually prejudiced up to the eyeballs. The weird thing though is that my fears never came to pass and despite some early editions which were a little ‘Rah Rah Tory Twaddlepots’ in the worst possible way, actually being fairly balanced came quite easily. Why? Because Blue Team panelists tend to be infinitely more interesting than their multi-coloured adversaries.

Here’s a good example: Anna Soubry, the newly promoted Minister of State at the MoD with hockey sticks so jolly that they turn water into Pimms – should, by rights, check a respectable number of boxes on my list of Tory allergy warnings but she’s actually ended up being one of my favourite panelists. How can this be? Well, largely because she’s a) human (and by ‘human’ I mean ‘fallible’/’good at buggering stuff up’/’equally good at apologising for stuff buggered up’) and b) she looks incredibly comfortable in her own skin. Granted, our opinions tend to diverge widely and with great velocity but never do you get the sense that she’s contriving to be anything other than Anna Soubry. Hell, even the Tory Rotters of Yore – the Michael Howards, Nigel Lawsons and John Redwoods – they may have an outlandish and frankly dangerous worldview but you know where you are with them: They’re the Baddies, but at least they play the part with aplomb (the same goes for their supporting cast – the Peter Hitchens and Douglas Murrays of this world).

Now – for the purposes of contrast – take Douglas Alexander, the Red Team’s election co-ordinator and Shadow Foreign Secretary: Here’s a man whose every appearance is characterised by a mania for control. You can see it in his face, the way he runs the numbers on every question, treating them like inputs in an algorithm. To him, every statement, every utterance, every gesture is a threat to The Message and must be neutralised with a carefully triangulated response delivered with the use of a cut-and-paste emotional repertoire. It’s not just him either. Much of the Red Team’s newer faces (I’m thinking Reeves, I’m thinking Umunna) also have this inbuilt veneration of The Message that leaves them too terrified to show us anything other than highly censored and vetted glimpses of their true selves.

This isn’t to say that you don’t get ringers on the Blue Team (IDS is still the same zealous missionary of a discredited gospel that he always was while Matthew Hancock appears to be developing an endearing knack for cack-handedness) or that the Red Team are without stars (Alan Johnson – when he’s not suffering from that jerking knee all ex-Home Secs end up with – springs to mind) but taken as a whole, the Tories are – well – just more interesting.

The last 5 years have left me with a grudging respect for both politicians and the QT team.

What do we want?

‘Normal politicians!’

When do we want them?

For breakfast, dinner and tea!

Here’s Tim Farron/John Cruddas/Patrick McLoughlin, will that do?

No! When we said ‘normal’ we meant ‘normal’ like Boris, Farage and Galloway!

…Said every QT crowd/#bbcqt twitter lynch mob ever and do you know what? I’m getting a little bored with it. Yes, we know politics has a massive problem when it comes to connecting with the public and yes, I’ve come to despise ‘professional’ politicians as much as the next man but seriously, this endless demand that we find ‘regular’ politicians comes across as a bit lame when you dismiss anyone who isn’t a dancing horse in the Boris/Farage/Galloway mould as ‘boring’ and ‘just another suit’. Politics isn’t a Michael Bay movie. It’s not something where you can be spoon fed MASSIVE EXPLOSIONS and GRATUITOUS SEXINESS from the comfort of your own sofa. No, the governing of 60 million people is a complicated affair that runs on a protracted timescale and requires more than a little patience and compromise on the part of both the governed and the governors. If you haven’t got the time or inclination for it then fine, but don’t be surprised when your demands for politicians to be everything to everyone leaves them looking like nothing to no one.

