Election ’70

Friday, September 26, 2003 by

One of the absolute TV highlights of last year was BBC Parliament’s screening of the BBC 1979 General Election results coverage. With the minimum of publicity and in a resolutely low-key fashion, the entire service was repeated minute by minute in real time. It was packaged back to back with a re-run of the 1997 results programme to form one single weekend of unashamed, near-unexpurgated nostalgia, and it was a joy to watch.

Now, 12 months on, the channel is returning to the archives for more of the same, but on a far grander scale. This time round we’ve a trio of polls, spread over three weeks. Still to come are the ballots from February 1974 and June 1983, but the sequence kicked off with June 1970 – Harold Wilson squaring off to Edward Heath for a second time, and opinion polls predicting a comfortable Labour victory.

With a keen eye for historical significance, the coverage opened with some clips from a 1945 election newsreel boasting a suitably jocular voiceover and bombastic, if rather wheezy, footage. “Bobbies paused before a conveniently open window and heard that the government was doing nicely!” chimed the off-screen announcer over a silhouetted constable, before the here and now abruptly hoved into view courtesy of some crude computer typeface. Text scrolled across the screen to announce the arrival of Cliff Michelmore – and what an arrival. Perched high in a gantry above a mighty cavern of a studio, Cliff set the scene. “We’re all settling in,” he declared cosily, and cut to Robin Day in earnest but silent conversation with a complete stranger.

Next came a truly awesome sight. An absolutely huge panorama of technicians, monitors and desks unfurled before the camera, together with an embankment of painted charts and cardboard towering high into the rafters. The entire structure was so tall it had a real door built into it. As if this wasn’t enough, a massive blue screen curved round the ceiling, presently boasting a somewhat impressive vista of a Scottish sunset.

Looking somewhat adrift amongst the battlements, Cliff nonetheless got straight down to business. Down in Southampton “the QE2 is in port,” while “waiting in a London discotheque” were Tony Blackburn and Julie Felix, though we’d see no sign of either at any point during the entire programme. Over in Trafalgar Square was a man who’d landed the most dangerous job of the night: a crumpled looked Desmond Wilcox, determined to upstage anyone or anything in his way. He began work, observing, “The fountains look like becoming the number one target for political cooling off … so far the police have been gentle.” His psychedelic tie jostled for attention with two giant screens, one relaying the Beeb’s coverage and the other, which he studiously ignored, the property of ITN. Spying a visitor to the capital, Desmond then launched off on a monologue about, “the problem that Harold Wilson outlined … too many people going away on holiday.” “I’m not on holiday,” his companion retorted tartly. “You’re not on holiday?” repeated Desmond unnecessarily. “No, I’m a driver.” This exchange was promptly abandoned for a gentleman who insisted he always followed opinion polls then claimed he didn’t, and finally, one last throw of the dice, a punter who snapped, “I would’ve like the cost of living more discussed.” “Well, it was,” snorted a thoroughly enraged Desmond, and with that it was back to the studio.

BBC Parliament had slightly trimmed the coverage in places, presumably to edit out moments when the original videotapes had been changed or damaged. There were, however, two big cuts: we lost the entire morning-after breakfast programme helmed by Michael Barratt, which was a shame as he consequently ended up having a very minor role, and he even had his trademark bank of Nationwide monitors to hand as well. The semi-notorious extended sketch The Campaign’s Over! was also ditched, unsurprisingly, replete with Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, Eric Sykes as “The Foreman”, and Spike Milligan as “Paki-Paddy”. Only a portion of this reportedly exists now anyway, but to be honest the evening was none the poorer for its absence, especially as posterity records it was distinctly unfunny and technically near-incompetent.

We still had Cliff’s rather hesitating intro into it, however – “We’ll take you to Alf Garnett … the first return of the night!” – and when we came back Cliff was now down at his main desk, an impressively shiny grey bureau. On his left was, as ever, David Butler, fixing the camera with his slightly glazed expression to reel off statistics in gripping, endless fashion. On Cliff’s right, however, was a new face: Alan Watson. Here was the unsung star of the night: a dapper, avuncular commentator with an anecdote about every single MP and every one of the country’s 630 constituencies. Harold Lever, therefore, was “the richest man in the Labour cabinet”; Desmond Donnelly “ran his entire campaign off a yacht”; and Edward Fletcher was “one of the few members of Parliament to have fought in the Spanish Civil War. As the night wore on Alan’s wry asides made for a wonderful complement to Cliff’s own cheerful bonhomie and David’s exhaustive analysis. Completing the team Bob McKenzie was hunkered down by his wall of facts, plus “City”, “Industrial” and “Foreign” desks for further elucidation, and a special “Comment” desk where visiting pressmen and broadcasters delivered homely monologues straight to camera.

