Election 2006

Thursday, May 4, 2006 by

“I wouldn’t call them boring,” sniffed David Dimbleby hailing us yet again from his election hearthside, “it’s hard to think of a more fascinating night.” So it would prove, but not quite for the reasons our host was expecting.

Despite having notched up what now must be at least two-dozen such all-nighters, and notwithstanding the forward march of Huw Edwards as the preferred BBC face of national occasions, Election 2006 found David back where you feel he’s happiest: tucked in behind a large pod of polished office furniture, a squad of monitors glimmering before him, a few close friends and acquaintances on either side, and as far as possible from the braying rumpus of Question Time. From which, by a stroke of scheduling fate, David had purported to have just come, uniquely changing location and suit in less than two minutes. Not a bead of sweat nor coherently-constructed sentence was to be seen, though, as the man hunched forward and promised coverage “certainly till dawn, it being midsummer, well nearly, on its way to midsummer, to dawn.”

Unlike the last local elections in 2004, which had seen David triumphantly pitch his tent in the kind of cavernous hangar normally set aside only for general elections, this year we were back in the box room of 2002 and ’03. No shots of supporting cast and crew scurrying around the back, then, nor a sense of the vast machinery of BBC news wielding its might to deliver a fast and furious service – something that would prove a singular oversight later on. Instead we had to make do with the always welcome and ever-present Tony King, along with rookie Nick Robinson who, we were told, would be “updating his blog” all evening despite sitting in the studio and ostensibly holding the government to account as BBC political editor. The requisite trio of MPs were also in attendance, and completing the set, squashed inside what for all we knew could have been an airing cupboard in a whole different country, was “a new member of the gang”: Jeremy Vine.

Not helped by being at one remove from David’s pod, and several removes from his illustrious predecessor, Jeremy just about managed to unpack his travelling chest of statistical graphics and witchcraft with just as much ebullience and erudite amateurism as Peter Snow. But then again, with such delights as transmat beams replete with Mac-sounding “dummmmmmmm” effects conjuring down party leaders from the ceiling, he was never going to do that much wrong. “If I just creep very quietly over here,” he began to whisper, “I think I can just see Sir John Major” – at which point up popped “The Ascent of Tory Man”: successive Conservative leaders rendered as primates in the evolutionary chain. “Apologies if you’re watching Sir John, but 1996 was a knuckle-dragging performance,” Jeremy hammed.

Having gone to such lengths to talk up proceedings and cheerfully advertise how “everybody is on tenterhooks,” David was clearly keen to sell us the significance of the occasion. “So what is the importance of these elections?” he promptly wondered. There was to be a lot of this during the next few hours, as the prospective outcome of the results from the 176 English council ballots defied being framed by any one mutually transferable, comfortably catch-all headline. What’s more, because the really combustible declarations from the London boroughs weren’t expected until well into the night, for an awful long time both the pattern of results and point of the analysis were equally unclear.

To kill time David appealed for viewers to “show us your lovely pictures” via 3G mobile phones. None were forthcoming. Nor indeed were any emails, text messages or comments via the BBC election website. So instead David decided to hand over – and after all these years this viewer really should have guessed it was coming – to, yes, a public house where, yes, once again an inaudible, incoherent outside broadcast was in progress.

At least it wasn’t erstwhile syntax assassin and OTT bĂȘte noir Daisy Sampson working the crowds (“Have these people turned their backs on Tony Blair, and if so who to?”). Instead the task had gone to Emily Maitlis, slightly more coherent than her forerunner but no less prone to being distracted by the vagaries of her thankless environment. This turned out to be The Counting House in the centre of London, where “the only thing they’re counting is the cash behind the bar,” despite the very obvious presence of two specially-invited election analysts who were sat counting votes. Emily cautioned she wasn’t merely concerned with “speculation”, before promptly wondering, “how did these people vote?” A mixture of drinkers, picked for having mixed views, responded with a mixed of opinions. “A mixed picture,” Emily reasoned.

As ever, a more rarefied atmosphere and strain of discussion could be found back in the studio. Well, traces of such. Tony reckoned the Liberal Democrats had been “watering” target seats. Nick Robinson, blithely sporting a blue tie and blue shirt, had his attempt to find out what time Geoff Hoon was going to Downing Street in the morning hampered by technical problems. Jack Straw was apparently “too tired” to hang around the count in Blackburn, while Francis Maude boasted he didn’t know “a single person who isn’t interested in green issues.” Coverage shuttled around the country rather aimlessly, as if searching for a passing trend on which to hop and motor gently towards home. But inevitably all roads led wearily back to The Counting House, where Emily professed to be waiting for stories “to leap up and down” about. “Do come back to us when you can,” she pleaded. “We’ll do our best,” sighed David. Little did he know.

One person determined to have a good time was Jeremy. Blessed with a computerised catalogue shorn of some of the excesses that had started to creep into Peter Snow’s cupboard, his graphics were concise, instantly obvious and dependably agreeable. “Labour’s Reception” illustrated the changing electoral fortunes of Tony Blair’s government through the relative degrees of interference on a giant TV set. A specially commissioned opinion poll compared David Cameron’s appeal with his rivals, though “we can only fit four letters at the bottom of each column, so he’s called Dave,” Jeremy apologised. Meanwhile “Sir Ming’s Baton” wondered whether the new leader would “drop” the inheritance handed to him by Charles Kennedy. Right on cue, a real yellow baton “dropped” out of Jeremy’s screen and rolled onto the studio floor. “Very nice,” remarked David.

