Ship of fools

The BBC’s boat party
was a tragedy.

Election night
BBC, ITV1, Sky News

I put in sterling service on election night (6 May). I watched TV from 10pm until 4am, and then, on Friday, from 9.30am until 3.30pm. All I can tell you is that the coverage was almost as surreal as the result. As I write, I'm still trying to recover from the embarrassment of the tragedy that was the BBC boat: a golden barge moored on the Thames, captained by Andrew Neil and stuffed full to the brim of random celebrities. Believe me, if this baby had gone down, Richard Desmond would have been stuck for scoops for several decades. Whenever there was a lull in results, which was often, over we went to said barge, where the likes of Joan Collins and Maureen Lipman gave us the dizzying benefits of their political insights. What rapier-like minds. Good to know - thanks, Joanie - that Cameron is "well turned out". I'll remember that when he starts with the cuts. Then again, the celebs were marginally more cogent than the intellectuals. At one point, Martin Amis appeared. He looked so dazed - like a long-term resident of a care home for the elderly - that I half expected him to turn to Simon Schama and ask: "Have I had my dinner yet?"

According to the Daily Mail, the boat cost £29,000. Excellent value, I say. It certainly had a good effect on Andrew Neil. On Friday morning, he returned to land - College Green, to be specific - where he interviewed yet more odious types (James Delingpole, the libertarian hack, did his usual impression of a gargoyle that has come miraculously to life). Despite having been up all night, Neil was wide awake and considerably more cheery than, in the main studio, grumpy old David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman, who, like sadistic sports teachers hurling cricket balls at a podgy fielder, seemed to take delight in "handing over" to one another with the minimum of warning.

Did I stick with the BBC throughout? More or less. Although its reputation for impartiality took a beating when we first caught sight of Andrew Neil's hair, dyed Lib Dem colours specially for the occasion, it is still the only place to be in times of crisis. The BBC has the biggest political nerds - men such as Peter Hennessy and Dave's old Oxford tutor Vernon Bogdanor (though it was weird the way Hennessy kept going on about "activating" the Queen, as if she were a dalek). ITV only had Alastair Stewart and an infantile graphic involving beakers and coloured liquids. As for Sky, there was the ever-present risk that Kay Burley would appear. A girl could have slumbered through a Labour landslide in her capable hands.

My highlights? There were plenty. It was a giant relief to find, as Kirsty Wark began to interview voters in Sheffield who had been locked out of polling stations, that my mum wasn't among them (Nick Clegg is her MP). Had my mother been denied a ballot paper, it would not have been a pretty sight - and I was watching with friends at the time.

I also enjoyed the way junior Tories and even George Osborne kept saying, "This is way above my pay grade!" whenever they were asked what should happen next. This catchphrase certainly suits red-faced boobies such as Ed Vaizey. Then again, it's also worrying. Will little George trot out the same line when he forgets to bring his pencil case (with integral calculator) to cabinet?

Last, but not least, there was the fall of the glider pilot and honorary Cheeky Girl Lembit Öpik. "He looks like an asteroid has hit him!" said Nick Robinson, when it became apparent that the MP had lost his seat. Öpik was then interviewed by Paxman, who wanted to know if his regular appearances in celebrity magazines had played a part in his demise. Öpik was most affronted by this. His mouth, lopsided at the best of times, curled like a day-old sandwich.

I look forward to his promised "in-depth" analysis of the real reasons he was ousted, and hope that he will soon come to terms with life outside the House of Commons, where men must pay their own bills. To help him, here's another catchphrase. Actually, it's possible that he knows it already. Here goes: "Touch my bum. This is life." I find that these words, so simple and yet so true, make me laugh out loud whenever I say them.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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