“This is an Experiment”

Jack Kibble-White and Ian Jones with a brief history of Party Election Broadcasts

First published June 2001

It begins with an English country garden and a shot of an – as yet – unidentified lady in a rather well to do conservatory tending to one of her potted plants. She raises her head to speak with us in the manner of a professional TV presenter, and just in time, we cut away from the petunias to focus directly on her. “Hello”, she begins as if this were Blue Peter “I’m Glenda Jackson, and yes, this is a Party Political Broadcast”.

This particular entry to the canon comes from August 1987 and is surprisingly typical of the relatively unsophisticated level at which our politicians chose to address the public as recently as 14 years a go. Here we shall embark on a battle bus tour around the medium of the Party Election Broadcast concentrating on their relative sophistication (or lack of) and looking to identify the various ploys politicians have used to try and – at least – stop us from switching off, and at best – hand our vote to them. We will return to Glenda and her flowers later, but let’s now go back to the end of the World War II as we begin our review of how the Party Political Broadcast campaign has been won down the years – and lost.

Back in 1945, Party Election Broadcasts were the only sound or vision contributions to General Elections. For reasons of potential political bias no other coverage was permitted. These broadcasts were also exclusively the property of radio; with Labour and the Tories making 10 broadcasts a piece during the first post-war election campaign. Television Party Election Broadcasts followed on some six years later, with most adopting the standard format of an address made by a senior political figure directly to the audience. Usually pretty dull, most of the interest derived from the décor of the politician’s office or study. Such broadcasts were not generically branded at the time as “Party Political Broadcasts” but simply, brief “programmes”.

Using the resources of BBC television, Labour’s contribution of October 1951 is representative of the period as we are advised that we will hear “Sir Hartley Shortcross and I … put across a case for the Labour Party.” Working under the assumption that only the middle classes are likely to be watching the case is made accordingly: “You may be wondering how someone so well dressed, well off and so well educated as Sir Hartley Shortcross comes to be a member of the Labour Party. What’s your answer to that Hartley?” In a manner typical of the time, Sir Hartley is happy to answer but directs his response not at his interviewer, but directly to the television viewer. It’s a hardly compelling one though. Why shouldn’t he be a member, he asks. The Labour Party? He loves it!

Harold Macmillan’s contribution in 1953 is the first official Party Political (as opposed to Election) Broadcast. Presented as “an experiment”, Macmillan (who was famously referred to the medium as a “20th century torture chamber”) talks to us in somewhat avuncular fashion about the “housing drive”. Within this first broadcast we see the conventions that would hold true for the next 40 years or so. So there is footage from a political rally (here it’s Churchill promising to provide housing for everyone), stagy interviews, moments with members of public, and the party leader’s direct appeal to the viewer. By this time, between four and eight million viewers were tuning in. During the 1955 election just over a third of the British public owned a television set. The Party Election Broadcasts of the time consisted of Macmillan offering a piece to camera direct from just in front of his fireplace, and Labour’s Clement Atlee along with his wife being interviewed in a studio replica of their cottage, all to an audience of about five or six million viewers.

It was at the 1959 election that the restrictions upon reporting were lifted almost in their entirety (although there would remain the often thorny issue of political bias that still exists to this day). Since 1955 the proportion of the electorate with a television set had risen from 40% to 70%, and in 1959 there were more Party Election Broadcasts on TV and radio than ever before – a total of 12 on TV, 18 on radio. This time, Labour’s five were themed around the notion of “Britain Belongs To You”. Masterminded by “Anthony Wedgwood Benn” and all set in “The Labour Television and Radio Operations Room” – actually a BBC studio, these are rather slick efforts with Benn able to time his Blofeld swivel of the armchair to the conclusion of the Broadcast’s stirring opening theme perfectly. Throughout, though he really is excellent, capably walking and talking and linking skilfully to members of his permanent presentation team Christopher Mayhew (“who looks at the facts and figures”) and Woodrow Wyatt (who does the interviews). It’s only Hugh Gaitskell who – in asking us in rather inappropriate terms if we know what the most important thing happening in the world is “just at the moment” – undermines the professionalism of what’s being attempted here. The Tories too, had five Party Election Broadcasts, including a talk by Macmillan, a film of a young person growing up in Britain, and a seven week old discussion between five Cabinet Members. 61% of the electorate watched at least one of the 1959 broadcasts, compared to 33% four years earlier.