It was a little while before the first results came in, so Cliff took time to lay out this “vast and complicated programme – we won’t try to explain it to you all at once.” Most of the country, it turned out, was still in black and white, including Wales and Northern Ireland, and every single time coverage cut between monochrome and colour, or indeed anywhere around the studio, spectacular picture interference raged for three seconds. Yet this all added to the feeling of the Beeb pushing the envelope, of this being a singularly innovatory live event – and the danger of things forever on the edge of falling off air.

Despite Bob hazarding a guess that “one or two pollsters may be on the chopping block tomorrow”, virtually everyone in the studio tacitly entertained the possibility of Labour remaining in power. Then came a note of caution from Gravesend. “We’re going to try something entirely new,” Cliff began, and what followed was, remarkably, the Beeb’s first ever exit poll, from a place “shown by a computer to be the most ordinary constituency in England … typical cars with typical traffic jams.” Intriguingly, evidence pointed to a Tory victory.

Out on the beat and oblivious to Gravesend was a somewhat tetchy David Dimbleby in Huyton, Harold Wilson’s constituency, and the debonair Michael Charlton down in Bexley with Edward Heath (“Party morale remains indestructible”). Charlton had, inevitably, great material to work with, not least the fact that standing against Heath was a man who’d changed his name only the week before to, yes, Edward Heath. Reporters had also been assigned to various key counts, including several competing to declare first. Indeed, this was to become the first big event of the night and really helped proceedings off to a cracking pace.

Keith Kyle was at Wolverhampton where “there was all-in wresting two nights ago”, a subdued Denis Tuohy skulked in Guildford, while a decidedly pissed-off looking James Burke lurked in Cheltenham. “It really is warming up, this,” chuckled Cliff at the prospect of the race ahead, “grapevines spreading out their tentacles … we’re going to have the most ghastly crash!” After flicking between various scenes, all of which promised a declaration in “minutes”, suddenly we dashed over to Guildford. A man, desperately out of breath, ran onto a stage and flung bits of paper at his colleagues. A massive “CON HOLD” legend appeared on screen, accompanied by a 4% Tory swing. Back in Cheltenham James Burke was so gripped with emotion he started yelling “here in Guildford!” The studio was convulsed with drama. David Butler started gabbling. Bob McKenzie boomed. In an instant everyone realised the polls had been entirely wrong, and that Heath was heading for victory.

It was all precious information for Graham Pyatt seated in his black suit and black tie with, according to Cliff, his “computer stuff” to get to work on. Cliff then interrupted Robin Day, newly settled up in the gantry, to bring us an update on rumours of a low turnout in Devon North. “There are no rumours,” countered David Lomax from the counting hall. Whenever technical problems persisted, which they did frequently, Cliff immediately stepped in with calm, sincere authority. “I’m not going to allow it to continue”, he declared on sitting through footage of absolutely nothing happening in Salford East. As other verdicts began to seep in and Bob labelled it “the most startling result since the war,” we had on-the-spot comment from various regional cities including a bumptious Jeffrey Preece in Birmingham and, a nice surprise, a charged-up John Humphrys in Manchester, who launched into an anecdote about Winston S Churchill “going into a pub” in Stretford only to suddenly get cut off, to Cliff’s audible amusement. Other places, however, had to settle for a colour slide. Torquay was represented by a nice view of its attractive bay; Nelson and Colne had to settle for a drab shot of a dirty high street.

All of this meant little back in Trafalgar Square, where things were getting a bit out of hand. People had started dancing in the fountains. “Cooling their ardour I suppose,” began Desmond petulantly, before spotting a black gentleman nearby. “Now, you’re an immigrant,” he began. Up in his balcony Robin grilled Enoch Powell down the line from Wolverhampton. “I would hate to bandy words with my leader, let alone adjectives,” drawled the MP, an exchange that reduced Cliff to a fit of the giggles. Yet for all the gags and puns and punchlines – “That’s a result from Labour, er, Liverpool Exchange. Labour Exchange! Someone will be there before the night is out!” – Cliff retained a firm hold on the sheer drama of the occasion throughout. Gravitas, mixed with sheer exuberance, was never far away, and it made for a stunning mix. “And … standby!” he yelled suddenly just after midnight. “The Conservatives gain Keighley!” “Do you ever wish you had 16 heads,” he asked the viewer, faced with a torrent of information and bemoaning the fact Graham Pyatt’s computer had been “fed with blue print-out.”

