This show is arguably the worst thing that the BBC airs.
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Is the BBC’s “The Big Questions” the worst thing on television?

It’s one of the broadcaster’s flagship religious programmes, yet it makes religious people look unfairly crazy.

I’m sure you’re familiar with BBC’s The Big Questions. It’s that dreadful “ethics” show that sits awkwardly sandwiched between all of the political discussion programs on a Sunday morning. In case you haven’t seen it the format is basically Question Time, with added believers.

It’s dreadful, arguably the worst thing that the BBC airs. It has production values you’d expect from a small business’s Youtube video and is presented by Nicky Campbell, a man who displays all the charisma of an eggy fart on a packed commuter train. Both of those things feed into its complete lack of appeal, but are not in the final analysis the reason it’s so bad.

What undermines the show is its utter contempt for everyone and everything involved.

First off, it’s called The Big Questions, and attempts, with the aid of a few invited guests and a panel of random members of the public, to answer genuinely weighty matters of philosophy and religion. This series, they asked “Can war ever be just?”. In the past they’ve discussed “Is there a Hell?” and “Is man’s dominion good for the planet?”

The idea that issues of this scale can be discussed in soundbites by “the man in the street”, plus a panel of people fame hungry and desperate enough to go on TV early Sunday morning is ludicrously reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to hear DJ Bobby Friction or French chef Jean-Christoph Novelli’s views on weighty, intellectual topics.

Even if they could get decent guests (hint – they can’t), if it took Emmanuel Swedenborg twenty odd years to write down his views on heaven and hell, you can’t get the same effect in twenty minutes with twenty people shouting over each other. Even more reductively, they’ll usually pack two topics in one episode, presumably because allowing more than twenty minutes of discussion of the same thing would make the audience’s brains explode.

Proper, challenging intellectual discussion can be done in broadcast. Look at the 1940s BBC show The Brains Trust, where they invited in a panel of experts and – shock horror – just let them talk about big issues. I’ve heard one episode where Orwell talked for about 20 minutes about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. I can’t say it would be improved by letting a celebrity chef interrupt him.

In contrast, The Big Questions format is just terminally broken – answers to these points, by definition, are big, complicated ideas – and you can’t articulate a complex, nuanced position in a 30-second soundbite. Every time someone gets on the cusp of a decent argument, Campbell jumps in and cuts them off, and hands the mic to someone who will make a crazier, more televisual point.

That takes me on to the second huge problem with the show. Often, the guests – especially the religious guests – are picked because they have “controversial” (read: completely barking mad) views.

The archetypal Big Questions exchange is some crazed street preacher claiming they can cure cancer through prayer, a confused scientist saying “No you can’t”, and then a female CofE vicar with a nose piercing cutting across the two to say “Isn't the truth half way between these two places?”, and then the audience applauding.

In case you thought I was making that exchange up for comic effect, it occurred on the 23 March this year. The problem with this is twofold. First off, there’s the whole false equivalence between extreme and rational views, which is a problem with BBC debate more generally.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it makes religious people look unfairly crazy. In one of the supposedly flagship shows on religion, religious people are frequently represented by the absolute fringes.

The vast bulk of people with a bit of faith in their lives are perfectly sensible and ordinary – you’d have to look long and hard to find a priest, vicar or imam who would recommend prayer alone to cure illnesses. The desire among the producers for “watchable controversy” makes the show completely unrepresentative and toxic.

So, in short, the only real big question The Big Questions asks is “How long can you air an utterly charmless, insulting show before everyone agrees to stop tuning in and turning up to be insulted?”

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.