A BBC general election broadcast is so much more than a results show, it is a snapshot of its time. The 1964 programme was ambitious in scope but still recognisably of a bygone age; the 1974 shows were austere and overhung with a nagging gloom, while in 1997 the self-conscious gravity of the Birt-era BBC met headlong with a genuine feeling that something extraordinary was happening.
The 1987 results programme is no exception. In keeping with an era that prided itself on business-like efficiency, the studio is no longer a sprawling affair glorying in the scale of its operation, but is slick and closed in, not allowing any messy shots of the back-room workers – even Peter Snow sits behind a desk, only occasionally allowed out to show off his computer graphics on the big screen. It is also explicitly of the computer age, from the opening titles on.
But that does not mean, even for one of the less dramatic elections of recent times, that there were not moments that stood out, many of them duels between two men first seen on a BBC election night in 1964 – one as a cub reporter at his dad’s place of work and the other already as a grand inquisitor.
1. Snow joke
We’re straight into the Gallup exit poll, which narrows down the result to somewhere between a Tory majority of 86 and the Conservatives short by 17. David Dimbleby wonders: ‘If it’s between 17 down and 86 up, is it actually worth anything?’ Peter Snow retorts: ‘We know it’s going to between those two points.’ It wasn’t, and after just one result Snow was already hastily revising the forecast.
2. David Dimbleby eats a Mars bar
In 1979 David’s debut in the chair was marked by him being caught on camera in the middle of finishing a sandwich, just like his father Richard in 1964. By the 1980s food faux pas were more Americanised. Sir Robin Day’s off-camera abuse is sadly inaudible.
3. A Day for humility
On what was his BBC election swansong after 23 years, Sir Robin Day opens by referring to himself as ‘but a humble spear carrier‘ (for some reason emphasising the word ‘spear’). Dimbleby might have had cause to disagree. Breaking off from talking to Peter Bottomley, Sir Robin barks: ‘I have instructions to go to David Dimbleby.’ Dimbleby: ‘And you always obey them, Robin. Well, sometimes.’
Later, an interview with Edward Heath is paused by Margaret Thatcher leaving her count. (‘I’m sorry to interrupt you as Mrs Thatcher was getting into her car and we thought we couldn’t miss that moment as it was so unprecedented,’ says Day, and Heath responds: ‘It’s quite all right, I’m still sitting in my chair.’) As he hands back to an apparently unready Dimbleby, Day asks: ‘Are you eating a Mars bar?’ (for some reason emphasising the word ‘bar’). Dimbleby: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll pass the conch back soon.’
4. Too much drizzle for Rantzen
In 1974 it was her husband Desmond Wilcox in Trafalgar Square, now it was Esther Rantzen in Piccadilly Circus for some election night razzmatazz. Except that by the end of the night the ‘drizzle’ referred to by David Dimbleby was too much – when he hands over to her, the conch is in fact accepted by That’s Life factotum Gavin Campbell.
5. Clenched fist
Some old-school clenched-fist celebrating from the SNP’s Bill Kidd (now an MSP) as young Labour candidate George Galloway (current whereabouts unknown) grins his way to defeating Roy Jenkins at Glasgow Hillhead. Also, isn’t that Jeremy Corbyn moonlighting as the Scottish Green candidate Alastair Whitelaw?
6. Let’s have another Dimbleby-Day row
‘Get on with it!’ ‘I won’t give way to cheap insults from the other side of the studio.’
7. Bernie Grant does a Portillo
Yes, Michael Portillo raised a guffaw in 1997 when the returning officer read his middle names ‘Denzil Xavier’. But Bernie Grant beats him to it, when it is revealed his second middle name is Montgomery. Grant rolls his eyes and grimaces, and then delivers a speech considerably more measured than that which followed from Paul Boateng in Brent South.
8. Product placement
In these modern times (and 1987 is terribly modern) many of the local authorities blessed with a televised declaration are starting to use their free airtime to advertise their wares by utilising slogans as backdrops to the candidates. Some of those pithy phrases: ‘Torbay, the English Riviera‘, ‘Basildon Astrodome – it’s coming’*, ‘Armada 400 – Plymouth 1988‘ and ‘Guildford City Hall‘ (needs some work that last one).
* Note: It wasn’t.
9. Dimbleby v Day – final round
‘Robin Day, who’s already sound asleep.’ ‘I’m not asleep, I’m just waiting till you finish rabbiting on.’**
** The ‘good movie’ (referred to in Dimbleby’s peroration) that followed the election broadcast was Richard Lester-directed Royal Flash starring Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates and Britt Ekland, no less, not to mention Oliver Reed, Joss Ackland, David Jason, Alastair Sim, Lionel Jeffries, Bob Hoskins, Rula Lenska and, er, Henry Cooper. Well worth staying up until 4 a.m. for. Even if the critics didn’t think so.
10. Enduring images
I’m going to cheat here and highlight something from ITV’s coverage – the partly live Spitting Image broadcast when polls closed. Highlights include Harry Enfield doing an impression that is almost, but not quite, exactly unlike Gerald Kaufman, unsubtle digs at ITN anchor Alastair Burnet’s drinking, and, in what remains one of the most famous scenes in the programme’s history, the Cabaret-style massed ranks of Conservatives singing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me‘.