Election night coverage: Channel 4 did comedy while ITV's efforts were just laughable

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The Independent Culture

It began with an unprecedented third-party surge, with Channel 4 opening its campaign for the couch-potato vote 55 minutes before the two established parties – BBC and ITV – even got into the game. There would be, the announcer promised, "very strong language and adult humour", not something that had ever been delivered by the traditional coverage, and it was rapidly clear that the Alternative Election Night really did have fresh policies to offer.

They had Lauren Laverne and Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell and they had an anchor, Jimmy Carr, with a novel approach to clarification: take their beginner's guide to proportional representation, for example. "The easiest way to explain it," said the comedian drily, "is to someone who's interested and already understands it".

With the satire muzzled by broadcasting restrictions until polls closed, they filled the time with a special edition of Come Dine With Me – three politicians and a pundit competing in a hellish unpopularity contest. Derek Hatton cooked scallops with asparagus for Edwina Currie, Brian Paddick and Rod Liddle and the viewers watched aghast.

"They might as well have called that 'If You Only Had One Bullet'", said Carr, not the last time in which he deployed a candour which would have been welcome on other channels. I'm not sure that anybody with a choice in the matter would have turned over at 9.55pm – for the fiesta of vacuity which fills the gap until the first significant result arrives.

But duty called – and the BBC's credit sequence which made it look as if the IMF had imposed austerity cuts and protesters had set fire to Whitehall. But in the BBC studio there was no evidence of belt-tightening. Jeremy Paxman was on the mezzanine "naughty step", waiting to curl a lip at psychotic silver-liners.

Over on ITV, it was just Alastair Stewart in a windowless basement with five men in suits. "There'll be a thousand pieces of information and an endless stream of numbers," he promised, just before they unveiled their bid for the evening's stupidest CGI graphic: a triangulated swingometer which looked like a Disneyfied version of a crystal-meth lab. It was a poor response to the BBC's opening salvo, in which Jeremy Vine had advanced, with his strange hunched Richard III gait, down a grey brick road to No 10, constituency paving slabs clinking into place in front of him. But ITV upped its game later with some gloriously ill-conceived animated munchkins bearing a vague resemblance to the party leaders. If only ITV and the BBC could have formed a coalition, they could have produced their own twisted political version of The Wizard of Oz.

Michael Gove had the honour of being the first remote feed to go down, goldfishing wordlessly in some school gymnasium in a way that provided a perfect metaphor for the more audible nothings emerging from other pundits after the first exit poll. Nobody could quite believe the Lib Dem vote had faded so gravely, but nobody had anything to add to their scepticism.

In ITV's tragically underpowered VIP room, Michael Grade and Ian Blair sat at a bistro table with a single glass of red wine, looking as if they'd wandered into a function at the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce. Then ITV cut away to its analysis centre – which had been extensively prepared for the big night by getting everyone to tidy up their desks really, really well. Alastair Campbell popped up briefly to persuade us a Labour defeat would actually be a kind of victory.

For the BBC, Emily Maitlis was provided with a giant iPhone, pre-loaded with a Critical Marginals App, but we had no time to luxuriate in this psephological bling before we were off again. Andrew Neil, looking strangely like the Action Man with the swivelly eyes and the fuzzy felt hair, was chewing the fat on a Thames disco boat with Clive Anderson and Piers Morgan.

Down in the hold, Bruce Forsyth and Ben Kingsley waited to play their part in the BBC's night of a thousand stars. And finally, at around 10.40pm, you got the first whiff of real politics, when Alan Johnson made an early coalition overture with a heartfelt speech on the shortcomings of the current voting system. He didn't yet know the result – but he knew which way the wind was blowing, and it made sense to start kite-flying right away.