I am currently preparing for an exam. Or so it feels. I am you see going to be one of the panel on Radio 4’s Any Questions this evening. It is still in its lockdown format, so not travelling the country. I always rather liked the touring aspect … and indeed when I was about twelve, and crippled with embarrassment, I put a rather insignificant question to the Any Questions panel when they visited Telford in Shropshire, never dreaming that one day I might actually be on the panel myself.
But no, this evening I shall be doing my bit from home – thanks to a clever piece of BBC kit which will be delivered today, and that I shall install according to the video instructions I have already received. In normal circumstances I would now be panicking about fitting the kit together (getting the right lead into the right hole, if you know what I mean). But rightly and properly I am more worried about prepping for what might come up.
That is why it feels a bit like an exam. You don’t know what questions are going to come (it is true that the panel don’t see the questions in advance), so you have to question-spot and do some targeted revision. In this case, “targeted revision” means reading the newspapers and listening to the radio – and in a way it is nice to have an excuse to do that without feeling guilty. But it is slightly overshadowed by the fear that a question will come up that you won’t have prepped for. I remember years ago listening to one episode which had the excellent Lisa Jardine on the panel and some fairly technical question came up. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but let’s say it was about the relative merits of different types of nuclear reactor and Jonathan Dimbleby in the chair went straight to her, and all she could say was words to the effect of “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” … brave, honest, but you can only afford to do it once! (The politicians on the panel probably couldn’t afford to do it at all, but then they get briefed by their party team, whereas the likes of me and Lisa – who sadly died in 2015 – have to brief ourselves.)
So why do it? Well there are some good, if slightly pious, reasons. If women always say no, then the end result is that there are no women on these programmes. Besides, I think that we academics do have to come out of our burrows from time to time and show that we have something to contribute to wider debates. More to the point though: all that exam-style adrenaline is actually quite fun. (I hope that is not pride coming before a fall.)