In 1961, Macmillan would ponder gravely upon the Party Political Broadcasts importance. “Television” he began, “has introduced a new dimension into politics and some of us don’t know quite what to make of it. I have never dared to look at one of my television performances: not that I am spared anything, because my family are numerous and candid … Why, then do we do it? Partly because television is so vivid, personal and instantaneous a means of communication … Television will never, I hope, become a propaganda instrument of the government.”

It’s 1964 and the Tories five Party Election Broadcasts “Prosperity With a Purpose”, introduce documentary-cum-soap opera techniques to the medium. This time, Edward Heath and Reginald Maudling handled most of the presenting duties. The requisite straight to camera piece was still considered a key election weapon though, and in already time-honoured, tradition was handled by Prime Minister – Alec Douglas-Home. Labour’s theme in ’64 was “The New Britain”, with a mixture of discussions, films, and (not for the last time) Shirley Williams and her shopping baskets. There was a theme tune too, specially composed and played by Johnny Dankworth. But this touch of showbiz could not compete with the Liberals who were successfully able to rope in the support of Honor Blackman for their campaign. Two years later and Party Election Broadcasts were now as standard between 10 and 15 minutes long. Labour were claiming that “You Know That Labour Government Works”. Harold Wilson took up the speaking to camera chores, whilst Deputy PM George Brown spoke on the economy. The Tories opted for “Action Not Words”, with profiles of their new leader Edward Heath, attacks on Labour and the unions and clips of Tory visits. The Liberals had three TV broadcasts, concentrating mostly on the personalities of Jo Grimond and Ludovic Kennedy. There was also a Party Election Broadcast from the Communist Party, who in fielding over 50 candidates, fulfilled the legal requirement necessary to obtain such a coveted slot.

“Political Challenge” a quiz show hosted by Senior Lecturer at the University of London Bernard Donoughue was Labour’s most significant contribution to Party Election Broadcasting in 1970. Seemingly not intended as a parody (this wasn’t played for laughs), the format was presumably enticed to attract first time voters. That they were to be pitted against the “rest” in this battle of Labour manifesto memorising was the rather weak hook provided to justify the programme. This blatant attempt to appeal to constituents traditionally turned off by politics seemed to be symptomatic of a change in the medium and by the mid ’70s Party Political Broadcast had certainly become far less restrained and stuffy. Jimmy Saville presiding (in the interests of ensuring right was done, so he said) over the “grilling” of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe lives long in the memory of anyone who caught it back in 1972 as perhaps the apotheosis of this trend. Thorpe’s side parting starting (as was the style at the time) just above his ear was no sartorial match for Saville’s flowing locks. However, the most memorable aspect of this contrived Q&A session was the juxtaposition of Jimmy’s informal presentation style with our expectations of a Party Political Broadcast: “God bless, see you next time round” indeed! Well remembered for its inappropriateness, this broadcast may have one other lingering legacy: is the Gerald Howarth posing a question about positive action the same as the Tory MP whose current seat in Aldershot is a likely Liberal Democrat target at the next election?

As in 1970 there were 13 TV Party Election Broadcasts of 10 minutes length in 1974. Each were broadcast at 10pm. The National Front qualified for five minutes on the whole network by fielding over 50 candidates. Tory broadcasts opted for a “firm but fair” theme, mixing straight pieces to camera by leaders and general public vox pops. Labour were better organised, with Callaghan and Healey addressing the camera, plus a special youth-orientated broadcast and Shirley Williams again displaying her shopping baskets, comparing the price of various items (including the mythically important Sunday joint) between 1970 and 1974. The Liberals however were still relying on their famous chums, and this time around their pseudo-news broadcasts were chock full of well wishing telegrams from the likes of Alec Guinness, Moira Shearer, Honor Blackman (again), Derek Nimmo and Barbara Kelly. Then to demonstrate that they were not just a party for the smart set, the popular and down to earth Cyril Smith was wheeled on to give us such down to earth and common sense proclamations as “Let’s cut the cackle and get on with it.”

