Election Night

Thursday, June 10, 2004 by

It’d been a fair while since David Dimbleby had last helmed an election night from what, convention dictates, should be the biggest studio in Television Centre. Now, however, he was back home, and after struggling stoically through a period piloting results programmes from an ill-fitting box room, was clearly relishing a return to his erstwhile stamping ground. “A very fascinating evening of politics” was on hand, and given the ranks of silhouetted nameless lieutenants hunched over shimmering monitors fanning out behind David’s ludicrously enormous console, only the cheerless could have disagreed. Fortunately, they were already long to bed.

Whether through a conscious effort to live up to the promised cry of “Super Thursday” with its much-vaunted triple-poll cavalcade of local, European and London Assembly ballots, to flex a bit of BBC muscle after a resolutely low-key patrol on the hustings, or in response to – for the first time since the 2001 General Election – some shamelessly glossy ITV1 opposition, this was going to be a big deal. A pity, then, that the bulk of the results, including frankly most of the really important ones, weren’t due in until the following day and, in some instances, Sunday evening.

Their absence was telling. Throughout the night, where otherwise the screen would be filled with returning officers grumpily asking for quiet or rowdy post-declaration barracking between enthused victors and petulant foes, we were blessed with ever-lengthening round table roustabouts orchestrated at first with cautious serenity but later carefree abandon by our host. Not that this was something to be particularly regretted, especially as, once again, occupying the left flank of David’s enormous plinth were Anthony King and Andrew Marr. Neither bothered to hide the fact that this annual witching-hour get-together has long been the highpoint of their professional year – and both did their thoughtful, whimsical best to persuade us that it should be ours as well.

Unlike the people seated to David’s right. If he was out to damn with faint praise, “All men” was certainly a sure way of loading an introduction to a bunch of grinning besuited politicians. After Laura Trevalyn ended a brief piece from outside Tory Central Office with the promise of reporting on all major developments “as the night wears on”, David threw a withering glance to his coterie of Westminster faces and muttered, “Well, I hope the night doesn’t wear on too badly.” A vision of a crumpled John Hess in front of a tatty display stand in Derby swam into view to confirm otherwise: sackfuls of late postal votes had delayed counting by several hours. The armoury of studio computers blinked, nonplussed.

Still, Peter Snow had been liberated from the poky airing cupboard into which he’d been shoved for the previous two local elections, and was ready for some trademark shouting with David across the floor. “We’ve built a magnificent town hall in our studio,” was some opening gambit, and sure enough Pete was soon strolling around a life size computer simulation, prodding and waltzing between bar charts protruding from the chamber’s floor. Yet it quickly transpired that far from being a curtain raiser to a procession of familiar set-piece gimmicks, this was actually all we were going to get. No fanciful electronic sideshows, nothing to match last year‘s Clap-o-meter or 2002‘s “blue-brick road”, let alone 2001′s legendary “How Many Heaves?” or movable staircase. This was it. For Peter, already having had the indignity of Labour Health Secretary John Reid mistake him for his brother Jon, it was like embarking on a comeback tour only to find the expected outdoor arena was in fact the local community centre. For the viewer, it was like having our favourite toys confiscated until home time.

Something was needed to perk up this anxious prelude to the main event, but instead David cued in our first visit to what has now become a stubborn staple of election nights: the hopeless outside broadcast from a Northern wine bar. Why these doomed endeavours crop up time and again is as much an amusement as it is an irritation. Every year we’re promised a chance to hear what “real voters” are saying, only to be immediately taken to an environment where it’s impossible to hear a single word from anyone, voters or otherwise.

Daisy Sampson loomed through the beery fug. “Well, some poor soul had to pick the short straw,” she yelled, pausing for lame comic effect, “but it certainly hasn’t been me tonight!” She gestured to the crowds of drinkers blithely ignoring her every word. “Have these people turned their backs on Tony Blair, and if so who to?” Pausing to unscramble some logic from this meaningless sentence, it seemed that at least for the time being they’d wisely decided to turn their backs on Daisy.

The delay in receiving results began to fuel rambling discussions back in the studio, where party mouthpieces John Reid, David Davis and Mark Oaten took turns in finding new ways to say “I’m not going to speculate about numbers”. As they continued to do precisely that, David Dimbleby momentarily tuned out – “Anthony … I mean Andrew … I don’t think of you as interchangeable!” – before sending us back to Daisy. “I want to talk to a couple of men here,” she announced. One of these turned out to be Tony Wilson. “Manchester royalty, music impresario, former pop star,” explained Daisy, which sent Tony into a fit of the giggles. “I know a lot of people listen to what you say,” Daisy smarmed. Tony boasted of being “New Labour in 1980,” and of the importance of sticking with Tony Blair. “Two disaffected Labour supporters there,” Daisy concluded, wrongly, and then tried her luck with a pair of Conservative supporters. “We’ve heard from two disaffected Tories and a Conservative hopeful,” she then announced, wrong again.

