Behind the scenes at TV’s Question Time

Ron Brown, assistant producer on Question Time. Picture: TSPL
Ron Brown, assistant producer on Question Time. Picture: TSPL
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DANGEROUS dogs. A topic sure to rouse passions and cause heated debates. Sitting in the Question Time chair normally occupied by David Dimbleby, Musselburgh’s Ron Brown scanned the sea of raised hands, ready to take his next audience contribution.

“This might sound stupid, but I think everyone who wants to own a dog should be made to adopt a child first, just to show they can take care of them,” a lone voice offered.

“The whole audience fell silent in disbelief, I think I said ‘that did sound stupid,’ says Brown, laughing, as he recalls one of the lighter moments of his dream job.

Ron Brown is David Dimbleby’s ‘warm-up man’. Actually, his proper title is assistant producer, one of a four-strong editorial team who bring the BBC flagship show to TV screens every Thursday.

Responsible for booking guest panellists and briefing the presenter, it is preparing the audience for their 15 minutes of fame when the cameras role, however, that can be the most entertaining aspect of the 31-year-old’s working week.

“Once they’re seated, I try to loosen them up a bit, to get them to feel like an audience. I start by asking for a round of applause, that gets them to settle into the fact that they are there as a group and that the show is actually all about them.”

There then follows a session which sees audience members encouraged to practise raising their hands - an integral part of the show.

“After they’ve put up their right hands and their left hands, I joke that they should put both hands in the air if they are particularly desperate to talk,” says Brown.

It may sound light-hearted, but make no mistake, everyone is expected to contribute, a point made clear from the moment they get their ticket.

“It’s imperative everyone in the audience has a question. They have no choice really. When they get their e-ticket they have to submit a question by email. Then when they arrive at the venue they have to write their question down on a piece of card.”

As those questions are scrutinised by Dimbleby and the other members of the editorial team, Brown can often be found hosting the mock Question Time.

“To ensure all the technical equipment is working - and as it is impossible to rehearse the programme without an audience - I ask for five volunteers to sit on the panel,” he explains.

“They come down, get microphones clipped on, and I sit in David’s chair. Beforehand, I’ll have picked out a few questions I know definitely won’t come up in the programme, either because they are too local or too off the wall.

“We then, very much run through the process as we would in the real thing. The only difference being it’s about getting the audience used to talking.”

At 8.15pm, half an hour of so later, Brown winds up his debate and introduces Dimbleby and the panel for the real deal.

Although not broadcast until 10.35pm, Question Time is recorded between 8.30pm and 9.30pm. “It’s broadcast more or less as live because we record a single hour,” explains Brown.

“The only edits we do are to remove clumsy camera shots, for example, if someone sticks their hand into the frame.”

Brown, who attended Campie Primary and Musselburgh Grammar, is also responsible for booking the programme’s celebrity guests, people like Charlotte Church and Dragons Den’s Theo Paphitis.

“It’s crucial that they are not just there because they are famous,” he insists. “They have to be famous and political, and have something to add to the discussion.

“In the case of Theo Papithis, he is very well known, which instantly makes him attractive to us because it means viewers are more likely to stay tuned. But more than that, he is a businessman and actually lives in the real world. The economy matters to him, so he has something to contribute.

“Someone like Charlotte Church, if she were just a singer with nothing to do with politics, then you would possibly struggle to justify her involvement. However, she has demonstrated that she has a political awareness. She was very involved in the Levenson Inquiry and the Hacked Off Campaign. She made herself a relevant voice in the national conversation.”

Immediately before the broadcast the editor and Dimbleby read every question submitted, reveals Brown. “They put them into categories, then choose the best question in each category.”

Six or seven questions are picked the half hour before the show is recorded. Of course, the guest panel have no idea what those questions are.

“It’s quite brutal,” admits Brown, “I always tell people when I am booking them to follow the news. If you do that, well... it’s not rocket science. The questions are never going to be completely off the wall.”

In addition to being Dimbleby’s ‘warm-up man’, Brown’s third responsibility is briefing the presenter.

“Through the week we will look at topics we think might come up and try to get behind the story so that we are not just addressing how the newspapers have written it or how the BBC are reporting it,” he says.

Despite a life-long interest in politics it was only three years ago that Brown determined to turn that interest into a career. He concedes that he is amazed to find himself in his current role.

“I’ve always been interested in politics but was never keen on becoming a politician.

“Some years ago I lived in Germany, working as a translator for a big software company. I had enough time on my hands to follow British politics from afar, which I felt gave me a slightly wider perspective on things.

“When I came home in 2007 I flirted with doing a journalism qualification but stuck with translation.”

Brown finally ‘took the plunge’ in 2010, doing a broadcast journalism postgraduate course at the University of the West of Scotland. That led to a job at the BBC, which in turn led to an interview for Question Time.

“It’s come as a real shock to find myself doing this job,” he laughs. “I remember sitting watching Question Time at home a few years ago, thinking, ‘Who gets to do that job?’”

Ron Brown it would seem. That’s who.