IT PROMISED to be a controversial edition of Question Time when – before the cameras even started rolling – a panellist asked ‘when did sailors get so fat?’
The question from comedian and author Alexei Sayle, during his first appearance on the BBC debate show, received a rather mixed reception from the audience at Portsmouth Grammar School and got things off to an irreverent start.
He even received an answer from an ex-submariner in the audience, who said: ‘They’ve always been fat, because there aren’t many places to exercise on board ships.’
The self-confessed Marxist also surprised onlookers by saying he would introduce mandatory national service, again wondering aloud: ‘Have I turned into a reactionary since I got to Portsmouth? Does that happen to a lot of people?’
But before long the lights went down, the broadcast started and the news talking points of petrol, pasties and the Falklands rose to the fore.
The night’s discussion also included Lib Dem Children’s Minister Sarah Teather, National Trust chairman and columnist Simon Jenkins, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and Tory MP Anna Soubry.
With the headlines dominated by the panic-buying caused after the possibility of a tanker driver strike was announced, the most heated exchanges centred on whether the government’s response had made the problem worse.
These pitted the two coalition MPs against Mr Alexander, who branded the situation a ‘self-inflicted shambles’.
But he soon came under fire from a member of the audience angry that he wouldn’t call on the Unite union, which provides funding to the Labour party, to demand the strike not take place.
Some issues, such as whether VAT should be charged on heated food, split the panel and prompted one audience member to ask if the government suggested people start stocking up on pasties to guard against panic-buying.
But on others, including if the 53-day jail sentence for a student convicted of using racist abuse on Twitter was fair, they stood together. Mr Jenkins summed up the general view when he branded the decision ‘ludicrous’.
But before the evening’s action even got started host David Dimbleby had to use all his skills as a moderator to deal with an equally feisty panel.
A group of Portsmouth Grammar School pupils took part in a mock version of the programme earlier in the day and gave the veteran broadcaster a run for his money.
‘They thought it was fantastic,’ said school headteacher James Priory.
‘And I thought it was a great programme which got stuck into some good political issues, but still had an edge of humour.’