Norman Tebbit on a microscooter, what was I thinking?
A few years ago, I sat on a fairly uncomfortable futon and watched a 10-hour, real time broadcast of the 1970 Election night programme on the BBC Parliament Channel.
Let's just get one thing clear. I would never normally watch the Parliament Channel for pleasure. And I'm not generally disposed to watch anything that lasts 10 hours (a laudable trait, I later discovered, when I developed a life-threatening DVT in my leg very shortly afterwards watching the bloody Lord of the Rings trilogy, which incidentally I thought was shite).
No, what happened was that one afternoon I was flicking idly through the channels. Eschewing Dogs With Jobs and other such monuments to the intellectual greatness of modern programme makers, I caught a glimpse of the late Robin Day laughing uproariously, flicked back to Parliament out of mild curiosity and ended up hooked.
Watching this ancient televisual marathon did become something of a pointless test of endurance (I'm a bit perverse that way), but it was also genuinely interesting as an indicator of the huge cultural, political and technological changes that have since come to pass.
Apart from anything else, it was a great reminder of the days when there were only three channels and televisions came in brown boxes of Austin Allegro-esque dimensions, with chunky push buttons the size of melba toasts.
As I watched, I wrote a feature about what was unfolding. I had just gone freelance and would have written 5,000 words about a trip to Halfords if I thought I could have sold it. I never did pitch it though. No-one would want to run a feature about a programme their readers couldn't watch. Looking back, I would have written it differently too.
I waited for BBC Parliament to re-run the programme again (they re-run election specials during the summer recesses) so I could sell my feature in advance of transmission, but the bastards kept moving on through the years. I could have done a similar number on the '79 election, but things had moved on slightly by then. It was a bit slicker and seemed less interesting and alien than 1970.
Anyway, the feature has been sitting on my laptop for five years, and I thought I might as well stick it on here.
One thing that has changed since I wrote it is that I no longer think Britain is a 'sleekly-run' operation, as I did then. Maybe in 2003 I was naive, overly optimistic, or simply insane having spent 10 hours in front of the telly watching men in man-made fibres talking about recounts in long-deceased constituencies.
So here it is. Take yourself back to a time when politicians were more likely than not to go dramatically off message, when 'newsmen' got tanked up before they went on air, and when those awkward buggers The People delivered the biggest shock of modern political times in the UK. Excepting Election 2010, that is.
FOR one day last month, a few thousand daytime TV viewers were offered a glimpse of the Britain of 33 years ago that was by turns fascinating, funny, poignant and exciting. Unlikely as it seems, this nostalgia-fest aired in the tumbleweed-strewn environs of BBC Parliament. The programme was Election 70, repeated in its 14-hour entirety. I came across it by accident and started watching out of curiosity. Ten hours later I was still there, absorbed by the social, political and technological curiosities on show.
The General Election of 18 June, 1970 was a dramatic night, even by political standards. Despite a brilliant campaign, Labour lost spectacularly to Ted Heath's Conservatives, in defiance of just about every pre-election prediction.
The devaluation of the pound in 1967 and the failure to tackle industrial strife had damaged Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s stock, but the economy was on the up, Wilson had restored some of the popularity that had ebbed away, and no-one at No 10 was calling removal companies for quotes. Only a true-blue Tory would have staked money on the personality-free Heath.
[2010 note: in the intervening seven years I have read quite a bit about Heath. He was actually a very interesting man. Christ. This might just be the least read interjection in the history of the internet. As you were.]
The swinging Sixties were over - the Beatles had split up two months earlier – and the swingometer had yet to be invented. The word spin was used only in the context of top-loading washing machines, hair was collar length unless one had dropped out and Tory MPs were generally double-barrelled. Political hot potatoes of the day were the economy, the unions, immigration, declining industry, Vietnam and Europe. England had been booted out of the World Cup just four days previously by West Germany, of all teams. Welcome to the world of Election 70.
Viewing Election 70 from the safety of 2003 makes present day Britain seem like a sleekly-run, if somehow less fun, affair [2010 note: as opposed to the badly-run, less fun affair it is now...].
The programme acts as a kind of microcosm of UK life and illustrates the many ways life in this country has changed over the decades. Top table politicians of the day like Jim Callaghan, caught up in the excitement of the night, are far less guarded and controlled than their modern counterparts are. Presenters are more spontaneous and enthusiastic, not to mention suspiciously rosy-cheeked, than would now be deemed appropriate. There is nary a mockney in sight. Regional accents are confined to the regions.
No-one on the studio floor could have foreseen the chaos that the new decade would descend into. But the sense of excitement fair crackles down through the years as the declarations come in and Labour’s hold on power looks increasingly shonky – “Results are literally bursting on to the screen!” exclaims anchorman Cliff Michelmore.
