Election ’87

Monday, September 5, 2005 by

The BBC’s exit poll from the 1992 General Election always gets slammed as the most inaccurate political prediction TV has ever made. Yet as these eccentrically scheduled yet effortlessly joyous real time reruns from the archive have repeatedly demonstrated, there have been a hell of a lot worse forecasts. In October 1974 the Beeb promised us a Labour majority of 100; it turned out to be three. In June 1970 certainty of a Labour victory was so strong the swingometer didn’t have enough numbers on it to cope with what turned out to be a massive win by the Tories. Mistaking a Conservative majority of 21 for a hung parliament in 1992 seems but a mild misdemeanour next to these psephological maulings.

Thanks to BBC Parliament’s latest vintage presentation, however, there’s a new contender for the crown. “A close run thing, a very exciting evening,” was David Dimbleby’s breathless opening gambit as he set out his stall from a distinctly underwhelming studio set minus all the multi-level gantries, whirring mechanoids and thronging foot soldiers we’re used to on these occasions. But before he’d even given us a chance to get used to this modest MFI ensemble, let alone meet the rest of the team, we were hit with the news that the BBC and Gallup were going for a Tory majority of 26.

This was a big deal: a substantial turnaround for the Government (with a previous majority of 144), and a slap in the face for opinion polls taken throughout the campaign which all pointed to a Conservative landslide. But David was adamant. This was how it was to be. Except “only if that calculation is absolutely right.” Then: “it’s only a guide, no substitute.” And then: “there is a margin of error, 2% either way.” It turned out this meant the actual Tory majority could by anywhere between 86 and minus 17. “It is going to be between those two points,” David pleaded. But it was no good. Even Peter Snow’s spinning CGI House of Commons couldn’t mask such a shameless hedging of bets. In less than two minutes the once-triumphant poll had been deliberated, dismissed and dumped. “Is it worth it?” David wondered meekly.

But if confidence had ebbed from the studio, exuberance certainly had not. In “glorious Technicolor” Peter unfurled his Election Battleground, a crisp, shimmering mural of graphics which, brilliantly, he had to operate using some fiddly, cumbersome buttons on the wall. It was an immediately eye-catching display, in telling contrast to the bulk of his recent toys which have become steadily less obvious and more flamboyant. Here we saw all the information in slick tables, colourful graphs and straightforward maps: the Beeb’s first, very tentative step into big screen election electronica, but in retrospect an unfussy, sensibly exciting shop window.

Also present was another face, still very much part of present day election programmes, Tony King, plus the then BBC political editor John Cole and, perched right on the end of the row in semi-splendid isolation, Sir Robin Day. Opening what would be his last election for the Beeb by trotting out his usual selfless introduction – “I am but a humble spear-carrier” – he proceeded to be completely confused by the number of monitors surrounding him. “I thought you were going to be behind me,” he babbled to Labour’s Jack Cunningham, “but you’re in front of me. Even better.”

This would be as close as we’d get to that sense, so familiar to these events, of things forever balancing on the edge of collective confusion and technological subsidence. As it was, with the entire production staff hidden from view behind the scenery, there was very little bustle and tension in the air. Indeed, an atmosphere of eerie calm pervaded the entire programme, even infecting the various political guests who exercised singularly less sound and fury than on previous occasions. Perhaps this was to do with the perceived inevitability of the outcome. Perhaps everyone was just exhausted from what many testified to being a very gruelling and bad-tempered campaign.

Still, that familiar awkward opening hour when not much happens passed fairly quickly, thanks chiefly to loads of zipping around the country giving an impression of a lot happening when in reality it was nothing of the sort. David Steel was in his conservatory in Ettrickbridge watching himself on television. “He’s not throwing in the sponge,” David observed. John Smith was down the line from Scotland explaining how exit polls “keeps programmes like this going and allows us to have interesting conversations.” Philip Hayton, meanwhile, was in Cheltenham with a room full of “fast fingers”, Margaret Gilmore had “the best counters in Devon” in Torbay, and Wesley Kerr looked in from Pendle in front of a branch of Supercigs.

Martyn Lewis read the news, including the result of the Newsround Extra election: a hung parliament. Given the kids had rustled up a verdict in 1983 remarkably similar to the real one, Martyn wondered if they’d do it again now. “They may get it righter than we will,” muttered David. “Heaven help us if we’re wrong!” “This is going to be a bit of fun,” cried Peter as he explained why the forecasts still offered a Tory majority of 26. “Fasten your seatbelts!” Finally we landed in Piccadilly Circus – not Trafalgar Square this time – where David promised us Esther Rantzen. Instead Gavin Campbell loomed into view in a three-piece suit, hailing us from “the dress circle to the bearpit”. Of all the hundreds milling about, he inevitably ended up talking to the most unforthcoming of characters, including two old Americans over on a visit and, as is dictated by election outside broadcast law, an inarticulate student.

