9.55pm – Midnight

Ian Jones, Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams on BBC1 and ITV’s 2005 Election Night

First published May 2005

Despite jovial assertions from Sunday afternoon DJs that we’d all heard quite enough politics recently, and claims by The Guardian that viewers were switching off the news bored with campaigning talk, the run-up to the 2005 General Election was perhaps more low key than any in the last decade or so. Although immigration and Iraq loomed large, showpiece arguments were conspicuous by their absence. The main question preoccupying those in the know was whether anyone would actually get out there and vote. As such, when it came to covering the big night itself, neither ITV1 nor BBC1 had a surfeit of obvious stories to develop. Instead it was the unravelling situation itself which would provide the majority of the talking-points. So who made the most of this comparatively open brief? Once more unto the breach, OTT braved a whole night of election coverage on both channels to find out.


After kicking off in 2001 with a bravely forgettable title sequence matching topical images to a dull tune, this time the BBC wisely decide to play one of its strongest hands in the opening 30 seconds. Following a brief word from David Dimbleby in full master-of-ceremonies flow – “The voting’s almost done, the excitement of election night is about to begin!” – we get a real treat: the return of the Beeb’s “classic” election theme, first used in 1979, and now given a unashamedly electro-rock overhaul by its esteemed author Rick Wakeman. It accompanies some smashing images of an aerial swoop over London at dusk, descending to alight upon – where else? – Television Centre itself. It’s a fantastic start, self-consciously setting the scene for what everyone’s expecting to be a dramatic night ahead, and echoed in David’s bustling mission statement: “We promise to be first, we promise to be accurate, and we promise to have some fun.”

Inside the obligatory gargantuan studio, David holds court at a raised circular table slap bang in the middle of the floor. It’s a rather regal affair, with the rest of the team all stationed at quasi-respectful distances from this central hub, meaning he’s going to be doing a lot of shouting as the evening wears on. On the opposite side of the table, however, are “the best in the business” – as ever, Professor Tony King and Andrew Marr. No extraneous “third” regular this time, though; the statisticians on this occasion are hidden away behind the scenes, leaving Tony and Andrew more room (in all senses) to kick back and commentate. Jeremy Paxman is off to one side in a cosy cubby-hole decked out like a chat show set. David calls it a “bullring”. “I was thinking of it more as a salon,” Jeremy responds waspishly.

Everybody is surrounded by giant screens and huge “windows” relaying live footage of a surprisingly busy Shepherd’s Bush. A profusion of coloured lights and glowing panels give the entire studio the air of a variety palace. The crowning glory, though, is the fact it’s on two levels, akin to some of the BBC’s election programmes of old. Up in the dress circle is Fiona Bruce, somewhat relegated from her “coffee shop” hostess role of 2001, this time stuck behind a desk reading out occasional news bulletins.

But she’s completely upstaged by Peter Snow, who has an entire gantry of gadgets at his disposal, and makes his entrance by emerging, brilliantly, from behind the door of a virtual 10 Downing Street. “Evening officer,” he greets a real-life copper standing guard. “Evening sir,” comes the reply. Peter promises to push “the frontiers of technology right to their extreme,” and makes good on his word by welcoming to his simulated Downing Street three similarly-simulated party leaders, lined up at the far end itching to start striding towards number 10. “Hang on Mr Blair!” he chides a fidgeting putative Prime Minister, “wait for the results!” Peter’s already delivered the goods and it’s still not even 10pm.


On ITV1 the continuity announcer promises us: “some surprises along the way” as if we are about to watch Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. However almost immediately it becomes obvious that there will – in actual fact – be very few surprises at all, at least in terms of ITV’s presentation. Jonathan Dimbleby presides as before, and there are the superfluous OB strands (this time Katie Derham and Mark Austin hosting an “exclusive” party at the London Eye and Nicholas Owen attempting to get to the “key battlegrounds” by chopper) as well as the drawn out (pardon the pun) bit of whimsy, in this case Gerald Scarfe knocking out a few instant cartoons along the way, and Mary Nightingale not doing very much: this time she is confined to the news gallery, which is described as the “engine room” of ITV’s operation.

Mind you, not everything is the same; there is no hang-dog John Sergeant to offer his entertaining and often gossipy insights of life in the palace of Westminster; and Dermot Murnaghan has gone too – taken the Corporation shilling – leaving Alastair Stewart to introduce ITV1′s “best ever” graphics whilst looking supremely camp and smug, superimposed in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, Jonathan wraps up the introduction by solemnly all-but echoing his brother’s words: “Our promise – we will be first with results. First, fastest, best. Don’t miss a moment”.

With the arrival of the hour on BBC1 come details of the exit poll, shared with ITV1 and gathered, says David, “at huge expense”. Before its contents are even announced, Tony’s already warning us to “remember 1992″ when it erroneously predicted a hung parliament instead of the actual Tory win. Yet this will become one theme of the night, with politicians from all sides routinely rubbishing the poll and its projected Labour majority of 66 – although it will ultimately provide David with the last laugh. For the moment, Andrew, sporting a studiously non-partisan multi-coloured tie, expects the poll will make for “gnashing of teeth and a lot of turbulence” at Labour HQ. Peter in his trademark orange shirt illustrates its forecast by nonchalantly sauntering through a virtual House of Commons, accompanied by cheers from its “MPs”.

ITV1 also leads with the poll, confirming that is predicts Labour will win 356 seats, Tories 209 and the Lib Dems 53. With the absence of Sergeant, it is left to Nick Robinson (with his media glasses and carefully selected tie) – “a man at the very top of his game,” suggests Jonathan – to offer us tonight’s insight. However he isn’t given much time to comment, as the host is keen to hand over to Alastair Stewart and his “amazing box of tricks and gizmos”.

Here we get our first look at the Gerald Scarfe swingometer (which basically shows Blair and Howard caught in a tug of war). The usually sober Alastair has obviously been told to act a little eccentric, and so we get a load of over-elaborate hand gestures and vocal intonations, which are rather distracting. The House of Commons graphic though, is rather nice as it features computer MPs shuffling in their seats.

Then it’s time to check in with another stalwart from 2001, Professor Colin Rallings (“As good as they are in the business”). Still banished from the main studio, Colin is situated in the atrium. He proved to be an insightful, if underused figure last time out. Hopefully he will get more of a look in this time.

On both channels, Sunderland South is, as ever, jostling to be the first constituency to declare, and for the BBC, Philippa Thomas is counting the ballot boxes in. “There goes another one,” she announces as a receptacle goes by. The result isn’t due until 10.40pm, however, which means there’s time to kill. John Prescott swims into view from Hull. “Have you got any news?” David asks a bit limply. “There is going to be a Labour government, there’s no doubt about that,” the Deputy PM replies with a surprising degree of confidence. David speculates cheekily on John’s role in the Blair-Brown relationship. “I only serve the meals,” John quips, and everyone falls about. Liam Fox suggests we should “all take it easy for the next few hours.” Refusing to twiddle his thumbs, Jeremy chairs his first discussion in the salon between Lord Falconer, Ann Widdicombe, Shirley Williams and Ian Hislop. All ignore Liam Fox’s advice and proceed to squabble noisily over the exit poll.

The lull allows ITV1 to cut to its first interview of the night, which coincidentally is also with Liam Fox – a man so pleased with the tone he is adopting during this encounter (one of humility), that his evident self-satisfaction at his achievement undermines it completely.

Then: “Let’s find out what the great cartoonist Gerald Scarfe has made of the night so far,” bellows Jonathan. Well not much, one would have thought given the programme has only been on for 10 minutes. But, before we get to that, there is a superfluous feature on the cartoonist’s career to date. His presence in the studio is rather reminiscent of those occasions when Tony Hart would pop in to Going Live and present Phillip and Sarah with an amusing illustration based on what had happened during the course of the show. Dimbleby wants to know if Scarfe will shock or amuse us – meaning he’d better do one or the other.

