Review: First Ever Question Time

Question Time 25th September 1979


Teddy Taylor (Conservative)
Michael Foot (Labour)
Fr Derek Worlock (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool)
Edna O’Brien (Writer)

Venue: A South London Theatre

The first-ever edition of Question Time was hosted by Robin (later Sir Robin) Day on Tuesday 25th September 1979, a mere 41 years ago. Parts of this programme were posted on BBC Question Time’s Facebook page to commemorate the 40th anniversary. Other clips have survived on Youtube. Another segment is available via a corporal punishment website. Not what you think.

In his very first introduction, a youthful Robin Day gave a pithy and witty welcome to each of his guests in turn before introducing the venue as, “a South London theatre that has been specially converted for use by television”. It was the Greenwood theatre which was used by Question Time until Peter Sissons took to the chair in 1989. After this, the programme began to tour the country.

Day described audience as “real people”, to distinguish them from those who work in television. Day went on to say that there was no suggestion that the audience was a representative cross-section, rather a “wide-ranging collection from a broad variety of groups, organisations and institutions”. As the camera panned the audience, nearly all were of a certain age, only one young lady appeared to be tinged.

The first question came from a Miss Charlton. Despite the redoubtable Debatable Lands family name, Miss Charlton spoke, not as a north country cursing Reiver, but as if Joyce Grenfell. So much so that, if the real Joyce Grenfell was watching, on her black and white TV, in front of a single bar electric fire in her Dolphin Square apartment, she would have reached for her bakelite dog’s bone telephone receiver (rented from the GPO) in order to ring around for extra elocution lessons. Making the Queen sound common, Miss Charlton asked the following question,

“To what extent do you consider the forthcoming visit of the Pope to Ireland will help towards peace and reconciliation. Would a visit to Ulster have been of any value?”

Robin un-subtly awarded Edna O’Brien the honour of the first-ever QT answer by barking, “Edna O’Brien, you were born there.”

Edna replied that Ireland certainly required a miracle, perhaps as a repetition of the miracle at Knock a century before? She thought that the Papal visit was a “good thing”. It was a gesture and a journey. Day had introduced Miss O’Brien as “the beautiful and gifted novelist, poet and playwright”. Rather than objecting to the somewhat gendered references based upon value judgements, Edna had smiled demurely and then spent the rest of the hour rocking slowly backwards and forwards as if melting.

Edna thought a visit by the Pope to “the North of Ireland” would be a strength to all people there. They couldn’t but be impressed by it. She expressed her admiration for the Pope (John Paul II, now Saint John Paul II) but confessed to not being an ardent Catholic. She wished the Pope would go to Ulster. Without even having to say the words, those ‘come to bed eyes’ were seducing us towards conceding a pre-partition Ulster of nine counties not six.

Teddy Taylor began by telling the audience that he was not a Roman Catholic himself but had been very impressed by the Pope. He saw the Pontiff as being a man of vision, one who, “Wanted to play his part in solving the problems of the world”.

Day had gently ribbed Mr Taylor that he might now be Secretary of State for Scotland, if not for a little local difficulty in his Glasgow constituency. This was a reference to the May 1979 General Election which had brought Mrs Thatcher to power, Question Time having begun four months into the subsequent eighteen years of continuous Tory rule.

Perhaps to emphasise his local difficulty and accompanying change of career, Taylor was wearing an off dark green jacket, pale pink shirt and striped clip-on tie. Was he now better employed as a hospital porter? If so, the sight of his dreadful combover would have relegated him to dragging big trollies through tunnels full of steaming pipes, back and forward to the morgue.

Taylor continued that the Pope’s visit might “change the hearts and minds of men”, rather than bring about some kind of remarkable new political solution. He stated that the Christian church had always claimed, quite rightly, to change people. Taylor movingly expressed his disappointment at the present situation,

“The most depressing thing for people like myself, outsiders to Ireland, is to find that the feelings of hatred are probably as great now as they were some years ago when, we’re told, that things were much worse. The youngsters still have feelings of hatred and rejection, and I think to that extent, we can only wish the Pope a very successful tour.”

