We ask the questions
What makes tick? Nick Leys investigates
IT’S a chilly Monday night in Melbourne and the last place most people would choose to be is sitting in a deckchair in Federation Square watching a giant screen as the wind off the Yarra whips around their legs. The deckchairs belong to Q & A, the ABC1 program billed as ‘‘ adventures in democracy’’, and they are there as part of the show’s ongoing quest to engage viewers and find wider audiences. Put out a deckchair and they will come and Tweet, despite the cold night air and chance of drizzle. The chairs look lonely.
‘‘ Who thought that would be a good idea,’’ Q & A’s executive producer Peter McEvoy says of the deck chairs. ‘‘ Oh yeah, that would be me.’’
The famously laidback executive producer’s self-deprecation is wasted, however. By the time the show goes to air live about 80 Melburnians will have taken up position in the deckchairs to watch the night’s debate. And many will attempt to see a comment they have posted on Twitter with the ‘‘ qanda’’ hashtag actually make it on to the show, a digital trophy to brag about in some circles.
Inside the venue, a large crowd is waiting, an enthusiastic mob as you might expect in inner-city Melbourne during the Writers Festival — for Q&A an annual venture south from its home in the ABC’s Ultimo studios in Sydney’s inner west. They are here to see actor Simon Callow; Ghanaian-British-American philosopher and novelist Anthony Appiah; Nigerian author Sefi Atta; and a favourite on the show, the iconoclastic feminist and provocateur Germaine Greer.
There is an added bonus tonight as well as another Q&A favourite, journalist and commentator David Marr, is in the crowd as a guest and ripples of excitement pass through those
their smartphones on gathered. Many train Marr for a picture.
A half-hour before the show goes live the smartphones and their shutters are at it again, this time as host Tony Jones appears to welcome them and give advice. The sight of Jones raises the excitement a few levels and reminds those waiting patiently they are about to become part of a live television audience.
‘‘ Q&A is live political theatre,’’ Jones tells them in a pep talk he delivers at about this time every Monday night. ‘‘ Keep that in mind. You are part of a live audience and it’s important to have respect for each other and each other’s views.’’
Pep talk over, the crowd is ushered into the theatre and the countdown to the show’s live opening begins. With minutes to go, the guests are brought on one at a time and introduced to applause that ranges from enthusiastic (Callow) to thunderous (Greer). The set is cleared of anyone not involved in the production and everything goes quiet as the show’s theme music is played. ‘‘ Good evening, welcome to Q & A, live from Melbourne’s Edge Theatre. I’m Tony Jones.’’ FORMER prime minister Paul Keating was asked during a public event in Brisbane a year ago if he would ever appear on Q & A. His response was typical of Keating and no doubt made the average fan of the show laugh at the putdown but cry at his refusal to appear.
It is a Punch and Judy show, he said, featuring a ‘‘ ragtag’’ bunch, people ‘‘ of no note whatsoever’’. ‘‘ I wouldn’t be caught dead on it,’’ he said. ‘‘ If I was prime minister I would not let federal ministers go on that program. You just wash the government through mud every time you turn up. If you go on Tony Jones’s [show] you need a hip flask of mace.’’
As it approaches the end of its fifth year on our screens, Q&A appears to have an image problem. The show was devised and came to us with the aim of offering an outlet for a weekly national discourse, a natural home for the debate of political, moral and ethical issues facing the community. It would find new voices to speak with the old and established ones and, more than anything else, provide a forum that all Australians — conservative or radical, metro or regional — could feel engaged in.
Has it succeeded? Or, to use that hackneyed phrase of television criticism, has Q&A jumped the shark?
Review found a surprising response from various people about how important the show was or what contribution it made. Several of them politely declined to comment, not because they didn’t like the show but because they had ceased to watch it. People in the media and areas of public policy, those who you would expect to be avid watchers, did not list the program as compulsory viewing.
The main criticism the show now faces
Producer Peter McEvoy and Tony Jones