Election ’74

Friday, October 3, 2003 by

More repeats on digital TV, then. But BBC Parliament’s real-time replays of General Election results coverage have been absolutely inspired programming. It’s not hard to see why – normally when we see programmes from the ’70s, they’re sitcoms, clips from Top of the Pops, or dramas. Very rarely do we get to see the whole of the normal everyday shows that people were watching three decades ago. Hence witnessing Harold Webb answer the phone, or seeing Bob McKenzie smoke his pipe on air – probably normal occurances at the time, but utterly bizarre now – were just some of the things that made last week’s 1970 replay so entertaining.

So next up came the poll of 28 February 1974. This was a rather different programme to the 1970 results service, though, and perhaps one of the most unusual election nights of all. The most obvious change came with the presenter, as Cliff Michelmore had retired from current affairs to enjoy the more relaxing surroundings of Holiday. In his place came Alastair Burnet – a rare chance to see the distinguished ITV newsman during his short spell at the BBC. Alastair was, unsurprisingly, rather less whimsical than Cliff, but certainly had gravitas and was able to make some sense of the night’s more confusing aspects.

Another unusual aspect of this poll was that boundary changes had meant many constituencies had completely changed since 1970. This led to such situations as the sitting MPs for Brentford and Isleworth both fighting it out to win the newly-merged constituency of Brentford And Isleworth. Therefore analysis was more complex than usual; rather than being told that the parties had held a seat, we were often told they had “held” them – that is, compared to what the results would have been had the 1970 poll been held with the same constituencies. As the night went out, this complicated a confusing situation still further.

But the most unusual aspect was that this was a very low-key election. Polling was carried out to a backdrop of industrial unrest, with regulations forcing TV to close down at 10.30pm only just having been lifted. With a miners’ strike still going on, Ted Heath had called the election to gain “a vote of confidence” from the public to his policies. Given this backdrop, it was unsurprising that the whole coverage was rather more serious than 1970 – less whimsy and less silliness, with all aware that the night’s events could have a huge effect on the state of the nation. There was certainly no room for the election night disco this time round.

Still, it all got off to an exciting start – Fanfare For The Common Man heralding a zoom around the studio, with the scoreboards whirring round and the legend “CON LAB LIB?” emblazoned across the screen. The set was much smaller, though – that said, given the size of the 1970 set, an aircraft hangar would have been “much smaller” by comparison – with Bob McKenzie’s swingometer sitting on his desk like an executive toy, and other graphics being picked up from the floor where they sat at his feet. Alastair set the scene by announcing that tonight we’d find out who would be running the country for at least “the next few weeks” – given that the polls had suggested that this would be one of the closest elections for many years.

There was still time for a bit of fun, though – most notably thanks to Mike Yarwood, live in the studio to recite monologues in the guise of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. These were accompanied by gales of laughter from the crew, and shots of Alastair awkwardly laughing, but made rather less sense three decades on. Meanwhile Desmond Wilcox found himself among the thronging masses in Trafalgar Square again, and he was having fun, at one point grabbing some punters to speak and quipping, “I’ve handled more people tonight than Bruce Forsyth!” Yet some of this seemed at odds with the more serious aspects of the first hour, such as Tom Mangold at a Miners’ Welfare Club – “I’m sure they won’t mind me calling them the most militant and bloody-minded miners in the country” – overseeing an extended bout of shouting (“If I can come in here, Mr Interviewer, you’re quite wrong”) and finger-waggling.

This was an impressive effort for the era, with Alastair boasting that they had 76 camera crews out in the field, the most ever. As with last week’s replay there was picture interference throughout – though it’s a tribute to BBC Parliament that they assumed the viewers had the intelligence to ignore this – and some parts of the country were still staggering on in black and white. There was also more editing – around 90 minutes were chopped out around 1am, meaning we lost the declarations of all three party leaders, and again we lost the breakfast programme as we leapt straight from just after 4am to 10am. The biggest disappointment about that, perhaps, was that Alan Watson, who co-presented the early shift with Michael Barratt, therefore only appeared reporting from Conservative Central Office. A shame, given his obvious star quality in 1970, and that this was his last BBC election – next time round he was standing as a Liberal candidate. Perhaps Barratt’s agent demands huge repeat fees?

There were many eye-opening moments during the replay. During the early part of the programme we paid a number of visits to Ladbrokes for news of the latest odds – reported on by none other than BBC racing presenter Julian Wilson. Meanwhile Magnus Magnusson was anchoring proceedings in Glasgow, and at 4am, Esther Rantzen attempted some vox-pops in Covent Garden with a number of pissed-off market traders (“Do you have a message for Robin Day?” “Not really.” “Do you have a message for Alastair Burnet?” “Not really.”) Esther showed up again the following morning in Chelmsford, partaking in some rather unpleasant toadying while interviewing Norman St John Stevas.

