Election ’74

Sunday, October 10, 2004 by

The last time we looked in on Alastair, David, Bob and Robin the country had only two weeks of coal left and was “right on the edge of a ghastly disaster.” It was February 1974, a miners’ strike and spiralling oil prices had prompted the three-day week and massive power cuts, and a General Election had left no political party with an overall majority. Although Labour, with the largest number of seats, ended up in Government, it was obvious another election would have to be called soon to settle the crisis. Sure enough, a second poll took place in October, and Messrs Burnet, Butler, MacKenzie and Day reconvened in Television Centre – which was where BBC Parliament picked up the story again, in the shape of another of its as-it-happened replays of BBC election results coverage.

For some, these events have undoubtedly become as much a high point in the TV calendar as the double issue Christmas Radio Times or the return of Blue Peter from its Summer Expedition. This was the third time BBC Parliament had used the occasion of the party conference season to turn over its weekend to an unfettered slab of glorious telly history, and as ever it didn’t disappoint. Viewers were able to re-live minute by minute the return match of precisely what the channel broadcast 12 months ago: the same faces, the same issues, and no less grave an atmosphere. If anything things seemed to have got worse, judging by the way Alastair announced, “this is an hour of greatest importance to our country – our futures depend on it.”

Despite reports, the Beeb kept the scenery from the February Election ’74 in storage ready for a speedy return to the hustings, what we got here was a somewhat re-modelled set, albeit decked out in grey tones and operating on the usual vast number of different levels and platforms. There were nicely British Telecom-esque fonts everywhere, Bob had an entire wall of charts to play with (though his swingometer was again relegated to the status of a half-hearted deskbound toy) while Robin had been awarded perhaps his largest “pod” to date: nothing less than an entire flank of the studio, shamelessly constructed higher up than everybody else, blessed with its own staff in the shape of a silhouetted long-haired woman who shuffled papers mysteriously. Alastair helmed everything in front of a giant scoreboard, with David on his left and Bob on his right. Brilliantly, each had their own bank of black and white monitors.

The long wait for the first result afforded plenty of opportunity for our hosts to set out their stall. For Alastair this meant an obsession with checking his watch but never telling us the time, and referring to the election as if it were a horse race, repeatedly talking about “form”, checking the latest from the bookies (“You have to put five pounds down to win one pound”) or handing over to Julian Wilson at William Hill for the odds. While this was initially mildly diverting, the business with the watch quickly became irritating, especially as Alastair continued to do it right through the night and the following morning, as if he couldn’t wait to be somewhere else and was thoroughly sick of how long it was all taking. The talk about betting was then later taken up by Robin who joked with Ian Mikardo MP about running “the worst odds in the business” and even offered union boss Clive Jenkins “three to one in favour of our staying in the Common Market.”

Away from the studio, a battery of reporters were perched on assorted balconies overlooking assembly halls around the country. Esther Rantzen waited at Guildford for the “nimble and dexterous” counters to ensure they were the first to declare. Michael Charlton, our “indicator” in Huyton as Alastair put it, brought news of Harold Wilson’s red rosette “glowing like a traffic light”. Some, like Philip Tibenham in Lincoln and Jake Kelly in Blyth, were still in black and white, a reminder of how all the Beeb’s colour cameras were deployed in areas presumably deemed more important. One of them was in Trafalgar Square, where we found, as usual, Desmond Wilcox, “as much a part of the scene as Nelson and the lions,” claimed Alastair. “Very funny,” Desmond sniffed, recalling how in February the power cuts had meant the place was in darkness. “At least we can now see how uncomfortable we are.” 40 seconds later he was gone, and bizarrely we never saw him again. His future missus, however, still had far more to say. Guildford was now “getting a bit hot … suspense-full and perspiring.”

One other character completed the line-up: ERIC, the resident results processing machine, which, with “staggering” speed, prepared on-screen breakdowns of declarations in 45 seconds. To prove this, a very glossy short film fronted by Sue Lawley followed ERIC, or Electronic Results Instant Computer, on a test run. “There’s no time for hellos,” underlined Sue as an assistant took a call from a reporter, read out some numbers and “another girl called a runner” found the relevant paperwork. The clock ticked, fantastic tension-building music played, and sure enough the result was on screen within the deadline, at which point we saw Tam Fry, the results editor, blowing Sue a kiss.

ERIC more than deserved such a build up, as when the results did start coming in there were no major gaffes, delays or technical breakdowns. Instead it would be the prediction, rather than the presentation, of information that became the team’s bugbear. “I think it’s a good idea that we keep it open,” muttered Alastair pointlessly, before moaning about how Bernard Levin had criticised him for saying “it’s all to play for” too much during the February transmission. He then asked Bob to explain “differential floatback.” Unsurprisingly it was ERIC, not Alastair, who was being namechecked when we glimpsed foreign journalists transmitting to their own countries.

Guildford won the race to declare, with Esther suitably agog: “We are the first!” Julian Pettifer seemed less confident about things in Cheltenham, conceding it had been a Tory seat “as far back as I’ve been able to check,” while Brian Ash was more preoccupied by the “nubile young ladies carrying bits of paper” around the Wolverhampton count. The familiar collection of befuddled returning officers began to struggle in the heat of the moment, one barking into his microphone “Is this working? Come over here. Can I have quiet please? Quiet please!” and another protesting, “Can I have a little bit of order … oooh, wait a minute!” A very young-looking Margaret Jackson (later Beckett) won a monochrome Lincoln, and Brian Walden was announced the victor of Birmingham Ladywood to a room full of people chatting.

