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Westminster Live Studios Host Leaders Debate For BBC

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It was a busy week when Westminster Live studios in the heart of political London were asked to host the now infamous leaders debate for the BBC, initially stripped over five consecutive nights each leader would be infamously grilled by the talent of interviewer Andrew Neil who is known for pulling no punches when confronted with a political powerhouse.

The reason we were asked to host them is simply this, not only do we have the best and only real live view of the houses of Parliament which makes any programme of that genre but also security... Unlike other London studios we are known for our ability to organise and keep secret the interviews of such giants from The President of the United States through to every major leader from around the world. So, the stage was set and everything was going to plan.

The BBC had carefully crafted a low-key set that suited the simple stripped back approach to Mr Neil's interview style with the focus on the leader and his hard-hitting questions. To achieve this, a top designer was brought in and given the remit to create a "warm and relaxed atmosphere" in which the person been interviewed may feel at ease and more importantly with the viewer at home enjoying the experience.

The first Leader to face the interview chair was that of Mrs May, The Prime Minister. I, as head of the creative division of Westminster Live, was given the role of meet and greet to all the leaders who arrived at the studios. This is simply so that the BBC team are not seen in anyway to have any political slant or favouritism. A couple of days previously we had enjoyed a visit from Mrs May's personal protection team, who were beyond helpful and friendly yet left you under no illusion they had a top job to do and that was to protect her.

On the day of the first interview I along with her team were assigned to meet the PM in the private car park of Westminster Live, far away from the prying eyes of the media and long lenses. As she exited the gleaming Jaguar XJ, Mrs May beamed a warm and friendly smile while been ushered into the building and into our private lift, this was when I noticed how relaxed she was. In fact, given what she was about to face it was amazing to think she showed no nerves at all. Quickly moving into the makeup room where a brilliant team admitted to me later that "she does her own make up very well" so it's not a hardship at all because she knows what she wants. Mrs May was swiftly ushered into the main Studio A. Any diva requests at this stage? None other than we discussed the merits of Earl Grey tea and how she travels with her own box as "so many places don't seem to stock it". We do and that greatly impressed her.

The interview was a glorious success yet many media commenters bemoaned the fact she failed to answer various questions. The bigger problem with a 27-minute debate is how do you fit all those questions in. Try as he might Mr Neil had a tough job to deliver and both appeared to have gotten on well.

After the interview, the BBC buzzed about looking at sound bites for the six-o-clock news and pictures to all the major agencies. The BBC does an amazing job in this whatever people may think on these type of shows is a very slick operation.

No sooner had the interview finished and the whole security operation swung into action again with walkie talkies blasting off. Mrs May happily agreed to pose for pictures and thank all the teams of people, a rare thing with many rest assured. While back in the lift we chatted about what else she had on that day and she has such an easy-going nature. Something given the hard role she has may not come across on TV when faced with a crisis, Mrs May then swept away with her security team intact and… watching the interview only two hours later prime time BBC1 we were all very excited to see the hard work pay off with the studio lighting looking splendid and the unique use of the Jib camera which gave the sense of the dramatic over the whole studio. Dedicated light boxes carefully placed around the floor and walls truly made the whole production one of great success.

Ratings were huge for the time slot and we were all looking forward to the next day which was to be Labour leader Mr Corbyn and then the Manchester bomb went off….

Amid all of horror of what was happening in Manchester and then the subsequent interest in the story, the studios were thronging with the world's media all reporting on the terrible story and so it was decided that the interview with Mr Corbyn would resume on Thursday and then moved into Friday.

Jeremy Corbyn was a strange man - upon meeting him at the back door there was no air and graces but that of a man who appeared not to be that bothered about his job. In the lift, I asked him if he was looking forward to the interview "It's my birthday today he laughed and not really the way I was expecting to spend it". Hardly a man keen on getting to grips with Isis or running our great country. Once again under the glare of Rayzr 7 300 Daylight spotlights Mr Corbyn squirmed and moved about in his seat but rarely answered anything of note and then it was all over... the interviews were certainly pulling in the ratings and the power of the BBC displaying out studios in such great effect meant wonderful advertising for Westminster Live. It for me was very happy.

Now the next victim was the much-maligned UKIP Leader Paul Nuttall who has yet to become an MP, but that hasn't stopped him from being a prominent figure in the upcoming general election. The leader of UKIP arrived at the studios looking dapper and very cheery. Paul had the toughest interview really as his was going out to air on the Bank Holiday Monday, which is notorious for ratings as many are busy out and about not watching TV. Again, the studio descended into a dark and quiet zone ahead of the programme credits and yet he truly pulled it off. Out of all the leaders so far, he was scoring good points back and forth and many in the gallery were amazed the underdog was biting back good and hard. Once over we discussed the merits of elections and how he believed that his party was on the up. Paul from Bootle, Merseyside admitted like all people the critics can be harsh "but look you don't get into politics to be liked but to change people and their lives hopefully for the better". Paul had a tough job to do as the previous leader the brilliant media personality and now radio presenter.

Nigel Farage dominated the face of the party for so long "Paul dismissed the merits of media training telling me. Why do I want to be like anyone else. I say and do what I believe in and that to me is the truth". I could see why he would not be afraid of Andrew Neil.

Next up was the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon who had flown down from Scotland for the interview looking very Thatcher in her Royal Blue suit and seven inch spiked heels which we agreed she was having trouble walking in. Again, she had a great team around her who were helpful upbeat and looking after her every whim, particularly as this was a Sunday afternoon when we filmed it. It's now famously noted that while been interviewed she tried and failed to warm up Mr Neil with flattery. Naturally it failed but again the rules are so different for women and its tougher because they are judged also on looks, hair and fashion something I noted the ever-shrinking Ms Sturgeon was aware of. Both shows hit the headlines for various reasons, and again having the opportunity to chat in a relaxed moment with both. They all had their charms but the whole political spectrum is now like a celebrity circus each looking for the perfect soundbite, clickbait and social media following. The winner in those two was without doubt Paul Nuttall.

The final meeting was with the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. Now they say politics is showbiz for the… … well … Throughout the 1980s, Mr Farron fronted a band that was written off as a 'fourth rate New Order' but still secured a recording session with Island Records. I noted straight away that Tim loved the spotlight, basked in all the buzz of the TV studio and again was not put out by what lay ahead … he arrived in his famous Doc Martens shoes, something of which is he known for. No special requests were asked for, but as a vegetarian his strict eating habits have led some of his colleagues to describe his campaign more than dull .. Tim though again shone and I mean shocked us all in Studio A. Again in the media he was attacked for having a shout debate but truthfully, he proved in my opinion to be the toughest interview of the whole week, so what was he like? A bit of a shock, really good fun, upbeat and far more at ease in front of the four studio cameras. But could all that of been because years ago he truly wanted to be on Top of The Pops rather than Parliament TV?

After the final key light had been switched off there was an air of calm, although it had been a huge success after such a big week there is naturally something of a down period .. not for long another dreadful attack and then the full on power of the election meant that we were going to be kept on our toes for many days to come .. As for me meeting the leaders .. what a thrill I mean whichever way you look at it they will be part of political history and for one week thanks to the BBC and Westminster Live I was too.
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