READERS amp; WRITERS ROADSHOW. BBC Four, March 8, 8.30pm
"I'm going to ask him why he switched from fiction to history."
"That's my question." The head of history and the head of sixth form almost come to blows during the warm-up as Peter Ackroyd, the celebrated novelist and biographer, heads for the set of the first weekly year-round books discussion programme. To find out who wins, watch Readers amp; Writers Roadshow tonight.
Presenter Kate Mosse is deeply committed to building links between authors and passionate readers: she's just launched Labyrinth, an interactive multimedia project based on her own novels in progress in which readers can look over her shoulder, dip into her research and be inspired to write themselves. "I want to build connections between people who love to read and the writers they admire in an atmosphere where the audience shapes the conversation," she says. "So often at literary festival events there's not much time for questions, or people feel intimidated in front of a big gathering."
Before and after filming, the Roadshow audience (around 30-strong) chat informally to Kate and the guest authors (tonight, in Colchester, Ackroyd is joined by historical novelist Tracy Chevalier and Renaissance historian Gerry Brotton for a discussion on fact and fiction in historical narrative). "It's like a cocktail party," says Chevalier, author of Falling Angels and The Girl With the Pearl Earring (the "backstory" of the Vermeer painting she has had on her bedroom wall since she was 19). "You wish it could go on much longer; it's when you have proper conversations with readers." She is happy to be quizzed about her reasons for creating a fake historical character in Vermeer's unknown model, while the artist is kept deliberately shady. But she won't answer a question that involves giving away the ending of Falling Angels, her "Edwardian London" novel that opens in Highgate cemetery.
The production team eavesdrops during the ice-breaker gatherings, spotting good questions ("I wish I could put a mike on everyone for this bit. It's when people aren't thinking too hard that the best insights come up," says series producer Richard Shaw) and asking individuals to reveal the contents of their bedside tables. In Colchester, the hanging about that is unavoidable at TV recordings passes happily with so much to talk about.
Mosse pounces on a group of Year 13 students from New Hall, the Catholic girls' boarding school in Chelmsford famous for its arts and literature weeks, and urges them to "be bold - stick your hand up. Whatever you do don't wait until the end."
As a chair of governors (of Chichester high school for girls), the daughter of an A-level law and business studies teacher, married to a former head of modern languages, she loves to see teachers in the audience: "They're readers, they're confident and they ask good questions."
Tonight's gathering includes John Devine, key skills lecturer at Chelmsford College, Se n Lang, head of history at Hills Road sixth-form college, Cambridge, and Joy Hopkinson, head of sixth form at New Hall. The Roadshow format is also ideal for small student groups, and the programme makers, Lion Television Scotland, can usually supply books beforehand. The advance schedule is enticing - one-to-one sessions with Joanna Trollope (already filmed) and Ian Rankin; Colin Thubron, Daniel Morden and Sara Wheeler on travel; Ian McEwan, Georgina Ferry and Richard Dawkins on science; and Philip Pullman, Beryl Bainbridge and John Carey on the art of storytelling.
But the panels will not be genre-based. "Writing about food and travel are exceptions," says Shaw, "but we won't be putting everyone who writes for children together. We'll be tuned in to what keen readers read, so we might do sex-and-shopping novels if we think that will make good conversation. We're after a mixture of minds and ideas."
Roadshow recordings will be everywhere but London, coinciding with the main literary festivals (Bath, Oxford and Cheltenham coming soon) but taking in major towns off the circuit. The first audiences have been found through bookshops, creative writing courses and libraries - anywhere voracious readers might be lurking. In future, there is likely to be a scramble for the free seats (which must be booked in advance).
Tonight's all-too-short discussion ranges from the author's various treatments of the flow of time, to Ackroyd's exchange of views on London sleaze with a former Clerkenwell policeman, and a comparison of translations of Turkish bestseller My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk ("if you liked The Name of the Rose, you'll love it") by Gerry Brotton and a New Hall student. "It's been so stimulating," says Brotton, whose rethinking of the Renaissance as an outcome of East-West commerce, Renaissance Bazaar, is soon to be published. "I could go on all night.
The next Roadshow recording is on storytelling with Philip Pullman, Beryl Bainbridge and John Carey, in Oxford on March 17. The next two recordings will be in Cheltenham on April 4. Tel 0141 331 0450 or email GerryC@liontv6.demon.co.uk to request free tickets (numbers are strictly limited; first-come, first-served). For details of future schedules, and of how to get BBCFour, the BBC's free-to-air digital channel, see www.bbc.co.ukbbcfour Kate Mosse's Labyrinth project is at www.orangelabyrinth.co.uk