Friday, 12 April 2013

A Tale of Two Question Times: Part One, a long way from Rochdale

BBC Question Time pic Clare Hegarty/FCHS

Mrs Angry received an interesting text from Miss Angry, on Tuesday. Guess what, she wrote: Question Time is coming to school ... Mrs Angry was taken aback. Not that BBCQT was coming to Finchley, so much as the fact that Miss Angry, who does not take a keen interest in current affairs, knew what BBCQT was ...

Miss Angry attends two schools, for sixth form, one a certain local Catholic Grammar school for girls, of which Mrs Angry is a former pupil, (and where her otherwise impeccably behaved daughter has recently been threatened, with a zeal for female modesty that puts the Taliban to shame, with exclusion, for the dreadful crime of wearing a coat that was one inch above her knee, and boy did they pick on the wrong mum, eh, Miss A?), the other being Finchley Catholic High School, an institution which has, at various times, attempted to educate Mrs Angry's son, brother, and most of the Catholic boys in Broken Barnet.

FCHS was invited, this week, to host BBC Question Time, in a sudden change to plans, following the death of Margaret Thatcher. Finchley Catholic High, it would seem, possibly because it is the only school that has Finchley in its name, was chosen to host what we were told would be a special edition. Aha: only fitting that the death of Margaret Thatcher should be debated in the place where she was MP for three decades - and, of course, where the neo Thatcherite council is at war with its own residents, a losing war, being won by an unprecedented localised rebellion: the Barnet Spring.

Many local residents immediately applied for tickets. This is a baffling process, a careful selection of probing questions which, if asked in the context of an application to join M15, might be considered appropriate, but for a ticket to sit in the audience of a televised debate, would seem to be rather excessive. 

Are you a member of a political party? 

Which one? 

Do you always support the leader of this party- (shit, hope they don't pass the response on that one) ... 

What are your views on Afhghanistan?  

What r my views on afghanistan? texted Miss A, in panic, and a certain amount of dismay. It's like St Michael's, only more liberal, suggested her mother, helpfully. 

And Europe? For or against? Ha: both, replied Mrs A, cleverly, trying to appear like the sort of open minded person who might listen to the informed views of other people. 

Did no good. No response from the BBC for anyone local Mrs Angry knew, or didn't know.

Sitting down to watch the programme, we imagined we would be presented with the sight of FCHS teachers, head boy, and assorted pillars of the local establishment sitting triumphantly in the suitably Tory blue gym, waiting to ask polite questions regarding the legacy of our former MP.

But no: the audience was peopled entirely, as it transpired, by actors and extras from a BBC extras casting agency, playing the part of residents of Broken Barnet. You could tell they were actors because no one asked any really awkward questions, no one laughed, or heckled, or held a silent protest, or held up posters, or spat on the floor of Finchley Catholic High's school gym because someone mentioned the Thatcher legacy, or her only true heirs, our feckless, conniving Tory councillors.

Come on, this is Broken Barnet: probably the most politically dissident borough in Britain.

This is where a local council is at war with its own residents.
This is the home of the Barnet Spring.
This is Margaret Thatcher's worst nightmare: society in action. 
This is what community looks like, remember?

Who were the members of this audience, and where did the BBC find them?

If the point of moving the programme to Finchley was to place it in the context of the Thatcher legacy, clearly this did not happen. There was no reference to the location, other than in thanks to the school for hosting the event, and no engagement with the local community, or any mention of the political situation in Barnet. The whole thing could have been filmed anywhere, or nowhere, and there would have been no difference in the feeling of the debate. Mrs Angry wondered, in a conspiracy theorist mode of speculation, if the whole business, like the moon landings, was a giant fraud, perpetrated in a studio somewhere.

Certainly the panel appeared to be genuine: up to a point. Polly Toynbee, rather downbeat, Menzies Campbell, playing the Libdem facilitator to perfection, David Blunkett, being David Blunkett, Ken Clarke trying to appear avuncular and not frighten anyone, and Thatcher biographer Charles Moore trying to sell his book.

Mrs Angry found Charles Moore to be most entertaining. His recollection of Margaret's amusing story about a load of cocks was particularly enlightening, and his rebranding of her as someone who stood side by side with the ANC, and opposed apartheid was deeply moving. Amandla, Maggie. He also took issue with the use of 'Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead' as a tribute to Mrs Thatcher on the basis that it referred to the wrong witch. Mr Moore would appear not to be a friend of Dorothy.

Glinda Jackson

The truth is, Mrs Angry suspects, that the BBC moved Question Time to Finchley not so much as to touch base with the heart of Thatcherism, as to find a sanctuary from what might have happened if the original choice for last night's programme had been used.

Last night's programme had been scheduled to be held in Rochdale - in fact we thought it was Rotherham, which provoked an even more intemperate post than this, but still ... Rochdale, a centre of nineteenth and twentieth century enterprise, the home of the cooperative movement - hardly a location conducive to the memory of someone who was so devoted to the emasculation of our industrial base, was it? Up North? Much safer to bring it all home to the safety of suburban London, and Finchley ... even safer if you plant the audience with suitably complaisant questioners.

Much of the media coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death - at least the printed press coverage - has taken the voice of middle England, Southern England, as the one to listen to. Our friends in the North, those who felt the impact of Thatcher's war of attrition on the unions, and our mining and manufacturing heartland most acutely, have been sidelined. Just as the present political climate has reinforced the gulf between those who have means and those who have needs, the distance between north and south has lengthened once more.

Instead of attending BBC QT last night, Mrs Angry went to a meeting, just across the other side of the High Road from FCHS, where real questions were asked and debated, by the residents of Broken Barnet, about something that sooner or later, will affect all of us: the privatisation of social care, an enterprise that Margaret's successors in Barnet were very keen to encourage. 
And so, see Part Two, coming soon: another question time - 'Your Choice Barnet' - making profit from need. 

Or rather - not making profit from need, and being rather embarrassed by the consequences.


Anonymous said...

Which part of LOSS-MAKING industry do you northerners not understand?

Mrs Angry said...

Erm ...?

Mrs Angry said...

Nice hyphenation - baarnett will be thrilled ...I imagine the part not understood might be agriculture, and the loss-making land owners subsidised by their chums in successive Tory governments?