(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post)
Last night I did something I have only very very rarely done.
I went to the recording of a TV show as a member of the audience and queued up with the audience. It was a pilot for a possible comedy panel show series and was being recorded by an experienced independent production company at a BBC studio site for (it seemed) possible transmission on a non-BBC channel.
It was very cold last night.
The tickets said Doors Open 6.00pm – Show Starts 7.00pm.
We arrived just before 6.00pm and stood in an increasingly long queue until after 6.30pm because people with ‘Priority’ tickets had to get in first and no-one knew how many of these would turn up. People with ‘Priority’ tickets were people who had failed to get into recordings of previous shows made by the company.
Having tickets to see a TV show recorded is never a guarantee you will get in, because all TV shows are overbooked on the correct assumption that many people who do have tickets may not turn up.
When this happened at old ITV station LWT, I seemed to remember there was an overflow room, where people who failed to get in could watch the recording on TV sets. In fact, I am told by a close friend who was involved in organising audiences at LWT:
“They were always overbooked but there was rarely an overflow so it would be up to staff to decide on the night. If, for example, an organised group had been invited, travelled some distance and hired a coach then you could not leave part of the group wandering around the South Bank so it would be reasonable to try to arrange something for them – but difficult to have staff to look after them and ensure security outside of the studio area. VIP/press guests who arrived late or found that some pathetic, untalented, hysterical, inadequate bastard of a director had given away their clearly reserved seating would have a host with them and so they would have to be taken to the Press Room or other area with monitors.”
Last night at the BBC, though, a lot of people – I would guess around 50 – were turned away after queuing up with their tickets and, as they were turned away, their e-tickets were stamped with ‘Priority’ so they would be able to get into the next show they queued for.
The man in the queue in front of us told me: “I’m going to stop coming to TV shows. I’ve been to a couple where almost no-one with ordinary tickets for the show got in because so many people with ‘Priority’ tickets turned up who hadn’t been able to get into previous shows.”
I went with three friends, two of them highly experienced comedians (one male, one female).
When we were eventually allowed through the BBC gates, we had numbered stickers put on our e-tickets. I worked out later that there were 300 people in the audience. The sticky numbers were rolled-up starting with 1 at the centre of the roll. This meant that the first number stuck on the ticket of the first person in the queue was 300. The last person allowed in was No 1.
When we were eventually seated, they called people by number. So they seated people with tickets 1-50 first… This meant that the last people in the queue were seated at the front; the first people in the queue were seated at the back. The only way to get the best seats at the front would have been to be at the back of the queue, but you could not do this without a high risk of not getting in at all.
Later, my non-comedy friend said: “The people who didn’t get in were the lucky ones.”
When we did get in, we were herded into the canteen where you could buy drinks for £1 or a palette of chips for £1.20. As a devout BBC Licence Fee payer, I am all for this. Eventually, we were taken into the studio. As we were about 30 from the front of the queue, we were taken in last and ended up in the back rows of the tiered seating.
As is often the case with TV shows, there was a well-meaning warm-up man who miscalculated.
I am perhaps spoiled because doing warm-up for TV shows is a very difficult art and most of the entertainment shows I was involved in were at LWT in its heyday where the truly great warm-up man Bill Martin plied his trade. He did the same schtick every show… but it was great schtick. He made people feel welcome, comfortable, part of a family in the studio.
Last night’s warm-up man thought he was being a loveable cheeky chappy, but he created a them-and-us atmosphere.
“Why,” my non-comedian friend whispered to me during the warm-up, “is he insulting the audience?”
And he was. His attempts at We are all chums here cheerful friendly banter fell flat and overlapped into the area of What am I doing here with the likes of you? material. He was not bonding with the audience, he was putting them down.
He also miscalculated the audience with overly frequent adjectival ‘fucking’…
“Would you fucking believe it, there was this…” etc etc he would say. Four times during the seemingly endless recording, he asked the audience: “Do you want my clean joke or my dirty joke?”
The first time, he got the fairly cheery response: “Dirty joke!”
By the fourth time, he got silence because he had miscalculated the audience.
