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June 19, 2018

What does this map of Question Time filming locations tell us about Britain?

By Jonn Elledge

Veteran BBC political presenter David Dimbleby is to stand down after 25 years as host of Question Time. Normally we’d pay no attention to such matters round here – oceans rise, empires fall, our extensive commentary on tube maps will see you through it all – except somebody has made a map and suddenly we got interested.

Question Time, you see, moves: each week it’s hosted in a different city, in an attempt to reflect a range of national opinion. This doesn’t quite work, because people travel to watch the show, and anyway the sort of person who wants to be in the audience of Question Time is extraordinarily unlikely to be representative of the populus at large (and highly likely to be, say, a councillor for a major political party). But nonetheless, the thought is there.

So Rob Grant from the Reach Data Unit has mapped the location of every Question Time recorded since Dimbleby took over in 1994. On this map, the larger the bubble, the more shows recorded there. Here’s the result:

That looks reasonably congruent with the distribution of Britain’s population. London dominates recordings, but that largely reflects its demographic dominance, too: more than a sixth of the British population live in Greater London, so you’d expect it to be bigger than anywhere else.

The next few biggest bubbles are about where you’d expect them to be, too. Birmingham and Manchester vie for the title of second city, so are pretty well-represented on the map; the urban areas of Leeds and Glasgow also contain over 1m each, some are slightly smaller than that.

So far, all that seems to stack up. Here’s the list of every city that’s hosted more than 10 shows, courtesy of a write up in the Birmingham Mail:

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  • London: 171
  • Birmingham: 39
  • Manchester: 38
  • Leeds: 28
  • Glasgow: 25
  • Cardiff: 23
  • Southampton: 20
  • Norwich: 20
  • Nottingham: 17
  • Liverpool: 17
  • Belfast: 16
  • Newcastle: 14
  • Edinburgh: 14
  • Bristol: 12

London, whose urban area has a population of around 9m-10m, has hosted around four times as many recordings as Birmingham and Manchester (2-3m), and around six or seven times as many as Leeds and Glasgow (1-1.5m).

Then things get weird.

For a start there are the surprisingly high placements of Cardiff and Belfast. Both are significant cities, with populations of around the 500,000 mark, but neither are huge – both are significantly smaller than, say, Liverpool.

Look at the map, indeed, and it’s clear that they’re standing in for their entire countries. Cardiff has hosted by far the largest proportion of Welsh episodes of Question Time. Belfast seems to have hosted literally every North Irish one. You can see the logic there, but one wonders how representative the results actually were.

At least those are national capitals though: even stranger are the placements of Southampton and Norwich. You can, if you squint, argue that Southampton is the heart of a wider south coast area, stretching from Portsmouth to Poole – bu t since those other places, plus Bournemouth and Winchester, seem to be hosting their own shows that feels like a rubbish excuse.

Norwich doesn’t even have that. Question Time thinks it’s the 8th most important place in Britain. You know how many people live in Norwich? Four.

Okay, it’s about a quarter of a million, but it’s still fewer than, say, Coventry, Doncaster, or Wigan – and even the wider East Anglian region is pretty sparsely populated. It’s tempting to conclude that Joseph Dancey is right about this:

One last oddity about this map is something that isn’t there. Sheffield barely features: it’s a tiny circle, overshadowed by neighbouring Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds. It’s also – I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship here, because there obviously isn’t, but it feels worth noting – Britain’s poorest major city.

Anyway. If anyone at the BBC is interested in a reboot of Question Time which suddenly gets really interested in trains, you know where I am.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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