Taylor was to re-enter parliament, as MP for Southend, in a by-election in 1980. The disappointment of his previous constituency, Glasgow Cathcart, soon forgotten. However, he never did become a Cabinet Minister.

Michael Foot wished the Pope every success but didn’t think it was possible for him (or anyone else) to achieve a miracle. It would be a mistake to imagine a dramatic change. Neither would these issues be solved by acts of terrorism or “the resort to force”. Only peaceful methods would work. People on all sides must realise that. Foot’s hair and shirt were of brilliant white, the rest of him a full rainbow of shades of brown. His jacket, cardigan, tie, the frames of his Japanese sniper goggle specs, even his microphone, ran in sequence from light tan to cowpat near black.

Archbishop Worlock reminded Micheal that the Pope had condemned clearly the use of violence. He referred to the “outrages of last month”. In August 1979, Lord Mountbatten of Burma and three others had been murdered by an IRA bomb attack. Eighteen soldiers had been murdered by the IRA at Warrenpoint. A civilian had been shot and killed at Warrenpoint too. The Archbishop developed a point made by Teddy Taylor, reminding the audience that the Pope’s visit wasn’t a political initiative, rather a spiritual mission from which there might be political consequences.

“Lifting people’s hearts in the direction of peace, not by conquest, not by overcoming, but by a searching after peace, a coming together of men’s hearts and minds, that’s what’s got to happen.”

The Pope would be sad at not going to Ulster, Fr Worlock continued. It had been the Pope’s own decision. Security considerations, logistics and the possible consequences had made that decision difficult. There would be a Papal event at Drogheda which people from both sides of the border could attend.

Robin thanked the panel and asked Miss Charlton if she was happy with their responses.

“Quite happy with that, Mr Day, thank you,” she replied briskly.

The first question had been answered in silence. There were no interruptions from the chair, audience or any of the panellists and no applause at its conclusion. The next question was from a Mr Anthony Rentouf. At this point the clip ends and, as things stand, Mr Rentouf has been denied QT immortality. Perhaps if he’d had an interest in corporal punishment?

Before you ask, not the type that the then newly elected MP for Basildon, Mr Harvey Proctor, was prosecuted for in 1987 (by which time he was MP for Billericay). During the first QT episode, ‘corporal punishment’ referred to the totally innocent, and perfectly legal, practice of flogging children in schools. Better times. Therefore, the next historic QT clip is available thanks to “World Corporal Punishment”, whose website is currently headlined with “Why Pampa Independent School District is Bringing Back Spankings.” Shall we move rapidly on to Mrs Dingwall? Introduced by Mr Day as a housewife, Mrs Dingwall asked, “Can the panel give any reasons why corporal punishment should be retained in our schools?”

Mr Day repeated parts of the question, to which the questioner replied “yes” while giving one decisive nod of her concrete perm. One could tell at a glance that Mrs Dingwall had moved south after marrying late. Previously, before the war and in her prime, she taught in a girl’s school in Edinburgh. Maggie Smith won an Oscar for the portrayal. Across the intervening decades, Mrs Dingwall’s love of Mussolini had deepened rather than diminished. It was that obvious.

Bishop Worlock struggled to find an absolute right or wrong. He thought corporal punishment offensive but conceded that he wasn’t the one who had to teach. The Archbishop didn’t think suspension a solution either, as youngsters would miss school. He disliked the idea of corporal punishment but wouldn’t deny it as a possibility to the teacher. He threw into the mix that he disliked capital punishment too.

Mr Day asked of him, “Do you think it is un-Christian to inflict pain for the purposes of punishment and discipline?”

The Archbishop replied with a little parable. He cited a mother correcting a small child, adding that, as the child ages, there has to develop a sense of “dignity and responsibility” which will only be retarded by being hit.