1979 represented a change of seismic proportions in the world of Party Election Broadcasts with the arrival for the Tory party of Tim Bell, Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi. His first move was to ensure that all of their Party Election Broadcasts were shot on 35mm film (a major innovation at the time). Immediately his impact could be felt as an abundance of ideas were chucked into their highly polished productions. In particular the Tory ‘s “Crisis? What Crisis?” broadcast was tour de force. Beginning with footage from the winter of discontent, subtly overdubbed with the sound of a nuclear winter, this section of the broadcast built to a crescendo as it constantly poured scorn on Callaghan’s response to the mounting difficulties the country was facing. Effective as this ploy was, it didn’t seem enough for the newly energised Tory party election machine, and gimmick after gimmick followed as the broadcast next took us to a courtroom (in which decent citizens were shown to be adjudged as “guilty” by the Labour Party and we once again able to bemoan the demise of the good old fashioned British Sunday joint). Once again there was enough here to fill one Party Election Broadcast but the Tory’s still weren’t done. It was to a Labour Exchange office next, where a queue of racial stereotypes were lining up to see how much their salaries had increased in “real terms” over the last four years. Of course the honest Brit fared worst of all. Finally, Saatchi offered up the visual metaphor of the folly of Labour ‘s “good intentions”. Shown as actual currency we were invited to arrive at the judgement that the Labour Party had no real idea of how to manage our finances. All in all, a broadcast rich with visual ideas and strong messages. Why then, was the Tory’s final broadcast of the campaign a return to the hackneyed clichés of yore? Here a humble Margaret Thatcher implored us in a rather over-the-top fashion that “somewhere ahead lies greatness for this country, I know it in my heart.” Compared to the Tories though, the other two parties seemed bereft of any ideas, let alone good ones. Labour opted for less gimmicks, more statistics and charts and the Liberals were content to showcase their new young leader David Steel.

In 1983 The Ecology Party, British National Party and National Front all qualified for a broadcast each. The Tories decided to opt for much shorter broadcasts than permitted, with a rapid-fire approach comprising dramatic visuals and frequent changes of shot – all very slick, reflecting the commercials which Saatchi and Saatchi also produced. The SDP/Liberal Alliance once again included celebrities – John Cleese, Sir Richard Attenborough this time – but chose to focus again very closely on the attributes of their leaders. In retrospect, Steel referring to his relationship with Roy Jenkins as a kind of “cross-fertilisation” comes across as exactly the kind of language that should not be used in a Party Election Broadcast. Labour imitated some of the Tory’s techniques, but usually stuck to a team approach. However, this would change for the next election as Labour rolled out the well remembered “Kinnock: The Movie” biopic. Written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson, and actually shown twice during the campaign (the second time the closing legend “Kinnock” being replaced with “Labour”), this rather sentimental production seemed designed to counter the growing belief in the popular press that Kinnock’s personality was simply not strong enough to compete with Thatcher. Here then we were treated to the Labour Party leader at his most passionate and defiant, showing that he had as much steel in him as the Iron Lady. Striking as the broadcast was it was also inviting of parody and criticism, in some ways validating the Tory’s 1979 claim that Labour was just about “good intentions”. Nevertheless, at least there was a cohesiveness to Labour’s strategy this time. Conversely, the Tory broadcasts lacked a coherent unified style. One of them simply comprised clips of Thatcher visiting foreign countries, with no speech, to the sounds of a newly composed Andrew Lloyd Webber tune. The Green Party aired their first national Party Election Broadcast; and the Liberals won five broadcasts for the first time, bringing them equal with Tory and Labour.

