This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
The dark room is illuminated by a giant projection down one wall of whizzing Twitter feeds. Punters sit at small tables, chatting and enjoying drinks. There are a lot of smartphones and iPads around, but it seems like an average Thursday evening in a London bar.
But suddenly the atmosphere changes. Someone makes an announcement, and before you know it, a reveller is standing on a chair, attracting all eyes, dancing to… the BBC Question Time theme music.
This, for the uninitiated, is known as ‘Dimble-dancing’, and it’s a regular feature of the ‘BBC QT Watchalong’. The idea behind the evening is simple – why watch Question Time (QT) on your sofa at home, when you could do it in a bar, drink in hand?
Originator Nat Guest set out to answer the question. Her enthusiasm for Twitter turned her into a QT fan, rather than the other way round – she loves the jokes and shared anger that surge across the social network while Dimbleby and his panel are on air. She imagined fellow tweeters at home, “yelling at the screen and drowning their political anxieties with whatever liquor comes to hand”, and hit on the idea of providing a venue where all these armchair hecklers could yell together. To warm up the crowd – QT only starts at 10.35pm – she books a few politically-themed comedy acts for short sets. Once the winners of the ‘Dimble-Dancing’ and ‘Best Dimble-Tie’ competitions have been suitably rewarded, another projector is fired up and the QT theme music heralds the main event, the screening of the BBC’s late-night current affairs panel show. It’s hard to remember that the programme was first broadcast in 1979 when you’re watching it in an East London bar with young people jigging around to its theme music, quietening down only when presenter David Dimbleby starts introducing his panel.
The evening I attended was a landmark for Guest; not only did all 100 tickets sell out, but there was also so much Twitter activity that its hashtag, #qtwatch, briefly trended on the social network. QT itself is an unexpected Twitter phenomenon – the tracking website tellybug.com calculates that 368,565 tweets were sent about the programme in 2011. To put that in context, that’s only around 65,000 fewer than Big Brother.
As the Watchalong’s programme demonstrates, Dimbleby himself has an almost cultish following on the social network. There’s even a popular parody account, @DIMBLEBOT, that purports to be his robotic alter ego. Steve Anderson, QT’s executive producer, says that while the team didn’t set out to create this phenomenon, the “separate existences of the programme don’t seem to damage it”. He also feels that the response the programme gets online is a reflection of what it was always meant to be about: “Question Time’s basic premise, really, is interaction. People turn up and put politicians on the spot... Maybe the reaction is just a grain of what the programme is about.”
Guest has a different explanation: “There’s something quite subversive and kitsch about centring a comedy/drinking evening around something ostensibly dry and political. I don’t think running a night around Have I Got News For You or 10 O’Clock Live would ever work, but you could run one around, for example, Prime Minister’s Questions – if it weren’t on in the middle of the day, obviously.”
Back at the Watchalong, the quiet atmosphere of concentration in the bar while the programme is on is broken by the occasional yell of frustration, exclamation of support or fist-thump, and there are communal groans the few times the venue’s internet connection halts the programme feed for a few seconds.
It’s hard to say what most makes this evening feel surreal – the Dimble-Dancing, the near-worship the attendees feel for Dimbleby, or their absolute devotion to the QT format. Surreal it may be, but it beats watching alone at home.
The BBC QT Watchalong takes place at London’s Hackney Attic. Follow @BBCQTWatchalong for details of the next event