In a similar vein, I’d like to extend my sympathies to the QT production crew. I’m not a cheerleader for them by any means and they are not without their sins (the chief one being their tendency to overuse panelists to the point of destruction – I’m sure there’s a refuse area at the back of the QT offices that’s filled with broken Shami Chakrabartis, knackered Baroness Warsis and clapped out Diane Abbotts), but the constant chorus of ‘QT is too right-wing/left-wing/up-wing/down-wing’ gets a little tired when you look at what they have to work with. First of all, they need to make the programme relevant to what’s going on in the here and now while balancing it out so that all ends of the political spectrum get a look in. On this front, I think that they actually do quite well and the panel composition does tend to rotate on a fairly proportional basis (ok, so they did over egg the UKIP pudding but I think the fact that UKIP only ever seemed to want to send Farage amplified this tendency). The same is true of locations for the show and again, despite my constant griping about the number of Scottish episodes, they do tend to share them out reasonably enough. However, the thing that animates the naysayers is always about the questions and it’s here that we only have ourselves to blame.

The process for picking questions on QT is as follows. All of the questions submitted (every audience member gets two – one submitted a few days before via email and one just prior to recording) are gathered up and then formed into piles based on topic. The topic with the biggest pile ends up being the first question, the second biggest the next question and so on (I’m not sure about the final ‘funny’ question though – that might just be at their discretion). As to which question gets picked is up to them to decide but generally speaking it is the audience who dictate the agenda. So how about this for an idea? If you feel that the show’s not adequately representing your corner, why not apply for the audience the next time QT’s in town? You might get picked, you might not (again, this is done proportionately and based on your answers in the application form), but there’s nothing stopping you from giving it a punt and should you get on you’ll probably discover that trying to put a sentence together in the knowledge that several million people are watching is easier said than done. Or done than said. I don’t know, one of the two. Anyway, trust me – I know.

Regrets? I have a few…

…And here they are in no particular order.

  1. I should have watched these much earlier than I did.

  2. Totally gutted that Michael O’Leary never appeared on the show. Yes, it would have probably turned into an hour-long Ryanair commercial but that’s a chance I’d be willing to take.

  3. Similarly, I’m a little upset that Nick Bowles stood me up twice – I’ve always had a feeling he’d be QT gold.

  4. I’ve been sitting on a killer piece about Ed Davey for a good six months now. It was along the lines of how he’s like my ‘smart’ shoes that I have had since I was 18 and only get to see the light of day for weddings and funerals. Explaining it like this makes it sound a bit crap but trust me, it had legs.

  5. I never got to see Grant Shapps drown in a torrent of his own bullshit. He’s come dangerously close on a couple of occasions but the jammy little sod always lives to fight another day. Oh well, the law of averages will inevitably catch up with him. It just won’t be on my watch.

  6. Rhyming scores were the biggest rod for my own back I ever did make.

And lessons learned?

A few of them as well…

  1. Writing 1200 words with a 9am deadline and an 11.40pm kick off is an unremittingly bleak experience.

  2. Writing 1200 words with a 9am deadline and an 11.40pm kick off whilst drunk is an unremittingly farcical experience.

  3. The Internet is a harsh and capricious mistress who will invariably reward your worst posts with the most traffic and the best ones with the least.

  4. If you’re looking for fame and riches, don’t start a blog based on a current affairs show. Start one on pictures of cats or simply scrape and repackage other people’s content into list form if that’s your game.

  5. David Dimbleby looks best in green eyeshadow.

  6. A kind email or comment from someone who ‘gets it’ can suddenly make the 10 hours a week of unpaid labour seem worthwhile.

And that really is your lot. I hope you all stick around for the next stage of Questionable Time’s evolution but this is where we go our separate ways. Thanks for reading and I’m sure our paths will cross again.

Some other time Lemmings, some other time…

Questionable Time #106


questionable time 106 david dimbleby thats all folks

Good morning Lemmings and as the above picture suggests, changes are afoot around these parts – big changes that mean that this will be my last post-QT write-up for the foreseeable future although not the end of Questionable Time itself. However, before I get stuck into explaining all that, there’s still the matter of last night’s show to contend with. Fear not though– this won’t take long.