Over on the bank of the Thames, Mark Austin tells us they are expecting around 350 guests including “of course celebrities”. Then there is a boring bit where he shows off the various coloured champagne cocktails that have been created to represent each of the main political parties. “And if you’re a Green supporter, well we can probably knock you up a crème de menthe.” Katie Derham’s first guests in her “political pod” are Richard Wilson and Honor Blackman. The sound in the Millennium Eye is very echoey and detracts greatly from the chat. Meanwhile Joan Collins reveals to Mark that Kilroy tricked her into coming along to the UKIP press call and Clive Anderson chips in to accurately point out this is going to be an all-loser’s election.

Mercifully, the feed to the party breaks up, and Jonathan handles the technical difficulties with ease. Nick Robinson introduces his “toy” the Election Visualiser, or ELVIS. This seems to show a map of the United Kingdom, whereon each constituency is represented by a block. Apparently, the height of the block is the size of the majority there and the width is the scale. But it is all too confusing and doesn’t really tell us a great deal. Still, it’s ITV’s latest gimmick, so we can expect to see a lot more of it throughout the night.

Finally, after all the humph, we get the channel’s first obligatory shots of the counts going on at the various leaders’ constituencies as the end of the first half-hour beckons.

Back on BBC1, time ticks by and even though the traffic lights have been rigged in Sunderland, there’s still no news of the result. “When are you going to declare?” Phillippa hassles the returning officer. “When it’s done,” comes the answer. “Proper North-Easterly caution,” muses David for want of anything better to say. He cues in Fiona for the first update of news “apart from the election,” except the lead story is the election and nothing but. Fiona’s contribution recalls those of Angela Rippon in the Beeb’s 1979 results coverage: sporadic and superfluous functions that don’t do the practitioners any favours. David then plugs the BBC’s interactive service with similarly ineffectual enthusiasm.

A tour of the country reveals a phalanx of Beeb reporters and newsreaders stationed at dozens of counts. Once more there’s the slightly incongruous sight of seeing hitherto unknowns side-by-side with high-profile, names back on the beat. Anna Ford is in Putney, a slightly more interesting posting than Henley in 2001, though perhaps suggestive of some clause she’s signed insisting she never has to travel outside Greater London. David distractedly reminds us of the incumbent MP: “Tony Coleman has held it, the creator of Top Shop …Top Shop.” Kirsty Wark is in Folkestone with the luxury of three TV cameras to talk to, allowing her to promenade imperially right around Michael Howard’s count before tripping over her assertion that the Liberal Democrats have “not a cat’s chance” of taking the seat. Martha Kearney meanwhile is outside Tony Blair’s house in Sedgefield, assailed by the wind and wayward grammar: the PM has been holed up inside “taking calls all round the country”. Reeta Chakrabati is in Fort William, speculating on how “baby Donald’s feeding time” will affect when Charles Kennedy emerges.

At least there’s the likelihood of these faces turning up many more times later in the night. Most of the other reporters, such as Jon Sopel in Birmingham, Richard Bilton in Barnsley (“There’s only one declaration so far – that a Volvo was blocking the entrance keeping some of the boxes out!”), Gavin Esler “down in the boiler room” in Guildford and Kate Silverton in Torbay, show up just once or twice and that’s it. Still, it’s nice of them to bother, especially as Sunderland are still dragging their heels.


Back on ITV1, Mary Nightingale is imploring viewers to: “Join me at the hub of tonight’s programme,” before leading in to a news round-up that largely consists of everything we’ve seen over the last half-hour. When we’re reunited with Jonathan he takes time out to hype up the fact Maggie Thatcher is going to be appearing at their election party. Then it is over to Nick Owen in his helicopter claiming he is going to move fast to get all the night’s stories. “Nick Robinson talked about drama, well it starts here!” he bellows at Sunderland South.

Alastair and his “amazing graphics” gives us an overview of turnout and Jonathan twice stumbles over the words “head quarters”, before everything slows down to a crawl whilst ITV1 also doggedly wait for that first result.

At Television Centre, Peter Snow also calls up more of his armoury. The “Three Party Battleground” resembles a trio of huge cheese wedges, slotted together to make a circle across which range the multiple battlefronts between the various political parties. Each is decorated by tiny figurines representing individual MPs, which then fly through the air to take their place on – yes – the swingometer. Or rather, three swingometers, replete with their own sound effects of creaking pistons and machinery. “There they go,” Peter yells on cue.

Elsewhere Natasha Kaplinsky is behind the scenes with the BBC results staff. “A lot of coffee is going to be drunk here,” she chuckles, walking behind some scaffolding, before promptly informing us she’s not hanging around but that there’s “a party at the BBC. I’m going there” – an invitation she singularly fails to extend to any of her colleagues.

And then, to the relief of both channels, Sunderland South declares. For ITV1, Colin Rallings observes from his banishment that it is a surprise the swing has gone to the Tories and not Lib Dem, and Jonathan runs through the graphics that will appear on screen throughout the programme, commenting that sometimes they will show the results before they are officially announced. Back at Sunderland South, Nick Owen lets us know he’s on a tight schedule: “Talk to you later!”

On the Beeb, Chris Mullin, the sitting Labour MP, gets his familiar once-every-four-years moment in the national spotlight, while his reduced majority and accompanying swing to the Tories, again, gives much food for thought. Tony King reckons “the Labour poll must be flaky, and it looks like it’s just flaked,” prompting David to mutter something about Clare Short wanting to become Deputy Leader.

However, after this burst of frenetic non-activity, things quickly lapse resoundingly back into the non-hectic variety. Up in Gateshead, Sian Williams is entertaining a reassuringly indulgent piece of whimsy: a colossal map of the UK on a sheet of cloth, its blank constituencies waiting to be filled in with spray paint by teams of students. This looks like great fun, and a much better way of injecting something light-hearted into proceedings than 2001′s coffee shop. “We have a bit of public art going on,” Sian teases, while cohort Robert Hall works the crowd. “Are we up to the task?” Everyone bellows their affirmation.

Back in London David idly reflects on how, “there are so many seats in Birmingham I don’t know how they don’t get them all confused.” Newsround host Lizo Mzimba peeks out from a big suit in Houghton, while Rageh Omah, who David seems particularly pleased to see (“Thanks for joining us”) is in Bethnal Green and Bow predicting, rather inelegantly, “a slugfest”. But there are still no more declarations, and Andrew is recycling “rumour and reportage” he’s being fed by unnamed contacts. An admirably titanic results graphic projected onto the front of Television Centre itself reminds anyone, in case they’d forgotten, the score remains Labour: 1, everybody else: 0.

While this is going on, a smug Edwina Currie is quaffing free drink at the ITV party on the Thames, claiming Blair is going to get a bloody nose. She opines that the glitterati were squeamish about some of the things the Tory campaign had to say, but Mark Austin is more interested in why Alistair McGowan doesn’t really do politicians. He then asks him what Tony Blair will be thinking, but Alistair is in a serious mood and won’t really play ball. Never mind, there is more frippery from Gerald Scarfe, who shows off a cartoon of Blair disguised as, first, Bambi and then a USA poodle.

Then, just before we go to a commercial break (the first one ever post-10pm on ITV1 during election night?), Jonathan promises us Michael Portillo is going to tell us what it feels like to lose.


In 2001 Peter Snow famously furnished his gadgetry with a movable staircase; this time round he’s gone one better by deploying a virtual one – which, moreover, he can actually climb! This logic-defying acquisition enables him to clamber up close to his swingometers, before shimmying down to another virtual creation, a giant map of Britain, being careful to “avoid standing on the 80 critical red figures!” His inferences prompt Tony King to note: “we should bear in mind that Labour are going to win the General Election,” a calm rejoinder to the speculation still being piled onto just one result.

With yet more time to fill, Natasha Kaplinsky is discovered arriving at her BBC party. Curiously there are no celebrities present, indeed nobody recognisable at all, except for – “it’s the Prime Minister!” Jon Culshaw, for it is he, wheels out all the usual dismal mannerisms and Natasha does her best to smile politely. It seems to go on forever, and is the first low point of the night, but at least it’s also the first proper excuse to pop out and put the kettle on.

Jeremy, now fully at home in his conversational atrium, catches Ruth Kelly in Bolton muttering, “I’m hoping I’ll be alright”. “Only hoping?” he quickly retorts. Swinging dramatically from his bank of monitors to his guests behind him, he’s then greeted by Shirley Williams announcing, “I’ve got another wobble – I think we’re about to win Cardiff Central.” “How do you know that?” Jeremy cries incredulously. “Shirley plucked it out of the ether,” David suggests, before lapsing into a reverie about how “when we had exit polls which went wrong Mrs Thatcher always used to blame the BBC.” Perhaps sensing things are unravelling a bit, and with the situation far from a developing situation, the decision is made to take us up to Scotland for Sally Magnusson’s annual address to the rest of the nation. She takes ages talking about the boundary changes, including the observation that the new constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey “sounds like some new kind of ceilidh dance!” In fact she goes on so long she’s interrupted by David for no other reason than to go to Wales where Sian Lloyd begins precisely the same business of reeling off seats, although at least she’s got a guest, Labour’s Alun Michael, with whom to discuss them.

ITV1 plays for time bringing us a link-up to Neil Kinnock in Chicago, whilst in the studio we’ve been joined by Michael Portillo and David Steel. The former points out the projected win will make Blair on aggregate more successful than Margaret Thatcher. Alas, the link with Kinnock goes down before he can even say anything and cheerily Jonathan reminds David Steel of his infamous “prepare for government” speech.

An interview with the Conservative Tim Collins then seems to rile our host as the MP spouts out stats in support of his party, whilst Jonathan goads him to comment on the fact they are still on a run of defeats. “You can’t, can you?” he bellows, and then slags Tim off for wearing a yellow tie into the bargain.

Meanwhile, Maureen Lipman and Germaine Greer are collared by Mark at the ITV party. The reporter is obviously struggling to hear what they are saying over the racket, but we catch Lipman railing that “they” are not telling us the truth about the environment. The actress, a staunch Labour supporter, then claims the media have been ridiculous in the election campaign and have only asked Blair about how many times he does it a night, what his relationship is with Brown, and the war in Iraq. She thinks they haven’t let him talk politics at all. Tony Benn then pops up to say you have to respect Thatcher because at least she did what she said she would do, whilst Clive Anderson thinks Blair got away with the war in Iraq in a manner the Tories couldn’t. He also thinks ITV1 should have used the Millennium Eye as a swingometer. Surprisingly this is not the weakest joke of the evening.

With not a lot yet happening, the channel takes time to reflect on “were you still up for Portillo?” The man himself seems remarkably affable about his beating in 1997 and even allows ITV1 to run a short film about it, in which he revisits the place where the count was announced. In the film he meets up with Stephen Twigg for a chat about that night, and then goes to visit the chap who read out the result, who shows Portillo a copy of the Observer supplement that listed his defeat as the third greatest TV moment ever. In a piece to camera, the former Tory stalwart admits he wanted to defy expectations by being a good loser, but knew he was still Labour enemy number one. The report finishes to Keane’s Everything Changes and Portillo musing that he is having a great life outside politics.

Jonathan: “Michael – back to this extraordinary moment that ‘wasn’t’ a personal tragedy. Come off it!” Portillo says he thinks if he had stayed in, he would have had to stand as leader and the resultant battle would have been very bitter. He then comments that it is much easier to have good relations with people from other parties because you are not competing against them for positions. Scarfe rounds things off with a cartoon of the man being decapitated. The victim laughs heartily at this, but Jonathan is still not convinced he isn’t bitter.

