Vote 2003

Thursday, May 1, 2003 by

Rarely had David Dimbleby been faced by so much commotion during the first 15 minutes of a local election results programme. Seconds before coming on air, the out-of-the-hat resignation of Tory Trade Spokesman Crispin Blunt had handed him his very own breaking story. Now everything was on hold, and the usual sedentary round of preambles and supposition junked for an exclusive interview with the man himself.

Shot rather lopsidedly from over David’s shoulder, the interrogation was an unsubtle battle of wittering and whimsy. “You’ve got researchers wildly ringing round local parties in response to what I’m doing now,” Blunt bragged rather unpleasantly. “You’ve made a boob!” topped David, on discovering that Blunt had actually voted for the man he was now trying to remove.

For all the fireworks, it was still a curiously unsatisfactory opening gambit. This was an election night, after all. Where were the shots of ballot boxes being rushed into community centres? Despite its topicality, the exchange felt almost out of place for being static and ponderous, and meant it took rather a long time for the programme to recover any sense of momentum. It didn’t help that the one person you can count on to inject energy into proceedings, Peter Snow, was shut away in a box room. Like last year, he had been posted so far out of David’s eyeline that handovers between the pair were painfully juddery and absent of all trademark banter. Even when it came to revealing the featured gimmick – “our Clap-o-meter!” – Peter found it a struggle to generate much sense of exhilaration.

It was almost 11pm by the time we got round to meeting the resident studio guests. David rather fussily cued in the politicians first: Theresa May for the Tories, John Reid for Labour and Simon Hughes for the Liberal Democrats. All rather predictably took refuge in the age old “good in places, not so good in others” spiel, though Theresa relayed dispatches hotfoot from the “campaign stump” through an exhaustive use of the word “churn”. It was rather off-putting to see her reach for this term again and again throughout the night, as the frequency of her appearances rendered the identical recitations rather ludicrous. Reid flapping bits of paper around and Hughes nodding sagely did little to help.

Finally David intoned, “I haven’t introduced the other side of this distinguished table!” It did seem something of an oversight to virtually forget about the presence of one half of his entourage, especially since they were the good half. Thankfully Andrew Marr and Tony King were present and correct, as they should be. Andrew’s never made any bones about how much he enjoys playing the part of a Westminster obsessive, and it’s what made him the best BBC political editor in decades. He’s also brilliantly indiscreet. “You and I both know Richmond Upon Thames,” he chided David, “one way or another.” Resplendent in a louche dark blue tie, Andrew elevated the coverage no end simply by having something interesting and witty to say. For once Tony King was slightly more restrained than his colleague, but played a valuable part in emphasising trends and factors others had missed. Both studiously avoided any references to churn.

Completing the line-up, in the now seemingly annual tradition of introducing a “new” number-crunching expert, was Professor Pippa Norris. It’s always fascinating to see non-TV people exposed to the vagaries of a medium they know little about and care even less. Pippa valiantly threw herself into the debate with a haughty, no-nonsense deportment. “Local elections are local elections,” she sang, with the starched ebullience of a hospital matron.

As proper results began to trickle in, coverage reeled away from the studio and across the country. Once again the high street wine bar was called into service for canvassing the views of “ordinary” voters – and once again confirmed its status as the nation’s most unsuitable location for live outside broadcasts. While Laura Trevalyan found herself snuggled up a little too closely to three perspiring Tory grandees in Maidenhead, over in Sheffield Robert Nesbit was floating in a wash of students. “I’m a little nervous,” he confessed, “but let’s dive in!” He managed to find one who’d actually voted. “Congratulations,” he chortled, “that’s very good!” Top of the Pops‘ woeful Star Bar seemed an oasis of calm by comparison.

Elsewhere Mark Mardell had the grim task of being stationed in Burnley and therefore tackling the BNP. He made a better job of it than Jon Pienaar last year, ditching the hyperbole for some cold elucidation on how the group had been able to make such inroads into local government. Equally articulate was Sally Magnusson, who it was good to see back on BBC1 again, enlisted to provide an overview of the Scottish Parliamentary elections. Standing in front of a giant purple board with the word “Glasgow” on it and a sprinkling of flower pots, you were reminded yet again how it’s only really on election programmes that you see such the length and breadth of the country depicted through such an array of anonymous, functional cardboard frontispieces. All the more important, then, to have people like Mark or Sally (“… the rather dazzling Tommy Sheridan!”) maintaining eloquent, if somewhat fanciful, election night rhetoric and reportage in the fine tradition of the great Michael Charlton.

Back at Television Centre, David seemed increasingly distracted. Attempting the otherwise straightforward task of reviewing the morning papers, he read one headline as “Tory leader resigns,” then bungled his apology with a throwaway, “Erm, don’t know what I said there.” A regional opt-out seemed to revive his spirits, as when we returned to London he essayed another of his patented cheap shots at digital television. “Interactive features are available, if you’re fortunate enough to watch satellite,” he began, pausing to grimace before continuing, “unlike mine, which keeps breaking up.” He turned to his lieutenants. “Andy – you’ve been chewing the cud,” David began, which prompted Andrew to fire back apropos nothing, “I was chewing a sandwich earlier on!” This sent David off kilter again, leading him to mumble something about “crisps” before lapsing into a bemused silence.

By this point debate had become a rather ungracious tug of war between those seeking to flag up the Blunt affair and those conscious of the importance of doing anything but. Michael Howard was determined to make sure everyone knew he belonged to the latter camp. Signaling his arrival in the studio with a clipped, “For heaven’s sake,” he set to work extolling the Tory Party’s performance with a bluster that contrasted pointedly with Theresa’s “churn” and further rattled an already shaken David. He jousted with the experts over interpretation, and slammed journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s contributions as “absolute poppycock”. Then he got into a wonderful spat with David Mellor who materialised on screen from what looked like the top of the BT Tower. Iain Duncan-Smith was “unkissed by distinction,” drawled Mellor, to which Howard spat fury at the impertinence of “the BBC inviting him on” to put a view contrary to his own. He even saw fit to reveal how he’d been doing a bit of moonlighting, taking his message of victory to other parts. “I said it on another channel an hour ago when we didn’t know the results,” he boasted, as if to utter the name “ITV” was somehow to commit a terrible blasphemy.

This roustabout was all very well, but what of the Clap-o-meter? It wasn’t until nearly 1am that we got to see Peter’s latest cavalcade: an enormous on-screen graphic comprising a stereo system, two huge speakers and a graphic equalizer. Peter activated the machine to produce short bursts of applause to illustrate the performances of various party leaders past and present. We heard John Major receiving what sounded like scattered acknowledgement at a half-deserted cricket match for his local election performance in 1996, a thunderous outburst of acclaim for Tony Blair in 1997, and so on. Given the circumstances this was a virtuoso turn from Peter, not quite on a par with “How Many Heaves?” or the movable staircase of 2001, but in its own way cannily imaginative and memorable. And after signing off to camera, Peter was left floundering in silence for a moment, before an off-screen voice exhorted “That was fantastic!”

By 1.30am the overall picture of results was clear, and it felt a bit unnecessary to introduce a whole new panel of politicians – including a giggling Lord Falconer – just to voice the same respective plaudits and warnings. But then, suddenly, that was it. Somebody had misread the time, for one minute David was gossiping with Andrew, the next he was delivering a hasty valediction. “There’ll be much more comment on all of this on BBC News 24,” he concluded, “and, I think, the President of the United States to follow!” It was a defiantly perfunctory full stop to a night that promised a lot but perhaps didn’t deliver as much as its protagonists had hoped. Instead we’d been treated to an unpredictable mix of calm and controversy, presided over by a somewhat passive line-up of front-line BBC faces.

Still, at least things didn’t fall off the air like David’s satellite. That really would have been a churn for the worse.


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