It’s almost like they knew this would be my last show…

…And decided to celebrate the good news by engineering an episode specifically designed to irritate me. I mean c’mon – Scotland? No politicians? Only four on the panel? Jesus guys, a carriage clock and some WH Smith’s vouchers would have sufficed – no need to go to all the trouble of putting together a personalised nightmare just for me. But they did. They went to all that trouble and more, going so far as to book a panel that is known by no-one in the whole world ever and in a location primarily associated with gorse and darkness. If that wasn’t bad enough there was also a very cruel raising of hopes when I googled “Ricky Ross” and was delighted to find that we would be spending the evening with ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross – an ex-drugs kingpin from LA and all round ne’er-do-well who was sure to spice things up by recommending which asses caps should be popped in and who exactly should lick a shot. Alas, it was not to be as what we were actually getting was Ricky Ross, frontman of seminal mid-80’s twaddle pedlars Deacon Blue and all round walking haircut. Thanks QT production team! This is the best send off a boy could ever hope for!

Things can only get better, right?

Well, sort of. The lack of politicians made for a really odd atmosphere where the crowd – all geed up with the usual appetite for a damn good blaming – found themselves a little stymied by a lack of anyone to really blame for anything other than Alan Savage, a harried looking man who repeatedly got it in the neck for no lesser crime than simply existing/pointing out that a currency is sort of a helpful thing for a country to have. The others fared better though, what with Scott Hastings doing his best to prop Savage up yet ultimately looking like he’d got lost somewhere between a Rotary Club meeting and the Grandstand studio, Joan Burnie displaying an aptitude for both the having and eating of cakes and Ricky Ross actually turning out to be very good despite occasionally veering a little too close to the Bono/Sting Line and hoping that claiming not be a politician would somehow disguise the fact that he very clearly wants to be a politician.

So yes, it wasn’t as bad as I feared but there was something missing in that the stakes weren’t high enough: No one involved was going to get a bollocking if they messed up, no careers were on the line and as a result it all felt like an end-of-term game of rounders where you’re only allowed to throw underarm rather than the usual bare knuckle brawl that’s driven by fear, malice and reckless ambition.

Then something magical happened…

So there I was, drifting in and out of the show as I sat inches away from the telly, trying to get a shot of a man in the crowd who looked like Central Casting’s go-to guy for any Vietnam Vet related role and feeling vaguely miffed that I was going out with such a whimper. Then the camera fell upon a gentleman of advancing years and a very stiff gait – let’s call him ‘The Highlander’. At first it appeared that we were in for a standard ‘doddery old man in very drawn out response’ offering but a few seconds in things started to get weird: First there was talk of love for both Scotland and the Union – fair enough really – but then his face started contorting into this sort of rolling snarl and an arm came jerking up as he moved on to other, more dramatic subjects. There was talk of dead relatives, the Highland Regiment and then – out of nowhere – “BRITISH ARMY! [Unidentifiable chunter] BRITISH FOREVER! WE WILL NEVER CHANGE! WE WILL KEEP OUR UNION TOGETHER IN THE NAME OF JESUS!”. Lemmings, I could have died with delight. They hadn’t forgotten me! They’d laid this guy on especially in lieu of the carriage clock!

But that wasn’t even the half of it: In a breach of the usual Do Not Give Clearly Unhinged Audience Members A Second Bite Of The Cherry protocol, The Highlander was returned to later in the show and treated us to an extended encore that covered the poor (he’s CONCERNED FOR THEM), showing the losers down at the rugby team what’s what (“WATCH ME!”), and blood (I think he was referring to his own but probably wouldn’t have minded if it was someone else’s either). Basically, it was the single greatest display of frothing randomness I have seen to date and a fitting way to draw the curtains on my Questionable Time career. My sincerest thanks go out to whoever booked the audience this week – you’ve made my year – and should anyone wish to relive the glory of The Highlander’s headlong plunge into the abyss, you can do so here and here.