Glenda’s protracted analogy using garden plants and the Green Party’s rather suspicious daubing of a young child with adult make-up signified that in the late ’80s, the general public were only able to engage with political issues if they were dressed up to be something else entirely. By 1992, Party Election Broadcasts had mutated into a number of different and bizarre beasts. The Green Party pastiched Listen with Mother, whilst the Tories decided a “slice of life” was the order of the day. “The Journey”, directed by John Schlesinger, was John Major’s voyage back “home”. Reviewed almost a decade after the fact, John Major comes across as a wooden performer adorned with a pair of Deirdre Barlow specs. The key moment in this broadcast would seem to occur when Major comes across his old house in Burton Road. Here perhaps we are invited to witness the real John Major. Seeking to form a Government on the back of his own mandate it seemed to him to be vitally important that the Tories should stand or fall on his reputation, lest he suffer in the shadow of his predecessor for evermore. This broadcast is also significant for ushering in the era of the unseen interviewer. Major talks to us but not directly at us, and funnily enough the result is far less hammy then Thatcher’s direct appeal to the people some 13 years earlier. Labour’s approach was markedly more “high concept”. The infamous “Jennifer’s ear” broadcast, directed by Mike Newell, may have provided grist for the election propaganda mill but it is in itself a mawkish piece of television that likely infuriated those lucky enough to afford private health care by inadvertently and indirectly suggesting that they had personally contributed to Jennifer’s anguish. In retrospect this was a foolish strategy that cost Labour dear.

By the late 1990s the age of the Party Political Broadcast seemed to have passed. Labour’s 1993 effort with Fry and Laurie was a charmless attempt to again define a societal “enemy” for the party faithful. The two comedians bring their skilful caricatures to the table, but still this is an unsophisticated message in a sophisticated age. By the time of the 1997 election, Party Election Broadcasts included more than ever before for smaller parties, such as The Referendum Party, The UK Independents (with Leo McKern), and the British National Party (which Channel 4 refused to air). The Tories bowed out of 20th century TV election campaigning with three of their five broadcasts featuring John Major talking directly to camera (at least one of which a hasty substitution replacing a proper filmed broadcast) in a self conscious effort to “get back to basics”. Their “no gimmicks” ploy was in alignment with Major’s shirtsleeves and soapbox approach that had won the Tories re-election in 1992. Yet by this time the British public knew this to be as much a gimmick as any other that littered the campaign. Labour, meanwhile chose to concentrate on their biggest asset and a profile of Blair made by noted documentary producer Molly Dineen dwelled lovingly on the image of the leader as a down to earth family man. In contrast the Liberal Democrat’s demagoguery of Paddy Ashdown cast him as a mythical figure, far beyond the reach of normal man. Uniquely, although the broadcast was solely about him, he barely appeared at all, and spoke to us only in voice over.

In the wake of a second successive Labour landslide we can reflect on how little the Party Election Broadcast has contributed to the Party’s respective 2001 campaigns. The reasons for this would appear to be manifold. The Labour Party ensured that the campaign as a whole remained relatively low profile, voters expressed a disinterest with Party politics unmatched for almost 100 years, the Liberal Democrats chose to fight an “honest” campaign which precluded the use of arch or sensational election broadcasts, and the Tories still reeling from their loss some four years previously, found themselves to be so unsure of strategy that they were unable to focus on producing a coherent, consistent raft of broadcasts. As a result there were no images this time as crassly memorable as Jimmy Saville or Jennifer’s ear, and nothing as inventive as the Winter of Discontent, or Labour’s “Television And Radio Operations Room”. Perhaps our Party Election Broadcasts are only ever as compelling as the issues and choices that lie before the electorate. In the wake of Hague’s resignation and the election of a new Tory party leader one is left to wonder about the battleground that will face us at the next election, and consequently which metaphors and slogans will be pulled from the rhetoric and prefixed by that customary phrase “there now follows a Party Election Broadcast”.