History / Politics

1997: The highlights

The 1997 general election was not just a pivotal moment in British political history, it was also a memorable television programme.

So much so, in fact, that BBC Parliament were planning to repeat the whole of their David Dimbleby-fronted coverage on 1 May, something which has always proved popular in the past (relatively speaking, of course: no BBC Parliament executives will be sacked if it doesn’t beat Britain’s Got Talent in the BARB overnights). It would have particularly appealed to those who want to be reminded that, unlike in 1987 – and presumably 2017 – it is not always unlucky for Labour when the year ends in seven.

The BBC’s plans were abandoned to allow for coverage of the general election coming, though no doubt a re-airing will be with us before long. In any case, some moments have been endlessly replayed: the dramatic exit poll news, Tony Blair breaking a new dawn, David Mellor losing with good grace and, most famously, the reading of Michael Portillo’s middle names. But that has meant much of what happened that extraordinary night has been overlooked. So – in the spirit of public service broadcasting – we bring you ten other highlights from that night. (If you don’t want to know the result, look away now.)

1. Arthur – on the rocks

Since 1979, the BBC had been using ‘Arthur’ from Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as their election theme tune and perhaps appropriately the night that ended 18 years of Conservative rule marked its last appearance over the titles. (OK they brought it back for 2005, but we’ll ignore that if you don’t mind.)

A grandiose, if rather pompous ditty, ‘Arthur’ did fit in with the idea that something significant was happening (which indeed it was). But why abandon the doom-laden drums that marked the start of the October 1974 results show?

2. Frank Skinner takes to the air

Anticipating nothing interesting happening, the BBC sent the comic de nos jours Frank Skinner up in a helicopter to travel around the UK. They then largely forgot about the Packing Them In funnyman, but towards the end of the night the star of TV’s Blue Heaven did pitch up in a Manchester nightclub, getting a couple of drug gags in early but looking like a man feeling his time on live television isn’t necessarily being put to the best use. As Dimbleby says after the piece: ‘Frank Skinner.’

3. Get your hands out of your pockets, Rifkind 

No respect. No wonder he lost.

4. Were you up for Sir Rhodes Boyson? 

So to speak. Bonus marks for the photographer leaping up on to the stage.

5. Stirling effort 

The defeat of Michael Forsyth at Stirling, even more than that of Michael Rifkind in Edinburgh, epitomised the Conservative wipe-out in Scotland. But mainly: what was the point of that woman filling out that scoreboard behind the candidates without a hope of finishing before the declaration was over? She was doing so manually, or in other words once a year.

6. Who knew Peter Griffiths was still going? 

Notorious after his victory in the infamous Smethwick vote in 1964 but defeated two years later, Peter Griffiths actually returned to the Commons in 1979 for Portsmouth North and was not ousted until 1997, when he was only the second Conservative to lose their seat. His quiff from 33 years earlier, if greyer, remained impressively in place.

7. Bell tolls for Hamilton in Tatton*

A well-known moment, but would it have been possible for ‘the Man in the White Suit’ and ‘the Man with a Cloud Hanging Over his Head’ to be stood any further apart? Even Zac Goldsmith was prepared to stand only one tile apart from Sadiq Kahn last year.

* The rights to this pun can be purchased at standard union rates.

8. John Major fades to grey** 

Dignity was largely a stranger to the outgoing Prime Minister by this point, but he probably didn’t need his gracious peroration at Tory Central Office to be interrupted at its very mot juste by a telephone. Full marks to the heckler, who may well have been Nick Robinson, who quick as a flash shouts out: ‘Tory telecom reforms!’ Which, when you think about it, works as a gag at precisely no levels.

** Also he likes to eat peas. Take that, John Major!

9. Jim Callaghan logs on

As Tony Blair travels to the Palace, the BBC conjure up an ebullient James Callaghan, until that moment the last Labour Prime Minister. A nod to history in itself and also because, as Harold Wilson made a similar journey the last time a General Election ended a long run of Tory power in 1964, the BBC invited in Callaghan’s then equivalent Earl Attlee to give a slightly more curt commentary (‘I don’t think so, I don’t think so. George VI.’).

10. Alan Partridge reports 

Not actually part of the main election programme, obviously, but a feature on Armando Iannucci’s three-hour long Election Night Armistice broadcast on BBC2 as an alternative to assorted Dimblebys (Dimblebies?) on other channels. Some of us would quite like a five-year version to be broadcast from 10pm on 8 June as an alternative to all real things happening on all news on all other channels.


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