Tl;dr

Ross: 7/10

Slick

Hastings: 5/10

(Built of) Brick(s)

Burnie: 6/10

(Is in good) Nick

Savage: 4/10

(Got a lot of) Stick

The Audience: 5/10

(Were) Quick (to have a go at Savage)

The Highlander: 100/10

Tick(s every single box I ever wanted ticking)

And that was that – a victory from the jaws of defeat that has bookended my time here with considerable aplomb.

So that’s nearly it from it – I say ‘nearly’ because I’m hoping to put up a post next Friday that sort of outlines everything I’ve learned about QT over the last 5 years (5 years!) and also I’m hoping that the new management will let me return to do the odd post every now and then. And who is this ‘new management’? Well, I’m delighted to say that regular Questionable Time contributor Elizabeth has been blagged into willing taken on the role as QT Fuhrer and will now be in charge of things around here.

As for me, well I’m moving on to other things – like colourising photographs for cash monies – but I’ve had a hoot doing this and would like to thank all the regular readers for making this little corner of the internet the strange and rather special place it is. Huge thanks also go out to the following: Jalf, Rick, Benry, Kev and Beef for the years of looking on in a bemused fashion, @markinreading for being a clown of note, @dimblebot for services to evil and nefarious scheming, members of the QT production team past and present for aid afforded, Ellen E. Jones at The Independent for taking a massive punt on me, James Corrigan for all the kindness and assistance, Elizabeth and Mike for their outstanding contributions (both past and future), the Ribs-in-Laws/Frere Ribs/Elder Ribs/Step Ribs for the years of support, the Frau Ribs for putting up with me for all this time and most of all to my mum who – believe it or not – has proofread every one of these reports over the years and made up for the fact that I’m a 34-year-old who still struggles to arrange letters into a coherent order. None of this would have been possible without you guys so heartfelt thanks all around.

Right, I’m done. Come back next week if you wish to see what five years of Questionable Timing does to man (it’s not pretty, I can tell you that for free), but if not then thanks for reading and I hope you continue to come back here when Elizabeth takes the helm in September.

so long lemmings

Questionable Time #105


questionable time 105 david dimbleby dolly parton

Good morning Lemmings and ‘welcome’ to that time of year again. ‘Welcome’ to the dried up creek of political news, ‘welcome’ to that vague sense of unease at the overfriendly weather and more importantly, ‘welcome’ to the season where we get to show the world who’s the #1 nation when it comes to being comprehensively crushed in any number of sporting events. That’s right Lemmings, summer is here and what better way to herald its arrival than by watching 5 random busy bodies try to chug down the dregs of the political cycle without gagging on the futility of it all? None, that’s what. None more better.

Life’s one big exam…

I get this creeping sense of panic whenever I see Jo Swinson on QT, a sense of panic that’s horribly familiar and takes me back to around – ooh, let me see now – almost exactly 18 years to the day. As it happens, it’s also a sense of panic that’s rooted at exactly the same point in time for Swinson as we are but two months apart in age and consequently sat our GCSE’s simultaneously, both in bog standard schools and – I imagine – both in gyms that reeked of both Lynx: Africa and fear. The difference between us is that I’ve somehow managed to forcibly repress those memories into some subterranean strata of my brain so that I may lead a life that isn’t constantly plagued by terror. Swinson, on the other hand, hasn’t and every media appearance she gives just seems to be a rehash of those terrible summer days we both lived through a generation ago.

You can see it in the way she carried herself: There she sat, a little too alert, eyes just a little too wide as she carefully arranged her collection of lucky rubbers on the desk, just waiting for Dimbers to give the word to turn the paper. Then the moment arrived – “Swinson. What say you?”

Come on Jo, come on Jo, you know this stuff. You’ve spent the last 6 months boning up on it while all the cool kids were necking Cherry 20/20, purposely overfeeding each others Tamagotchis and insisting that you don’t need GCSE’s to work in the arcade. You know it, you’ve just to get it on the damn paper!

