I FEATURE 'I‘sIST
l I suspect it may be the sight ofwell
I known people squirming under a barrage ofpointed. hostile — and sometimes only just short ofabusive — questions from a group ofspotty adolescents (or ‘young persons‘ as the Beeb prefer to call them) that has made ()pen to Question such a roaring success. More probably it is the chance to see said celebrities not let off the hook by ‘professional‘ interviewers with one eye on the autocue and the other on their make up. Whatever the reason. since its inception in 1984. Open to Question has been a justified feather in Queen Margaret Drive‘s cap.
The idea of feature producer. David Martin. the first series was shown solely in Scotland but such was its impact that the repeats were shown nationally as were the subsequent two series. Television bigwigs south of the border must have been impressed — together with the public and media — by the impact of the now famous Enoch Powell session which may have been patronising. occasionally bad tempered and at times badly handled but was GREAT television. Cecil Parkinson. who bore up manfully in the face of a grilling about the Belgrano and Ugandan affairs caused such shockwaves at Central Office that even now. Conservative M Ps are notoriously loath to accept invitations. pleading ‘urgent constituency business‘ as an excuse.
What the first series proved was that 'good‘ interviews were not as good as ‘bad‘ interviews in the sense that no one is happy ifthe subject is given an easy time of it. The exception being Billy Connolly who weathered an early storm to have the teenage audience eating out of his hand and. in the process. give BBC Scotland an extra programme they had not intended and which they proceeded to screen at every available opportunity. The other thing it proved was the wisdom of having a presenter(s) nearer the age of the audience than the subject.
Unfortunately the first pairing of Hilary O‘Neil and Michael McFarlane was not quite up to it. Recruited in the wake ofthe Mr Speaker. Sir university debating series from Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively they bridged the age gap well but often allowed themselves to be browbeaten by more senior and experienced guests. such as Powell. This matter was rectified with the appearance ofJohn Nicolson. McFarlane‘s partner in the winning
‘ world debatingchampionshipteam. he had also been approached by producer Martin after Mr Speaker, Sir. but went off to Harvard to do research before going on to become a speechwriter for Democratic Senator. Daniel P. Moynihan. Having kept in touch with Martin during his sojourn in Washington he returned to step into the gap created
by O‘Neil‘s and McFarlane’s
shuffling into the depths ofthe
current affairs department.
Nicholson. a quietly spoken and
l outrageously intelligent young man has already captured the heart of at least one well known female Glasgow journalist and. at only 25.
6 The List 17 — 30 October
‘Open to Question' presenter with a glum-lo‘o
has the brightest of futures ahead of him. His poise and assurance in front of the camera is remarkable and he is clearly not going to be overawed by anyone. although he admits to feeling slightly nervous at the prospect of handling heavyweight politician Denis Healey later in the series. ‘Robin Day says he has the best intellect of any politician he‘s met‘ he explains.
In the light of all this you would think that a prospective guest would have to be at best foolish. or at worst masochistic. to agree to appear. Ian Botham. this week‘s guest may not be the latter. but is arguably the former. Arriving from a long and troubled ﬂight from Kuwait he complains of having had only 6 hours sleep in the past three days. He does. however appear remarkably casual at the prospect ofthe programme. Asked if he had seen any previous programmes he tells me: ‘I only watch sport and Dempsey and
Is Wilson on a sticky wicket? Can Botham handle the bouncers? Graham Caldwell looks at two television audience participation talk shows.
Makepeace.‘ Not because he is mindless. it transpires. but because he fancies Glynis Barber. ‘I tried to warn him.‘ says one of the researchers. ‘but he wouldn‘t listen. Someone else tells me he claims that ifhe can handle Fleet Street then he can handle a bunch ofschool kids. ‘But he can‘t handle Fleet Street.‘ one wisecrack points out.
Watching the recording with accompanying teachers in the Green Room it is apparent that most there are pretty anti-Botham. When he complains of being tired some wag claims. ‘he‘s probably half-cut.‘ This is a gross slander on a man who had drunk only mineral water and milk
since 5 o‘clock that morning. It is also apparent where the ‘young persons‘ get their questions from. Teachers cheer on their pupils like athletes and when one is caught out on some dodgy research her teacher mutters: ‘Damn. caught us there‘ under his breath. In the studio.
Botham does indeed seem surprised at his reception. which is fairly hostile from the word go. Manfully he gets through; scoring some points on his attitude to blood sports and losing some on his inability to reconcile his attack on the gutter press with his contract to write for The Sun. ‘The worst of the bunch‘ as one young person properly points out.
The ‘high point‘ or. to put it another way. the thing most likely to get him into trouble with the Test and County Cricket Board. comes when he is questioned on his dabbling with drugs. ‘Let‘s get something straight. I don‘t regard marijuana as a drug‘. he says going on to explain that it was something he dabbled in over a period of time (‘How long‘.’ Five years. ten years?‘ one girl persists) then claiming that he‘s a better person for the experience. Curbing the urge to rush out and phone The News ofthe World with this salacious piece of news I stay till the end of the recording to await the verdict.
‘A bit defensive. I thought‘ says senior producer Charles Nairn before dashing off to Carlisle to make a programme about animals. The general feeling is the same. Unfortunately we can’t hear what Botham thinks as he has rushed off back to Thirsk to spend some much needed time with his wife and family before jetting offwith the rest ofthe England team on a 27 hour ﬂight to defend the Ashes.
Each programme is carefully dissected in the hospitalin room over a few glasses ofwine. The general concensus is that the programme. with some judicious editing. will be a success. The missing bits. in case you‘re interested concern a long and tedious debate on his attitude to nappy washing and the audience‘s referring to information sheets painstakingly produced by the BBC‘s research department. ‘He kept saying we‘d taken things out of context when we hadn‘t‘ complained one. It appears that guests are prone to telling fibs on air. Derek Hatton. on being questioned on the morality of wearing an expensive. designer sports shirt claimed it was a fake. ‘lt was a real Lacoste‘. asserts a BBC man. ‘I looked afterwards.‘ llis mentioning ofhis sponsors. .V'ike will probably be left in. ‘because it‘s funny‘. Botham had. after all gone to pains to make sure he was wearing one oftheir T-shirts.
Dragging myself away from the excellent free wine dispensed by the BBC hospitality people I make my way down in search ofsome ‘young persons“ opinions. One group. brought up at not inconsiderable expense from Somerset. indicate that it was not what they had been expecting. ‘I thought we were going to talk about cricket‘. complains one. provoking the jaundiced retort
from an engineer: ‘that‘s the trouble , with inviting sportsmen. They want I to talk about sport.‘ Approaching i another group from Bristol 1 ask
them if they had learned anything l about lan Botham they didn‘t previously know. The collective and ] overwhelming answer is ‘no‘. but