Yesterday I made my third appearance on Any Questions. The old saying that once you have done something once it’s easer the second or third time doesn’t really apply to Any Questions, as there is so much scope to make a complete tit of yourself. One stupid answer to a question, one remark that you think is clever but which falls flat can ruin an otherwise reasonable performance. So it’s one of the few things I get nervous about doing. I get less nervous about being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman than I do about going on Any Questions. But maybe that’s a good thing.
I am a firm believer that too much preparation for a programme like this can be a very bad thing. If you are overprepared it can make you seem very flat and a little boring. But on the other hand, if you wing it, it’s also a rather dangerous thing to do. While it is true that the panel don’t know the questions in advance, you’d have to be a bit of a fool if you couldn’t guess at least half the subjects what will come up. Last night I got them all right, apart from one, so that wasn’t a bad strike rate. Last year I only guessed half. Indeed, the one which I didn’t guess (planning) last night, I felt was one of my stronger answers, so maybe there’s a lesson there.
My first mistake yesterday was to drive myself to Somerton. I had been up since 5am, as I have been presenting LBC’s breakfast show all week. I was already knackered having only had four hours sleep on Wednesday night. My own stupid fault, as I had forgotten to cancel my regular Wednesday night appearance on the Sky News paper review. So by mid morning on Friday I wasn’t exactly feeling my best -and a business meeting on Friday morning went on far longer than anticipated so my preparation time was cut to the bone. In the end I ended up leaving for Somerton an hour later than intended, and then it was the turn of the A303 to scupper my plans to have tea with some friends in nearby Langport. In the end I arrived at the pub in Somerton (the White Hart) where the panellists were to meet for dinner at 5.30. So, half an hour to prepare for the fifteen subjects I figured might well come up. Hey ho. David Davis rung. “What should I say about control orders,” I asked, wondering if his view (guess!) would coincide with what I intended to say if it came up. In the end it didn’t.
So, 6pm and I walk over to the White Hart. No one is expecting us. Surely to God I hadn’t got the wrong pub. I walk back to the car to check. No, this is the right one. Eventually, Polly, one of the AQ production team turns up, followed ten minutes later by my fellow panellists, Joan Bakewell, Norman Lamont and John Kampfner, and stand in presenter Martha Kearney. We ordered a meal and while Martha went off to talk to the producers we all tried to guess what the questions were likely to be. Jonathan Dimbleby always tries to put a stop to such discussions! We were all obsessed about not being able to answer the funny question.
Anyway, around 7.25 the driver came to get us to ferry us to the community centre, where the audience were already being warmed up. I hadn’t met Joan Bakewell before, but she seemed very nice. I hadn’t realised she was a Labour peer – I’d assumed she was a cross bencher. She certainly didn’t seem very party political. It’s quite difficult being on the same panel as a national treasure and I certainly knew I wouldn’t be able to launch any exocets at her as the audience would instantly be turned against me!
I knew John Kampfner quite well and had met Norman Lamont a few times. He’s a very entertaining individual and we all seemed to hit it off very well. In fact I’m not sure whether these dinners are necessarily a good thing. It’s quite hard to be confrontational with people you’ve got on quite well with over dinner.
At about ten to eight Marthe Kearney rejoined us and was about to tell us what the warm up question would be. I implored her not to as I always find it better not to know in advance. The others agreed. We were then introduced to the audience, walking on stage one at a time. The audience seemed a friendly bunch, and the hall was packed. So at about 7.54 Martha asked for the warm up question, which I have unfortunately now forgotten! But it all seemed to go off very well.
And then it began. First question on banking, second on planning, third on the Dale Farm travellers, followed by defence cuts and then one n school discipline. And then we came to the final question: What stupid things did the panel do in their youth. My mind went completely blank and I prayed Martha wouldn’t come to me first. She didn’t. I had thought I would talk abut driving a combine harvester, unsupervised, at the age of eight, but right at the last second I changed my mind and talked about being in the Making Your Mind Up Bucks Fizz video we made with Total Politics last year. Got a good laugh.
The only subject which I hadn’t really prepared for was on the government’s plans to relax planning regulations. I’m afraid I did resort to shameless populism by calling local planners “quasi dictators”. It got the biggest cheer of the night from the audience. I didn’t know it at the time but there are some big planning related controversies in Somerton!
I’ll leave it up to you, if you were listening, to judge how I did. Of the three times I’ve been on the programme I certainly felt more comfortable about how I’d done at the end of this one than the other two. That’s all I’ll say! There were no real spats and I guess some people felt we all agreed with each other a little too much. Joan and I had a bit of a contretemps over the travellers, but that was really the only bit of controversy. It was the same last year, when I was on with Deborah Mattinson, Matthew Taylor and a businessman called Adrian Fawcett. I’m just too consensual!