It all came about because my colleague Big Jim, the Arts Chaplain and technically half-time with us, filled in a form 4 years ago, inviting BBC Radio 4 Any Questions to St Chad’s. He heard nothing more until he received an email in October, asking if we were still interested. Yes we were.
The BBC has a list of criteria for the venues it uses. We had to have good access for people with disabilities, for example. And there had to be enough accommodation to provide an office hub and a green room.
We calculated the number of people we could accommodate, and the BBC sent us 200 tickets. The Diocesan PR people did a press release and two of the local papers had little paragraphs. Jim also did an interview on local radio. I sent emails to contacts in various community groups as well as deanery and diocesan networks, and put up posters. We started allocating tickets as soon as Christmas was over and in 2-3 weeks, they had all gone. People were asked to return tickets if they found they weren’t going to use them, so that they could be reallocated. The waiting list well exceeded the number of returns. We could have given out another hundred tickets, but we didn’t have the room in church.
A sound engineer came for a visit, to work out the technical details. British Telecom then came and installed 3 boxes in the vicarage next door to the church. They will remove them one day (I trust). On the night, wires went from the vicarage to the church. More cables came into the church from the BBC van.
The podium for the nave altar wasn’t big enough for 3 x 6′ tables, so staging had to be brought in. Jim arranged for St Johns Ambulance to be present in case of medical emergencies. The BBC arranged for a Security Consultant – though I accidentally offended him by calling him the Bouncer.
On the day, the technical people arrived at noon. The producer arrived at 3.00pm. The audience started arriving at 6.15, though they were expected at 6.45. We were encouraged to write lots of questions and put them into a post-box. Then runners collected them and took them upstairs to the hub where the producer and assistant chose the questions. We submitted over 200 questions, from which they chose 10, and 6 actually made it into the programme because of time constraints. I submitted 3 questions, but none of them were chosen. Big Jim was no. 7, so he just missed getting his question on air.
The panel (Julie Bindel, Norman Baker, David Davis, Alan Milburn) arrived from their meal around 7.40. By this time, I had welcomed everyone to St Chad’s and the warm up man from BBC Newcastle had been answering questions about the BBC from the audience. They took Question no. 10 as a warm-up to test for sound. And then, as soon as the 8.00pm news headlines were done, we were on air.
It was really interesting to watch it happen and see the interactions between Jonathan Dimbleby and the panel members. He would respond to what a panel member said and then move the discussion to another panel member. Very skillful. Alan Milburn joked, calling Dimbleby David.
Afterwards, we had put on a little reception for the panel, the production team, church members and those who had helped, and a few invited guests like the deputy mayor and some of my old NHS friends who had come a distance and whom I hadn’t seen for a while. We didn’t have the capacity to entertain all 200 guests, and certainly no budget. Church members and I made or bought in the food and drink. The problem was that a lot of people came out of church through the hall and expected to join the party. That was awkward. Someone asked the Church Warden, “have we been invited to this?” She answered, “have you been invited?” No. Other people just helped themselves. When Dimbleby wanted his glass topped up, there was almost no red wine left. I fretted about this afterwards – we just couldn’t be hospitable to everyone.
It was great to see Alan Milburn again. He was MP for Darlington and Secretary of State for Health when I was Chief Executive of Darlington Primary Care Group. I left the NHS in 2000 and hadn’t seen Alan since then. I have never known him at a loss for words, but when I told him I was leaving the NHS to be ordained, his jaw fell and he was silenced for a moment.
Someone said they hoped we got a good location fee. No, we don’t. We will receive £100, which we hope will cover the cost of the central heating, which went on for the day at 7.30am (St Chad’s is not known for its warm temperature).
Was it worth it? Yes. It was a lot of work. But Jonathan Dimbleby said on national radio that St Chad’s was a splendid building. Which it is. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. I hope people will now think to come and visit.