On BBC1, the vagaries of boundary changes are finally punctuated as a second result is declared, and it’s from Sunderland North. “Sunderland just loving being in the spotlight,” Phillippa Thomas booms, just before we leave to never hear from the region again. Tony King warns of “arithmetical hocus-pocus” behind the charge that the reduced Labour majority is down to the Conservatives: it is, in fact, a swing to the Lib Dems, but there’s little time to dwell on this before the result from Houghton; although Lizo Mzimbo’s moment of glory ends up being shared with a drawn-out, silent sequence of Gordon Brown walking very slowly into his declaration.


Alas, on ITV1, the sound from the link-up to Sunderland North goes, and Jonathan is completely thrown. Happily, Steel and Portillo fill in by reminiscing about being in the BBC studio on the night of the 1997 election. Jonathan seems a little uncomfortable at this reverie.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s onscreen scoreboard shows just three results in, but over on ITV there are twice as many. This discrepancy will grow into an alarmingly huge gap over the next couple of hours, but the reason is, as ever, the Beeb refusing to announce a result until it has actually been officially declared, as opposed to being informally confirmed by returning officers. All the same, it does give the impression of not very much going on. Vintage election night programmes could usually boast not just a healthy dose of results, but proper predictions about the outcome by this point in proceedings. Here, in 2005, the BBC has neither.

What it does have is a roustabout of an argument in Jeremy’s salon. Boris Johnson hedges his bets by pronouncing “It’s not a landslide for Tony Blair. It is a wonderful thing …” “This is the most pathetic argument I’ve ever heard,” informs Jeremy to widespread approval. It’s nothing, however, compared to the almighty row which then flares up over postal votes. “No, no, no, no, get the facts right,” shouts Lord Falconer. “Can I have a go?” ventures Shirley Williams, before getting into a slanging match about a Private Members Question she tabled in the House of Lords. “I’ve got the bloody thing in my handbag!” she screams, with Ian Hislop and Boris joining in. “This disgraceful shouting match has got to come to a stop,” laughs Jeremy. “David Dimbleby: raise the tone a bit.” “You’ll have to learn to control these things, Jeremy,” the host replies, like us loving every second of it. “We can’t just have a bunfight!”

The reason for the hold up in results could well be due to the increase in postal votes, which David suddenly decides to slag off as “an extremely expensive waste of money.” Then we’re off round the seats targeted by the Lib Dems for “decimation” as David wrongly describes it, but instead of reducing each seat by one tenth, or indeed removing – as he meant to say – the incumbent MP at all, it seems the Tories are holding on. This is especially true in Howden, where Margaret Gilmore confirms there were to have been two David Davis’s standing until one – the other one – dropped out.

We end up in Islington in the hands of Michael Crick who’s been charged, yet again, with the thankless task of working “The Wine Bar”: that point in every election night where cameras descend on the most inaudible, inelegant and ill-disciplined location imaginable: a noisy hostelry. He does reasonably well to canvas opinion, apart from an encounter with one tight-lipped voter – “I’m not telling, as far as I’m concerned that’s my business” – and generally makes a better hash of it than the person who’s landed this gig in recent years, Daisy Sampson. In fact, this doyenne of electoral sentence-scrambling (“Have these people turned their backs on Tony Blair, and if so who to?“) has yet to make an appearance tonight. Where has she got to?

There’s carousing on the third channel too, as back at the party Tony Robinson quaffs his bubbly, looking every inch the champagne socialist. Meanwhile Nicholas Parson pontificates at great length over the rise of the Lib Dems. Then it’s across to Alastair Stewart and an over-complicated snakes and ladders metaphor to explain what Blair needs to do to win the election.

For the first time on ITV1, Scottish viewers get a regional opt-out. Bernard Ponsonby sits sheepishly whilst he awaits his cue. Phil Miller from Glasgow University is back from last time, and unlike 2001, actually gets an opportunity to speak.

Back in the studio Roy Hattersley now proclaims “I think it is inconceivable that Blair will last a third term.”