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  1. Culture
4 April 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:01pm

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.

By Willard Foxton

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.

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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?”

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