Vote 2000

Friday, May 5, 2000 by

There is almost something addictive about waiting for the result of an election on BBC television; a sort of nervous excitement that accompanies staying up late into the night to watch, hoping to find yourself witness to some of the most dramatic and memorable moments of television history.

There were plenty during the 1997 election coverage (Portillo, Lamont, Mellor etc.); and so it was here, with the BBC’s handling of a trio of simultaneous ballots: local elections in 152 separate councils; a parliamentary by-election in Romsey; and the first ever ballot for a directly-elected London Mayor and Greater London Assembly (GLA).

Many conventional rules of television presentation are subverted or simply ignored during election night broadcasts; the manner of delivery, the nature of political dialogue and discourse, the self-reflexive mechanics of production, the often haphazard and jittery technical graphics – all of these are peculiar and specific to election night broadcasting, yet all curiously endearing for the viewer as well. The BBC remains the natural conduit for these rituals; familiar devices such as Peter Snow’s visual effects and swing-o-meters are now part of a tradition of broadcasting, one that is self-consciously played up and celebrated by the Beeb through events like Vote 2000, and one that successfully hooks the viewer into staying up late time and again.

Everyone was present and correct for this year’s tranche of election results. It was going to be a long night – the result of the Mayoral contest not expected until dawn – and David Dimbleby settled down at 11pm for the sort of long haul anchor-man solo performance he has made his own. Seated in a rather functional, drab purple studio set, Dimbleby was flanked on either side of his central desk by a resident team of guests; to his right, a trio of squabbling, jocular MPs: David Blunkett, Menzies Campbell and Michael Ancram, representing Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory camps respectively. To his left, a collection of learned, wry commentators: BBC political editor Robin Oakley, veteran political academic Antony King, and Alison Park from the National Centre for Social Research.

Dimbleby presided over this chorus with his usual brusque patter, while off to one side stood Peter Snow in his shirt sleeves, dwarfed by his hi-tech screen on which he sought to articulate the significance of the night’s events while executing his usual endearing mixture of lucid and inarticulate frenetic ramblings. Sure enough, some inspired Snow trademark graphics included a representation of the Millennium Wheel made to look like the GLA chamber; and most notably a parade of Nelson Column-esque plinths with Mayor candidates perched atop, rising and falling according to varying shares of the vote.

In general, proceedings went smoothly. Dimbleby remained as placid and unruffled as always; subtly orchestrating the flow of coverage, then blatantly stoking up the tension whenever necessary. His jumbled syntax and stuttering – “We’ve had about half-way through the results …” – is part and parcel of this kind of occasion; but a shambolic early outside broadcast link to Torbay was unusually and painfully amateurish, summed up by presenter Kim Catcheside reciting the same phrase blithely into camera four times before realising she was live.

Commentary in the studio was consistently constructive and illuminating; this was peppered with occasional trips nationwide to see what was going on in our region (in this case, a rundown of the situation in north-west England, and a tale of relentlessly mounting Labour defeats); and the obligatory waste-of-time attempt to make politics more interesting by bundling some celebrities (Antony Worrell Thompson, who appeared to be clutching cue cards to remind him what to say) into a ridiculous setting (inside the Wheel) and demanding them to pass judgment on proceedings (Thompson, appearing somewhat emotional, burbled confusingly of “those May Day riots, with Ken and the capitalists …”)

The order of events was unusual for a British election night; to accommodate the expected declaration in the contest for London mayor, live TV coverage was to have continued from 11pm until 2.30am, then link up with News 24 until 5am, when Dimbleby and his cohorts would pick up the baton and continue through Breakfast News until 9am. But though things went to plan initially – with a healthy flow of local council elections right from the start for the panel to comment on – it soon became clear that both the Romsey by-election result and the mayor ballot were delayed – seriously delayed.

Down in Romsey some ballot papers for the council election had been mixed up with the by-election ones; and the tension that was palpable surrounding the climax to this very close race between the Tories and Liberals was almost dissipated. In the event when the verdict did come, well past 3am, the shock outcome was augmented with pointed relief at having finally got a result. The Conservatives surprise defeat and subsequent immediate studio post-mortem provided a much-needed pick-me-up in the energy and excitement of proceedings.

As the same panel of guests slogged on through the night, the discussions became more and more relaxed and offhand (Blunkett: “Can I say something a bit boring?” Dimbleby: “No! Not at this time in the morning.” Campbell: “I’d have brought a bed if I’d known …”) Coverage cut back into the News 24 continuity and would continue to do so through to 5am, returning to update us on the unfailing lack of progress in counting the votes for the London Mayor and Assembly. We were soon offered a dazzling feast of choice blunders to account for the interminable delay in confirming Ken Livingstone’s much-expected victory: a trestle table had collapsed in one ward, jumbling up different sets of ballot papers; worse, dust from the various dirty town halls and amenity centres had got sucked up into some brand new hi-tech ballot counting machines, creating static inside the machinery and causing a music-hall farce style multiple breakdown in the accumulation of results. By 5am, Dimbleby, Snow, and the same coterie of guests (bar Blunkett, who had left to fly to Lisbon, rightly fearing the worst), were now somewhat bedraggled and haggard and wearily informed us that no results from the London elections would be due till at least 8am. This then became 10am, then 11am, then midday …

The official Vote 2000 coverage was scheduled to end at 9am; but with only a couple of GLA results in, and the outcome of the mayor election still not official, what was the Beeb to do? 10 years ago, Dimbleby would have carried resolutely on, with others in tow, right through to 3pm if necessary as he did in 1987 and 1992. Not anymore; nowadays, this is the sort of job for News 24. And so viewers without access to non-terrestrial channels suddenly found themselves bereft of all coverage.

Meanwhile that subscription to News 24 at last came into valuable service, as the channel bravely devoted more or less the whole of its airtime up to 1pm to the GLA and mayor election. So in a cruel twist of fate none of the familiar BBC Election team were present to cover the most crucial and significant moment of the entire proceedings, the declaration of Livingstone’s victory at around 12.15pm. Instead, it was down to a lowly anonymous News 24 presenter, in conjunction with the learned but avuncular News 24 “political editor” Nick Robinson, to usher in this final dénouement – and in doing so, create another moment of TV election history to add to the commemorative canon.


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