Election '97: Dimbleby the consummate performer shows his hand

Television's grand inquisitor Jeremy Paxman appeared distinctly jumpy yesterday when the tables were turned on him by media pundits invited to marvel at the BBC's Election Night studio set.

Paxo had to be prodded out of his self-styled "pen" - an interviewing lair up in the gods of the studio - by the Corporation's press handlers who insisted that he should make a smiling appearance following a recent magazine interview in which he hinted at some dissatisfaction about being kept in David Dimbleby's shadow.

"Listen, I was not disappointed. It was what we call in the trade a joke. J.O.K.E," he told me when I did my best Paxman impression and raised this vexed topic.

Later, loosening up slightly, he described himself as "the fool to Dimbleby's King Lear" and said he would dread being asked to play the big serious anchorman role at a future election. "It seems to be rather complicated."

It sure does. The BBC is hailing its Election Night special as the biggest broadcasting event in its history. It will certainly be among the longest - running from 9.55pm to at least midday on 2 May.

It took 16 lorries to deliver and three days to erect the silver-hued tubular steel "theatre-in-the-round" set in studio 1 at BBC Television Centre, which will serve as the hub of the operation, housing 120 computer terminals, 200 monitors, 100 telephones, 30 miles of video cable and wiring and backed up by 80 outside broadcast units dotted throughout the British Isles.

Although the cameras will be trained on Dimbleby and his fellow presenters, plus the delighted and dejected politicians they lure into Paxman's lair, viewers will also see the camera crews, the results' team and computer back-up people.

"They will all be visible so that licence-payers can see their money is being well-spent," said Peter Horrocks, editor of Newsnight and Election '97, who was keen to point out that the cost of the coverage would be about pounds 2.5m, roughly the same as in 1992.

But there was no sign of skimping. The lavish set is a cross between the Starship Enterprise and a Roman amphitheatre. Dimbleby averred that it reminded him of the Cirque du Soleil, a famous Canadian circus troupe, at the Royal Albert Hall. "You expect acrobats in leotards to appear," he jested. He may be the circus-master, but he will also be performing, as ever, a double-act with Peter Snow, who was like a child in a toy shop yesterday demonstrating his new virtual swingometer, live 3-D graphics and zappy election night computer games.

One sequence - already tested on the Wirral South by-election result programme - will depict the parties' battle-buses either roaring ahead or disappearing into a watery ditch, depending on their performance at the poll. Another will show key target seats being smashed up on screen if the incumbent is unseated.

"Visually the graphics are the most exciting," Snow enthused. "They'll be able to tell the story as never before."

The story the BBC wants to tell on 2 May is that it has once gain triumphed on the ratings front. In its 1992 Election Night coverage the Beeb drew 8 million viewers, twice as many as ITV. By 2am its audience had fallen to 4.5 million, but this was three times as large as its commercial rival.

"I'd be disappointed if our coverage this time round wasn't as popular," said Mr Horrocks, issuing a further solemn pledge to licence-payers: "It's long, but it's not going to be boring."

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