1. You know that strange TV politics show that goes out late on a Thursday night after Question Time? Well they let BuzzFeed have access behind the scenes.
Endlessly and inexplicably popular, This Week goes out every Thursday night to an audience of the terminally bored and students sozzled on cheap boxes of Blue Nun wine. Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe.
Another interpretation is that it’s the most brilliantly stupid thing on British TV, a work of twisted genius which combines serious political interviews mixed with footage of one the UK’s best political interviewers making himself look silly.
This is Vicky Flind, the editor of the programme who is responsible for ensuring the programme makes it on to air.
“We realise how naff we are,” she says.
Vicky is in charge of a part-time team of five who meet for the first time on a Tuesday morning to plot that week’s episode.
“Our first editorial meeting is for half an hour a Tuesday morning. On Wednesday we have another meeting and try and firm that up and then everything’s filmed on a Thursday.”
2. Everything’s pulled together at the last minute.
An hour before broadcast and the opening credits are still being edited together. There’s a gap where they are hoping to slot in some lines by one of tonight’s guests, the comedian Stewart Lee who is still on his way to the studio.
Just to add to the fun, the first guest – Glaswegian pro-Scottish independence campaigner Pat Kane – has only just landed at Heathrow Airport and may not make it in time.
“The idea for the opening titles was at about midday today, we made the decision about the two guests the day before and the script for the political film in the middle is finalised half an hour before filming,” explains Vicky. “The end credits were done 15 minutes ago and we’ve come up with something that’s… OK.”
3. The crew really push the limits when coming up with daft ideas.
Even the production team were amazed when they got former home secretary Jacqui Smith to dance to Underworld’s “Born Slippy” a couple of years ago.
“We were sat there in the gallery and we didn’t know whether anyone would join,” says Vicky. “But it was Michael [Portillo] who leapt in, then Jacqui Smith genuinely got into it.”
And they even got Michael Portillo to wear a onesie last Christmas.
“Even we were quite surprised with the ease with which he agreed,” says assistant editor Richard Garvin.
4. Guests have a certain amount of control. Stewart Lee turns up and is shown the script. He has a few issues.
“They told me that I was coming on to talk about what you can and can’t say in comedy about politics. But it seems to have grown into a wider thing about how Katy Perry accidentally used an islamic symbol in a music video,” he explains afterwards.
“Also, I have written thousands of words on blasphemy and it’s incredibly nuanced. Whenever I try and explain it on a programme like this it gets boiled down to a sentence - which if you’ve had five years of work wrecked by religious people and have friends who are religious you are very careful to maintain a nuanced position.”
“The idea that you could discuss blasphemy and offence as an adjunct to something else… well for a start you’d have to talk about how the whole world is different post-7/7. Most of the time I just won’t say anything about it.”
5. Everything stops when Molly the dog, the real star of the show, turns up. We learn that she’s just eaten a large amount of chicken.
Molly is one of three golden retrievers belonging to Andrew Neil, the show’s host. And since she started appearing in this twisted late capitalist version of This Week she’s become the star of the show, judging guests with a waft of her paw or falling asleep.
Assistant editor Richard has thought very deeply about the cultural impact of becoming the first current affairs show to have a dog as a regular guest: “At first we didn’t make a big deal of her. But since then there’s two or three other programmes that have got dogs. I really think people have started having random dogs on set.”
6. Molly has her own bowl of water in the studio. Ensuring this is replenished a key role for the staff.
7. Other guests arrive. Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, is a very friendly man. This is what happened when we asked him to write down what makes This Week a success.
“I used to think that this huge audience was about the Question Time audience staying on,” he explains. “But all the BBC analysis shows that a lot of the audience can’t stand Question Time because it’s all Punch and Judy and you’re always battling against the time to get your soundbite out. I get a bigger reaction to this than anything apart from Have I Got News For You.”
He’s filling in for regular left-wing guest Diane Abbott, who is ill.
8. And fellow guest Stewart Lee thinks these are the qualities that make the show work.
“It’s one of the few places where a debate gets played out without people shouting over each other,” says Lee. “And Andrew Neil’s able to force things out of people that they might not give away – while Paxman fights a war of attrition, [Neil] does it by appearing to be charming. I absolutely love it.”
9. And this is what happens when you ask Andrew Neil to describe This Week:
(He means This Week, not BuzzFeed. I think. We’re just a disgrace to private sector publishing.)
10. Meanwhile, Michael Portillo tells us that he went to school with his regular co-guest Diane Abbott. But no one at the BBC knew when they booked them for the show.
“This Week was part of the BBC’s response to the low turnout at the 2001 general election: three programmes were invented and only ours has survived. Diane and I were booked for 12 weeks. In the 13th week they tried someone else and invited us back,” he explains.
“I was at school with Diane. Exact contemporaries. When Diane and I were invited to do the show together we both assumed that the BBC understood that we’d been at school together. We used to come together to do drama - I cast Diane as Lady Macduff in a film version of Macbeth.”
(We didn’t get a photo of Michael so this is an archive picture of him launching a train in Derby when he was a government minister. We gave a copy to him but he didn’t take it home.)
11. The This Week studio is a broom cupboard, albeit quite a nice broom cupboard.
It’s in a building on London’s Millbank, just next to the Houses of Parliament. It’s the same studio that’s used for filming Daily Politics on weekdays, which means Andrew Neil spends approximately a quarter of his waking life in this room.
And these are the unsung heroes who ensure the footage actually makes it out of this box.
12. When the show begins guests sit in a grim corridor and are whisked in and out very quickly.
Perched beneath a portrait of Andrew Marr is Pat Kane, who finally made it from Heathrow.
13. But if you nip to the toilets then you’ll find an internal shelter area, which is guarded by BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.
The patron saint of all BBC political journalists, Robinson is known for taking personal responsibility for all safety drills at Millbank and rumour has it that he has occasionally been seen berating producers who do not take fire drills seriously.
14. TV production galleries still look like a 1980s vision of the future.
So many switches, so many screens, so much expensive kit that could be ruined by a journalist from a viral news website leaning on the wrong thing.
The producers only have limited control over what goes on in the studio. Basically, they can shout in Andrew Neil’s ear. The producers tell him to make the guest stop talking. Unfortunately the guest keeps talking.
About a minute later they finally shut up and everything carries on as planned.
15. There is something very silly about watching a man edit footage of a dog sitting up on a sofa and cuddling up to a very serious political pundit.
Pat Kane, a former member of Hue and Cry, is trying make a serious point about the serious matter of Scottish Independence.
And you’re listening because you can’t take your eye off the screen because an adorable dog is cuddling up to him.
16. Pinned to the wall of the gallery is a brilliant, brilliant note to the production crew sent in by a viewer.
17. In fact, if you look carefully there’s warnings that strange things are afoot around Millbank.
18. This Week’s brilliantly self-loathing Twitter feed is run by this man.
Arryn Moy sits in the office throughout the show, ensuring that followers of @bbcthisweek are able to vent their spleen at the poor quality of tonight’s show / the awful guests / the price of fish.
This is what he has to deal with:
19. We also learned that dogs can quickly tire of current affairs programmes.
20. And the show ends with four men and a golden retriever looking totally baffled as this happens.
What you’re watching is a visual joke about the state of the government’s Universal Credit welfare payments system that relies on you a) knowing that Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship project is rapidly turning into a classic Whitehall technology procurement clusterfuck of epic proportions, b) that video is a clip that briefly went viral in some odd corner of the internet and involves 35,000 people trying to play a single game of Pokemon at the same time, c) being able to put that together in your head after midnight on a Thursday while watching a surreal politics show.
I don’t think Andrew, Michael, Alan or Stewart had a clue what was going on. This made it even better.
21. When the lights go up everyone makes polite conversation.
Stewart Lee tells an anecdote about being on holiday in Scotland a decade ago and driving up a deserted road only for “Michael Portillo to loom out of the mist, wait a moment and then vanish up a mountain.”
Michael Portillo seems to think this is highly possible and says similar things have happened to him in the past: “I was once on a bicycle in Bruges and I heard a woman say to her husband ‘I just saw Michael Portillo on a bicycle.’”
“And he replied: ‘what have you been smoking’.”
(There may have been something lost in the telling because this was genuinely really funny at the time.)
22. And after the show everyone has a drink of cheap wine in a polystyrene cup.
The consensus is that this was a “good show”.
Same again next week, then?