diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 26, 2011

You know that annoying studio audience which laughs its way through your favourite radio programme? That could be you, that could. And if you were listening to Radio 4 last night, that could have been me. Sorry, I'll try to laugh a little quieter next time.

There have been 73 series of The News Quiz, which kicked off in 1977 with Barry Norman in the chair. It's the radio show that inspired Have I Got News For You, and essentially involves four comedians making jokes about news stories to score spurious points. Since 2006 proceedings have been run by Sandi Toksvig, and she convenes her panel for a recording session on a Thursday evening. Get your request in early enough and you might even get a ticket. Ideal for a fun free evening out, and a great way to get payback on your licence fee.
Date: 24 February 2011
Venue: BBC Radio Theatre, Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London W1A 1AA
Studio doors open: 7:15pm (admission on site 6:15pm)
Broadcast: Radio 4, Friday 6:30pm, Saturday 12:30pm
iPlayer link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00yrg25
It pays to arrive early, because the BBC always issues more tickets than there are seats. The News Quiz queue was quite long even by 6pm, and snaked up the side of Broadcasting House past several life-size posters of actors from the Archers. Eventually we shuffled forward to the entrance lobby (a mixture of Thirties style and 21st century glass) where tickets were checked and there was airport-style security to negotiate. And then along a BBC corridor to a BBC waiting room, on whose decor I can assure you almost none of your licence fee had been wasted. It was fascinating to sit in a room full of members of the Radio 4 audience, which is indeed as utterly middle class as a recent BBC Trust report feared. London may be a multicultural hub with pockets of deep poverty, but the assembled ticketholders reflected none of that.

The BBC Radio Theatre is hidden away at the centre of Broadcasting House. It's an Art Deco jewel, recently refurbished but still with period friezes and glowing mauve panels on the walls. The floor's been raised and soundproofed to block out the rumble of the Bakerloo line directly beneath, leaving the original exit doors half-hidden and suitable only for crawling through. The auditorium's first come first seated, so us 6pm arrivals got to shuffle along the back row of the stalls while later folk got the balcony instead. Chatter, anticipation, hush.

Golly look, it's Sandi Toksvig. She swept out from behind a curtain to great applause, then read us the fire instructions and started on the warm-up. Ooh she's good - just the right mix of charm, cheek and knowing smirk. Her sidekick Rory (who reads the news clippings) looked like an ordinary tall bloke from the back office until he spoke into a microphone and revealed the most marvellously smooth Radio 4 voice. And then we got to meet our four panellists. Two I'd never seen before, one whose face I knew from telly and the legendary Jeremy Hardy, on whose quick wit the programme relies. They bantered a bit to set microphone levels, and then the Typewriter theme tune kicked-off the recording proper.

The format's very simple. Each comedian in turn is asked to identify a news story from a brief question, they tell a few jokes on the subject and then everyone else joins in. It's very funny, like an intelligent conversation down the pub with a bunch of verbally-sharp friends. But it's not easy. Susan was highly adept at quick quipping and had the audience guffawing throughout, but newcomer Roisin was clearly out of her depth. She's probably very good as a stand-up with a prepared act, but not at sparkling off-the-cuff wit. That's not a problem you'll spot on the recording, I suspect, because this has been expertly edited. We were sat in our seats for a full hour and a half (most of which was hilarious) but the Radio 4 audience only gets to hear the best 27 minutes. In particular we got to hear all the rude, sweary and libellous stuff that could never be broadcast. What Sandi really thinks of Cheryl Cole, Jeremy's barrage of polemic and Susan's fear of smurfing, that sort of thing.

It used to be the case that none of the panellists had advance warning of their questions but that's clearly no longer true. Dominic chipped in with the correct answer to one of his questions before Sandi had finished asking it, and everyone appeared to know rather too much about their designated subject. Again you won't spot that on the recording, not least because only half of the questions appear to have made it to the final cut (the score which Sandi announced in the theatre was nine points higher). You'll get to hear Libya, Double Summer Time and the census being discussed, whereas we also got to giggle about churnalism, Enid Blyton and giant boreholes in Newcastle.

I've really enjoyed listening back to the edited version of something I saw first-hand but, trust me, if you weren't there in the Radio Theatre you missed so much. Good luck getting tickets for Series 74, they'll be like gold dust (and rightly so).

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