Behind the scenes @BBC5Live – Question Time Extra Time

Walking into Quay House at MediaCityUK, you can understand why many BBC staff are quite happy with the move from London. Luxurious modern offices. Clean white walls. Well kept. Not your usual PFI quality here, architectural prowess went into this building. Being shown into the main offices, I found myself in the main BBC Atrium, you know, the place you see as the backdrop of many interviews on the news.

The BBC 5 Live desks are bustling with activity. At half nine in the evening you’d expect an office to be long empty, but the scene was almost frantic. It’s the first time they are running the new Question Time Extra Time format, and you can tell there was tension tonight to get it right.

Audio technicians are in the studio organising the rats-nest of cables hooked up to microphones, information screens, speakers and video cameras. In my count, there was six. Some younger assistants were monitoring social media feeds, generating some online hype for the show. Surrounding a large table are production managers and editors watching a pre-broadcast version of Question Time before it airs at 10:45pm. They are discussing the episode, choosing what clips to segment for the show later and devising questions that will generate debate with phone-in listeners. The Dominic Raab clip ‘was sure to create some interest’ commented someone on the table. I was quickly ushered away – I wasn’t supposed to see the episode yet. It seems that the BBC pride themselves on creating a suspension of disbelief that the show is live, and they wouldn’t want some pesky PhD student to start tweeting about it early.

I was on BBC Question Time Extra Time on the 11th January. If you haven’t heard, I clearly hadn’t spammed Twitter enough.

I was introduced to my fellow panellists that I would be on air with later in the evening. The atmosphere was friendly. We all knew we’d been selected specially for our polar-opposite political views, but the casting team had done a great job to make sure everyone present was civil enough. Our sole point of contact so far, Rachel, a broadcast journalist, seemed genuinely interested in conversing with us. Partly to gauge us a little face-to-face before trusting us to be allowed on air, but also partly because she had some free time; asking some in-depth questions on my research with an apparent degree of interest.

It felt oh-so-different to the normal academic conference hosting I’ve come to expect. No awkward small talk, and no mechanical mass-produced hospitality. You know, the types with giant coffee flasks on fold up tables. And not a horrid individually wrapped biscuit in sight. Not here. Someone had ran upstairs to the canteen and delivered a selection of snacks on a plastic tray. It felt a little haphazard, but you cant help feeling extremely welcome. Adrian Chiles popped over to nab himself a pear from the tray under the guise of introducing himself, after shaking everyone’s hand, he made a cheeky joke and left to prepare for the evening.

Rachel probed our thoughts on the latest self-indulgent headline by Nigel Farage on the suggestion of a second referendum. She then hinted it would be quite useful to remember this for the show later. She ran us through the plan for tonight. Fifteen-minutes on air before Question Time would air, we would then watch the show, and spend the rest of the night on air until one am. Tonight certainly wasn’t scripted but it was guided.

Chris Mason and Adrian would be hosting. Adrian, a sports show host and not your normal political journalist, seemed to provide that radio gravitas needed to keep listeners interested, while Chris provided the real political talent. Both had mountains of notes in front of them filled with facts about Islington, biographic information on Question Time guests, and the latest news.

We were sat in the studio, the cameras on, microphones live. The show had started.

At least for the first part of the show. This seemed like a warm up before the real show went live on BBC One. This is the bit not on iPlayer, which is quite unfortunate because I made quite a brutal comment a man who’d once been called a ‘ham injected with male privilege.’

After 20 minutes, we were back in The Atrium watching Question Time as broadcast with the other panellists. It felt a little more apprehensive between the panellists than before – as we discussed the topics debates between us and our political differences came to light. I said to myself ‘Don’t go debating now, they want us to do that on air later’. So, I tried to make only fleeting comments.

It wasn’t before long before we was back in the studio.

Oddly, and deceptively, I didn’t feel nervous in the room. I’ve done lectures, and you get to see your audience, you can measure their reactions immediately. This is normally terrifying. But in that studio, it feels like a lounge. You forget there is anything up to one million people watching live, either on the radio, online, or on the BBC red button. There’s no indication in the studio that anyone is watching the show. I’ve always been told about ‘the trap’ in these situations. A trap many newbie MPs often find themselves in. Without an audience, and with a friendly host, you can find yourself too conferrable, forget where you are, and say something you’d later come to regret. It’s the source of many gaffs. I can say I have a new appreciation for this trap, not that I made a gaff (I hope?). Of course, I was only comfortable as a state of mind, the chairs seemed to be rejects from a repressive regime torture chamber. Only slightly less comfortable than a plastic stool.

Throughout the night, you could tell having three additional people in the room was a technical burden. My microphone repeatedly broke until the audio technicians gave up and left me sharing one with comedian Gráinne Maguire.

Other technical difficulties included us not being able to hear phone-in viewers, Chris nearly dipping his microphone into his tea, and the hosts phone-in information screens repeatedly jumping into screensaver mode causing havoc. At one stage, the wrong clip was played live on air, leaving everyone confused. Adrian shouted to the editors asking why the clip couldn’t be stopped, only for him to shake his head in frustration with whatever information was given into his ear piece. On the grand scheme of things, these were only minor difficulties that gave a little humour throughout the night more than anything else.

It wasn’t long before it was 1am. I got a little joke in about the Daily Mail and the show was wrapped up. It was almost congratulatory in nature. The behind the scenes talent were happy that the new format seemed a success. Selfies were had, hands were shaken, and goodbyes were made. While it was successful, it was clear it had been a long night for the staff. A Domino’s pizza box laid bare on one of the desks, while other desks had an assortment of takeaway boxes and coffee cups strewn across them. A stark difference to the clean and kept appearance I was first introduced to. Now the offices looked lived in. It was clear people wanted to get off home.

After a little chat with the hosts and behind the scenes staff, I was in the taxi and on the way to bed.

Overall, it was an entertaining experience. My prior contact with a radio studio was through a fleeting visit as a MPs’ bag carrier (other than prank calling Rock FM with my friends as a teenager). This was wholly different. If anything, I have a new appreciation for the work that goes on during these shows. The prior research, planning and preparation to the technical side. It was also reassuring to see that even the hosts never really get used to being on air, and seeing their before show rituals to ‘get themselves into the grove of things’. Nobody likes their own voice – something that’s kept me experimenting with a vlog or equivalent. It was somewhat comforting to know that it’s seemingly not just me, even radio hosts get apprehensive at first. The whole night gave me a little more confidence in that regard. So, my biggest take away is … do as Chiles do… and just talk until you’re in the grove of things. Who knows, maybe this is the start of something different?

If you want to see the actual episode of Question Time Extra Time, it’s live on BBC iPlayer for another 25 days here: