Ten years of "An Audience With"

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

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

Put that in your pipe, Humphrys: Tony Benn, star of "An Audience With ..." (Photo: Getty Images)
Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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