Poll drama the stuff of BBC dreams

Tom Sutcliffe on the battle for television election coverage
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The Independent Online
"Welcome to a very exciting political night," said David Dimbleby and for once the standard current-affairs cheerleading turned out to be an understatement.

It was, said one of the BBC's army of experts a little later in the evening, not so much a landslide as "an asteroid hitting the planet" and there in Houston Control they had the equipment to plot every blazing fragment as it crashed to earth.

Over on ITV, the lonely figure of Jonathan Dimbleby was struggling manfully with an empty set and what appeared to be a nationwide network of Photo-me booths. But if precedence was any measure of success then David and the BBC were winning hands down - if you missed what a politician said in the hubbub of announcements and sudden departures you could flick over to ITV and rely on finding the same man doing it all again for the benefit of the also-ran.

The only real competition for the BBC coverage in fact, was provided by its own second channel. Election Night Armistice was a gleefully unbalanced set of sketches and spoofs, which included the election campaign of the Anti-News candidate in Tatton, confronting Martin Bell with the fact that he had "asked questions for money" and taken an "all-expenses-paid trip to Bosnia".

What was most striking about BBC1's coverage, though, was the way in which rampant overmanning had actually decreased the amount of information it could convey. I had someone sitting in my living room with the BBC's Constituency Guide 97, an astounding compendium of statistical information, and for virtually every result announced it provided an illuminating or intriguing fact. But those on screen clearly had no time to consult it - too busy handing over to someone who would then hand over to someone else.

At the beginning of the evening, Cecil Parkinson had indulged in some gallows humour about the extent of the disaster. Asked when the squabble for the leadership would break out he pointed out that the question was a bit premature: "we don't seem to have enough people to have a squabble".

A few hours later he looked less cheerful, the tightening noose having choked off the jokes. And it was then that the strangest thing began to happen - perhaps it was just fatigue - but for the first time in years you found yourself able to feel sorry for Conservative politicians, to concede to them some human feeling. Michael Portillo, required to absorb the incineration of his ambitions in front of television cameras, did so with a becoming dignity.

Even David Mellor, taunted by the crazed figure of Sir James Goldsmith, looked more decent in defeat and spoke with generous simplicity about his opponents. What a strange luxury it was to look upon these men without bile rising to your lips.

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