At precisely 11pm the first result arrived from Torbay, a change from those perennial frontrunners of the 1960s and ’70s (Guildford, Cheltenham) and what we’re used to nowadays (Sunderland). The huge floral display bedecking the declaration platform could not distract from the fact the figures now suggested anything but a Tory majority of 26, let alone a hung parliament. Sure enough, we saw Peter instantly at work at his computer, furiously bashing at the keys to issue a revised forecast of 46. So began a pattern for the night as every half hour or so a further enlarged majority replaced the last and all thoughts of the exit poll were pushed further and further out of our minds. It was striking how nobody in the studio for a moment doubted the result – a Conservative Government – while those out on the constituency beat, even Tory politicians, refused to concede the obvious until well into the night. While David was brandishing a copy of the Sun – “MAGGIE THE THIRD” – and John Cole was reflecting on how one Tory MP was relaxing with his “feet in a mustard bath”, Labour’s Bryan Gould thought it much too early to comment and Mrs Thatcher herself, bumping into John Simpson on the steps outside her Finchley count, was only “cautiously optimistic”.

The Guildford and Basildon results confirmed the trend (the forecast majority now up to 58). “We have to eat all our words,” ruminated David, before pausing to acknowledge, “Mrs Thatcher is Mrs Thatcher”. At Cheltenham all the candidates had their backs to the camera, as if in a multilateral decision to divert attention to the giant hoardings above their heads: GARDEN TOWN OF ENGLAND. Indeed, as more declarations arrived a roster of slogans passed before our eyes, including Basildon’s tantalising IT’S COMING!, ARMADA 400 at Plymouth, and the thunderous WREXHAM: INDUSTRIAL MECCA OF THE NORTH. David disapproved of these “American” devices, and would spend some time the following morning moaning charmlessly about how the election had become too packaged and stylised, but along with Supercigs and a Holyhead shop front reading WEIGH TO SAVE!, these were the most evocative symbols of the entire broadcast.

Faces of the future jostled with those of the not-too-distant past. Paddy Ashdown in Yeovil shared details of some “TVS polls”. Peter Bottomley, “Minister of Roads”, jawed with Robin about landslides (forecast: 76). We saw Larry Adler and John Williams playing a desultory tune at Labour’s HQ, John Stapleton in huge Su Pollard-sized glasses talking to Ken Livingstone, David Blunkett with a black eye (“A door hit me”), and Esther – at last! – in Piccadilly Circus interviewing a woman wearing a Thatcher mask.

There were also glimpses of BBC stalwarts of yesteryear: Vincent Hanna looking battered at Neil Kinnock’s count in Islwyn; a dapper David Davis struggling to speak to David Owen in Plymouth; Adam Raphael hearing the “fizz going out” at Labour’s HQ; Hugh Scully giggling with Ted Heath; and Fred Emery, David Lomax and Michael Cockerill representing the real old guard. With such a multitude spread over such a disparate array of locations, it has to be said the technical quality of the programme was near-faultless, making for the smoothest and most accomplished of all the election repeats BBC Parliament have provided so far (including Election 97).

“I’m in the middle of eating a Mars bar,” choked David just after 1am, ensuring at least one moment of indiscipline would pass into the annals. “Let’s go to Sheffield Brightside while I swallow it.” The result from Anglesey prompted Peter to recite the longest station name in Britain (“Llanfairpwyllgwyngwll …”), John lamented “a more divided Kingdom”, Robin observed that John Prescott “looked a bit wilted” and the forecast reached 94 (“A cracking majority”, according to David). The speed at which the declarations now toppled in was another marked difference to other archive efforts. Within a couple of hours around 400 had arrived, giving proceedings a great momentum and a cracking pace – except when Robin decided to indulge himself, of course, in another particularly wry and lugubrious exchange. Ted Heath: “I’m not bothered about you! I’m still sitting in my chair.” Robin: “Yes, I know that! Where were we? You’re looking very fit.” Ted: “I’ll see you again on Monday.”

It was somewhat bad timing that when the Tories notched up 326 seats – and therefore an overall majority – the BBC’s cameras were in the middle of Ken Livingstone’s victory speech. The news flashed up on the giant display in Piccadilly Circus. “The word ‘MAIDEN’ at the top of that screen is quite irrelevant,” drawled David with reference to the advertiser’s name, while down below Esther had vanished leaving Gavin “in the drizzle” to deal with two inconsolable Labour supporters. “A couple of differing views there,” he concluded, wrongly. A mood of inquiry was already underway in the studio, with guest after guest banging on about the North-South divide, two nations, “loony Leftism” and defence policy. Even the experts advanced pointedly partisan analysis, John as good as predicting that Labour were “never going to win” and Tony declaring, not for the last time, that the Tories were set to rule “into the next millennium”. “If you’ve just happened to come in,” began David at 2.50am, the forecast was now a majority of 104.

