Election ’83

Friday, October 6, 2006 by

At least they got the exit poll right. At the start of the coverage, David Dimbleby announced that the Conservatives were going to win the General Election with a majority of 146. At the end of the coverage, David Dimbleby announced that the Conservatives had won the General Election with a majority of 144.

The fact that the simple business of predicting an outcome was so prone to failure is something we’ve been able to appreciate over the past four years of BBC Parliament’s real-time replays of General Elections. With the poll from 1983 completing the set, we’ve now been able to see every election from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – three notable decades in political and television history.

It’s probably fair to say that 1983 was the first General Election coverage that bares some real similarity with what we get now. It was the first without the two mainstays of the Beeb’s election nights, David Butler having retired from the box – broadcasting on BBC radio for this election – and Bob McKenzie having died some 18 months previously. A now-beknighted Robin Day was still there, and indeed referred to himself as, “a humble spear-carrier” in his introduction, as he would do again four years later. David Dimbleby hosted for the second time, and he was joined by a new face to the Corporation, Peter Snow, who took on Bob McKenzie’s old role.

Somewhat surprisingly there was no replacement for David Butler, and with only three presenters it was odd how they were lolling about in an enormous, sparse studio. David and Peter shared a long desk with a big screen between them with Robin to their left. For the first time, all the psephologists, including political editor John Cole, were hidden away backstage, to be brought out when required – which in Cole’s case wasn’t until 3.30am.

In addition, there was no wall of facts for Peter to run around in front of. The cardboard props, including the swingometer, had been traded in, for the first time, for computer graphics, but the technology didn’t exist to render these on a large scale so they were simply projected onto the monitor behind Peter, who stayed seated throughout. This robbed quite a lot of energy from proceedings, but on the plus side the graphics remained simple, clear and concise (apart from the Golden Shot-inspired Tory target board that seemed to confuse everyone), thanks presumably to the excitingly-named Monotype International, who were thanked in the credits for their “typographical co-operation”.

Because the coverage hadn’t started until 10.40pm (Carrott’s Lib being screened after the polls had closed), it wasn’t long until the real action began. All there was time for was a convoluted explanation of the boundary changes and a trip down Downing Street with Esther Rantzen – who was able to introduce us to Wilberforce, the cat who supposedly lived at Number 10 – before we were already onto the first results. Selina Scott, in a floral frock, looked in from Guildford (after her then screen husband Frank Bough had done the same job in 1979), but it was a jumpsuited Valerie Singleton who had the honour of presiding over the first declaration from Torbay.

Apart from some excitement at the impressive Liberal support in the first few seats – leading to a slightly revised prediction – from that moment on the outcome looked inevitable and the actual results seemed to take a backseat to thoughts over the future of the Labour party and what sort of showing the SDP would get. Indeed, even before a single result had been declared, everyone seemed certain that Labour were doomed, David Steel claiming they were no longer, “a serious contender for government” and Robin Day discussing the presumably-soon-to-be-vacant leadership with Neil Kinnock.

It was fascinating to see some stalwarts of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Phillip Tibenham looking windswept in Penrith, Bernard Falk in a leather jacket in Liverpool, and Donny MacLeod in Inverness, alongside the debuts of some more familiar figures from today, like Jeremy Paxman, who interviewed Norman Tebbit in Chingford in front of some heaving bookshelves which looked seconds away from collapsing.

As ever seismic political moments jostled with minutiae from the period, including the revelation from David that Renee Short keeps poodles (Robin: “Can we talk about important things?”) and a visit to the same horrible ’80s shopping centre in Pendle we’d see again in 1987, this time with the declaration made in front of a branch of Carstuff.

Similarly, we got to see the debuts of numerous soon-to-be-big names in more auspicious circumstances, although the result from Sedgefield was simply flashed up on the screen. Ann Widdecombe came second to David Owen in Plymouth Devonport while Hilary Benn was unable to beat the Tory tide in Ealing North. Keith Vaz lost his deposit in Richmond while Virginia Bottomley failed to take the Isle of Wight, despite Thatcher having visited her on a hovercraft. Steven Norris, “an Audi car dealer”, did manage to get in at Oxford East, though.