And so she did. She got it on the paper. All of it. Every last bit that she could think of, all going at a million miles an hour in an effort to impress upon the examiner that she really knows her onions. But there was also something else she was trying to impress the examiner with and it’s something that was very big in the mid-90’s: Giving an answer so balanced that there’s next to no room for an actual opinion in it. It looks like this:

So there’s this thing that some people think are ‘good’ because of X,Y, and Z but not everybody thinks it good and would even go so far as to say it’s ‘bad’ because of A, B and C but at the end of the day we can never really know so wouldn’t it be nice if could just all be friends and come up with a bland compromise that doesn’t really satisfy anyone?

That bit where she tried to point out that people shouldn’t have to move to Manchester but furiously backtracked with a spiel about how the North is actually a very nice place to live in and then name checked every major urban centre in turn? That’s what I’m talking about and had she been sitting a 1996 GCSE paper then it would be A*’s all round. But unfortunately she wasn’t: She was on Question Time and the marking regime around these parts is structured to reward confrontation, bloody-mindedness and a certainly level of skullduggery, not the high-velocity blancmange of sat fences that Jo gave us last night.

I however am a little more forgiving and inclined to cut her a some slack as it’s hard to describe just quite how hellbent the education system of the mid-90’s was in making sure that you never really believed in anything. You could know a great deal but to believe? Well that just wasn’t on.

So Jo, fair-to-middling marks for you although I suspect I’m in the minority on this front. Don’t listen to the naysayers though. They don’t know. THEY DON’T KNOW CUZ THEY WEREN’T THERE, MAN!

The promising backstory that never quite delivered…

I had high hopes for Bernard Jenkins last night, hopes based highly around the following:

  1. He’s a Tory back bencher of the nuttier, self-destructive ilk and they tend to make for QT fun.

  1. Being the MP who had to pay back more than £30k in the expenses scandal gives him a Kryptonite like vulnerability to pretty much everything.

  2. He is reputedly “the most famous occasional natureist in the Palace of Westminster” (see Fig. 1).

bernard jenkin nudist

Fig. 1

Sadly, this magical cocktail of potentiality failed to deliver any true displays of weirdness but did lead to a very disappointing moment of level headedness on all things housing. Bah. What’s wrong with Tory backbenchers these days? It’s almost like they don’t want their party to implode into a miasma of internal strife and recrimination.

T’was a night for the Old Boys…

Jo Swinson may well have been doing ten to the dozen last night but it was a wholly more relaxed affair when it came to Alan Johnson and Peter Hitchens, both of whom kept their blood pressures well and truly within the recommended limits. For Johnson this was largely achieved by not having to answer any question that bring out the ex-Home Secretary in him, but also because he just seemed to casually stroll through the show, occasionally trading the odd blow here and there but always on the ground of his choosing. As for Hitchens, well I can only assume that his late addition to the line-up didn’t give him sufficient time to fully spin up his Tizzy Circuits but he did at least paw gently at Jenkins from time-to-time.

In a word, ‘mellow’.

And Blower?

Hard to say really given how routine everything appeared. No major calamities, no shocking gains, just a by-the-numbers stroll through a park called Question Time. However, I am glad that a member of the teaching profession was there – even if only to add another layer of terror to Jo’s GCSE flashback.

Tl;dr

Swinson: 5/10

(Appeared) Glued (to her exam paper)

Jenkins: 5/10

(Disappointingly not in the) Nude

Johnson: 7/10

(Bit of a) Dude

Hitchens: 6/10

(Was uncharacteristically) Subdued

Blower: 5/10

Exude(d teacherliness)

The Crowd: 6/10

Ballyhooed (and whatnot)

And so it was… A fairly unremarkable affair for a fairly unremarkable week enlivened only my some oddball bellowing about Batman and the Riddler to no obvious end. Right, I’m done – come back next week for the final of the series which sounds both unconventional and Scottish. Joy.

Next week Lemmings, next week…


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