Faces and names with potent contemporary and topical resonance drifted by – Gywneth Dunwoody losing her seat in Exeter, Robert Maxwell in trouble in Cheltenham. There were charming displays of returning officers struggling with their moment of glory and blinking in the lights of national television. In Birmingham Ladywood an elderly councillor kept enquiring, “Right now?” to no-one in particular before repeatedly mixing up the candidates names to general uproar. A desperate official in Devon North could be heard pleading, “Check, check the bundles, bundles of 50!” But the returning officer at Cardiff West took the honours for the most belligerent public servant of the night: “Ah, keep quiet,” he barked at some hecklers, “keep quiet, for goodness sake!”

The iconic moment came just after 12.30am, when the camera cut to Bob McKenzie standing by his swingometer where a BBC set designer was busy painting on new numbers to reflect the unexpected Tory success. As the time came for both party leaders to hear their respective results, we went back to Dimbleby in Huyton, whose desperate ad libbing waiting for Wilson to arrive – “scrambler telephones … hot lines … we were reliably told he was about to drive up to this entrance …” – recalled Michael Cockerell’s doomed improvisatory efforts in 1979 at Jim Callaghan’s count. Michael Charlton, however, was revelling in the occasion. “He looks a bit more secure than the Drill Hall at times,” he waxed, as Heath swept into his declaration, before grabbing an audience with the man himself and entertaining Heath to a cross-examination with an off-screen (presumably ITN) colleague (“I’m not on the air, Michael, so you better go on”).

“Caught!” boomed Cliff just after 1.30am, “Caught, caught – there’s a little whisky in there,” he apologised, hastily replacing his glass. Election telly tradition dictates the host is caught mid-slurp or mid-chew, and for Cliff, inevitably, it was both as sure enough a sneaky bite of sandwich followed an hour later. Moments of good humour were forever giving way to great melodrama, though, with particular significance heaped on the defeat of Labour Deputy Leader George Brown in Belper. By this point it was clear a substantial Tory victory was on the cards, and just as in 1997 some key Labour figures were in danger. But Brown’s departure seemed to affect the studio and guests more than any other. Alan Hart was at the count and spoke in hushed tones of how Brown had, “at times, been offering his hands in a gesture of prayer.” Cliff joined in, miming how he’d seen Brown biting his nails. “The situation is, as you know, a developing situation,” he concluded memorably. Once Brown had gone, David Butler mourned the loss of “one of the most outstanding people in Parliament.” The comment, by being both so obviously subjective and uniquely heartfelt, seemed a little out of place.

The entire coverage was steeped in faces, names and above all language of another age. David spoke of the defeat of the Clapham Labour candidate, who, if he’d won, would’ve become “the first negro MP in the House of Commons.” Harold Wilson referred to an “anti-racialist” candidate in Smethick. Giant “No To Common Market” placards hoved into view at various counts. Robin Day joked with union leader Clive Jenkins over how much overtime BBC staff would be getting tonight – “We mustn’t go into that anymore!”

Meantime Desmond continued his vigil under Nelson’s Column. “Several people turned up here,” he rued, “with balloons filled with helium, and weren’t too happy when other people put cigarettes into them.” He had the misfortune to be filmed entirely from behind, his face always obscured, which just made his grillings seem all the more seedy and suspect. In the studio, though, things became ever more jovial. Robin questioned a very upbeat Jim Callaghan about likely candidates for the Labour deputy leadership (“Give me a chance, I’ve got to drink a cup of tea first!”) and for the first time we went back to the discotheque, heralded by a giant image of a scantily dressed gyrating woman with the Beeb’s Election ’70 logo tattooed across her chest – “we’ve denied you that pleasure for a long time,” drawled Cliff. Bernard Falk lurked uneasily amongst the dancers at La Valbonne, restricting his polite enquiries those non-dancing upright guests only.

“I really think it’s time, Michael Barratt, we went Nationwide!” Cliff began, cueing in – at last! – Mike and his monitors. Technical problems persisted, with Jeffrey Preece in Birmingham complaining “I missed the question – someone was opening the door of the studio.” Christopher Brasher was at the Oxford Union where a bold psychedelic disco was in progress and an even bolder Gyles Brandreth had just finished his finals. Dawn broke over Trafalgar Square, where a cold Desmond Wilcox, down but not out, noted with relish, “our rivals in the fairground from ITV have already departed.” Indeed, Cliff chimed in “if you’re thinking of joining Independent Television, they’ve gone to bed.”