Without the benefit of computers and email the main London studio is frenetic, with an army of bespectacled women – everyone seems to be wearing glasses – racing to and fro in the background with pieces of paper containing vote results and other news clasped in their hands.
The broadcasting media was more sophisticated than ever before in 1970, enabling the Beeb to mount a massive operation, combining constantly-breaking results, studio interviews and outside broadcasts from across the country. However there are many unintentionally funny (and exciting) moments caused by the bleeding edge technology that would now be regarded as hopelessly clunky.
Results wobble across the screen in an early form of the excitement-inducing teleprinter style familiar to fans of Grandstand. Pictures change for no logical reason, as if a BBC engineer sitting in an OB van has knocked the wrong button reaching for the digestives. Transmissions from the main studio are in colour, but almost everything from the regions is black and white, as if to differentiate dandyish London from the drab, grimy provinces. The only benefit of this is to spare viewers then and now the full horror of the psychedelic monstrosity of a necktie sported by a young John Humphrys in the Manchester studio.
Chaos reigns. At one point, Michelmore tees up a live report from Hugh Cochrane in Glasgow, jokingly accusing him of having a bottle of whisky under the desk. Up flashes a bemused looking Hugh, an earnest man in a tweed jacket. He starts to deliver the result for Glasgow Gorbals. Unsure of whether he's on air, he looks up at the ceiling (or heavenwards) and searches desperately around him for some indication of whether or not anyone can see or hear him.
The picture cuts unexpectedly back to Cliff in London, then immediately bounces back to Hugh who, manfully, starts again. Before we get a chance to hear what he has to say the picture cuts to the backs of some people who are sitting on a wall in Huyton, Liverpool, waiting for Harold Wilson. If Hugh hadn’t been sipping Famous Grouse under his desk before, he presumably was by this point thinking about it.
Later, Michelmore interrupts one of his colleagues – as he does more or less every time anyone else attempts to say something – to bring in another declaration. The picture switches to Hamilton in Strathclyde, but the sound remains in London. The viewer is thus treated to a brief snippet of argy-bargy between the Election 70 kingpin and his interrupted sidekick: “If you’d just let me finish my sentence!” the colleague hisses at the Mich. No doubt they indulged in a bout of boozed-up Greco-Roman wrestling after the show.
Desmond Wilcox has been dispatched to Trafalgar Square to talk to some young people (18-year-olds had the vote for the first time). He soberly informs us of trouble between Labour and Conservative supporters. Apparently, in a shocking moment of political violence, some Labour fans burst Tory helium balloons with cigarettes. Clearly, the spirit of ’68 is still alive.
At “La Valbonne” discotheque in West London, Bernard Falk asks some more bright young things about how they voted. He looks about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit as the kids dance to moderately hep sounds. There is a bamboo bar tended by a man whose garish nylon shirt appears to be interfering with the colour balance of the transmission. Attention is distracted from Falk’s interview with two young poshos (“The middle-classes are having the pips squeezed out of them by this lot!”) by people in the background throwing some serious shapes. Every aspect of their demeanour, dress and dancing suggests Jason King was in fact a documentary.
Away from the glamour of the Capital, seats in resolutely un-swinging heavily industrialised areas fall to the Tories. Stockport, Preston, Bradford, Bolton, Lancaster, Manchester Stretford, Sheffield. This seems inconceivable now, ‘classic’ Labour being more associated with the working man’s allegiance.
Studio pundit Robert Mackenzie, whose suave American tones provide a welcome change from the clipped Home Counties accents that dominate, opines that this is down to industrial unemployment and may also be a reaction to “union indiscipline”. It is hard to imagine the Tories being popular in areas of declining heavy industry. But then, in these times of call centres and a booming service industry, it’s almost surprising to remember that large patches of the country were once devoted to making things.
I'm three hours into the 'night' and the results are coming thick and fast. One by one, Labour seats are falling to the Conservatives. One can marvel at the novelty of Manchester’s Moss Side turning blue as the Tories snatch it back from Labour. At the declaration, the BBC’s man tells Cliff the victory is “probably because there are a large number of immigrants” in Moss Side. A long-forgotten Conservative MP is at great pains to make it clear that repatriation of immigrants is not on the agenda, obviously attempting to rid the party of the “Rivers of Blood” albatross hanging round its neck. There has been a surprisingly large amount of support for Enoch Powell and there is a great deal of agonising about how much influence the right-wing faction of the Tories may wield if they seize power.
A young Giles Brandreth pops up in Oxford. Looking distinctly ungroovy compared with his friends, he commendably condemns Powell and his supporters. He is followed by a Cowley motor plant shop steward, who elegantly and passionately outlines the reasons for Labour’s defeat: “They have tried to out-Tory the Tories and have fully embraced capitalism, while forgetting about their loyal supporters. I shall not vote for them again”.