There were also some prime cock-ups. During the traditional scoot around the seats hoping to declare first, Alastair talked all over Guildford correspondent Paul Griffiths (the race was a bit of a damp squib this time, though, with Cheltenham and Newcastle both losing ballot boxes and Guildford running away with it). A crappy slide of Labour gains saw Alastair announce that “I’m not sure the spelling’s all that good, so sorry about that”. Meanwhile an attempt to speak to Michael Charlton (sadly underused here) in Huyton on the phone had to be abandoned, though 10 minutes later we did get him in vision (Charlton’s opening – “What?”) Robin Day didn’t show up for over an hour, and spent most of the time coughing, while Alastair repeatedly messed up the Moray and Nairn result, taking three goes to confirm the SNP had won it.

Yet as the replay went on, the crude presentation and archaic chat began to become less noticeable as you realised that what you were seeing here was a huge news story developing. Almost from the off, everyone involved knew that the result was going to be tight – the Tories and Labour were neck and neck, the Liberals were making huge gains, and the other parties all had support. David Butler suggested that it was going to be a “long hard night”, which came true when even five hours in they still weren’t able to predict a winner. After a while it looked as if Labour would be the biggest single party (contrary to the opinion polls, as usual), but even then nobody knew if they’d be able to govern. By 12.30am, Alastair was already placing bets on them all coming back for another election quite soon, to which David replied, “Good, I enjoy them, though I don’t know if the viewers do!”

When it became obvious that the vote was going to produce a complete stalemate, Alastair wondered aloud if we were heading for “one of the most serious crises of our time”. With the miners’ strike continuing, David Butler despaired as there was apparently only two weeks worth of coal left – though this was later disputed by the energy minister, who claimed that there was enough to keep the country going until April. Robin even asked one of his guests, “Are we not in an economic 1940?”

The other big story of the night saw Bob McKenzie continually point out that while the Liberals were getting half as many votes as the two main parties, they were only winning a handful of seats. One lecture on the injustice of this saw Alastair announce, “That was a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Robert McKenzie campaign for proportional representation”.

As we entered the small hours, things were getting tougher, with an atmosphere unlike virtually any other results show. The odd gag – such as Alastair asking Bob if he could come back next week for another election – was normally followed by everyone looking glum and saying “Of course, this is a very serious situation”. Everyone was at it; some banter between Graham Pyatt and Bob McKenzie as to whether the computer had been more accurate than Bob’s arithmetic was followed by Robin telling everyone to stop arsing about. Desmond Wilcox had a different take on it – “It’s a score draw, and a replay at Aston Villa next Wednesday!”

If the night itself was grim, the following day was even worse, with everyone now resigned to a tie with no overall winner. Worse still, nobody had a clue what the result actually meant, nor what would happen next. There was still time for a bit of whimsy, such as Robin interviewing cartoonist “Jak”, or David Lomax standing around outside Jeremy Thorpe’s garden gate hoping for an interview, which he eventually got, but only after Thorpe’s mother had told him to go away. We also got what some of us had been waiting for – Alastair announcing that the children’s programmes had been moved to BBC2, something that every BBC current affairs presenter has to do at least once.

For the most part, though, this was a time for serious discussion. David Butler was blaming Enoch Powell for the result – he’d withdrawn from the race telling everyone to vote Labour, and around his constituency in the West Midlands, 11 seats had gone to Labour with much larger swings than average, thus creating the deadlock. Butler quipped that “Isn’t it ironic we’ve now renamed the Black Country, Powell Country?” Bob McKenzie was still rallying against the electoral system, though Alastair assumed there’d probably be “one more election” under the current one. Robin thought the UK might be “right on the edge of a ghastly disaster”, while David said that the entire country had, given the chance to vote, all opted for “don’t know”.

As the coverage continued into the early evening, there was still utter confusion over what would happen next. Alastair summarised that, “All can claim to have won, but not all can claim any prizes”. David Butler called it an “irreconcilable situation”, while Alastair felt a climate of “doubt, indecision, maybe fear”, and that the results were “the end of the beginning”. David Dimbleby was watching cabinet minsters show up in Downing Street while Ted Heath was trying to work out what to do. Nobody knew whether he would try and carry on as Prime Minister, set up a coalition, or resign. At 6.45pm, Alastair signed off. “We will return at 9.25 with a programme called ‘Back To Work’, although it should perhaps be called ‘Carry On Worrying’ or ‘Carry On Voting’. This is the indecisive General Election of 1974″.

The 1974 replay hadn’t been as entertaining as 1970, but in its own way it made for equally compelling viewing. It was fascinating to see a news event unfold in real time, with a general feeling of chaos and uncertainty gripping both the studio, and the nation as a whole. Seeing a political situation unlike nothing we experience now was particularly eye-opening. Well done to BBC Parliament for providing a riveting history lesson.


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