Mercifully David wrestled proceedings back to London with the first result. We weren’t treated to any shots of the declaration, though; indeed, we weren’t to see any live results the whole night. Every verdict came through second hand – some, as usual, a bit behind ITV1 – scrolling randomly across the screen until someone thought to put up a permanent graphic showing the tally of councils won and lost. The fact this happened about half an hour before the Beeb went off air, but had been part of ITV1′s coverage from the off, only compounded the sense this was turning into a noticeably patchy night for David and co.

One of the least appropriate solutions for stirring up excitement – a montage of Party Political Broadcasts – then appeared. “Hmm, rather brief excerpts, those,” sniffed David, as if that was something to be regretted. A spat with John Reid about the absence of Blair’s face from Labour publicity prompted Reid to brandish some leaflets at David with the cry “I’ll let you test them,” as if one of the machines in the studio came replete with some kind of photo authentication contraption. Time out for a trip around the regions at 12.30am revived momentum, and on our return to London David was back on form. Dave Harvey reporting from Swindon noted how much of an issue road humps had become. “John Reid,” David smirked, “why don’t you have a policy on road humps?” “Answer, answer!” mocked Andrew Marr. Everyone fell about with exaggerated mirth, as happens precisely half way through every election night as the late hour and the realization but a handful of people are now tuned in strike hosts and guests alike.

Catherine Marston had drawn the real short straw – Burnley. Following Mark Mardell’s example last year, she chose to avoid hysterics and instead went for blunt exposition, which had far greater impact. In Manchester, Daisy soldiered on oblivious. She produced a professor of political studies. “I know you’re a bit of an expert in this region,” she boomed, which was just as well given this wasn’t a programme about electoral trends on the Ivory Coast. “It’s been a long time coming …” sighed David as at last the results began to trickle in. “Can’t make that add up … boundary changes … always fall back on boundary changes,” he murmured as the towns and cities flickered past.

While the UK Independence Party’s first ever councillor stumped his interviewer with the observation, “One little stone from the river bed and that starts it off,” Peter continued to do his best to alchemise his clutter of line graphs into statistical gold. “The real excitement, don’t go to bed, wait for it, it’ll come later in the evening!” he chuckled. John Reid promptly left the studio to be replaced by Tessa Jowell, fresh from “some other channel that I don’t wish to mention”, mugged David, his churlishness towards namedropping the other side as blatant as it has been for 25 years.

By now it was approaching 2am, and still the pattern, not to say the bulk, of results were far from apparent. When a member of the Electoral Commission arrived to talk about how the postal voting experiments had gone, his reticence pushed David close to the edge. “You can’t say it’s too early as well,” he shrieked. “Everyone round this table is staying it’s too early – we might as well all go home.” Indeed, over in Cheltenham cleaners were packing away the trestle tables, but Daisy was still holding court in Manchester. “I wish I were with you,” David pleaded desperately, in a minority of less than two. Time was running out, and all we had by way of state-of-the-nation number-crunching was a student called Andre mouthing off in a pub.

Luckily, Peter’s “real excitement” was now ready to be unfurled. “We haven’t got nearly as far as I’d hoped we would,” confessed David abjectly, but “we’ve come to the moment that everybody looks forward to!” Now this was something. Perhaps Pete’s night wasn’t going to end with a whimper. Perhaps – the sly fox – he’d merely been saving his gimmickry for a stunning finish. A hark back to the rising and falling Nelson Columns of 2000? “This is, actually, and I genuinely mean, a bit of fun!” the man knowingly intoned, before offering up … another bar chart. Admittedly it was showing the projected share of the national vote, and the fact that Labour were in third place would become the main talking point of the next 24 hours, but it was not quite the kind of finale everyone wanted – or needed. “I thought we were going to see the new House of Commons,” moaned David. “I’m afraid not,” sighed Peter. “You’ll have to wait for that.”

Which was the story of the whole night, really – a promise of a “fascinating evening” never quite fulfilled, and the age-old heady mix of epic melodrama and folly ending up but a preamble to events yet to come. A long weekend lay ahead; as did, reassuringly, a return date with the gang for the European results on Sunday evening. “See you then, I hope,” David beamed. There was, as ever, no question.


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