Conference Live

Thursday, October 5, 2000 by

Political Party Conferences have been a feature of British daytime television for many a year. The days when both Tory and Labour gatherings consisted of the great and the good sitting in a row behind several trestle tables and rubber plants talking about nationalisation in an atmosphere reeking of musty, creaking senility may be long gone, but an uneasy relationship between conference and live television remains. After all, TV has caught some notorious moments, from the salutary – Thatcher’s “The lady’s not for turning” warning – to the stupefying – Kenny Everett’s embarrassing “Let’s bomb Russia!” Tory Conference routine.

More recently, political parties have got wise to the camera’s all-seeing eye and a greater degree of stage management now goes on. Back in 1990 Labour moved an awkward debate on the Gulf War to an hour when they knew the BBC were due to be broadcasting Playdays; a game of scheduling cat and mouse has continued ever since. So has an overall decrease in airtime. In 1988 the BBC showed an average five and a half hours of live coverage a day, split across both BBC1 and 2, plus a highlights package Conference Day – each evening. By 1991 this had grown to roughly six hours, still on both channels, minus the early evening round up. Coverage also extended across five days, and was presented by Donald McCormack, Vivian White and Ian Smith. By 1996, however, it was down to an average of four hours per day, though still on BBC1 and 2, and the evening review had returned (Conference Talk, hosted by Andrew Neil). The number of presenters also decreased, down to two in 1998 (Diana Madill and Huw Edwards); while from 1999 the coverage was confined solely to BBC2.

So what did the Beeb offer the viewer in the way of coverage of the 2000 Labour and Tory Conferences? Are the days of wall-to-wall footage of “composite motions”, “remittances” and wrinkled delegates laughing at unfunny jokes nearing their end – at least for terrestrial television audiences? Let’s visit the Conference, day by day, to check if our annual date with our esteemed elected representatives offers up better entertainment than old episodes of Quincy or Bergerac.

Day One

Total TV coverage: 4 hours

Sian Williams, sole host, welcomes us to Brighton, shouting at the camera from a balcony overlooking the windy seafront. “In the last four weeks, something – everything – has gone wrong for the Government,” she cries through the gales. Retreating inside to her commentary box she finds BBC political editor Andrew Marr who gives his verdict on the occasion: “It’s fantastic!”

Reporter Guto Harri is in the bar – trying to talk to whichever passing delegates he can grab. Sian seems overawed by her surroundings, unsure of how to handle cutting between proceedings on the conference floor and in the BBC box. It is the day of Gordon Brown’s big speech, flagged up as the most important of his career so far. But it’s not until the afternoon, so the morning is spent cutting between Glenda Jackson (“I don’t like the background colour of the set …”), vox pops and random snippets of debate from the floor that aren’t properly introduced. Sian looks tense. She appeals for viewers to e-mail their thoughts so far. No-one does. When she mentions “1500″ protesters outside, the camera cuts to an utterly deserted seafront. When Brown’s speech finally arrives it is ruined by technical problems; and throughout little captions flash up on screen filling us in on the various problems he’s had as Chancellor these last few months, neatly undermining everything that he is saying.

Total TV coverage: 1 hour, 35 minutes

We’re in Bournemouth, but it may as well be Brighton: same windy seafront, same concrete facade of a conference hall. But wait – for this is: “William Hague’s most important conference yet,” states Sian, before cutting to the one thing everyone in the media is talking about: the astonishing stage set, looking like a heap of scaffolding. Guto investigates this construction with Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart. “There’s lots of greenhouses to throw stones through,” Simon murmurs, as they inspect the set. Guto shows how, thanks to special lighting, it changes colour for each conference debate. “Presumably,” observes Simon, “it’ll be all white for the immigration debate.”

Guto quickly hands back to Sian in her box. Andrew’s with her. “Do I feel comfortable with these people?” he wonders. The pace of proceedings is different to Labour’s, being a series of set-piece speeches and presentations rather than debates; it makes for stilted, flat television, and soon the speakers blur into one. Anne Widdecombe looms in the box, shouting at Sian “Look at William! Listen to William!” Sian seems intimidated. Later we see John Major in the audience, and someone wearing a Viking helmet; and as a showbiz parade of prospective Election candidates takes place, a chuckling Steve Norris reminds us: “It’s supposed to be fun!”

Day Two

Total TV coverage: 1 hour, 50 minutes

It is Tony Blair’s speech today – tagged, like Brown’s yesterday, the most important of his career. “None other than” Peter Mandelson is in the box, but Sian has to fill for 30 painful minutes waiting for the PM to come on, resorting to throwing glib questions at Mandy which he idly swots away. Guto finds author John O’Farrell in the bar who hopes Blair will be using his joke “about the two nuns”.

The official Conference song – Canned Heat’s Let’s Work Together – sounds for the 15th time before the PM appears. The captions repeat phrases from his speech seconds after he’s said them. Once he’s through, the image of his sweaty shirt caught up close on the camera is impossible to shake, and Sian conducts a cursory two minute “interview” with Neil Kinnock before we’re released.