At 12.30am, David introduced, for the first time, Tony King, billed as “a Canadian, like Bob McKenzie, sadly missed tonight”, who was let out of the backroom for a few moments throughout the night, this time pondering who might be the opposition in 1988. We also got the first of King’s winning similes, describing the Labour performance since 1966 as resembling “a tennis ball falling down the stairs”. Later King would say that this was the UK’s first “presidential election”, claiming that no voters ever thought Michael Foot made for a viable Prime Minister.

Despite this claim, however, much of the action during the night and the following day was anything but stage-managed. Michael Foot was doorstepped leaving his house – we were told to watch the results elsewhere as he didn’t have a television – and refused to give an interview, repeatedly claiming waiting until the results were announced was “the sensible thing to do”. The following day he refused again, again repeatedly announcing “it is only fair” that he didn’t speak to those journalists as he hadn’t spoken to any others.

Meanwhile, Mrs Thatcher left Downing Street to go to her count to a number of hollered questions from the waiting hacks, and she hollered some answers back, neither of which we got to hear, while Esther Rantzen’s commentary on this moment was, in its entirety, “Mrs Thatcher. Ha ha ha!” Nicholas Witchell was assigned to following Maggie around on the night, but didn’t seem to have much luck, with ITN’s Michael Brunson being that bit quicker with the mike and managing to get answers to his questions while Nick followed sheepishly behind. On the plus side, Geoffrey Howe’s declaration at Surrey East was held up because “we’re waiting for ITN”.

With the Tories safely back, and the prediction having shot back up to its original position, by 1am, it was time to look elsewhere, helped by the SDP’s entire Gang of Four getting their results one after the other. Roy Jenkins held on in Glasgow Hillhead to ceaseless and earsplitting heckling throughout the declaration and his speech, while after a dozy returning officer had finally got the figures right and given Labour 18,000 instead of 1800, Bill Rodgers lost Stockton North. David Owen won while Shirley Williams was out and all four looked on at each other’s declarations via split-screen, leading to discussion of virtually nothing but the future of the Alliance for about half an hour.

At 2.30am David referred to the election as “strange”, given that the Tories were heading for a massive landslide despite actually getting fewer votes than in 1979. With the Alliance enjoying plenty of second places, much time was spent discussing electoral reform, which you feel Bob McKenzie would have approved of. Fortunately Robin had Alan Beith, whose count wasn’t until Friday, as a virtual permanent sidekick throughout the evening, rebutting the arguments of both Labour and Conservative MPs.

Perhaps the biggest loser of the night turned out to be Nicholas Witchell, who found himself at Thatcher’s count in Finchley watching a door through which “Mrs Finchley” (as David memorably referred to her) failed to emerge for some time and, worse still, had Michael Brunson standing in front of it. Some expert flannelling from Nick followed, as he ran through the various fringe candidates standing against the PM – including the Belgrano Blood Hunters Party and the Law and Order in Gotham City Party, but not a bloke who’d changed his name to Margaret Thatcher, who’d been barred from standing – and even moved on to providing “some facts about Finchley”.

As we moved towards the end of the night’s coverage at 4am – which was to be followed by the film Crooks Anonymous – Esther interviewed some of the people hanging around outside Downing Street, first alighting on an old woman purely because of her “beautiful hat”, while we were treated to extended shots of a load of photographers’ backsides which, we were told, had Margaret Thatcher and Fred Emery somewhere the other side of them.

After a big long list of credits (featuring the likes of Jana Bennett and Lorraine Heggessey), the antics of Leslie Phillips and Stanley Baxter, some Ceefax and Breakfast Time, it was 10am and we were back with David, Peter and Donald MacCormack, who was filling in while Robin was off in Downing Street getting the first interview with the re-elected PM – though only, we were told, after they’d managed to win the toss with ITN. David buggered up his first link by suggesting we’d find out who would be contesting the election in 1888.

Val was also back, this time in a woolly jumper down the road in Truro, but surely the best combination of reporter and location in the morning shift was Bob Wellings at Greenham Common, with the great man managing to look urbane and aloof despite being in the middle of a gang of women singing protest songs. Bob rather tactlessly suggested that, given the Tories’ huge win, “unfortunately for you, your campaign is pointless”, to general uproar.

As with the previous night, many Beeb reporters found themselves embarrassing themselves in the rush to get in the thick of the action, with Michael Cole following David Steel down the road to his house only to find that he was actually walking to Alastair Stewart and an ITN camera crew to do an interview, while Cole’s cameraman fell over Steel’s dog to add to the chaos. Cole did manage to interview Steel a bit later though, and was even invited in, glass of wine in hand, to watch Steel carve a joint of lamb in a not-at-all-staged photo opportunity.

Nick Witchell could only look on from Downing Street as Thatcher enjoyed her lunch with, apparently, “Michael Parkinson”, a slip of the tongue that particularly amused David. Nick tried to follow her as she progressed down the row of well-wishers, only for his microphone cable to be shorter than he would have liked. His cameraman pressed on regardless while Nick frantically signalled for him to come back, until he had to physically grab him and point him in his direction.

The cameras also caught Roy Jenkins arriving at SDP HQ but couldn’t really see or hear him properly as he stood on the steps and eventually seemed to give up and zoomed out to get a long, lingering shot of Trevor McDonald chatting to his crew. Michael Foot entered and left Labour’s headquarters to much the same scrum of photographers who had obscured our view of Thatcher overnight, though Brian Hanrahan (who David couldn’t resist suggesting was going to “count them all in, and count them all out”) had the added complication of a load of inquisitive schoolkids between him and the Labour leader.

At 12.30pm we were able to enjoy a shambolic bulletin with a hapless Sandi Marshall, reading out the news of Tony Benn’s defeat twice in a row and then greeting the next still with silence before a voice could be heard whispering, “Page 39, page 39″. After that, and for the rest of the afternoon, the Labour and SDP post-mortems continued, interspersed with results from Northern Ireland. Robin tried to interview Kenneth Clarke on numerous occasions only to be continually interrupted by technical breakdowns, declarations and photocalls, while Neil Kinnock was asked where he was, and replied, “I’m in the offices of Islwyn Borough Council and behind me is a display of posters explaining the considerable advantages of relocating your industry to this borough.”

David interviewed a journalist down the line from Moscow who appeared not to have any opinion on the election at all (“A rather inconclusive conversation”, summarised a frustrated Dimbleby) but who mysteriously was unable to hear David when he mentioned rumours that Andropov was on his deathbed. Martin Bell, meanwhile, was turning his nose up at NBC’s coverage of the poll and its constant comparisons between the Conservatives and the Republicans.

Finally Michael Foot was put in front of a BBC camera, although as Vincent Hanna warned, “Mr Foot does not want to talk about the campaign but the events in Northern Ireland have compelled him to say something about something else”, and indeed Foot was able to speak, unchallenged, into the camera about his dismay at Gerry Fitt losing his Belfast West seat to Gerry Adams, after which he was thanked for appearing – an approach more suited to ’50s rather than ’80s elections.

Proceedings closed just before 4pm with the time-honoured Little Something The Backroom Boys Have Put Together, that being a musical montage of the night’s highlights backed with appropriate tunes – Tony Benn losing his seat to Hello Goodbye, Supertramp’s Dreamer accompanying shots of Michael Foot and Dr Kiss Kiss over a picture of David Owen kissing his wife. David followed it with the words, “I’m sorry about that”, referring, presumably, to his haphazard introduction and not his opinions on the piece.

Professor Ivor Crewe summed up the day’s events by saying it had been a wholly negative election with anyone who’d achieved anything doing so because the voters hated them less than the alternative – a rather sour note to end on. 23 years later, however, the coverage had been nothing but a joy from start to finish, regardless of your political persuasion.


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