I’ve been meaning to post something about this for about a million years.
I just never get around to doing it.
I’m doing it now because I happened to be watching BBC Question Time, and did some rapid sketching of various participants.
Here are some of the panelists:
And here are some audience members:
Not infrequently, when I’m watching Question Time, I find myself wishing that somebody on the panel of experts would rise from their seat on stage and point to a member of the audience and say, “We should swap places, because you are obviously better informed than I am.”
Or, “You have a remarkable way of expressing yourself. Would you like to take my place?”
I know it’s not going to happen. It probably shouldn’t happen. The guests on the panel have been selected to provide a reasonably wide range of opinion and expertise, plus the necessary self-confidence.
But it still troubles me occasionally – the imbalance between the Chosen (on stage) and the Masses (in the audience).
To see the difference in status, just ask yourself whether a panellist would ever willingly appear, in subsequent weeks, as a member of the audience. I don’t think they would. And I don’t mean to suggest that’s any kind of crime. It’s just how we are, as human beings. We hustle for status, and we’re reluctant to give it up.
Just to be clear, when I use the word “status” I’m not talking about a title. I’m talking about a way of being, from one minute to the next. There’s no single way this is manifested, but through a combination of utterance, body language and more. These cues, which we learn in childhood to recognise instinctively, help us to make sense of the world.
Without them, we’d be lost.
Keith Johnstone1 describes somewhere (in one of his books?) a type of scene in a movie that we’ve all watched many times. A group of gangsters lean against a car. They don’t say anything, they just stand there, unmistakably gangsters. Keith’s point is that if they haven’t worked out beforehand how they relate to each other, in terms of status, they will look awkward and unnatural.
To make the gangsters appear realistic, Keith says, the movie director need only to assign a number to each actor: Actor One looks down on all the rest, Actor Three looks up to One and Two but down on Four and Five. The actors don’t need to “do” anything with that information. It will happen naturally. Actor Four will just “know” how to hold himself, relative to Actor Two – and so on.
Major changes in status are unusual, and extremely compelling. And not only in gangster movies. At general elections, it’s usually either wonderful or terrible to see the incumbent being booted out.
Getting back to Question Time… The difference in status is so vast that it seems drastically to reduce the options available to people in the audience. They can:
- ask a question that fits the agenda of the producers,
- hymn the virtues of a favourite panellist, or
- express murderous fury about something or other.
If you edit out the specifics – specifics that, over decades, have included conflict in Ukraine, Covid, Brexit, Cash for Questions, the invasion of Iraq, the Ozone Layer, Poll Tax, Falklands War, Winter of Discontent etc etc – it’s as if audience members are mere participants in some atavistic status ritual.
I suspect that something about this helps to explain why a lot of people can be chippy about “mainstream media”. I don’t get chippy, because my livelihood has for a long time depended on mainstream media. And I know from personal experience how flawed all media can be (mainstream media and “marginal media” alike).
Nor do I dislike Question Time. I can get dreadfully irritated by it, like most viewers, but that’s also its charm.
So why do I want to see a panellist step down? I just like it when people who don’t know what they’re talking about admit it, instead of blustering. I have never heard a panellist on Question Time admit they didn’t know what they were talking about. I can’t tell you how pleased I would be if that happened, even just once.
It would be almost as thrilling as a change of government.
1 Keith Johnstone. Author of Impro, and teacher of (among others) me.