Never Mind The Ballots: Here's The Silly History Of Election Night

I have a confession to make. I've gone and done something very misguided - namely sit through dozens of hours of unexpurgated old election programmes, when I'm still not past the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. But there is a method to my madness. I wanted to discover what it is that makes the day we go to the polls so special, and so strange. Why do we do it the way we do? I think it's because, even in our age of cynicism and distrust, there's something magical about seeing the people's will briefly manifested live on screen, as Westminster high-flyers are forced to stand bleary-eyed in pokey sports halls at 3am surrounded by ordinary people (and the occasional nutter), to learn whether his or her ambition will be cut down ruthlessly in front of us all. It's taken thousands of years to get here, to a precious moment when the Mother of Parliaments meets the embarrassment of a village fete. The fact is, half the world's population will probably never have the chance of an experience like we're all going to have on Thursday. And that's got to be worth celebrating. So in this spirit here's a tour of elections past, as we rapidly approach the big day once again.

The broadcasting of the UK General Election is a strange beast that over 60 years has become part of the TV furniture, a political Hootenanny that twice a decade measures the state of the nation. The thing is, the coverage itself is a barometer of Britain just the same, moving with the times (in some ways quicker than others). Just take this clip from 1964 for evidence that, half a century before "Beach Body Ready", the BBC of the Swinging Sixties hadn't quite cottoned onto the idea of gender equality. 

Cliff Michelmore there, the silly sexist sausage. Moving swiftly on, the biggest enigma about Election Night is that there's no real need to run it the way it always happens. For a start, why rush? Votes could be counted in the morning (as is often suggested), and everyone could have their sleep back. What's more, election campaigns perversely seem to prove that the country runs perfectly smoothly when there's no proper government in place. But that's far too rational. We British like tradition, and we love the theatre of it. If politics is show business for ugly people, then the election is sport for the hideously unfit, a treacherous Test Match complete with constantly updating scoreboards, computer gizmos (we'll come onto those) and unending analysis, when years of argument and bluster can finally be quantified and we can declare a winner, or not as the case may be. The sleep deprivation and consequent cock-ups are all part of the fun. You can tell how much BBC News likes to have a field day just from the opening sequences over the years. Here's a choice selection, with top marks going to 1979 for its 'The Day Today'-style graphics: ANALYSIS! TRENDS! GAINS!

It gets the hairs standing on the back of your neck, doesn't it? Ok, maybe just me. But there's something glorious about the unintentional madness of those titles, whether it's 1960s crowd control, 1990s call centres or 2005's decision to morph Tony Blair into Michael Howard like a Dr Who regeneration gone very badly wrong. The use of technology is one of the ways the Beeb tries to keep us tuned in, and you can be sure that on May 7th crazy graphics will pockmark the coverage all night and Jeremy Vine will be planted in a series of ludicrous virtual landscapes to "make sense" of proceedings, when really they're just distracting us from the simple fact they haven’t got any results yet. It’s strangely reassuring but surprising to discover that it was ever thus: even in the Sixties the BBC were creating silly visual demonstrations of what might happen (see below). Since then the question of what the newsroom boffins have come up with this time is probably at least half the reason many viewers tune in. Like Q’s gadgets in the Bond films, they’ve become a crucial (crazy) part of the election recipe. Here are the greatest hits and misses in a nutshell:

We've all been told that this is the most unpredictable election for a generation, but some things are still a racing certainty, like the strange minority candidates who pop up during the TV coverage in all manner of shapes and sizes. Each of them will have a back-story to put The X-Factor to shame, and Thursday is their chance to win 15 minutes of fame (if not their deposit back). For a brief moment they are placed on the same stage as big beasts of the Commons, or even the PM. Some are loonies (Monster Raving or otherwise), some are compulsive (I urge you to read the Wikipedia entry for Veteran Commander Bill Boaks, who jointly holds the record for fewest votes for a candidate at 5) and some even win (Martin Bell, Dr Richard Taylor). Hogging the novelty limelight this time is the Pub Landlord Al Murray (VOTE FUKP), but keep your eyes peeled for plenty more exotic oddness. Take 1979, for instance, and this clip of an aptly named movement. The footage includes an utter gem of an interview with a man who must surely be the most easily pleased voter of all time:

What a dude. As much as our freedom to vote, our freedom to stand on and vote for even the silliest ticket is part of the fabric of what continues to makes the General Election a special event like no other. But while some silly parties know they're being silly, there are also others... The Party Political Broadcast is an art form in itself, and this broadcast from 1994 by the Natural Law Party has still never been bettered. 

I hope you experienced bubbling bliss during that. I certainly did. But every party likes to make a splash with its video propaganda, and here are three more very special efforts from the annals of history by Labour, the Lib Dems and the BNP, which seem to be trying to channel respectively University Challenge, 28 Days Later and Tim Lovejoy's Sunday Brunch:

Rhyming with that last clip, election night is nothing without its anchors. In hoary days of old the BBC's biggest beast was Sir Robin Day, complete with Churchillian cigar and proto-Paxman inquisition technique. Here's a classic Sir Robin pose, followed by a wonderful exchange with George Brown (Lab) from his first TV election night in 1964. Note especially the impressive array of telephones on his desk. 

Ever since the inception of TV elections, though, for over half a century one name has reigned supreme but which will ring out for the last time on May 7th: Dimbleby. The news runs strong in this family: his father had it. His brother has it. And he has it. Yes, David Dimbleby is the long-ruling king of election night, but he's finally giving up his throne after one more big night. And his son Henry is far too busy running competitively-priced healthy fast food restaurants to pick up the reins. So to treasure the Dimble-ness of the election funfair while we've still got it, here are a couple of sweet moments that show it really does run in the family. There's a particular treat in here, as father Richard tries to deal with the worst BBC interviewer in the history of vox pop interviewing.

Have I missed anything out? Of course I have. Saving the best to last, there's one other ingredient which has come to define election night television. It's long, it's stiff, it's thin, it's increasingly over-elaborate: it's the Swingometer. I'm not sure whether it's more suprising that the Beeb have been using one for 60 years, or that they decided to retire it temporarily in the 1980s. (It's almost as if they thought it was a silly gimmick detracting from the importance of the event - perish the thought). It's as much an institution now as The Portillo Moment, and we haven't got long to find out what glorious toy our precious licence fee money has been spunked on this time. I for one can't wait. In past years we've had laser-zappers (2001) and a mysterious woman called Harriet (1992). Jeremy Vine - bring it! 

So there you have it. If you've made it this far through the blog you've definitely got the stamina for election night. On the other hand if all this hasn't whetted your appetite for next week's action that probably means you've got a life and you'll just wake up to the result in the morning. I get that. But enough with sanity. Enough with watching something decent instead like Daredevil on Netflix. I'm staying up for the Last Night of the Dimbles, and with any luck the last night of several political careers. Let prattle commence.

Jon HarveyComment