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Ten years of "An Audience With"

The charms of the public meeting uninterrupted by Paxman or Humphrys.

Tony Benn
Put that in your pipe, Humphrys: Tony Benn, star of "An Audience With ..." (Photo: Getty Images)

Ten years ago Tony Benn created a media storm simply by addressing an audience in a regional theatre, answering their questions from a comfy chair with his pipe and a flask of tea. "An Audience With Tony Benn" was such a success that he is still touring it - albeit without his pipe, following a tightening of health and safety regulations. Taunton, Bradford, Huddersfield, Birmingham, Pontardawe and the Isle of Man are just some of the places hosting him this year. He has always maintained that the second half of the event is the most important, when the public can ask their questions. He has been known to wander among the audience chatting before the show and in the interval, and to stay late signing books and debating more questions. When asked what drew him to this format, Benn replied that “it reignites the public meeting”, then added, “uninterrupted by Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys.”

When Benn encouraged Alistair Campbell to follow his example, I set up some similar dates for January 2004 – Campbell’s first public appearances since his resignation and the publication of the Hutton report. The tour was to start in South Shields, where local MP David Milliband had offered our new star speaker a cup of tea before the show. However, something else also happened before the show, which brought a scrum of reporters to the Customs House venue: Andrew Gilligan resigned from the BBC. 

Facing his audience, Campbell said he was only prepared to take questions from journalists if they had paid for their tickets with their own money. With tickets for the 420-seat venue hard to come by, there were rumours of excessive cash offers from desperate media. He refused to comment on the Gilligan affair, but did speak stridently about the British media, particularly the Daily Mail.

His opinion of "An Audience With Alistair Campbell"? “It confirmed my view that the level of debate you get from the public is often more interesting and more challenging than questions from the media.”

It doesn’t surprise me that our public figures rate the encounter with live audiences higher than discussions managed by the media. Most nights in the year I put on an event in a regional theatre somewhere in the UK. The appetite to hear and question a real, "unmediated" person, particularly one who works at Westminster, is phenomenal. It is also, for the most part, without malice. We deliberately programme a first half of the speaker talking without interruption, a luxury they don’t have in the company of Humphrys or Paxman. Alistair Campbell was able to reminisce about his early exploits writing for Forum magazine, and his career in Fleet Street. By the time they have the opportunity to put their questions, the audience have a sense of knowing the speaker and can engage in much more personal terms.

It was in this personable environment that Joan Bakewell recently made headlines by revealing that she had been told by someone at the BBC that her voice was too posh for TV - ironic since she had worked hard at an earlier time in her life to lose her Stockport accent. As she put it, while doing "An Audience With" she felt she “was comfortably among friends” and had begun to let her hair down. The possibility is always there at our events of a revelation, something volunteered in a supportive environment, rather than forced out by the likes of John Humphrys.

I’m looking forward to our new format, devised for a London venue. At Cadogan Hall speakers will be "In Conversation With" journalist Rob McGibbon, and the second half will be devoted to questions not only from the audience in the hall but also the best of those submitted in previous weeks through Twitter.

The first interviewee? John Humphrys. Send your questions to @askjohnhumphrys

New series at Cadogan Hall, 5 Sloane Terrace, London SW1:

Thursday 31 May, 7.30pm  

Rob McGibbon - In Conversation With ... John Humphrys

Wednesday  27 June, 7.30pm     

Rob McGibbon - In Conversation With ... Felicity Kendal

Wednesday 25 July, 7.30pm   

Rob McGibbon - In Conversation With ... Kelvin Mackenzie

Clive Conway is the impresario responsible for the highly successful An Audience With… theatre series. His guests include leading politicians, writers, thinkers and actors, who return to his format again and again. For events around the country visit www.celebrityproductions.info