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)
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear