The accidental political broadcast

Most would agree that television elbowed the print media out of the frame during this year's election and stomped on the toes of bloggers, tweeters and Mumsnetters alike. But away from the leaders' debates, there was another TV format that remained stuck in the doldrums. Like an archaic law that no one got round to repealing, the party political broadcast is somehow still with us after nearly 60 years. Despite occasionally attracting high-profile film-makers (Anthony Minghella and Hugh Hudson are among those to have called "Action!" for Labour, while John Schlesinger took John Major back to Brixton for the Conservatives' campaign in 1992), this has never been what you could call an exalted art form.

What a pity none of the parties went for an obvious makeover of the medium by shooting something jazzy in 3-D. Then again, the sight of David Cameron looming out of a 32-inch plasma screen would have been enough to make you flee the living room. Still, I am surprised that the Tories in particular didn't toy with the form. Goodness knows they tried every other means of shoving Cameron down our throats. Whereas the defining characteristic of Labour's broadcasts was the complete absence of Gordon Brown, the Conservatives couldn't cram enough close-ups of their leader into the allotted time. I wouldn't be shocked if a frame-by-frame replay revealed subliminal shots of him giving Gillian Duffy a back-rub.

Candid Cameron

Only one of that party's four films neglected to feature Cameron's glossy mug. The rest showed him speaking to the camera from a sunny, suburban back garden, addressing crowds on the campaign trail, or drifting in slow-motion, rock-star monochrome, like Bono in Rattle and Hum. These visual odes to Cameron were peppered with some starchy vignettes featuring real (that is, heavily coached) voters. The Conservatives would even have won the prize for the Most Unreal "Real" People in an Election Broadcast, were it not for the BNP, whose supporters looked positively terrified to be out in the fresh air. The BNP's shoddy five-minute effort was less Triumph of the Will and more clapped-out Triumph Herald. Do they have to be such cheapskates on top of everything else?

Labour's films adhered to a Basil Fawlty-style rule: "Don't mention the PM!" The logic of keeping an unpopular leader off-camera was clear, which made it even stranger that the party chose as Brown's on-screen avatar a dour and hunted-looking middle-aged man, trudging through the wilderness in inclement weather. This was the actor Sean Pertwee, son of Jon Pertwee of Doctor Who fame. The link to that show continued with David Tennant, who provided the film's narration, and with Peter Davison, another former Doctor, who presented a later broadcast. Rumour has it that the gnarled villain Davros was considered for a cameo, until Ukip nabbed him to add sex appeal to its campaign.

When Labour wasn't rounding up Time Lords, it was calling in some heavy-duty celebrity favours. Eddie Izzard babbled through one film to little effect and Ross Kemp took charge of another. But only the fourth of the party's five films, in which grey-suited, clipboard-toting clones systematically withdrew every Labour-funded benefit in a grim Conservative future, had anything approaching sophistication. The director was Stephen Hopkins, responsible for various episodes of 24, along with a number of titles that boded ill for Labour's chances - Blown Away, Lost in Space, Judgement Night.

Clegg on his face

Nick Clegg's strong showing in the first leaders' debate came too late to affect the Liberal Democrats' gloomy opening broadcast. Had the party been able to capitalise on his popularity, we might have seen something in­corporating the Rocky theme music, a shot of Clegg shadow-boxing outside parliament, and a stirring slogan: "If you liked him in the election debate, you'll love him as PM!"

Instead, Clegg stalked through Britain as sheets of paper swirled around him and carpeted the ground. This had the unfortunate effect of making him seem like a waste magnet, as well as carrying a resonance for anyone familiar with Terry Gilliam's Brazil, in which Robert De Niro is besieged by sheets of A4 sticking to his limbs and body. When the film's hero rushes to his rescue, furiously tearing the paper away, he discovers that there is no one underneath. The suspicion that this summed up Clegg perfectly was confirmed by a second broadcast, in which he came across as lacking in gravitas.

But then, few politicians ever come out of this genre looking spiffy. Rare is the party election broadcast that does not exude the sinister dread of 1970s public information films concerning the dangers of swimming on a full stomach or playing with farmyard machinery. Retiring political broadcasts once and for all would seem entirely sensible, if only that didn't mean bidding farewell to one of the few sources of inadvertent comedy in the airless modern election.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope