It is Friday night, and Julia and I are on our way to church! No, we haven’t got our days mixed up, or gone silly in the head … we are off to join the audience for the popular BBC Radio Programme Any Questions which this week is going out ‘live’ from the Dorford Centre, Dorchester, the home of the church where we are members, Dorchester Baptist Church. The programme starts at 8.00 p.m. but we have to be there much earlier because we are expecting a ‘full house’ and they are closing the doors at 7.45 p.m. We have our tickets to get in, and I am submitting a question for the distinguished panel to respond to … if my question is fortunate enough to be selected.
We arrive an hour and a half early and park in the public car park opposite the church. There are already people queuing to get in (just like Sunday mornings, of course) and there is even a secondary queue forming to one side for people who haven’t got tickets. The normally very friendly and welcoming stewards on the door have been transformed into rather blunt speaking ‘gruffalos’: ‘Where’s your ticket?’ ‘Got a question, have you … stick it the box with all the other ‘no hoper’ questions?’ ‘No you can’t sit anywhere … go and sit right over there on the far side of the auditorium!’
We meekly do what we are told. I place my question in the ‘no hopers box’. We go and sit where everyone else that has arrived (far too early) is already sitting. We look at the platform area that has already been set up with the names of the chairperson, the producer, and the guest panelists in front of their respective places at the long table. In the chair is Jonathan Dimbleby (looking older and more frail than I remember); alongside him is someone called Lisa Jenkinson (who turns out to be the producer); and on the panel are Nick Gibbs, Amanda Foreman, Alan Johnson and Ken Livingstone. I have to confess that I don’t know who Nick Gibbs and Amanda Foreman are? I have to look them up on my iPad. It turns out that Nick Gibbs is a Conservative MP (and an Education Minister to boot). Amanda Foreman is an historian and author (and has a TV programme about women on at the moment). Alan Johnson and Ken Livingstone I know. Alan Johnson is a Labour MP (and someone who a lot of people would have liked to have seen as leader of the Labour Party over the years), and Ken Livingstone is a former Mayor of London (and member of the Labour Party).
I first met Ken Livingstone getting on for 40 years ago when we were both much younger than we are now. He was leader of the Greater London Council in those days and, although non-religious himself, had been invited to give an address at a fringe meeting of the Baptist Union Assembly in London. There were two speakers at this fringe meeting, Ken and a certain ‘Baptist Worthy’ (who shall remain nameless). I forget now what the subject was, but I do recall that the ‘Baptist Worthy’ was sadly somewhat boring and incomprehensible in contrast to Ken who was lively, humorous, relevant and interesting. Consequently, when it came to a time for questions, following both addresses, all the questions were addressed to Ken whilst the ‘Baptist Worthy’ was completely ignored. Finally, one dear lady (obviously a ‘fan’ of the said ‘Baptist Worthy’) got to her feet and asked Ken what he had thought about the ‘Baptist Worthy’s’ address? I have never forgotten Ken’s diplomatic answer (which had both myself and a colleague I was sitting next to in stitches): ‘Well madam, I can honestly say that I have never heard anything like it before, and I will probably never hear anything like it again!’ His comment was followed by thunderous applause?
After the Fringe Meeting was over I somehow found myself walking back across London with Ken Livingstone. He was on his way back to his office and I was on my way to the station to catch my train home. He was full of questions about what Baptist-Christians believed and we had a very interesting and animated conversation about the Person of Jesus Christ, the nature of faith, the place of conversion, and so much more, as we walked through the streets of central London.
Back in the present, however, the large Worship Area at the Dorford Centre soon fills up and, after we are treated to a medley of radio theme tunes, we are welcomed by Lee Rhodes (one of our church members who has organised the visit of Any Questions to our church). We like Lee, he is our kind of Christian, really keen on the practical application of being a Christian – where the ‘rubber hits the road’ type of stuff – rather than the ‘shallow triumphalism’ so prevalent today. We wonder, however, why the ‘welcome’ is not being extended by one of our ‘Ministers’ from the church? Is it yet another example of the BBC not wanting anything ‘too religious’ or ‘too Christian’ in any of their programmes? We know this happens. A few years ago Julia and I appeared in the popular BBC TV Programme Cash in the Attic. We were warned then (by the makers of the programme) in advance, not to talk too much about the ‘Gospel’ or ‘Jesus’ during the filming of the programme ‘because the BBC don’t like it’!? Interestingly, we still found ourselves involved in a whole series of ‘in depth’, and at times very personal, discussions with members of the film crew, and the two main presenters, who all wanted to know more about why we had committed our lives to Christ, and if they too could find God for themselves? When they filmed the final ‘concert’ in our church/community garden at Beckenham, a member of the film crew spontaneously said to me, ‘Wow! I didn’t know Christianity could be like this!’
Before the programme starts we are treated to the ‘warm up’ act. He is something to do with production – we are not quite sure what – but he is very entertaining in a laid back sort of way. Ostensibly he is running through a list of what we ‘must do’ (applaud a lot) and ‘must not do’ (shout out anything ‘inappropriate’). He manages to make this quite interesting, peppering the instructions with amusing anecdotes, before launching into a final appeal to support the BBC against the threat of government cuts. The warm up act is followed by the arrival of ‘the panel’ from the ‘Green Room’ (a pub just down the road because we are not allowed to serve alcohol at the Dorford Centre). Lisa Jenkinson (the Producer) takes centre stage and calls out the names of the 10 or so persons whose ‘questions’ have been selected from the dozens submitted. Needless to say my ‘question’ is not amongst them.
We are not told what the actual questions are until the programme proper starts and each questioner in turn is invited to read their particular question. I say ‘each questioner’ but in reality we only have time for about half the questions. I have to say that I found the nature of the questions disappointing. Several of them are either bland or biased and designed to make for what the BBC obviously thinks is ‘good radio’. The words of the Queen song ‘Radio Ga Ga’ come instantly to mind: ‘All we hear is radio ga ga, radio goo goo, radio ga ga … radio blah blah’. The first question selected is used as a ‘warm up’ question. It is so trite that it is not broadcast to the public? Basically it is along the lines of: ‘What is the first thing members of the panel would save if their house was on fire?’ The members of the panel (at least those that have been ‘regulars’ over the years) have heard this question numerous times before and can scarcely be bothered to answer. It goes down like a lead balloon!
The first proper question is … surprise, surprise … about the perceived ‘immigration problem’ and is put forward by a questioner who is obviously a Tory but trying not to be too UKIP in posing his question. The reaction of the audience is fascinating. This part of Dorset is politically staunch Conservative – it is a waste of time voting for any other party such is the Conservative majority? Somehow or other, however, the audience tonight turns out to be staunchly Labour – indeed packed with Jeremy Corbyn supporters it seems! The patronising comments of the Conservative Minister and the historian/author are roundly booed whilst the strident call for a urgent and compassionate action by the Labour MP and left wing former Mayor of London are enthusiastically cheered!
Thus, the pattern for the rest of the evening is well and truly set. Nick Gibb’s answers are largely greeted with silence or boos and cat calls. Amanda Foreman doesn’t seem to get many questions put her way, and when she does her responses are given the same treatment as Nick Gibb’s. The only time she seems to get ‘fired up’ is over another really trite question to do with whether children of either sex should be allowed to play with Barbie Dolls or Meccanno? I am sure that I have heard this ‘old chestnut’ on Any Questions at least three time before … and I am not a regular listener to the programme. Come on BBC … get your act together … there must have been much better questions than these submitted? You should have had a proper look in the ‘no hoper questions’ box. That’s obviously where all the good questions were!
Nick Gibbs and Amanda Foreman are disappointing although, in fairness, that might not be entirely just down to them. The audience is clearly very ‘left wing’ and very noisy with it. There is a lady sitting a few rows behind me to my left who is particularly noisy. She is clearly a ‘Corbynite’ and her constant interjections are ‘doing my head in’. I want to get up, go and get a bucket of water, and pour it all over her … but, of course, this would constitute the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ we warned against at the start of the programme! ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone comes out of it quite well … at least he is engaging and interesting even if you can’t go along with all he says. The real star of the show, however, is Alan Johnson who speaks passionately, clearly, and concisely in response to the various questions put to him, and above all makes a lot of sense. I can see why a lot of people would have liked to see him as leader of the Labour party.
I come away from the evening feeling that we have been involved yet again in a carefully managed BBC programme designed to be high on ‘entertainment’ value of a sort, and little in valuable content! ‘Please join us in saving the BBC?’ asked the warm up act man. ‘It needs a bomb under it!’ is my response. Now I love the BBC – it is one of our greatest institutions – but it has really lost its way in a number of direction for sure. Julia and I know (from our involvement in the Cash in the Attic programme we were part of a few years ago) just how much these television and radio programmes are manipulated in order to ‘fit’ a certain ‘politically correct’ agenda. Virtually every scene we were involved in was not only well rehearsed but recorded at least three times and then heavily edited. The BBC needs to recover its original purpose as symbolised by the elegant marble statue of The Sower in the original reception area of Broadcasting House, and its accompanying inscription. As The Sower casts his seed so broadcasting casts its messages and communications to its audiences. The accompanying gilded inscription placed there on the opening of the building reads: ‘This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors in the year of our Lord 1931, John Reith being Director-General. And they pray that good seed sown may bring forth good harvest, and that all things foul or hostile to peace may be banished thence, and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are lovely and honest, whatsoever things are of good report, may tread the path of virtue and wisdom.’
‘What was the question you submitted (which disappeared into the ‘no hopers questions box’ never to see the light of day again)?’ I hear you say. Well it was this: ‘According to the Futurist Patrick Dixon, we best prepare for the future by thoughtfully anticipating what is yet to come. So … it is the year 2020, Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister of the UK and Donald Trump is President of the USA. Is there any hope for the world?’ Far too profound a question for the BBC needless to say … and obviously far too long since it contains several words of more than one syllable? The answer to my question, of course, is ‘Yes’ … although I doubt whether any of the Any Questions panellists would agree with the answer I would have given? There is hope for the world because whatever message the media might seek to present, and whatever decisions the politicians might make, God remains ‘the God of hope’ (Romans 15:13) – where the word ‘hope’ means certainty not ‘fingers crossed’ – who is ‘working his purpose out as the year succeeds the year’ (as the old hymn says)! This hope is centred in the Person and Work of ‘the Lord Jesus Christ who is himself our great hope for the future’ (1 Timothy 1:1) … even if today’s BBC don’t really want us to talk much about him!
Although the Queen song Radio Ga Ga may, at first sight, imply that much we hear on the radio is gibberish … the very opposite is true. When Roger Taylor (with some input from Freddy Mercury) penned the words of this song in 1984 he was actually contrasting the potent historical value of radio with the nebulous perceived value (at the time) of music video clips. The song celebrates the ongoing ‘power’ of the radio broadcast and concludes with the refrain: ‘You had your time, you had the power, You’ve yet to have your finest hour’. Let us continue to pray and hope, therefore, that the prayer of the first Governors of the BBC back in 1931 will yet be answered: ‘That good seed sown [through the use of radio] may bring forth good harvest, and that all things foul or hostile to peace may be banished thence, and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are lovely and honest, whatsoever things are of good report, may tread the path of virtue and wisdom.’
Radio – radio
I’d sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
You gave them all those old time stars
Through wars of worlds – invaded by Mars
You made ’em laugh – you made ’em cry
You made us feel like we could fly
So don’t become some background noise
A backdrop for the girls and boys
Who just don’t know or just don’t care
And just complain when you’re not there
You had your time, you had the power
You’ve yet to have your finest hour
Radio – radio
All we hear is radio ga ga, radio goo goo, radio ga ga
All we hear is radio ga ga, radio blah blah
Radio what’s new?
Radio, someone still loves you
We watch the shows – we watch the stars
On videos for hours and hours
We hardly need to use our ears
How music changes through the years
Let’s hope you never leave old friend
Like all good things on you we depend
So stick around ‘cos we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual
You had your time – you had the power
You’ve yet to have your finest hour
Radio – radio
~ Roger Taylor (born 1949)