It’s fair to say I’ve never been a great fan of GoggleBox. The thought of watching people commenting on what they themselves are watching on the telly somehow never appealed. Neither have I watched a televised political leaders’ debate in its entirety – I’ve dipped in and out like many of us but never from start to finish.
So it was with a mixture of dread and amusement that I reacted to a phone call from BBC Radio 4’s august Today programme inviting me and my family to do just that: watch a televised debate featuring Prime Minister Teresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Channel 4 and give a running commentary throughout.
A fair representation of UK voters
The call came from BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins just after lunchtime on a tranquil Bank Holiday Monday. I’d come highly recommended as a guy who might be willing to sacrifice an evening in the interests of democracy – my interpretation not his. Ross also wanted my family involved so he could record some genuine banter as we reacted to the cases put forward by the respective leaders.
He was careful to vet our politics and views: were we, or had we, been political activists; card carrying members of any political party or, indeed, been on the campaign trail. The answers were no on all counts. Satisfied that we were representative of normal voters – whatever they look like – we got the all clear.
I managed to press gang into service my wife Kim, my eldest daughter Alex and soon to be son-in-law Brad. Ross, I explained, would be arriving in six hours’ time at 8pm for a briefing session prior to the debate kicking off at 8.30.
Brad and Alex turned up at 7.45pm for the essential pre-event cuppa and chocolate biscuit and minutes later Ross rang the doorbell. A lovely guy, introductions were swiftly made, sound levels checked, arguments rehearsed as much as we could …and then the four of us retired to the lounge and took up our positions on the sofa. Ross was in tow with his trusty microphone.
And…in the red corner
We lined up like this: Alex, Labour; Brad and I, Conservative and Kim, undecided with Lib Dem leanings.
The programme started, the mic was switched on and apart from the telly … there was silence. Stage fright perhaps or more accurately that self-conscious feeling we’ve all experienced of dreading saying something stupid and instantly regretting it.
After a couple of minutes I thought I better break the ice and, summoning up my finely honed skills of observation, coolly said “At least Corbyn’s had his hair cut and is wearing a nice suit.” Wonderfully banal I admit but at least it got the party started.
For the rest of the 90 minutes (a short time in politics but a lifetime in the GoggleBox) we parried and sparred, teased and gently mocked the main protagonists and each other as first Corbyn and then May, tried to woo the voters with explanations and promises. Ross facilitated proceedings with a deft touch as, scurrying around on his knees, he recorded our sound bites, indignation and laughter.
Over in a flash
Predictably, the 90 minutes were over in a flash and Ross, the consummate professional, said his thanks and goodbyes and disappeared into the night. Our mission was complete but his had barely started as he faced the daunting task of trying to make sense of our incoherent ramblings and having a piece polished for national radio by the morning. He texted me as promised in the early hours to say we’d be on the airways at 7.30.
I’m an avid listener to the Today programme, which in February recorded its highest ever audience of 7.45m listeners a week – a colossal figure. And the anticipation of waiting for the piece – our piece – to appear was sublime. I returned to the sofa as the moment arrived. At 7.33 the celebrated presenter John Humphrys set the scene and continued: “… So more importantly did those who sat through the televised debate learn anything. Our man Ross Hawkins watched proceedings with The Peck family in Chandlers Ford in Hampshire…”
Listen again to the show here.
- Lee Peck