They were inflationary times in 1974. Not only were prices going up (to Ronnie Corbett’s continued chagrin), but there was a 100 per cent increase in the normal number of general elections held in a single year.
Two elections meant two BBC specials, which, unsurprisingly, were fairly identical. Alastair Burnet, in his brief spell at the Beeb, helmed both in portentous mood. As had been the case pretty much since John Logie Baird legged it down to the patent office, David Butler and Robert McKenzie flanked the host, with Robin Day in the role of inquisitor (or ‘humble spear-carrier‘ as he would put it), and Graham Pyatt handling both the computer predictions and the hand-made cardboard slider that illustrated them.
The uncertain political climate is shown by some awry predictions as two marathon nights eventually squeeze out Labour victories, of sorts. Here are ten moments from the coverage that speak of some undeniably beige times (I’m talking about the BBC studio, mainly).
1. Crisis? This crisis
There is no doubt Britain in 1974 was on what Anthony Howard would have called ten years earlier ‘a queer street indeed‘. After all, this was why the February election was called in the first place. Burnet makes this very clear. ‘This is a moment of the greatest importance to this country – our futures depend on it,’ he declares a couple of minutes into the October broadcast. Eight months earlier he complained: ‘I think all the party leaders are pretty tired men … I begin to wonder whether [with no majority for any party] this is not perhaps the worst result the night could have brought.’ Even David Butler chips in that a government needs to be formed in two weeks ‘before the coal runs out’. Burnet eventually concludes in October: ‘The country perhaps still has to learn the dimension of the problem.’ Where’s Ken Dodd when you need him?
2. …and it gets worse
Not much changes between the two programmes around eight months apart, but the title music does. In February it was Fanfare for the Common Man but by October that optimistic piece had been replaced by ominous drums. If a third election had been necessary perhaps it would have been introduced by a funereal dirge, accompanied by Burnet scratching his fingers on a blackboard.
3. Exit poll leaves quietly
Early in the October broadcast, the BBC unveils their first ever national exit poll. Predicting a Labour landslide, it is horribly wrong, and they have not even alighted on a name for it: they dub it the ‘How Did You Vote’ poll, while David Butler prefers ‘pre-poll’ or ‘straw poll’. Either way, once the results come in, it is barely mentioned again, save for one tense situation. That was when Robin Day’s own fury at opinion polls is unburdened on the man that oversaw the exit survey, Humphrey Taylor: ‘It’s gone too far.’ Then when Professor McKenzie of the LSE (as Bob was in his day job) responds to dismiss Day’s notion of banning polls during elections with an example from West Germany, the future Sir Robin spits back: ‘You’re not talking to your students now.’
4. Bob’s PR offensive
Ten years before, Bob McKenzie had seemed profoundly worried at the idea of an election producing no clear majority. Now he is salivating at the prospect, pointing out examples of stable governments in such situations around the world, not least in his native Canada, despite scepticism from red-blooded Britons Burnet and Butler. McKenzie also does not hold back from bemoaning how few seats the Liberal surge, has brought them, causing Burnet to jibe: ‘That was a party political broadcast on behalf of the Robert McKenzie Proportional Representation Society.’ Those exchanges, and the row over opinion polls a few months later, is one of the key differences to coverage today – the big beasts in the studio are not afraid to voice their (non-party) opinions in a way unimaginable when David Dimbleby goes on air on 8 June 2017.
5. That’s Esther!
There was time for showbiz too. Esther Rantzen was part of the BBC election team, and in February engaged in a soft focus chat with Norman St John-Stevas in Chelmsford. Later in the year she was off to Guildford, proudly declaring: ‘We are the first,’ when they are the earliest to announce their result. Less ebullient is her husband Desmond Wilcox, assigned to Trafalgar Square, which was then a designated location for election revelry despite the dismal February weather. ‘Well, it looks like a warm crowd at least,’ chuckles Burnet.
6. It’s all there in black and white
BBC One had been in colour for nearly five years by February 1974 but that didn’t mean it had spread as far as Newcastle, Leeds, Southampton or in fact The Hague. Fortunately, a few months of strong and stable Labour government had brought colour to the North by October.
7. Barratt goes home
General elections were among the few occasions when breakfast television was broadcast before launching properly in 1983, and as Burnet rests up, Michael Barratt of Nationwide slips into his chair. David Butler rises and shines to join him, but not Bob McKenzie or Robin Day. Then there is a slightly awkward handover when Burnet strides into the studio carrying his papers and hovers while Barratt gathers up his things, and eventually cues some VT of community singing at the Carmarthen declaration to cover the switch.
8. Mr Interviewer struck down
Early in the February broadcast, Tom Mangold is dispatched to Denaby & Cadeby Miners Welfare Club in South Yorkshire (still open, by the way), boldly declaring that it contains: ‘Some of the most militant and, I’m sure they won’t object if I called them some of the most bloody-minded miners in the whole of Britain.’ Mangold provocatively asks if they have helped to deliver a Conservative government for five years (this was before the results) and gets an ear-bashing in return: ‘If I could come in here, Mr Interviewer – it is not a political strike … We have never tried to smash the government.’ [interruption] ‘Let me finish, Mr Interviewer – all we are fighting for is a decent living wage.’ Mangold was an experienced war correspondent and still today is one of the iron horses of investigative journalism but that day he fared no better against the miners than Ted Heath himself.
9. Thorpe has his breakfast
Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe saw his Devon North majority almost wiped out in 1970 so in the February election he seldom ventured outside his constituency, giving his daily press conferences by closed-circuit television. He was comfortably re-elected but saw no need to rush up to London, so on the Friday morning was holed up in his Barnstaple cottage while the media awaited his next move. David Lomax was left reporting on very little, other than that Thorpe had ‘had his breakfast’ and that ‘his mother came out and told reporters to “go away”’. Burnet mused: ‘During the campaign Thorpe would have kept his mother under very strong control.’ Later Thorpe went for a walk, no doubt not at all enjoying the huge press retinue that trailed him.
10. Katina stars
While Burnet had his morning lie-in, Barrett introduced a rather Nationwide-y feature, an interview with Evening Standard astrologer Katina recorded the previous afternoon. Showing her scientific method first off, she snaps: ‘It’s not a crystal ball, I’m studying the pattern of the planets.’
But her prediction was rather better than the How Did You Vote straw pre-poll. ‘Judging by my charts, I would expect a coalition or that Labour just gets back in, maybe with a small majority. However, she goes on to predict a rise of centrist politics in the next few years, and in assessing Jeremy Thorpe, Katina pipes up: ‘Strong Venus in the horoscopes, an exhibitionist streak – that’s why he likes the ladies so much.’ She then adds: ‘There will be a Liberal government if not before 1980 then in the early 1980s.’
Or maybe she said: ‘Due to Jupiter rising, I imagine he will be involved in a murder plot trial in which a dog may have been shot. Meanwhile the Liberals will end up merging with a new party formed by Mr Roy Jenkins and Mrs Shirley Williams.’ It was one or the other.