Coverage continued until 4am, self-consciously winding down in a manner befitting one of the few elections in the last 50 years where the result was done and dusted before the sun rose. This meant more time for Robin to indulge in expansive debates (referred to as “Talks” in the credits) and unintentional pops at David, at one point referring to him as “Richard … I’m sorry, it’s back to 1964!” David returned the favour as he was signing off, observing that the great behemoth, slumped in his chair, was “already sound asleep.” “I’m not asleep, I’m not asleep,” barked Robin, “I’m just waiting until you finish rabbitting on.” There was just room for a look in at Tory central office – “gay scenes, or perhaps I should say lively scenes” noted David, anxiously – and the city of London, which had apparently been “open all night”. Peter recounted the events of one last time in succinct and effective fashion (“I think you’re going to be lonely without that battleground,” cooed David) before we got a long list of credits and another airing for Rick Wakeman’s majestic choral-enhanced theme.

Jumping forward to 9am the following morning, we found David sporting exactly the same suit, shirt and polka dot tie as before, which just seemed lazy. Peter had changed, sensibly, into a more relaxed, light-coloured affair, but Robin had opted for a dreadfully tatty khaki outfit, which looked hopelessly inappropriate later on when he was interviewing Mrs Thatcher inside Downing Street. 55 results were still to come, but there was the predictably long wait before anything happened, making for a lot of waffle and waxing lyrical. Fortunately help was at hand courtesy of a special airship the BBC had chartered for no reason whatsoever and which was transmitting “spectacular views” over London. David was so taken by this blimp he kept cutting to it relentlessly, as if not just presenting but directing the programme in person, at one point announcing “Let’s leave Northern Ireland for a moment and go up into our airship … that’s a beautiful view … trees green …”

Caught up in a romantic reverie, he promised we’d be talking to “our allies in Germany”. Instead we learned from Vincent Hanna of how Neil Kinnock had spent much of the morning “watching Breakfast Time“, glimpsed David Steel in a bright yellow Alliance-embossed sweater, saw Jeremy Paxman take temporary residency of Robin’s booth while he went off to Downing Street, and witnessed Julia Somerville conduct an interview with Norman St John Stevas with her hands in her jacket pockets the whole time. “God is a Conservative,” observed Norman. “God is not a man who believes in proportional representation,” replied Julia, pointlessly.

News updates popped up every hour from Moira Stuart, though these were cut out of this re-run, while Professor Ivor Crewe alternated shifts with Tony King to continually pick over the results. Time did drag between the big set pieces, and proceedings never really recovered any momentum. All the same it was entertaining watching the rigmarole of the aftermath, including a Clive James-esque link up with a “commentator” in Moscow whose earpiece didn’t work, Guy Michelmore with a load of businessmen at the Austin Rover plant in Birmingham, Steve Bradshaw doing vox pops in Grantham (“What’re we talking about?” snapped an old woman before walking off), and shots of Tom King MP being carried in a chair through the streets of Bridgwater.

Asked by Robin Day to speculate on whether she’d still be PM in 2000, Mrs Thatcher replied she could well be “twanging a harp” by then, which prompted David to remark on how at least she was “absolutely convinced she’s going to heaven one day!” to huge laughter from the rest of the studio. When Robin arrived back the japery continued, David pretending not to notice he’d returned because “normally we can tell when you’re here as there’s a great noise going on.” “Do keep quiet for a moment,” hissed Robin. It’s this incidental, throwaway business that counts for just as much as all the melodrama and hyperbole in BBC election results programmes, and here as ever we weren’t disappointed.

By the time 4pm came round and the end was in sight, it’d been many hours since anybody had even alluded to that original exit poll. It really was spectacularly inaccurate, the final Tory majority of 102 not even falling within what had been essayed a distinctly generous margin of error. Instead, people were more preoccupied with having the last word, invariably a convoluted or meaningless one, or in David’s case taking a final ride “on our magic carpet … there are the buildings of the city of London … some of them graceful, some of them not … where the yuppies live.” After 13 hours of broadcasting, he was happy to be soaring far above the murmur and the mêleé, even though, as Peter poetically observed at his Battleground, “the smoke has cleared.”

Every General Election gets dressed up as a “moment of history”, but Election ’87, with its heady brew of old names and faces, and new styles and techniques, was a true moment of television history. Seeing it again 18 years on, those feelings were no less strong and just as irresistible.


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