Saturday, 1 September 2012

Election '74 - Burnett, Boundaries Changes and Beige, lots of beige...

Exactly, what can bring people together as a television event? I'm not saying the programmes with huge viewing figures like Only Fools and Horses, Dallas, Eastenders etc... I'm talking about events like General Election nights which come around only every few years, essentially these occasions should be very dry occasions as basically they are just a series of results much like the final football scores on Saturday afternoons. 

With the reverential way they are treated, it maybe important to know who's going to be the next government but the general stories of these nights are so different in themselves. From the 1997 election where Labour gained power after 19 years of Conservative rule to the two elections of 1974 where Harold Wilson came back to power in a coalition situation and increasing his mandate in the October of that year. As a tribute to the late Sir Alistair Burnett, on September 1st BBC Parliament reshowed the February election of 1974. Not just the night itself but the next day as well, a whole 15 hours of television only with a couple of hours break effectively.

Looking back at the coverage, it may seem simple in comparision with today's touchscreen affair but the facts are the only detail which matter, such as Robert Maxwell trying to become a Labour MP again in Buckingham, the days of Enoch Powell, the troubles in Northern Ireland in full effect. It may seem a dark time with the events which had happened to the country in the years previous since the June 1970 election. It was a point of turning, not by the events and how they panned out but how the election was covered. 
For the first time, this February election was the first one to be seen fully in colour with the 1970 Election being covered in colour plus black and white owing to some of the regions not having being converted to colour yet. Plus also with the technology of computer prediction as well, this was fully a techological election.
Sir Alistair Burnett, who had joined the BBC lead the election coverage similarly as he had done in years previous for ITN took over from Cliff Mitchelmore who had presented the 1970 election. His style, though professional as always seems out of place in the BBC setting used to the presence of a Dimbleby since 1955, with Richard Dimbleby passed on for about a decade and David still in his fledgling career taking over at the 1979 election. Burnett's informed approach worked as always informing viewers as the results came in, but his style allowed for the likes of David Butler and Bob McKenzie fit around him ably backed up with the ever sharp Robin Day interviewing the key politicians of the day.

Also during the breakfast hours Burnett, was given time off after the night before's action allowing Nationwide's Michael Barrett to take up the reins. With a more lighter touch it seemed, his style was perfect for the morning of what was a very interesting night just gone. This may have been seen as a step forward to towards breakfast television nearly a decade later, but with the results coming in on the first day, it was clear that after Edward Heath had asked the country's citizen "Who Governs?" They had given a clear and concise reply back to him "Not you..."

For all the figures, the anchor graphics system which was still fairly new at that time was the clearest way to show the results. First used in the 1970 election, it was a quick way to convey the results where before card and paper had been used before. A result could be put over the top a picture for anyone to see the reactions of the candidates and the awating public. So where a result may have been announced, it may have taken time for it to come to the screen but although it wasn't as instant as some people may have thought with the actual programming of the results, it certainly reduced the amount of time it took to get it to the screen. But in an other development, where as an on screen card superimposed over the studio scene may have been used in earlier years, the Anchor system allow graphics to be programmed to move. The movements may have been rudimentry, but it allowed a look never to been seen before to be used. From the opening shot of a model of the studio panning out to the real version itself, it gave a feel that even though basic this was something special. Elections since 1979 have used animated sequences with the introduction of computer graphics in 1987, but the simplicty brought by Anchor gave to something to the evening.

Now, satirists may appear to be ten a penny nowadays when ever a General Election is called plus such as celebrities on boats in the middle of the Thames giving their opinions. But one man stood head and shoulders above everyone else in 1974, that man was Mike Yarwood. Yarwood himself known for his Saturday night programme, had taken the world of politics into his show and embraced it with cutting humour as such maybe Spitting Image or even Armando Iannucci may have done in recent times. But where as Jon Culshaw may have done impression for the last couple of elections with satire included, Yarwood took these characters but didn't cut too deeply, some may say even with a blunt knife. 

Though Yarwood's addition, gave people weary with politicans' electioneering for the past three weeks almost a release that they still could be poked fun at not matter which ever way they had voted. This may have been a realisation that they could be made fun of, even the politcians didn't mind at all. The form of flattery, which was apparent raised major politicians profiles to a level not seen before. None were safe, but people knew who they were, such as Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Denis Healey. Figures like James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher who would later go on to the top job were there and there abouts, Callaghan in the upper eleclons of the Labour Party with Thatcher at that time Education Secretary, most famous for taking away children's free milk was beginning her rise to power at this time becoming the MP for the new seat of Finchley after having been an MP since the 1950's. They would dominate the latter half of the decade, but it was still Heath and Wilson who had fought the 1964, 1966 and 1970 elections as leaders of their parties who were still the key figures.

Another key figure was Jeremy Thorpe, at this time a Liberal MP but not yet the leader of his party, much like the 2010 election when Nick Clegg was the deal breaker, the Liberals were holding the key to the February 1974 election. Now with the Liberals being a much smaller party back then, the exposure from election coverage was vital to them. With the concentration on the Liberals and their MPs as well, most of them being personalities in their own right. In as much as the Tories or Labour were exposed to hard questioning, the Liberals faced this for the first time with them being any key powerbrokers in a new government. Robin Day who had stood for the Liberal Party himself, was the perfect man to ask the questions of all three parties, perfectly understanding he had to get the right answers out not only for himself as the interviewer but fully knowing he had to do for the viewers at home. Day's approach which was dogged, was well capable in this situation allowing him space to be able to press the politicians and their associates as well.

It strange to think in today's cutthroat world of politics, that at one time even though politicians may have been on opposite sides to each other, they seem to have more respect for each other. Rather then fighting each other and even the presenters, they are magnanimous in either victory or defeat, to someone today this is an alien concept within politics. But maybe times have changed, even the set may have changed from plain beige and hiding everyone behind the scenes, now people working are in the open on these occasions giving a scene of clutteredness especially to the 2010 BBC General Election coverage.

1974, it may seem to the modern world, a world away... But in some ways, were are closer to it than we realise...

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