Total TV coverage: 3 hours, 45 minutes

Sian promises “open bloody warfare,” and Thatcher’s on the prowl. Events seem to be dominated by ghosts of Tory past, as clips of Thatcher arriving are followed by the appearance of a shifty looking Norman Tebbit in the box. Once more Sian seems unable to deal with his line in answers, and the interview goes badly. The camera picks out someone asleep in the conference hall, then Thatcher’s shunted off stage before An Audience With William Hague – an apparently informal question and answer session with the leader, though Sian reveals the question topics were sorted earlier.

The most exciting bit of the day is when it breaks that the BBC is moving its evening news to 10pm in a fortnight’s time. Sian has to cope with criticism from all sides, including Norman “I support the licence fee” Tebbit. There’s Portillo’s speech later, and more vox poppery, but again it seems that the momentum has been lost.

Day Three

Total TV coverage: 4 hours

There are “deals being done in smoke-filled rooms,” gushes Sian. Desperate to play up proceedings in the aftermath of Brown and Blair’s key speeches, most of today is spent hyping up an anticipated conference defeat for the leadership over pensions. But because, in “true stage management style,” quips Sian, the crucial vote “is unlikely to be while we’re on air,” the hours are spent hopping between a range of disparate, ineffectual events – dull speeches on turgid topics, and countless interviews by Guto in the bar, by the sea, even in a local school.

It’s all very trivial and unengaging and when the picture is lost briefly it’s the first bit of activity and interest for a long time. The pensions vote, sure enough, doesn’t turn up and the whole day has been one long build up to a massive anti-climax.

Total TV coverage: 3 hours, 15 minutes

We’re “back to the hard-line, no-nonsense, zero tolerance Tories,” promises Sian, but Guto is outside the hall at a bizarre countryside fair by the seafront. “It’s a lot of fun … there are animals here on display,” he enthuses, but mostly there seem to be grey-haired men in smocks and a large “Tax Tanker” parked in the way of everything. Inside the hall it is Anne Widdecombe’s birthday, and a bottle of champagne is produced on stage and cracked open after her speech – the conference seems to be turning more surreal as each day passes.

Some vox pops from a local bowling club reinforce the perception that the Tory is the party of the Very Old. It’s second round in the Sian vs. Widdecombe match, and again Sian loses. A Danish bloke who’s standing for the Tories in Blair’s constituency at the next Election delivers a stilting address, but before proceedings become any more confused the coverage quickly concludes …

Day Four

Total TV coverage: 1 hour, 50 minutes

It’s almost the end and Sian’s letting herself go a bit. Nelson Mandela’s in town – “embodying the fight against the establishment,” she gurgles, before joking that the surfeit of Union Jacks in the audience make the place “more like a Tory Conference.” Wise-cracking Sian gets a bit too cocky in dealing with her guest Clare Short who’s in no mood for a laugh. A pre-recorded interview by Sian with the PM himself is played, and once again it’s all very harmless, hardly the interrogation that’s called for.

Some local school kids sing I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and it’s horrendously out of tune. After John Prescott’s cabaret and an unlikely cameo from Gabrielle performing Dreams, the mood changes totally when Mandela appears and begins to speak … only the coverage has over-run, and the speech is cut short, just when everything was really getting interesting.

Total TV coverage: 1 hour, 35 minutes

It’s Hague’s big speech, but not before the unlikely sight of Jim Davidson appearing on stage as “warm up.” “We’re not allowed to take financial appeals,” snaps Sian, matronly, and we cut away from this spectacle before Jim gets going (confusingly, Radio 5 do broadcast his routine, and in full). Michael Heseltine is slouched in the box and has to contend with uproarious laughter from the conference hall while being interviewed by Sian.

Then there’s loud music while “Jim passes round the bucket,” presumably to deposit money in, though some alternatives spring all too readily to mind. Hague’s speech is given the captions treatment like Blair’s, and is interspersed with shots of the audience (and Davidson) clapping heartily. Then it’s Land of Hope and Glory, and suddenly Sian’s saying goodbye, for the final time.

Grand Totals:
Labour: 11 hours, 40 minutes
Conservative: 10 hours, 10 minutes

The 90 minute difference could be put down to the vagaries of scheduling (BBC2 running Looking Good Tricks each afternoon of the second week, shaving 15 minutes off the Tory coverage each day). However it’s clearly a comparatively lower total than previous years – and it’s not as if the conferences themselves are starting later (still 9.30am, as it has been for decades). There was also the absence of the traditional early evening highlights/analysis round up (shunted off onto BBC News 24 at 8.30pm). It can’t be too long before the whole lot is turned over in similar fashion (though what if another news story was to break during News 24 coverage?)

As for this year’s efforts … Sian Williams was never a convincing host, failing to judge the mood of the occasion, appearing over-deferential, unable to ever come up with the right demeanour and a pretty hapless interviewer of both Labour and Tory guests. Guto Harri and Andrew Marr did well given the circumstances, but without a proper anchor holding things together and setting the right tone their supporting roles were fatally diminished.

Overall it was hardly an accessible, stimulating live TV experience – but then neither was it informed, comprehensive or rigourous. Ways could’ve been found to bridge the gaps between big speeches without endless vox pops or half-hearted discussions in the box. Important events were missed, too, with the coverage being so limited. Even the attempt to make it thoroughly up-to-date and on-line failed – for after plugging the e-mail address day in day out, not a single one was ever read out. Till next year then…


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