Come 1am, the mood changed as Tory gains topped 100 and a procession of Labour MPs began looking in to profess their unified disgust at all the disunity that had been stirred up by the last nine days of newspaper headlines, before going on to suggest a dozen different ways for reuniting everyone. When Nick Brown MP sounded somewhat less than unequivocal as to whether he backed his boss in Downing Street, Nick Robinson thought he had spied “an extraordinary moment”. “Your game is to say there’s a game being played,” snapped Defence Secretary John Reid across the table.

Out in the field things were warming up. Tim Donovan, reporting from the Hammersmith and Fulham count, noted how the council was “the top target at the top end of the Tory’s expectations,” thereby removing any doubt that it was at the bottom end. “Dear oh dear, that’s what we’d call a posed celebration,” sniffed David upon watching scenes of jubilation at Crawley, where it turned out the final ward had been a dead heat and settled by the drawing of lots. Surely this was a somewhat arbitrary way of settling local politics? “There are other options that could be looked into,” the winner disclosed, before failing to mention any of them. Tony King noted there had been another count in St Albans settled by the selection of coloured pencils.

Martin Salter MP swam into view from Reading, seated in front of a backdrop depicting the town in broad daylight. David protested at this incongruity. “It’s taken 20 minutes to get me plugged through to you so let’s go with the backdrop we’ve got,” the MP barked. Temperatures were rising in the studio now, with Simon Hughes sporting a short-sleeved shirt and trying to interrupt all the time (“Don’t barrack me,” snapped David) and Tessa Jowell cautioning our host to be “very careful about what you say” regarding his assertion that Labour ministers were living “high on the hog”. Indeed, by 3am things seemed to be reaching tipping point. Tessa Jowell hurriedly excused herself “off to another channel, albeit within the BBC”, David wondered “does Labour matter to a Labour victory”, Tony began “If I were a Tory, I’d be feeling …”

And then silence. The screen cut to black. No pictures, no sound. Nothing. Agonising seconds passed, before a caption appeared, announcing a technical fault. The horror! When was the last time this happened during an election results programme?! Still nothing happened. The waiting continued. The caption remained. This was maddening beyond belief. What was going on? Was Labour really being wiped out in London, as the results had begun to suggest? Moreover, was that emergency episode of Dad’s Army about to kick in? And just where were David and the gang? Were they all right? What about Jeremy in his box room? He didn’t even have his own chair in there!

Eventually the picture switched to a feed from News 24, before suddenly flipping back to The Counting House where a clearly excited Emily breathlessly revealed there had been a power cut at the BBC Millbank studio and therefore they’d be broadcasting from here for the time being. And so the entire election coverage proceeded to be helmed from a single, solitary table in a London pub amidst bits of paper, empty glasses, large pieces of cardboard (“They’re making it very simple for me,” Emily confided, “the writing couldn’t be bigger”) and an air of methodical panic.

Nobody really had a clue what was going on. “Labour lose Merton,” muttered Emily at one point, “but we don’t who it’s gone to”. Anyone in the vicinity of the table was collared for some emergency vox poppery. It was live TV on an emergency shoestring, the kind of thing that can make a beleaguered presenter’s reputation … were anybody important actually watching, which at 3.30am they most certainly were not.

Finally after almost a whole hour’s absence someone put the plug back in at Millbank and David was back. But even then all his computers weren’t working and none of the results were coming through on screen. “We’ve all been in pitch darkness,” he moaned. The wind had gone out of everyone’s sails, and even though the news, when it arrived, was dramatic – Tory gains now stood at over 200 – the momentum of the night had vanished. Jeremy’s graphics went haywire (“I knew there’d be a moment when this happened – luckily it’s twenty-five past four!”). David referred to pollsters ICM as IBM. There was even time for another visit to the Counting House, only to be greeted with possibly the most uninspiring TV announcement imaginable: “We’re now going to talk to a couple of students, and an orchestral conductor!”

It was sad that what had been shaping up to be an exciting night had been derailed in such an unoriginal manner and for such a desperately long time. By way of some compensation the coverage went on right until 5.30am, by which point the sun could be seen already streaming in through the windows of the town hall in Tower Hamlets. David handled an interview with BNP Nick Griffin with remarkable poise, so much so that Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davy promptly insisted it should be reshown “in prime time”. Nick Robinson revealed he’d been munching some of David’s bananas. “I’m quite interested to know what you’ve been writing on your blog,” David replied. Jeremy totted up the scores and found out that Ming hadn’t dropped his baton, merely fumbled it. “What Peter Snow used to call a little bit of fun,” countered David wryly. An email was read out (“We do love them,” drawled David) informing all and sundry that “the message is: please go away.”

So it was that another election odyssey took its battered, red-eyed leave. “Thank you for staying with us during our darkest patch,” professed David. It would be a shame if this were his last hurrah manning the BBC hustings console; it was hardly the most fitting of farewells, despite his stoical service, a decent performance by the new guard (Nick and Jeremy) and a reliable turn from the old (Tony). Perhaps events will persuade them upstairs to shift proceedings back to Television Centre next time round. It’d mean a change from the hopeless box room. It’d probably encourage David to hang on for a few more years. And it’d go some way to avoid ever again having to contemplate the thought of our faithful team sitting helpless, in complete darkness, unable to deliver news of the state of the nation.


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