By-election vision put politics in spotlight

Former prime ministers learned to love and hate the cameras
Click to follow
Indy Politics
"Today an election is what is seen on television. The election campaign is television and nothing else." That observation by political scientist Ivor Crewe will become even truer in a few weeks' time if, as widely anticipated, the two men fighting for the keys to Number Ten agree to face each other in a televised debate at the height of the general election campaign.

A live Major v Blair duel would certainly be, as BBC newsreader Peter Sissons commented yesterday, "another slice of television history".

Such a historic showdown would certainly bring a wry smile to the pioneers of political coverage on British television, who started off performing anything but a central role in the political process.

Amazing as it may seem to us now, the only references to politics allowed on television in the early 1950s - when the BBC enjoyed a monopoly - were the party political broadcasts. News and current affairs programmes were scared to venture into the hustings lest they infringe the Representation of the People Act.

They were also hampered by a self-denying ordinance called the "14-day rule", in which the corporation undertook to discuss no issues for a period of a fortnight before they were debated in either House of Parliament.

It wasn't until February 1958, almost three years after the advent of ITV, that the first electoral contest was televised. By coincidence, one of the candidates in that contest - the Rochdale by-election - was a prominent young television presenter called Ludovic Kennedy (who lost, but increased the Liberal vote).

Encouraged by the fact that it covered that local campaign without any legal hitches, Granada went on in the 1959 general election to challenge candidates in its transmission area, the North-west of England, to make a televised debate.

Two weeks later, the BBC sought to break out of the stranglehold of archaic election laws by offering a platform to selected "regional spokesmen" from each of the major parties. It was a modest start, but British politics would never be the same again.

Throughout the next general election campaign, in 1964, both main party leaders appeared regularly on the small screen. Conservative leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home believed the election "began to turn" when he lost his composure and bellowed to drown out hecklers at a rowdy meeting in Birmingham.

"I blame myself for not studying the techniques of television more than I did," he said later.

More at ease on the grouse moors than in television studios, he pleaded with a make-up woman to "make me look better than I do on TV". The woman replied that she couldn't do anything "because you've got a head like a skull".

His Labour opponent, Harold Wilson, needed no such help reciting his faith in the white heat of the technological revolution to the television cameras. At the outset of the campaign, though, he did go to Hugh Greene, the BBC's then director-general, to express his "very real worry" about the fact that the sitcom Steptoe & Son was scheduled for transmission on polling day and might suppress the turnout in Labour's heartland. The DG obligingly postponed the transmission to 9pm.

But it was not long before Wilson was warring with the BBC and accusing it of an anti-Labour bias. In 1966, the Labour leader stormed out of a special studio which the BBC had hitched on to the train transporting him from his Liverpool constituency to London on election night.

The BBC only managed to snatch an interview by strategically positioning a new recruit, Desmond Wilcox, on the platform at Euston station. Wilson thought Wilcox was still with the commercial sector, with which he always felt more comfortable.

By the February 1974 election, Wilson had to call upon the assistance of David Wickes, an English film director, to improve his televisual image.

Although politically neutral, Wickes relished this repackaging challenge and soon had the Prime Minister entering televised public meetings to his chosen theme tune: "I'm Just Wild About Harry".

Although the cameras were accorded the best viewing spots in the hall, no directional microphone ever picked up the PM moaning, as he often did: "I'm Harold, not Harry".

Wilson's Conservative opponent in that contest, Edward Heath, was the last party leader stubbornly to conduct himself as though television had never been invented.

His successor, Margaret Thatcher, never made the same mistake. She had a complete makeover in the months before her first successful bid for Number Ten. Her wardrobe was changed, her hair trimmed and her voice was lowered.

But the humming exercises need to achieve this last alteration probably seemed worth all the effort a few months later when she was humming a sweet tune of victory on the steps of 10 Downing Street.