The scene was set, at 4am, for a splendid finale dash around virtually all the results so far. Cliff read the figures, David followed with a line or two of analysis, and Alan chipped in with yet more bon mots. Kenneth Baker was “the best dressed man in the Commons,” to which Cliff snorted, “Ah. Well. Whoopee,” which seemed a little unkind. Robin interviewed Anthony Barber puffing on a cigarette, and Eric Lubbock predicted another election in October. “Well, we better keep the studio in being,” concluded Robin. “Producer Dick Francis, keep a note of that will you?”

A little after 4.30am Cliff began to wrap things up for the night, informing Robin, “You may now have some of your iced coffee and your solid pork sausages than you brought all the way from a famous store that I dare not mention.” Violent classical music played us out over the requisite long list of credits (and there were a few famous names in there, including Ron Neil and Brian Wenham), then, a few seconds later, it was 9am and Robin’s cold meats had been and gone. So had Michael Barratt, who we saw on his way out the studio. A third of the results were still to come, but it being the morning after there was time and room for more expansive features – a ponderous debate between Oxford academics, for instance, and visits to numerous suburban covered markets, including one in Barnstaple where David Lomax encountered some delightfully outspoken old women. One dismissed the pollsters with contempt, concluding, “My own opinion is good enough for me,” a comment which particularly tickled Cliff.

The stock market opened, with shares rising “between two shillings and five shillings right away!” Richard Baker dropped by to read the news, including details of Barry Humphries getting arrested in Australia on account of being drunk and disorderly, and Graham Parker read the weather with cigarette smoke billowing across his face. Bob McKenzie was now in shirtsleeves, resplendently smoking his pipe on screen, but after being addressed by erstwhile commentator turned MP Geoffrey Johnson Smith as “old friend”, and perhaps feeling things getting a bit too whimsical, Robin felt moved to deliver one of his trademark pompous summations to camera. “What we have seen today,” he intoned, “is an example of how British democracy works – peacefully, non-violently … something that happens in very few countries of the world today … something that we can be proud of.”

Such self-indulgent editorialising was almost forgivable in the light of his later efforts at interviewing the Welsh Independent MP SO Davies, 83 years old, on a very bad line, and who decided to answer most of the questions in Welsh. Cliff showed us the London evening papers (“This’ll save you a ha’penny”) with the London Evening News proclaiming “TED SAILS IN”. Michael Charlton related how the new PM had earlier been accidentally stabbed in the throat with a cigarette butt – “the least troublesome pain in the neck that Heath is likely to get.”

The vast gleaming arena that was the BBC election studio began, just a little, to feel the strain. “If you heard a loud bang there, and you know what it is, let us know because nobody here knows what it was,” grumbled Cliff at one point. “Didn’t half go off pop …” Over on the Industry desk a call came through for correspondent Harold Webb. “Just a moment, the phone’s ringing,” he dutifully announced, but there was nobody there. “A lady has just got straight through to me,” Cliff countered, “thinking I was a house agent. Now I assure you that it wasn’t Mrs Wilson, because she doesn’t have the number. Probably looking for a charming little place near Westminster at the moment. If you’ve got my telephone number, don’t use it …”

This reviewer’s access to BBC Parliament ended with roughly three hours of coverage to go, thanks to the machinations of Telewest who, in their silent wisdom, decided to switch to the Performance channel. But up until then this special presentation of Election ’70 had been near exemplary, with only the interference from the original recordings disrupting the picture quality. It had been possible to get completely immersed in the drama and emotion of the original transmission, and soak up its pace, excitement, and vibrant, ever-present boisterous humour minute by precious minute.

Being able to see Cliff, flanked by a mighty ensemble of experts, seated in the middle of such a dazzling construction, was a true privilege. The lasting image of Election ’70 will surely be of the veritable army of the BBC rank and file bustling all over the studio complex. You certainly never see this many on hand for an election nowadays, but that just added to the spectacular sense of occasion. The entire programme fizzed with heady camaraderie. It must have been fantastic to work there, on the biggest political TV operation ever mounted, with all the BBC’s resources at your disposal, and the best presenters in the business up front. The gentle chatter, the hum of feverish activity, the buzz of people milling around, getting in shot, while processing information and mapping a moment of history – this was all, quite simply, wonderful, unforgettable television.


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