The scale of the surprise swing is illustrated when, with matey bonhomie, Robin Day asks the political editor of the Evening Standard (who earlier in the day had predicted a huge Labour victory) who is going to replace him after he got the result so wrong. This is the first allusion to a Tory victory of the night.
Day holds what by today’s TV standards is practically an inquisition into the role opinion polls played in what is described as the first “presidential-style” election (and you thought 1997 was the first?). There is talk of banning polls or having a mutual agreement to not publish their results in the run-up to polling day, as is the case in Germany. That worked out well.
In trademark spotty bow-tie, Day later hosts an interview of barely-restrained hostility with an unnamed trade union leader straight from central casting: combative, stocky, Brylcreemed and cocky. He confidently declares: “I would say to any government that you cannot govern this country without the co-operation of the unions”. I sincerely hope that he has come to terms with the state of affairs post-Clause 4, or he will be a haunted man.
As the “night” rolls on we are reminded that Day, by turns blunt, brusque, scathing, probing and humorous in his duels with various MPs and other public figures, was a fantastic broadcaster. He also makes a revealing comment (and raises a huge laugh in the studio) by referring to the “large cup of tea” he is going to have once the night’s work is done. A camera cuts with cruel swiftness to Michelmore, who is raising a glass to his lips. "Caught!" he exclaims. "I admit it, there's a drop of whisky in there!"
This might explain the perplexing monologue he later delivers straight to camera about an “all-night sausage shop" which will apparently "delight the nation’s tramps”.
More importantly, the 1970 turnout highlights the shameful voter apathy that nowadays has politicians wringing their hands and proposing endless ‘inclusive’ initiatives. The highest turnout is 84%, for Devon North, where Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe regains his seat (he is one of only six Liberal MPs to be returned). The average turnout is 72% - considered low at the time - compared with 59% for the 2001 election. When Desmond Wilcox reported from Trafalgar Square, it was filled with thousands of excited-looking voters. Can you imagine that happening on the night of the next election?
More drama. Deputy Labour Leader and post-war political giant/monster George Brown has lost his Belper seat after 25 years. The defeat is attributed to “overspill housing from Derby”. Nothing to do with his disastrous, jettisoned National Plan for the economy, then.
Twenty-seven years before “Blair’s Babes” Miss Betty Boothroyd, one of the few females to make an appearance aside from those harassed-looking women in spectacles running around the London studio, narrowly misses out on taking Rossendale. ‘Your time will come Betty’, I find myself thinking benevolently. Winnie Ewing loses Hamilton for the SNP, shattering the Scottish Nationalists’ dream.
Dr David Pitt fails to become Britain’s first “negro” MP in the Clapham contest. His description is later changed to “West Indian”. The studio pundits briefly discuss a Tory MP who is wont to giving Nazi salutes in the Commons. It is intriguing and slightly painful to watch establishment Britain grappling with the race issue like some awkward teenager searching for the right words on a first date.
A 2 a.m. interview between David Dimbleby and Harold Wilson brings a touch of poignancy amid the excitement. By this point, various members of the Election 70 team are all but saying the Tories have won and that “the computer” – one imagines it being the size of a bungalow in Mr Wilson’s Huyton constituency – signals a sizeable majority for the Tories. Dimbleby asks the PM if he concedes. No, it could still be very close says Wilson, before suggesting that “the computer” may be exaggerating the Conservative gain (it was, as it happens). He is talking the talk, but it’s late and Wilson’s tired eyes have a doleful look about them. He knows the game is up. ‘Chastened’ is the word Ludovic Kennedy uses. There is a tangible sense of disbelief, a feeling that an era has ended surprisingly early.
Across London at 32 Smith Square, Edward Richard George Heath perspires slightly in his sober suit and blue tie. He grins that cold fish grin of his as he is hustled inside Tory party HQ amid popping flashbulbs and much back-slapping (Cliff Michelmore later reveals in grave tones that someone in the crowd deliberately burned Heath with a cigarette on the way in).
He is tantalisingly close to restoring the Conservatives to power after that six-year aberration, that brief period when Britain went technicolor. If he had been able to foresee what was coming – IRA bombs on mainland Britain, the three-day week, the miners’ strike, the Bay City Rollers, the rise of Margaret Thatcher – I suspect he would have snuck out the back door of No 32, headed straight for his yacht and sailed away into the blue yonder.
As it is, I decide to call it a day at around 5am (1970 time), just as Mr Wilson arrives back in Downing Street from Liverpool in his chauffeur-driven Rover. The experience of becoming immersed in a "live" broadcast made 33 years ago is an odd one.
The past is indeed a different country. I feel a strange urge to climb inside the TV and tell Cliff and the team of all the things to come (the internet! the Sex Pistols! Diana! 9/11!) but I expect their heads would explode. Instead, I say goodbye to 1970 and return to our sleek, modern, more sober world and turn on my tiny computer to write this piece.