In the first part of a look back at elections through the medium of the BBC broadcast, I went with something unthinkable in 2017 – a Labour landslide (1997). Now another: the close call of 15 October 1964.
As in 1997, Labour would return to power after more than a decade in Opposition, but unlike the Blair landslide, 1964 saw it do so with a majority of just four, finally clinched on the Friday afternoon (with the foreign secretary-designate Patrick Gordon Walker notoriously defeated in Smethwick). In fact, the majority was so small that two years later Harold Wilson went for another election, in which he did win a landslide only to see things rapidly fall apart, not least due to a collapsing pound. Student of history are we, Mrs May?
Anyway, the 1964 general election was the first one the BBC broadcast from the new Television Centre (RIP) rather than the cosier Lime Grove (also RIP), and boasted the political equivalent of an all-star cast: the avuncular but magisterial Richard Dimbleby (sadly already dying of cancer), recent signing Robin Day, twin academic powerhouses David Butler and Robert Mackenzie, future director general of the corporation Ian Trethowan, and rising star Cliff Michelmore (not to mention Alan Whicker in Trafalgar Square, Magnus Magnusson in Birmingham, and David Frost gadding about the election parties). Many believe ITN’s innovative coverage fronted by Alastair Burnet was superior, but here are ten memorable moments from the marathon 1964 BBC broadcast.
1. A hard day’s night
While the nation voted in October 1964, the Beatles were on their first full UK tour since breaking big in the United States earlier that year (on election night they were playing the Globe Cinema in Stockton-on-Tees, where they had previously performed on the even more historic date of 22 November 1963). The Fab Four discussed the election that night with Tyne Tees TV (‘Good stuff this election stuff,’ deadpanned Paul, while John explained they didn’t vote: ‘We were having dinner at the time’). But it was not just the Light Channel that went down with an acute bout of Beatlemania.
‘Thinking about the Beatles I expect,’ speculates Dimbleby about a low turnout in Liverpool Exchange. ‘It looks like being a hard day’s night,’ suggests Bob Mackenzie as the closeness of the result becomes clear. ‘We could be in for a hard day’s day,’ chips in David Butler of the long Friday afternoon ahead. In the end as he signs off for the night, Dimbleby concludes: ‘We hand over to four young men who somehow have managed to get in on this act like every other,’ as ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (obviously) plays us out.
2. Father figure
This was the tragically premature swansong for Richard Dimbleby (only 53 on election night), but also the debut for his eldest son David (who will anchor his tenth general election on 8 June 2017). David spends election night at Exeter, his first report capped by a neat acknowledgement from Dad: ‘Thank you, Son’. Later Dimbleby Sr is caught on camera eating a sandwich, hence when David was similarly caught mouth full in, during the 1979 broadast, he said: ‘Like father, like son.’ Not that he learned.
3. Not adequate
Vox pops formed a key part of the BBC’s coverage, with the highlight perhaps the woman in Cardiff South-East asked to predict the outcome of the high-profile battle between Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Jim Callaghan and ex-England cricket captain Ted Dexter of the Conservatives. She blanches: ‘I don’t think I can possibly say. I’m not adequate.’ A lesson there for callers to phone-in shows.
4. Fruitiest discussion on record
Comedian Jimmy Edwards was defeated in Paddington North, and his failure was a second blow to the Parliamentary Handlebar Moustache Society with the simultaneous retirement on grounds of ill health of Sir Gerald Nabarro (reversed two years later). On his arrival in the BBC studios, the flamboyant Sir Gerald is paired with someone who makes him look like a shrinking violet, Lord Boothby.
Many people have had much to say about both, but in isolation their discussion with Cliff Michelmore is hugely entertaining: Nabarro bemoaning that ‘the result in Merseyside has been a disaster’, Boothby saying of the defeat of ministers (from his own Conservative Party) ‘it gives me nothing but pleasure’. Boothby also describes the Smethwick result as ‘the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened in politics – a racial fight in the worst American traditions’, ending the discussion by asking Sir Gerald where a phrase made notorious in that constituency was coined. ‘Birmingham, Alabama,’ is Nabarro’s odd reply.
5. Brown turns air blue
Election night interviews, even by the likes of Robin Day, tend to be less combative than at other times, with no more votes to chase – it is the end of term after all. But there’s no off position to the irascibility switch when it comes to George Brown, who leaps straight in to complain in his shouting-even-when-he-is-speaking-normally style: ‘I must say Bob Mackenzie has worked overtime since I first heard him at ten o’clock last night pretend we weren’t doing what we are doing [i.e. winning]. I have never heard a man try so hard.’ Day attempts to ask Mackenzie to respond but Brown stands firm: ‘Bob Mackenzie didn’t stand for election. You asked to interview me … I am not here to have a debate with Robert Mackenzie.’ (Perish the thought.)
It doesn’t get much friendlier, as Brown accuses Day of an ‘obsession with Mr Grimond’ and hectors: ‘I hope when you next interview me you don’t interrupt quite so often.’ Luckily, it all turns around at the end when Brown gives Day permission to call him ‘brother’. ‘Well, three rousing good cheers and a happy Christmas to all our readers,’ is Dimbleby’s summing up, for some reason. ‘No hard feelings George, perhaps we can argue it out over a drink some time,’ is Mackenzie’s unsubtle response when next on screen.
6. Clothes show
These are momentous days. Just before polls closed, news filtered out of the Soviet Union that Nikita Khrushchev had been sensationally ‘relieved of his duties’, and the results come in as China explodes her first atomic bomb. But there are viewers with completely different priorities: someone calls in to ask if Richard Dimbleby was wearing pyjama bottoms under the desk. He agrees to stand up and prove he isn’t (though he has donned bedroom slippers).
7. Hampstead beef
Even in bedroom slippers, just occasionally the Great Dimbleby is wrong-footed. Asked to clarify the result in Hampstead (where Home Secretary Henry Brooke nearly lost a then-Conservative stronghold), our host resorts to plucking out the card used to display the results in these pre-digital day, only to then repeat the mistake over the Liberal vote figure that had caused the consternation in the first place, eventually correcting it with his pen to ‘eight thousand and something’. Eventually he flings the card away, rueing: ‘I wish I’d never seen it.’
8. Back to the future
Appearing almost incidentally are those who would rise up to dominate such nights in future decades, including Margaret Thatcher, whose result flashes through with a brief mention that Liberal hopes had been dashed. Getting more screen time are a pair of fresh-faced journalists brought in and out of the studio for comment at various times – the New Statesman’s Anthony Howard and the Spectator’s Nigel Lawson. Both in their own ways would be appearing on election shows for years to come (Howard dying not long after he had pronounced on the 2010 election).
9. Clemming up
Clement Attlee’s political career largely preceded the TV era and Wilson’s predecessor as Labour Prime Minister was never a fan of the medium. But he does pop in for a chat with Robin Day, the less than garrulous Viscount Prestwood of Walthamstow in the County of Essex giving answers far shorter than his interlocutor’s questions.
10. Dodd funny
David Frost’s bow-tied monologue on the night falls rather flat, but popping up the next day at Liverpool Lime Street Station among the vox-pops is a sprightly Ken Dodd (only 36 but nearly a decade older than Frost and clearly of an older comic generation). Dodd’s patter stands up well, congratulating Lloyd George on victory (‘a wonderful woman’), and on being informed that Wilson is at No. 10, pointing out ‘No, Miss Cilla Black’s at No. 10 with “Old Man River”’.