Page last updated at 09:33 GMT, Thursday, 20 January 2011

Question Time defined by 'epic' battles


Watch the classic political clashes Question Time is known for

By Ed Havard
Editor, BBC Question Time

Could the head-to-head between spin doctor Alastair Campbell and former MP George Galloway on the BBC's Question Time become one of the programme's most memorable political battles?

Epic confrontations have come to define Question Time.

Some of the programme's most electric moments have been those where two rival panellists have allowed their antipathy - political or personal - to spill over in front of the cameras.

Ian Hislop's attack on Mary Archer about her husband Jeffrey's criminal convictions was voted the favourite Question Time moment of all time.

George Galloway and Alastair Campbell
Galloway and Campbell have publicly expressed their dislike for each other

It is easy to see why - Hislop was merciless, prompting Lady Archer to ask whether he "wanted to take another free kick". She never appeared on the programme again.

But the Hislop v Archer clash was not about an issue of policy.

In political terms it was pretty insignificant - more a TV event than a political one. Instead, the most revealing and significant clashes have been those between political adversaries.

Perhaps the most high profile confrontation of recent years was between former Home Secretary Jack Straw and BNP leader Nick Griffin - a debate that took in immigration and holocaust denial and was watched by an audience of 10 million.

It caused a political storm and John Humphrys later said that there had probably never been a programme broadcast in the UK that had attracted as much controversy before it even went on air.

The prime minister, the leader of the opposition, senior members of the cabinet, church leaders, the director general, and every newspaper and broadcaster across Britain were directly involved in that debate.

No 10 did not agree with Alastair Campbell's last appearance on Question Time

And the public were drawn into the discussion in their millions. The former Sun editor, Kelvin McKenzie, compared it to Frost/Nixon.

The truth, though, is that political giants rarely go into battle in the same way as they did in the 70s and 80s when ideological differences turned debates into political theatre.

Even the recent head-to-head in Canada between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and atheist columnist Christopher Hitchens on faith was faintly underwhelming.

Nowadays we rarely get to witness the kind of political fireworks on display when, for example, two heavyweights of the 1970s and former Labour cabinet colleagues, Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins, tore pieces off each other on Question Time in a moment of high political drama exposing divisions which led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Michael Heseltine on Question Time
Michael Heseltine has been at the heart of many important clashes

And the Question Time archive is full of other epic struggles: former Prime minister Ted Heath reacting furiously to journalist and author Sir Max Hastings' attack on him over Iraq or historian David Starkey (once labelled the rudest man in Britain) taking on Jeffrey Archer over the age of consent.

Conservative politician Michael Heseltine - one of the original political stars of Question Time and the first cabinet minister to do the programme - has been at the heart of many of most important clashes.

In many ways, one can track the development of some of the crucial political moments of the past decades through his appearances on Question Time against his political foes.

Heseltine vs John Prescott on the minimum wage and Heseltine vs Arthur Scargill, the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, on union power in 1979 remain incredibly powerful to watch.

But Question Time still has its star performers and this week two of them appear on the same panel for the first time.

Alastair Campbell and George Galloway are both superb political debaters and are both hugely popular Question Time bookings.

They also have a history.

The BNP's Nick Griffin caused controversy

In his diaries Campbell described Galloway with one word - "repulsive". Galloway, for his part, has labelled Campbell "the most mendacious, malodorous public servant in the land".

There is inevitably some interest, then, in how they engage with each other on Thursday night in Burnley.

But both will face opposition from elsewhere. When Alastair Campbell last appeared on Question Time the government refused to field a minister to appear alongside him causing a minor political storm and acres of newspaper coverage.

This week, however, he will be up against a cabinet minister. Throw Nick Clegg's deputy Simon Hughes into the mix and it makes for a combustible programme.

It certainly promises to be something many complain we do not see enough of - politics with passion.

Question Time will be broadcast on BBC One at 2235 GMT on Thursday 20 January and available on BBC iPlayer after transmission.

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