A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
I’m lucky enough to be the runner on Scotland’s most watched current affairs show, Scotland Tonight. For six years, once a week, I’ve been front row as the country has developed and debated the issues of the day. For much of this time it has by the numbers, Person A thinks this, what do you think Person B?, but over the last few months it has been blockbuster.
With the epic omnishambles of Brexit entering yet another ‘crunch week’ in parliament, if you can get over the incandescent fury, abject dismay and the most public existential crisis in history, politics has never been more exciting. Where else can you get Game of Thrones levels of shithousery while still making Selina Meyer look Churchillian in her leadership? I imagine it’s the same thrill of watching The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, seeing just how big a mess these self important narcissists can make, but in this case the stakes actually matter.
Whenever people come to visit STV they are always thrilled to check out the studio and watch a live broadcast go out from the gallery. I joke that I hope they get a disaster, because when everything is running smoothly a gallery is a surprisingly quiet place to be. Everyone is so good at their job it takes something unexpected to throw some drama into the mix, which is when you get the bustling production always seen in film and TV (admittedly this is much more common with the evening news, where stories and running orders can change throughout the show until the credits finally roll).
Since Scotland Tonight airs at 22:30, many of the discussions are either pre-recorded or studio based. This gives the production team huge control over all the broadcast elements and minimises risks such as location difficulties and available guests. News rarely breaks that late and the purpose of the show is much more analysis and opinion than reciting facts. The only real exception I can think is when Nelson Mandela died, which resulted in the whole show being refocused and the poor pre-arranged guests having to talk about a subject they had no particular insight on.
But with Brexit news breaks at light speed and parliamentary votes often do drag into the night. Many’s the time now I arrive at 21:00 and the producers are gathered round a screen waiting for a vote result that will determine the narrative of the show they will be broadcasting in around an hour’s time. Indeed on Monday MPs didn’t even begin to vote until 22:00, half an hour before TX. As much contingency was done ahead of time as possible, packages edited with a gap to include the result, multiple opening titles were recorded depending on the outcome and an entire section was ready to be dropped if the Westminster correspondent was able to secure MPs as they left the House of Commons.
There’s no denying this immediacy makes for a much more vibrant show, particularly as you watch in real time political experts working through their bafflement as yet another twist unfolds in a plot now as bendy as an unregulated banana. I used to describe election/referendum nights as season finales, the moment all the previous months and years of political posturing and plotting had been building towards. Being seated on the autocue next to the producer as tips and predictions from polling stations around the country flood in, hearing the news before it is actually news is a unique and privileged place to be, working through the night only adding to the sense of occasion. Now, to use the Game of Thrones analogy again, it’s like the final season where each episode is feature lengthed, brimming with backstabbings, intrigue up to the eyeballs, heroes and villains and a neverending heap of humiliation for Theresa May.
If you have the energy it is worth keeping up with this 5 star tragicomedy on Twitter and the 24 hour news channels for the votes, not only because it is really important, but also it can be really invigorating. This is the most important time for the country in a generation, and it has coincided with the most ineffectual government and opposition, arguably ever. Audiences, however, are not sharing my enthusiasm. The first meaningful vote on Theresa May’s deal brought remarkably high audiences, however they have tapered off since, with people just pissed off and wanting it over with.
I’m not much into politics, but I am into good stories and this is one historians will be needing a tooth comb and pair of tweezers to unravel for centuries to come. How it ends is as clear today as it was three years ago, and this is only the beginning. I and most of the country will be relieved when it’s over, but wow is it one hell of a ride. It would be worth of a BAFTA, if only it weren’t so serious.