By now the talk in the studio couldn’t avoid the reality that, as Bob observed, smiling to himself, “the polls are having a bad night.” Forecasts of a hundred seat Labour win were hastily revised downwards. Graham Pyatt wielded the same scroll of coloured paper he’d brandished in February to demonstrate how nobody was sure if anyone would have a majority. But while Bob and David were clearly enthralled by the tense situation, Alastair just looked increasingly annoyed, lapsing into oddly partial comments (one Liberal MP was out of the Commons “only temporarily”, another was lucky to not have “so many nutcases” as challengers) and referring to results from safe seats with a terse “nothing much to say about these” and “none of them particularly interesting”. Robin, meanwhile, ploughed on regardless, quizzing an endless procession of ancient peers, and effortlessly dealing with David Steel chiding him about getting his name wrong: “I was very tired that night, and I had got three pictures on a monitor at once … what was your name again?!”

Once Wilson and Heath had won their seats, the latter being welcomed to the declaration – according to David Dimbleby – with a cry of “hello, sailor!”, both gave long interviews that merely fuelled the sense of everything being in limbo until some point the following afternoon. So began a long slog of speculation that persisted to the end of the night. Bob aired his trademark feelings about the hopelessness of the British electoral system – “grossly unfair” – and the importance of proportional representation, before using toddler’s building bricks to show how a “tiny ripple” of change had run across the country. A Warhol-styled mural of multiple Harold Wilson faces appeared on the wall. Given he’d clearly been looking forward to it for so long, it was ironic Alastair bungled his sign-off at 4am by announcing, “we say good morning – we’ll be back with a breakfast programme later.”

For BBC Parliament this meant a jump to 7.30am, and the welcome sight of a relaxed, amiable Michael Barratt at the main desk. Although already halfway through his stint in charge, there was still a fine 90 minutes of his company to go, and it proved a refreshing diversion from Alastair’s pomposity and the general air of despondency. Aside from Mike’s Nationwide-style “dashing” around numerous OBs, including an encounter with a dog covered in Plaid Cymru stickers, various lighter-side-of-the-election features ensued. These included Brian Widlake’s encounter with Katina the astrologist (“It’s not a crystal ball – I study the patterns of planets”) who predicted a Liberal Government as early as 1980 and observed how Jeremy Thorpe’s star chart explained “why he likes the ladies so much”. Kenneth Kendall read the news (“In Northern Ireland, a night of violence”), Michael Fish summarised the weather, Sue Lawley ran through some notable lost deposits (including Dr Una Kroll, a Women’s Rights candidate, “a very brave lady”), and we saw a tantalising glimpse of Richard Stilgoe sitting at a huge white grand piano. Sadly his moment for a suitably wry song or two must have already come and gone.

Esther was back, though, out and about in “the city” attracting a band of curious OAPs as if doing a That’s Life! vox pop. “This lady works in the city,” she explained. “I’m in charge of the lady cleaners,” her subject clarified, “I’d like to see the city a bit happier.” “You get tired of all these sad faces?” noted Esther neutrally. “Very.” Keith Graves at Transport House was less ebullient, proclaiming, “anyone with any sense is still in bed.” The mood shifted again come 9am, when Mike had to “gather up all my rubbish from this desk” to make way for Alastair once more, who we saw loitering in an ungainly fashion to one side, as if desperate to sit down.

Another very long wait for results was in order, encouraging Bob to cut loose – “It’s going to be a hard day’s night!” – and David, who’d been there ever since 6am, to reminisce about his time monitoring the recent election in Australia. We glimpsed Michael Charlton on the steps of the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, commenting on Wilson’s departure. “He’s had about three hours sleep,” Michael noted, at which point Wilson leaned over and added, “I don’t think you’ve had that much more, Michael!” Back in London Robin seemed to be in the same condition, arriving in an extremely tetchy mood (“You said some of the things I was hoping to say Alastair, but no matter”) then, having “been sitting here rather impatiently”, launching into an attack on the opinion polls. “You’re getting a little tired,” mocked Bob. “You’re not talking to your students now,” snapped Robin.

The argument that followed was all somewhat incongruous – imagine David Dimbleby, Peter Snow and Andrew Marr shouting at each other – and Alastair singularly failed to keep matters under control. It was difficult, though, to have any sympathy for him. By this point it was clear he held the title for the most unimpressive election anchor the Beeb have ever employed, if only because of his inability to project the same infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion for his task that was so palpable in Cliff Michelmore and both Richard and David Dimbleby. But then, at the very moment results started coming in again, BBC Parliament was pulled off the air by the Telewest network (a regular occurrence), meaning at least one viewer was unable to see the outcome and had to go and look it up in a book. In case you missed it, Labour won.

The story of the coverage had been a dramatic shift in expectation, from David’s talk of “three-figure majorities” to whether Labour would retain a lead at all. The speed at which everyone forgot their initial grandstanding was notable – an early “how did you vote?” poll turned out to be so inaccurate it was simply never mentioned again. But the fact we’d had the chance to watch other archive results programmes meant the constant talk of similarities with February 1974, and of 1964, had that much more resonance and meaning.

All this was genuinely gripping, but the main fascination lay, as it has always done during these glimpses into another TV age, in the detail: the gossipy asides and laconic observations from the presenters, reporters and guests; the attempts at jokes or whimsy; the things that go wrong – in short, that which must have been ordinary to viewers then, but which seems extraordinary to us now. People smoking on camera, the sound of jangling telephones cutting across Alastair or David mid-flow, Bob munching a chicken drumstick: this is what we wait for in the BBC’s archive results programmes, and fortunately once again the gang delivered.


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