Election 2007

Thursday, May 3, 2007 by

There is bad weather in the Western Isles. On Newsnight, “Radio 2′s Jeremy Vine” (in the words of Jeremy Paxman) has just exhibited a blurred map of Britain flecked with indistinct multi-coloured blotches. It is not clear what any of it means. Back on BBC1 David Dimbleby signs off Question Time by exhorting viewers to “sleep well!” as if positively encouraging us to switch off.

None of this amounted to a start, even an inauspicious one, for the night’s election coverage. It was meant to be a defining moment in contemporary political history. Instead we’d had to wait until 11.35pm for BBC1 to kick off its annual hustings hootenanny, and even then the principal protagonists didn’t seem at all sure of themselves.

David looked tired. He peered out at viewers from a desperately murky set. It seems to have become the norm to house BBC election programmes in either very bright or incredibly gloomy studios, rather than the delicate pastel parlours or commanding multi-level hangars of yore. If you’re hoping to encourage people to stay up late to spend several hours in your company, you’d think an aesthetically warm shopfloor would be a given.

Up in Scotland, tipped to be the most eviscerating of the night’s contests, Alex Salmond expected “a hypothesis built on an if”. Presenter Anne MacKenzie had “no clear idea what is going to happen.” Her guest, analyst Lorraine Davidson, confessed, “nobody knows what is going on.” And actress Elaine C Smith, dressed in a glittering chemise of tarpaulin, appeared utterly vexed. “I got very depressed today,” she confided.

Back in London, David’s cohorts were also a little subdued. Nick Robinson’s opening gambit was the meek prediction: “You’ll know Tory success when you see it.” Tony King, sadly, was nowhere to be seen. In his place was Jenny Scott from the Daily Politics show, who through choice or design ended up doing little more than repeating what Nick said.

In recent times the faces of David’s guest politicians have become as familiar as the experts. Sure enough, at one point Theresa May noted, with more than a trace of disambiguated weariness, “I’ve been on your programme a number of years, you know!”. “What messages are your ears pricked for?” David asked of John Reid, only to receive the familiar accentuate-the-positive, pour-scorn-on-the-opposition riffs.

All the featured politicians were guilty of blather, all through the night. You had to wonder if, after all these years, such rituals no longer have a place in these kind of proceedings. Robin Day used to interrogate and leave David to present. Now, for local election nights, David does both. It’s not a good move. Especially as David wasn’t really interested in anything his studio guests had to say. At one point he informed his panel of politicos that he found their endless nitpicking and trotting out of the same old soundbites (“A mixed bag”, “Too soon to say”, “A mixed picture”) to be “so boring”.

Like last year, Emily Maitlis was in a pub. This time, though, it had been cleared of punters and noise and all distractions so as to resemble nothing more than, well, a studio with a few bottles in the background. This really was going from one extreme to the other. Her presence there was as equally pointless as it had been when she was surrounded by boozy noise and clutter. Michael Portillo, Oona King and Mark Oaten swapped anecdotes. “Some bloggers” were on hand to talk about, well, blogging. Time passed.

In thankful contrast to his half-hearted maps, Jeremy had some treats to showcase the three main parties. For Labour he conjured up Blair’s Last Match: a tennis court with a net strung across the floor, over which the Prime Minister “served” a number of volleys at heights corresponding with his party’s poll performance. A particularly mediocre shot was met with the sound of Dan Maskell murmuring, “Oh, I say.” A poor hit cued in John McEnroe wailing, “You can not be serious.” A few titters rang round the studio.

For the Tories, he mustered a giant house in honour of the one David Cameron is self-consciously renovating himself, and which rose and fell in storeys in line with the Conservatives’ fortunes. If the party were to do badly, the entire edifice would, Jeremy vowed, come crashing down: a spectacle he illustrated by running across the studio to avoid being flattened by some virtual scaffolding. “So you’ve got to get over 40%,” David informed his Tory guests, “or else Jeremy is a dead man.”

Vine’s finest moment, however, came when examining the prospects for “Ming’s Bling”. Purely, it seemed, because the Liberal Democrats “are often coloured orange,” Jeremy had chosen stacks of gold bars as a metaphor for their performance. A hologram of Menzies Campbell duly materialised, sporting a tracksuit and sacks of heavy jewellery. “It’s an Ali G set-up,” Jeremy observed.

Then, suddenly, the hologram came to life. First it slumped forward, an illustration – Jeremy fussily explained – of the party “doing badly”. This was not very impressive. It looked like Jeremy’s computer had crashed. But then the hologram started to dance. Jerkily at first, but slowly becoming more animated, it began to move through a series of hip-hop gestures, to the sound of some specially prepared rap music: “Yo, Lib Dem Ming, with the Lib Dem Bling! Yo, Lib Dem Ming, with the Lib Dem Bling!” As the figure thrashed and frugged, Jeremy joined in. “Let me see if I can do this dance,” he stated. Arms flailing, he writhed and wriggled like a man trying to climb out of an invisible sack. It was a small screen epiphany. You watched, transfixed, too frozen in shock to even cover your eyes. “I didn’t know we were going to be joined by David Brent,” drawled David. It was his best line of the night.