He also committed the cardinal sin of warm-up men by saying he was going to “rehearse” their laughter. The implication when this is done is that you are there to laugh out loud whether or not you are entertained. If you have to rehearse laughter, it implies the production team believes there is nothing in the show that will make you genuinely laugh. You can tell the audience you are rehearsing clapping; you can even tell an audience to rehearse whooping and whistling (it can be said to be “for the sound man”); but, if you tell them “Laugh now,” you are dead in the water.
The job of the warm-up man is to create an atmosphere in which the audience is laughing before the show starts, not to ‘rehearse’ laughter.
“He treated the audience like fodder,” my non-comedian friend said to me afterwards.
One of my comedian friends remembered: “The old LWT shows were good as far as I remember. I went to lots of them. They certainly made the audience feel they were in for a good time. They told them what things were for, introduced the floor staff and apologised in advance for any hold ups and having to do things twice and just generally informed them about what was happening.”
That did not happen last night.
On the tickets, it said the show would finish at 9.30pm. It eventually finished at 10.30pm. And, starting at around 7.45pm, it was a long almost three hours.
The least said about the show itself, the better. It was a horrible dog’s dinner of a slight idea expanded with irrelevant side-formats into a rambling half-hearted mess. The performers were superb. There had been money spent on set design and misconceived filmed inserts, but the show itself was a mess. It looked like a half hour show but they must have recorded getting-on for 90 minutes worth of material and had outros/intros for three commercial breaks, which makes me think they may have been touting it as an hour-long show with two breaks and were going to chop out an entire section.
The audience could watch what was happening live on the set or watch the overhead monitors on which the faces were inexplicably out of lip-sync: a surreal experience.
During the slight pause for a third commercial break, rather a lot of people made a break for the exit. I reckoned around 20 people but my two comedian friends, who had to catch a train, were among them and reckoned there were about 60 people who left.
As I sat through the final section of the show, at 9.56pm, I got a text from one of these comedian friends saying:
We had an interesting time on the way out.
I texted back: Email me for my blog!
Eventually, the show ended at 10.27pm.
“That was endless,” my non-comedy friend said to me afterwards. “The set and everything else was well-produced, but there was no substance to it.”
“It was well-produced,” I agreed, “but it didn’t have a format.”
“It was boring,” my friend said, “The performers were very good and kept you entertained, but the basic idea was just boring. The show is pointless.”
When I woke this morning, an email was waiting for me. This is what happened to my two comedian friends when they left the studio recording last night:
It was Back to School with the BBC and a very self-important ‘prefect’.
We were shouted at and asked to form two orderly queues… Presumably one for abuse by prospective paedophiles and the other for those too scared to stay.
“It’s not finished yet,” we were told. “Go back in.”
After one of the female ‘students’ said (very politely) “Please let me leave. I’ve got to catch my train connection,” one of the prefects said: “Get back in. You have no right to talk to me like that.”
Several ‘children’ then actually got scared. “Go along with whatever they say,” I heard one say to another, “otherwise we’ll never get out.”
Honestly, John, we were treated like escaped convicts and a couple of the female members of the ‘escapees’ got a little bit nervous about the way they were being treated. The only reason there wasn’t a little riot was that everyone wanted to get out and not spend a minute longer in that atmosphere.
What amazed me was that, considering the concerns about the BBC at the moment and their treatment of the public, the BBC have not taken that on board at all. They really are behaving as if they are above the law.
It would not have been tolerated in any other public service industry.They would have been inundated with complaints. It is mystifying as to how they can carry on like this… And, as you asked me…
A lot of the people that we left with were dismayed at the material in the programme which seemed to be perpetuating the image of sleazy sex and distasteful habits. It was old-fashioned, old-hat and excruciating to watch.
I can only think that this is just an aberration . The management should really get a grip on public opinion and understand they are servants not masters!!
I enjoyed the experience but really, John, I was gobsmacked. I cannot imagine that this attitude can survive much longer.
The two guys escorting us out really did treat us like shit and as if we were criminals for not bowing down at the altar of puerile entertainment.
Apart from that, thanks for the chips.
Please tell me – Is this really what it is like each time you go to watch TV?