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Question Time is as stoic a British institution as red letterboxes. Having graced the BBC for more than 40 years, presenters have come and gone, but the format has remained resolutely familiar: a weekly forum in which a studio audience scrutinizes a panel of those in power. But that was until coronavirus came along.
For the first time in Question Time‘s history last week, the show was recorded without an audience. Instead, questions were posed over a video link to guests, who were sat a healthy distance apart from each other and were stripped of the comfort of a desk on which to jot down their notes. It was a spectacle that would look truly bizarre in normal times, but these are far from normal times.
In fact, executive producer Nicolai Gentchev said he has never experienced making television in more unusual circumstances. “Producers are there to anticipate problems and solve them. The difference now is just the rate at which they are coming. I’ve never experienced anything like this. This is utterly unprecedented outside of wartime,” he told Deadline.
He is running the show in much the same way that many of us are living our lives at the moment: taking each day as it comes. That means a spirit of adaptability is running through the conversations with his team — a team that is not just covering the pandemic, but is also part of the evolving crisis. It’s why this week’s show, which will broadcast tonight at 8 PM on BBC One, will look and feel different again after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the country on lockdown for three weeks.
Question Time tours the UK, ensuring that audiences from all corners of the country get the opportunity to pose questions that matter to them. But the coronavirus restrictions have halted the show’s road trip and Question Time is now hunkering down in a war bunker of sorts. The show is being filmed at a location on the outskirts of London that producers are keen to keep under wraps, while questions will continue to be taken from a different part of the country. This week, the people of Shrewsbury will be holding the panel to account. Gentchev said the temporary home reduces travel for his skeleton crew, including presenter Fiona Bruce, and its proximity to London makes it easier for Westminster politicians to appear on the program.
“We’ll keep looking at it and it might evolve, but we’re trying to find a way to keep the essence of Question Time, which is people scrutinizing policy and the way it’s communicated, and getting to ask their questions,” he explained. “All of this is a work in progress. There is no manual on how to do this, so we experiment and see what works. Last week, we were meant to be in Weston-super-Mare, so we sourced all of our questions from them. This week, we’ll try that again. Next week, who knows. We’re not pretending that this is a scenario we ever planned for.”
So why carry on? It would be easy for Question Time to go the way of so many other shows and simply end the nightmarish logistical challenge by pausing production. Gentchev points to the BBC’s public service responsibility in a time of social, economic and political turmoil. Audiences are turning to the broadcaster in their droves to satiate their hunger for information on coronavirus. A News at Six bulletin was watched by nearly 10 million last week, the highest figure for more than a decade, while Johnson’s lockdown address to the nation was seen by nearly 28M across six different channels on Monday. At a time when it is easy to be distracted by toxic misinformation, when dangerous falsehoods about COVID-19 spread like wildfire in closed WhatsApp groups, the BBC is relishing its role in reminding audiences that it is an anchor of reliability. And Question Time is a big part of that mission, which is why it has been rewarded with an earlier time slot in the BBC One schedule.
“This feels like a moment when television brings people together, especially in a time of isolation. And more specifically, the audience appetite for the kind of public service broadcasting that the BBC and others are doing is clearly huge. The thing that we can do that’s a bit different to news programs is, not just to communicate information but to interrogate it and allow people to ask questions,” Gentchev added.
The producer, who oversees the show through independent production company Mentorn Media, said they had a “pretty positive response” to the changes they made last week. Some have even remarked that they preferred the show without a live audience in the room. Question Time has stoked criticism and complaints for spotlighting audience members with more extreme political and social views, clipping them up and seeding them out on social media. Gentchev said he was aware of the comments about the absence of the audience, but remains resolute that they are central to the show. “Audiences are at the heart of Question Time and they are taking part in a different way at the moment. I’m looking forward to getting through this crisis and people being able to not socially distance,” he said.
Gentchev added that it’s too early to say if Question Time can learn anything from its current challenges that could be used to tweak the format in the future. “That’s a question for weeks away,” he said. Right now, he’s just getting on with the job of putting something on TV. “So many things about television and the way people work, not just on-camera but the way programs are prepared, has changed. Who knows what will survive at the end of this and how it will reshape how programs are made and broadcast. It’s an extraordinary time,” Gentchev said.