Proceedings took on a markedly funereal tone as David ran through some early council declarations, observing he was “beginning to sound like I’m reading some mournful football results.” Up in Scotland Elaine C Smith, encased in her sparkling bin liner, professed to be confused. In Cardiff Guto Hari wondered if members of the Labour Party felt “like they’re in the Life Of Brian.” Emily was joined by a very old-looking Rory Bremner, who launched into a repeat routine of the one he’d done on the BBC on election night in 1992, before venturing, according to John Reid, “the worst Glasgow accent I’ve ever heard”.

A sudden flurry of excitement accompanied the SNP’s first gain of the night. Ennui soon returned, however, spurring another outburst from David. “It’s irritating,” he grumbled. “These curmudgeonly English councils. We’re all up – why couldn’t they be up?!” Tardiness, coupled with confusion, was wreaking havoc with the familiar repertoire of election nights. It was now clear there was to be no rush of results; no climatic breakthrough; no moment of revelation – at least not this side of sunrise. And there was still almost another five hours of coverage to go.

David popped a sweet into his mouth and continued to suck it all the way through his next link. Theresa May decided to dip into her back catalogue and revive her hit slogan of 2003: “Churn”. The sound failed at Blaenau Gwent. “Very disappointing,” mused David. “Wales is doing better than at any point in the history of Wales,” insisted a goggle-eyed Peter Hain.

In her bijou bar, Emily had been joined by Dave Rowntree of Blur, who had stood as a Labour candidate in a council ward he knew he could never win. She wondered if Damon Albarn hadn’t even “turned round and said: mate!?!” Dave stumbled over his words. “I don’t know why I can’t speak tonight,” he apologised. Probably because it was now gone 2.30am.

Speculation surrounding Alex Salmond’s fortunes was perfunctorily scattered (and hastily forgotten) when the man’s declaration swam finally into view. From inside her shimmering baking parchment, Elaine C Smith detected “a miraculous turnaround. Never underestimate the power of celebrity,” the prominent actress and showbiz personality noted. At which point someone walked blithely in front of the camera.

The sloth-like pace afforded acres of airtime to set piece interviews and link-ups with the regions, besides equally patience-sapping recitations of viewers’ emails. These were read out by Jenny with all the poise of a startled station announcer. The text messages chuntering across the bottom of the screen were similarly distracting and pointless. We weren’t watching to find out amateurs’ opinions, we were watching for the voice of the professionals, dammit!

It was now obvious there’d be no clear picture from anywhere before morning. Declarations sidled rather than surged in. David insisted there was still “lots to do” before going off the air. Another round of intra-guest baiting wasn’t one of them. “This is the way of driving viewers completely mad,” he rebuked in his best schoolmaster’s tones, “Those viewers who are mad enough to be up at 4.38am, that is”.

The late hour, as usual, was starting to go to David’s head. At one point he mistook Hilary Armstrong for Hazel Blears, even though she was sitting but one metre from his face. Next he accused Nick of brazenly repeating observations that he himself had said. Then something approaching a trance-like euphoria overwhelmed him, as he eulogised lyrically and at length over live shots of dawn over the River Thames. “Birds are singing,” he whispered. “Can you hear them? It’s not like in the country.”

Posterity – and OTT – records David falling into a similar reverie during the late stages of his stint anchoring Election ’87. Then, however, the daydreaming took root a good 16 hours after polls closed; this time it was more like six. Desperate measures were called for. Someone threw a handful of blossom over Jeremy. Emily detected “the lights of the Tesco Express flaring up” across the road. “No advertising please,” admonished David, though if anyone was available to deliver, he did “quite fancy a full English.”

In Scotland everyone had packed up and gone home, intending to start all over again at midday. Half the English councils hadn’t opened their ballot boxes at all. Talk staggered on to the vagaries of voting systems. “I can explain D’Hondt,” David stressed, referring to an archaic formula for proportional representation, “but only if we can do it directly by telephone”. Tory MP Eric Pickles apologised for being “a bit venomous” with Jenny. The house that Cameron built was, according to Jeremy, close to completion. Blair’s Last Match elicited a restrained cheer. And, despite their being no obvious signs of an improved stock of Lib Dem Ming and his Lib Dem Bling, Jeremy did the dance again anyway.

“It’s been a weird night for us,” concluded David with a sigh. Memorable for frustrating, rather than exhilarating, reasons and shorn of much of the usual motifs of election TV, this hadn’t been a vintage excursion for viewer, voter or presenter. Supposition rather than certainty is no means of support for such a long night’s journey into morning. Yet the team did their best, and parted on much the same terms as they, and us, had first met: on a hypothesis built on an if.


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