Speaking of the works of Muriel Spark, of whom did she attribute a “remarkable capacity for sex”? Was it Edna O’Brien? One can only hope. Previously, Robin Day had quoted Miss O’Brien’s “Who’s Who” hobbies entry as being, “movement by day, dreams by night”. To emphasise the duality of her existence, Edna was dressed in a black and white halved ensemble with a black bobble pinned about the white half. Large earrings peeped from below a big, big, big, brunette bouffant. Beyond beautiful and talented, she looked lushity, lush, lush, lush topped with a bit more lushiness.

She preferred persuasion to force and claimed that persuasion worked more “strongly”. She reminded us that the Jesuits well knew this, and quoted from their famous truism, “Give me a child before the age of four.” As a reminder of changing times, we all thought that meant something else in those days. She was against corporal punishment and drew attention to the oft-neglected but objective role of the punisher.

“Under any circumstances?” Asked Mr Day.

“I might be tempted to give a clout if I lost my temper,” replied Miss O’Brien. You can take the girl out of Taumgraney, County Clare, but…

Teddy Taylor reminded us of the “tawse”. A leather strap, used in Scotland to thrash girls as well as boys. Mr Taylor took the opportunity to cite this as proof of a belief in the equality of the sexes. Teddy was in favour, and saw corporal punishment as useful for allowing “learning to take place”. Despite being interrupted by applause, Mr Taylor declared his view unpopular these days, explaining, “Those who want to learn can’t learn, as you have a small number of hooligans concerned with disrupting education. I believe it is good to have this as a deterrent.”

Emboldened, he maintained that the option of corporal punishment should be extended to our juvenile courts. Such a deterrent did not exist at the moment and was contributing to an increase in violence in our society.

“All forms of corporal punishment are degrading,” exclaimed Michael Foot, both for those who inflict it and for those upon whom it is inflicted. He suggested that criminality in later life was sometimes caused by the offender experiencing corporal punishment at an earlier age. Mr Foot employed humour. He reminded us that corporal punishment is most likely to be used in public schools.

“And when they grow up, they come along and advocate abolishing free public libraries and taking away security benefits from strikers.”

He was interrupted by laughter, applause and Robin Day, who noted,

“But Michael, you went to a public school? Is that the secret of your …..”

Mr Foot assured us that he had resisted all temptation to close a library or to stop giving taxpayers money to layabouts bringing the country to its knees (“such endearments” as he preferred to call them). He had been beaten once at school. Having resolved that it would never happen again, it never did. Little did he know what Maggie and the voters held in store for him. Subsequently, Michael had attended a Quaker school, which held the very good principle, that he agreed with, that all forms of corporal punishment are degrading.

The camera returned to Mrs Dingwall who, through a fine set of false teeth, bared as if a hanging judge, announced a verdict of, “I’m quite satisfied with the panel’s answers.”

Mr Day looked for a teacher in the audience. He found one, a 1970s cardboard cutout deputy head: side parting, hair and sideburns to the middle of the ear, large metal framed spectacles, big collar and wide tie. A factory in the Midlands churned them out. He accused the Archbishop of evading the question and claimed that in Roman Catholic schools, “They are loose with the rod.” Another quote about Catholic clergy that has not aged as intended. When quizzed by the Chairman, Mr Deputy Head replied that he wanted to keep corporal punishment. Beneath those leather elbow pads (on the loud sports jacket) was stamped a low work’s number, forged before the factory had been taken over by Common Purpose.

The Archbishop responded that he had only been beaten once, at a non-Catholic school.

May your reviewer pull the reader out of the programme for a moment? A point had been missed by the audience, the panel and Mr Day. If you don’t want to be caned then all you have to do is to behave yourself.

Back in the theatre, the Archbishop explained that he’d been beaten for fighting after another pupil had insulted the Pope. Speaking of conflict, in the war, Robin Day had been a young artillery officer in East Africa. Many have said that Michael Foot was a conscientious objector. Foot always insisted that he had been unable to serve because of serious and chronic ill health. He lived to be 96. Despite (even then) looking like a hospital porter close to retirement and on light duties, Teddy Taylor was only born in 1938. Edna O’Brien had also been too young. Perhaps a blessing, given that she looked the type who might row from Taumgraney harbour (if such a thing is possible), under a full moon, to replenish a tethered U-boat.

Mr Day asked for a counter view from the audience. Another posh lady spoke. She quoted a South London headteacher who wanted corporal punishment only for boys as they were “rational creatures and it doesn’t work for girls.” This was taken as a vote against.

A young man contributed from the audience. It seemed to him that the only group of people that could be legally assaulted in society, were the young. He found it disgusting. Not only was he young, but white, and sounded like one of those things called “cock knees” that you read about in the history books. Now, four decades later, as with corporal punishment, they have long since been replaced and are somewhat missed.

Since a number of issues seem to have unexpectedly aligned, may your reviewer set some homework for Puffins? Would there have been a subsequent peace process in Northern Ireland were it not for a combination of both a change in men’s hearts and the use of force? Two thousand words please.

The final clip survives because of its comedic value. The lady questioner had brought a number of questions with her in her handbag and had mixed them all up. She wondered, before a puzzled panel, if they wanted to answer,

“The one about the beer?”

Fortunately, Robin had the proper question in front of him. He read it out for her,

“What do the team like doing on a night out?”

She was kind enough to repeat that for Robin, who retorted somewhat impatiently,

“We’ve got that. Teddy Taylor.”

On his night out, Teddy liked to eat a nice meal, go to the cinema and then walk in the countryside with his wife, Shiela. Given that this was supposed to be a night out, the logistics might suggest himself and the good Mrs Taylor arriving at a country lay-by at about two in the morning. What on earth were they up to? Perhaps times haven’t changed so much after all?

“And lots of cream cakes when we get home,” he added. Filth.

Characteristically biting the hand that fed him, Michael Foot wanted to escape from the House of Commons and the BBC. Challenged on what he really wanted to do, the chronically seriously sick bed-hopping old goat replied, “That isn’t going to be revealed on this type of programme, wouldn’t want to lower the tone.”

Father Worlock’s night out was a night in, which, when you’re an Archbishop, means a late meal, a good television programme, a book and not bothering about what time you have to get up the following morning. In another example of religious language (hopefully) changing it’s meaning across a period time, he added, “Please myself at home by myself.”

Mr Day asked the Archbishop if he was not one of those Catholic clergy who enjoyed the good things in life? Fr Worlock, a glinting eye and knowing grin added to his vestments, replied, “Perhaps I’ve got them at home.”

Edna’s idea of the perfect night out included the company of the generous man she loved. He bought her champagne without ever mentioning the price. What’s more, throughout the whole evening, neither did he mention his wife. She’s right you know. Mr Day took the opportunity to ask Miss O’Brien when she was free? Rather than being offended, Edna melted a bit more.

And at that point, Mr Day called a conclusion, but not before introducing the next week’s panel; Joe Grimmond MP (former Liberal Party leader), Peter Shore (Labour), “lively lady lawyer Tess Gill” (National Council of Civil Liberties, at that point affiliated with the Paedophile Information Exchange) and Miss World impresario, Eric Morley. Tick enough boxes to be immortalised on a corporal punishment website? Worth a look.


Introduction and first question, QT Facebook page.
Corparal punishemnt question (at 2:00), YouTube via
Final question and close, QT Facebook page.

In Memorium

Sir Robin Day 1923 – 2000
Michael Foot FRSL 1913 – 2010
Sir Teddy Taylor 1937 – 2017
Archbishop David Worlock CH 1920 – 1996

Edna O’Brien DBE is in her 90th year. In 2019 she published her most recent book entitled “Girl”.

© Always Worth Saying 2020

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file