David Dimbleby, very likely anchoring his last general election results, came on bouncing: “The voting is almost over. The excitement of election night is about to begin.” And who would have thought it? It actually was an exciting night, starting with the exit poll declaring an unexpectedly low Labour majority of 66, continuing with the equally unlikely arrival of Baroness Thatcher at the ITV boat party on the Thames, and producing a spate of results no one was able to interpret. “We all know exit polls may mean nothing – God knows why we spend all this money on them,” moaned Jeremy Paxman at 12.06am. “We are going to have to change the way we report elections,” mused Andrew Marr 90 minutes later.
It must have looked very different in the planning meetings. In October 1974 also, the BBC expected a Labour landslide and planned to turn its results programme into a party. When it became clear there would be another knife-edge outcome, the party was abandoned. This time, ITV pressed ahead with its own, and for a while it looked as if the ITV anchor, Jonathan Dimbleby, would find himself turning away from the key marginals because someone from Emmerdale had arrived. In fact, Germaine Greer, Maureen Lipman, Greg Dyke, Ian Hislop et al were better-value guests than the station could have dared hope – and by a mile less embarrassing than Jon Culshaw entertaining Natasha Kaplinsky at the rival BBC bash with his impressions.
The BBC’s coverage came from a huge, underpopulated studio in TV Centre that actually had a window overlooking a tree – a touch of reality in a virtual-reality election. Even this arena was not quite large enough to contain the competing egos of Dimbleby and Paxman, with Dimbleby ticking Paxo off for failing to control a near-riot involving Charlie Falconer, Boris Johnson, Shirley Williams (who should be ashamed of herself) and Hislop, and Paxo refusing to call Dimbleby by his first name. “I’ve got to hand back to David Dimbleby.” “You don’t have to.” “I want to: the nation is waiting to hear from you . . .” It got wearisome. Upstairs, back in virtual reality, Peter Snow manipulated industrial-weight swingometers and election maps that sighed hydraulically.
His graphics were better than ITV’s but the night found Alastair Stewart (the ITN team’s Snow) in equivalent good form. Its political editor, Nick Robinson, also performed strongly, although hampered by a computer called Elvis that made everything that much less clear. But there were some nice packages from ITV, including a film by Michael Portillo about losing in 1997. Even the Day Today-ish idea of having Gerald
Scarfe draw cartoons in the studio paid off. Despite a haphazard
way with the results and Jonathan’s stumblings by 2am, I surprised myself by mentally declaring the night a win for ITV.