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.

CREDIT: GETTY
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Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge