“Welcome to all of you here, and of course all of you at home. It’s lovely to be here.” And with that, and a knowing smile to the camera, Fiona Bruce swept away 25 years of David Dimbleby’s Question Time and claimed the nation’s highest-profile political programme absolutely as her own.
Bruce had confessed to feeling uncharacteristically apprehensive before her debut on the BBC One programme on Thursday night, chairing a panel that comprised the Conservative deputy chairman, James Cleverly, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, columnist Melanie Phillips, comedian Nish Kumar and Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats.
But she gave no hint of nerves during a performance that won widespread praise for her “millpond calm” but “focused, thorough, journalistic approach” (The Times) and “calmness, clarity and dry wit” (Daily Telegraph).
On social media, too, there was widespread appreciation. “Ooh ... I like her. She’s keeping them on track to answer,” tweeted businesswoman Deborah Meaden. “Fiona Bruce is doing an amazing job on Question Time, bravo,” said Jonathan Ross. And from the actor Sanjeev Kohli: “Fiona Bruce REALLY needs to bring this fire & sarcasm to the owners of antique forks. Outstanding performance.”
There were sharp interventions (telling Thornberry the audience were laughing at her as she outlined Labour policy) and quotable quotes (to Cleverly: “If this is the government being in control, what does out of control look like?”) and even a viral-worthy hashtag when Twitter users responded enthusiastically to a #ladyinyellow outlining why she did not feel sorry for Theresa May.
A sigh of relief, then, for BBC bosses: the safe hands Bruce brings to the dusty relics featured on Antiques Roadshow had proved no less assured when handling this particular national treasure.
The view was shared by Caroline Lucas MP, who was a guest on Dimbleby’s final episode in December and knows well the lurching feeling as the opening credits roll (“It’s when you hear the music. It’s the most terrifying thing you ever do, and many politicians will say the same thing”).
“What I liked about Fiona Bruce was that she had a quiet authority,” says Lucas. “She was able to keep order and assert herself as necessary, but she did it in quite a light-touch way. She wasn’t letting anyone get away with anything, but it didn’t feel obtrusive, it was just helpful. Politicians, when they go on that programme, need to be held to account, and I think she did it very well.”
Was it significant that Bruce is the first female presenter in 40 years? “These panel programmes where women in the past have been marginalised, it’s so good to see a majority of women and a female chair. But I don’t think there was anything gender specific about the way she was conducting it.”
Ayesha Hazarika, a political commentator and former Labour advisor who has appeared on the programme twice, felt Bruce’s quietly cool manner had brought a different tone to the show. “She was much more of an active chair than there has been in the past. I think there has been a tendency a little bit to let people scrap and shout over each other.
“I don’t know if it was because it was the first one, but I thought everybody just behaved a bit better; she didn’t let people get away with the normal shenanigans where the strongest voice and the most confident person can trot out soundbite after soundbite.”
For a programme that pulls in around 2 million viewers and finishes close to midnight, Question Time retains a curious place in the national consciousness – disliked by many as an angry bear pit, but still, even after almost 1,400 editions, appointment-to-view television for many. “It’s a programme people love to hate, don’t they?” says Lucas. “Even the people who hate it watch it so they can say they hate it.”
It is also one of the few occasions where ordinary people can regularly challenge those in power on their performance, “and surely our goal should be to make that normal again,” notes Polly Mackenzie, the chief executive of the thinktank Demos, who has also appeared on the panel. “I like Question Time. If it was the sum total of all political accountability in our national life, it would obviously be a disaster, but it’s just a show.”
As for having a woman in charge after four decades, “it’s great,” says Mackenzie. “But what would be really brilliant would be for it to be unremarkable.”